A True Libertarian Speaks

In an article at LewRockwell.com, David Gordon replies to Edward Feser’s recent series of posts at Right Reason about paleoconservatism and the war in Iraq. Feser, posting again at Right Reason (“Rothbardians [anarcho-capitalists: ED] and Iraq: A Reply to David Gordon“), observes that

libertarians, including most Rothbardians and probably also including the Nozick of part III of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, would allow that it is in principle possible for a community to develop on a purely voluntary basis that prohibited all sorts of consensual activity among its members. For instance, they would allow that a Puritan commonwealth might require, by law, all of its members to refrain from fornication, drug use, reading of anti-Puritan tracts, etc., and that if everyone who joins this commonwealth does so voluntarily then no one has a right to complain. We can imagine that such a commonwealth eventually grows into a large city or even country, that all non-Puritans who decide to settle within it are required as part of the deal to abide by its “blue laws,” and that all the children raised in it might also be required to abide by those laws and will have to emigrate if they refuse to do so. The result would be a society that to most people would seem radically “un-libertarian,” but which would in fact be perfectly acceptable from the point of view of a Rothbardian anarcho-capitalist or maybe even a Nozickian.

Since this sort of paternalist society seems perfectly possible even on a Rothbardian or Nozickian view, and since the specific position I developed in the article cited by Gordon [link added: ED] still rests on the idea of self-ownership, at the time I wrote the article I thought it was reasonable to characterize it as a broadly “libertarian” position. It seemed to me then that I was not moving that far beyond what many libertarians would already accept as in principle possible within a libertarian society. To be sure, I would now no longer characterize my view as libertarian, but part of the reason I wouldn’t is that I now think the arguments I have presented, both in the article Gordon cites and elsewhere, show that “libertarianism” just isn’t anywhere near as determinate, straightforward, or even coherent a view as its advocates assume it to be.

My only quibble with Feser’s position is this: He should continue to characterize himself as a libertarian for the very reason that libertarianism isn’t “anywhere near as determinate, straightforward, or even coherent a view as most of its advocates assume it to be.” As I argue in “The Meaning of Liberty,”

liberty and happiness cannot be found in the abstract; they must be found in the real world, among real people (or totally apart from them, if you’re inclined to reclusiveness). Finding an acceptable degree of liberty and happiness in the real world means contending with many subsets of humankind, each with different sets of social norms. It is unlikely that any of those sets of social norms affords perfect liberty for any one person. So, in the end, one picks the place that suits one best, imperfect as it may be, and makes the most of it. Sometimes one even tries to change it, but change doesn’t always go in the direction one might prefer.

Think of the constrasting visions of liberty and happiness represented in a hippie commune and a monastic order. The adherents of each — to the extent that they are free to leave — can be happy, each in his and her own way. The adherents of each are bound to, and liberated by, the norms of the community, which set the bounds of permissible interaction among the adherents. Happiness is not found in the simplistic “harm principle” of John Stuart Mill; happiness is not found in a particular way of life; happiness is found in the ability to choose (and exit) a way of life that, on balance, serves a person’s conception of happiness.

In sum, there is no escaping the fact that the attainment of something like liberty and happiness requires the acceptance of — and compliance with — some social norms that one may find personally distasteful if not oppressive. But it is possible — in a large and diverse nation where each social group is free to establish and enforce its own norms — to find a place that comes closest to suiting one’s conception of liberty and happiness. The critical qualfication is that each social group must free to establish and enforce its own norms, as long as those norms include voice and exit. . . .

Contrary to libertarian purists, the path to liberty is not found in Mill’s simplistic “harm principle,” which is a formula for atomism. The path to liberty winds tortuously through the complexity of human nature, which shapes — and is shaped by — a society’s mutual striving to survive and prosper. To give a stark but apt example: If you will kill an unborn child for your convenience, why should I trust you not to kill me for your convenience when I am old? And if I cannot trust you, why should I subscribe to the defense of your life, property, and pursuits?

Edward Feser is a libertarian, even if he chooses not to call himself one. That is, he is dedicated to the practical pursuit of liberty, as opposed to the impractical pursuit of ideological purity that evinces itself in anarcho-capitalism. Feser is absolutely right to find parallels between Rothbardism and Marxism, as he does here:

One of the many striking things about this [Rothbardian] worldview is how closely it parallels Marxism. . . . Marxist and Rothbardian alike regard human history as a long nightmare of oppression from which we are only now awakening thanks to the advent of a sound economic theory, the application of which is our only hope for liberation.

Indeed, Rothbard and his followers seem in other ways too to ape standard Marxist themes. Despite their fervent adherence to capitalism, they regularly denounce large corporations (Halliburton, big oil, big media, etc.) as government’s partners-in-crime, manipulating its officials to their own ends and beholden to its favors; they speak and think in capitalized abstractions, substituting “The State” for “Capital” and endlessly analyzing “its” motives and actions; they divide society into inherently hostile classes, the exploiters (government officials and recipients of governmental benefits) and the exploited (taxpayers and those subject to governmental regulations); they have a tendency to reduce all social and political problems to economic ones; they believe that when a “stateless society” is finally achieved, many of the social problems previous generations regarded as an inevitable part of the human condition will disappear, having in reality been generated by state oppression; they constantly attribute selfish financial interests and other hidden motives to those expressing dissent from the Rothbardian line and/or support for American policy; and they often evince a greater sympathy for what the Marxist would refer to as the “objective allies” of their cause than for those who might seem notionally closer to them. Hence, just as certain Stalinists were quite happy to ally with Hitler against the capitalist West while vilifying Trotskyites and other heretical communists, so too are Rothbardians constantly excusing or minimizing the crimes of various dictators as long as they oppose the United States, while excoriating less extreme libertarians and free-marketers for “selling out” to “The State” and its officials. (See here for discussion of several examples.)

Related posts:

A Political Compass
Defense, Anarcho-Capitalist Style
But Wouldn’t Warlords Take Over?
My View of Warlordism, Seconded
Anarcho-Libertarian Stretching
QandO Saved Me the Trouble
The Meaning of Liberty