Religion & Liberty Online

Who Is a Libertarian?

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It’s more complicated than you think. A new book takes a detailed look at all the factions, competing definitions, and enormous resources that the libertarian movement brings to discussions of a free market and a free people.

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In their new book, The Individualists: Radicals, Reactionaries, and the Struggle for the Soul of Libertarianism, Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi have created an exhaustive and fascinating history of the libertarian movement and its animating philosophies. While for many, the term hardly existed before Ron Paul made them Google it, the movement itself actually begins in the mid-19th century, building upon classical liberal thought dating back to the mid-18th century, and wields far more tangible influence than is often supposed. It’s fitting that philosophers who refer to themselves as “bleeding heart libertarians” should pen such a work. They do not shy away from describing the most radical forms libertarianism has taken while maintaining a laudable sensitivity to salient critiques of the movement, even in its softened forms. The book compels more than it would if the authors were making their case for their own version of libertarianism. Instead, they honestly represent all sides, including critiques of “bleeding heart libertarians” such as themselves as possibly apostate, with refreshing frankness.

To begin, “primordial” mid-19th-century libertarianism arose as a reaction to socialism in Britain and France, but also as a radical reaction to slavery, imperial war, and large, corrupt business interests. As the threat of real-world, massive state experiments in communism loomed, libertarians shifted gears significantly to align themselves with conservatives. Some of the more creative forms of libertarianism, like the libertarian socialism and economic mutualism of Benjamin Tucker (1854–1939), consequently disappeared. But ever since the Soviet threat crumbled in 1991, libertarianism has split between the bleeding hearts—more aligned with the social justice left—and the cultural reactionaries—more aligned with the right (even the alt-right in some cases). Then there are those who see themselves as uncategorizable on the left-right spectrum because their alignment changes depending on the issue.

As our authors work their way through various libertarian debates, we are introduced to a fascinating cast of characters. The importance of Richard Cobden (1804­–1865) cannot be overstated, especially for Americans. He played a profound role in the formation of people like William Lloyd Garrison, Harriett Beecher Stowe, and Frederick Douglass. Nor do our authors shy away from the profound effect of Christianity on these writers’ aversion to abuse of power. As odd as it may seem today, bringing an end to the Corn Laws in England (protectionist tariffs on many internationally traded items) was the precursor and template for bringing an end to slavery in America.

Of course, not everyone in the book comes off as heroically as Cobden and Douglass. Lew Rockwell, founder and president of the Mises Institute, has played an outsize role in the late-20th-century libertarian movement but also seems to relish indulging in explicitly racist and conspiratorial thinking. Since the question of whether libertarianism has the resources, or even the concern, to address historical injustices such as the oppression of Black Americans, the popularity of figures like Rockwell and his colleague Hans-Hermann Hoppe raises legitimate concerns. On the other hand, the central part that libertarians played in the actual abolition of slavery, as well as later when folks like Moorfield Storey at the NAACP and Rose Wilder Lane at the Pittsburgh Courier fought hard for the individual rights of Black Americans, discourages the reader from writing off the movement on such grounds.

Zwolinski and Tomasi elucidate six main signifiers of libertarianism, outlining a movement they refer to as “inherently flexible.” While this description of libertarianism will surprise many Twitter anarchists who claim the label exclusively for themselves, the detailed history of libertarian thinkers makes it clear that the debate between anarchists and minimal statists has been a live question the entire time. The six core ideas are:

  • Individualism
  • Private property
  • Skepticism of authority
  • Free markets
  • Spontaneous order
  • Negative liberty

Of course, each core idea gives rise to its own set of clarifications and debates. One need not be a metaphysical individualist to be a methodological individualist, for instance. A libertarian may believe that collective entities (such as families or cultures) are real while maintaining that only individuals make choices, and therefore only individuals can be held morally responsible. The oft-heard complaint about America’s culture of individualism and lack of community could, then, be laid at the feet of a certain kind of libertarianism. This complaint, I assume, develops in light of a cultural concern about lonely or isolated people who become morally malformed. Yet consider how a libertarian critique of the state might actually concur with such a concern: the “crowd-out” effect means that faceless government provisions of social services takes the place of organic civil society solutions—the church, family, and nonprofit worlds—thus weakening those institutions and separating individuals from their natural context in community.

Private property, too, is subject to various debates. Is the property we own now just? Some say private property rights rely on an unbroken chain of just exchanges going all the way back to the creation of the goods themselves. But you and I both know that the majority of the things we own are not the result of such a chain of exchanges, but rather of violence and theft that shifted property to its non-rightful owners (consider Europeans’ expropriation of Native American lands). If all current property is unjust in this way, how shall it be redistributed? On the other hand, property rights could be grounded in a general agreement that there is no way to know or agree on what is perfectly, cosmically just, but that honoring long possession is an appealing way to settle the question without violence. This option does not rule out correcting historical wrongs, but almost certainly limits such corrections to recent history, in which clear records can be found and victims identified.

Skepticism of authority is yet another libertarian commitment requiring some clarification. Many libertarians passionately support parental authority, for instance, up to the usual limits, such as physical abuse. Others are quite excited at the prospect of very strict communities (like the Amish) forming as long as they are small enough to make leaving a genuine option—Nozick’s “utopia of utopias.” The authority about which all libertarians are highly skeptical is the authority of the state—because it is the entity making a monopoly claim on the legitimate use of violence. What comes through clearly in the book is that, at its heart, libertarianism is a philosophy that resists coercion to the greatest extent possible. It doesn’t require pacifism, as libertarians believe in the right to defend oneself. But any coercion must be justified in terms of the defense against harm. Of course, important questions will arise: What counts as harm? Can we use force to solve the coordination problem in defending ourselves against aggression by states or by criminals? These questions lie at the heart of the debate between anarchists and minimal statists. Zwolinski and Tomasi are careful to note that classical liberals are less strict in this regard, and more likely to approve of the use of state power to solve problems that are not strictly a matter of harm, such as the public provision of education or various forms of basic welfare like Milton Freidman’s negative income tax. At the same time, it ought to be acknowledged that genuine public goods problems and externalities problems are cases of dealing with genuine harm, such as pollution. So one need not fall outside the libertarian umbrella if one defends state intervention to address such harms, but only if one also maintains a healthy skepticism about the state’s likelihood of doing so well or fairly.

A discussion of free markets is especially helpful to deal with the more recent association of libertarians with a defense of capitalism. Libertarians are fairly consistent in their condemnation of what we might call crony capitalism: the practice of well-established businesses using state-enforced regulations, subsidies, or other advantages to shut out new competitors. This violates the spirit of the free market, which democratizes the economy by letting consumers choose the winners and losers. As I often say to my students, the market is a profit and loss system. We have to let businesses fail to allow it to function properly. But libertarians who are not actual anarchists do legitimately run into problems here. Excepting perhaps the period after Richard Cobden was able to get the Corn Laws repealed, there’s never been a truly free market to speak of. As public choice theory explains (and Zwolinski and Tomasi summarize beautifully), so long as politicians wield the power of the state, they can set up a system of favoritism toward their friends. This makes the poor poorer and the rich richer—hardly what Adam Smith envisioned for a flourishing economy. If cronyism is so unavoidable, then perhaps the leftist critiques of capitalist abuse of power are perfectly compatible with a radical libertarian critique of the state. The only alternative, as Churchill might say, is to compare this system with all the others. A mostly free market with a libertarian contingency vigilantly fighting cronyism may simply be the best we can pull off this side of the kingdom of God.

Spontaneous order (sometimes referred to as emergent order), interestingly enough, may be the one core idea on the list that doesn’t require much clarification beyond a definition. The right set of reliably defended fundamental rules, like property rights, contracts, and equal protection before the law, will lead to the blossoming of billions of mutually advantageous exchanges. People will simply do this. Prices allow us to allocate resources efficiently without a central planner, who doesn’t have the information to run an economy anyway. The only real controversies around the spontaneous order concept are whether the fundamental rules are also spontaneous orders, and what to do about bad cultural movements—like racism—that might also be described as spontaneous orders. It seems clear to me that English common law is both the source of our own legal system of rights and protections and a clear case of emergent legal norms that grounded an even more complex economic enrichment. While it is almost certainly the case that there has to be enough cultural capital in place for citizens to adhere to liberal norms, it’s not clear whether the implementation of the laws has to be as emergent for others as it was for us Americans. Perhaps Milton Friedman’s controversial support for Pinochet’s economic policies is an example of this idea at work. Friedman’s logic was that since his students could convince the dictator to put basic economic freedoms in place, it would not only lead to more economic growth but also to the flourishing of more civil freedoms. However, Freidman later regretted his assumption that economic freedom would translate into political and religious freedom, as have many in the libertarian movement. The artificial imposition of free market principles by a dictator did indeed make Chile rich, but it did not reorient the country toward more freedom. In fact, Pinochet killed thousands of his own citizens and corruptly amassed tens of millions of dollars in wealth. Examples like Singapore and—at least temporarily—even China have shown that authoritarian governments can take advantage of the efficiency of economic freedom while continuing to subjugate citizens on every other measure. The only possible counterargument to giving up the long-held libertarian belief that free trade would lead to greater freedom in general is that we might see the libertarian vision of full freedom realized eventually. After all, some populations may simply not be as culturally attuned to individual freedom in matters of, say, religion but may become more so over time, as the natural cosmopolitanism of international trade makes cultural hegemony increasingly impossible.

Finally, libertarians see liberty as primarily negative, that is, as a matter of being free from interference. I may be too poor to take a vacation to Disneyland, but this does not limit my freedom, according to a negative concept of liberty. No one has stopped me from going; my inability to go is simply a matter of circumstance. In contrast, welfare liberals may argue that certain positive freedoms must be guaranteed in order to make any negative freedom meaningful. No, I need not go to Disneyland to enjoy my liberty, but I do need to eat on a regular basis and not die of treatable diseases to enjoy it. In what sense am I genuinely free if I am so desperate to sustain myself, for instance, that I must accept whatever employment prospects come my way? I may be left, realistically, with only one choice—or worse, none. One way to escape this problem is to think of the negative view of liberty as a systemic, not individual, matter. Which system is more likely to put the poor in a position to enjoy their negative liberty? One that guarantees these basic goods but as a result stifles economic growth in general? Or one with a high level of economic dynamism and thick civil society institutions such that very few are ever left in such a position? Of course, going this route turns the question into an empirical one, rather than a principled one. And even if libertarians are correct that the more dynamic market will create far fewer impoverished citizens, it does not mean that contemporary citizens of developed countries are willing to let the few remaining slip through the cracks. F.A. Hayek himself, of Road to Serfdom fame, declared that once a country gains a certain level of wealth it becomes simply intolerable to allow people to die on the street. In the end, the less purist in the libertarian movement have offered more efficient and dignifying alternatives to the welfare state, such as a negative income tax or pure cash transfers, to replace the paternalistic and byzantine system of targeted programs we have today. Ultimately, though, any non-anarchist libertarian will have to face the reality that liberty cannot be entirely negative. After all, even to have a reasonable system of courts, we must show up for jury duty. Thus, the right to a fair trial is a positive right, demanding some sacrifice on the part of all citizens.

Of course, I have my quibbles with The Individualists, as anyone would with a book that covers so much ground in such a pithy manner. I was a bit surprised to hear that Locke “merely asserts” the concept of self-ownership. I had been under the impression that because God (whose existence Locke believes to be provable) made us, we belong to Him as a matter of the Doctrine of Maker’s Right, which is intuitively true. So technically we are self-stewards, not self-owners, which is why, for instance, we must not kill ourselves. But as a kind of philosophical shorthand, we can refer to ourselves as self-owners, since we know by comprehension of the natural law that God requires us to care for ourselves, and only each individual can control him- or herself. But I am ready to be corrected if I am wrong. I also wouldn’t refer to David Hume as a utilitarian. Hume is certainly a consequentialist, but nowhere in his work does he speak of aggregating utility. When Hume uses the term “public utility,” he means the expansion of the space within which more mutually advantageous exchanges are possible between individuals and groups. Since the aggregation of our preferences, and therefore a kind of implicit majoritarianism, is both the most opprobrious and the least logically defensible part of utilitarian ethics, I hated to see him lumped in with that crowd. But once again, these may be merely semantic matters.

Overall, I found The Individualists not only comprehensive also but well-organized and conversationally written, required reading for everyone in the liberty movement and of interest, I would think, to political philosophers and theorists, as well as adjacent groups such as free market conservatives and anti-statist leftists. In short, The Individualist was an immensely enjoyable, informative, and enlightening read.

Rachel Ferguson

Rachel Ferguson, Ph.D., is a professor of business ethics, assistant dean of the College of Business, and director of the Free Enterprise Center at Concordia University Chicago. She is also a board member for LOVEtheLOU, a neighborhood stabilization ministry in North St. Louis; the Freedom Center of Missouri; and ReThink315. Her new book, co-written with historian Marcus Witcher, is Black Liberation Through the Marketplace: Hope, Heartbreak, and the Promise of America.