Libertarianism is Neither Liberalism Nor Feudalism

Note: This essay was originally posted at Freedom Democrats at the time of the David Boaz-Jacob Hornberger dust-up.

Recently, David Boaz wrote an article in Reason that touched off a bit of a firestorm in the libertarian community. Boaz’s theme argued against the mythologization of any gilded age of liberty. In reality, Tea Party libertarianism was really the subject of Boaz’s ire in that piece, but, in a bit of cheap shot, he singled out FFF’s Jacob Hornberger. This prompted a response, Up from Serfdom, from Hornberger, who argued more or less that the reign of the Bourbon Democrats in the late 19th century was a golden era of liberty. Meanwhile the Econ bloggers decided to get involved with Bryan Caplan inviting Boaz to take his historical deconstruction to it’s logical conclusion and join him in condemning the American Revolution as an unjust war and then, later, making a strange case that women were the one status group who enjoyed greater freedom during that period. Arnold Kling and Will Wilkinson found themselves in a bit of a pissing match over group status and communitarian politics, ending with Arnold Kling calling Will an “asshole.” Meanwhile, the libertarian “catfights” metastasized to some extent over to progressive blogosphere with the likes of Crooked Timber, for example, devoting a number of posts to libertarianism with a whole host of derogatory commentary. Arnold Kling apparently got wind of the slurs, and broke in at one point with an exasperated comment to “stop dehumanizing me.” The posts ended with John Holbo’s “magnus opus” post Libertarianism, Property Rights and Self-Ownership that attempted to “prove” a libertarian dilemma in terms of liberty being defined in terms of inviolable property rights(Freedom=Slavery).

In many ways, these discussions that have erupted dovetail with the recent discussions on this blog, and, frankly, with topics that are buried in this blog’s archives. Let’s start with David Boaz. There isn’t anything unique about Boaz’s argument, indeed you find the similar arguments going back a number of years ago on this blog, for example, The Constitution as Libertarian Myth. However, I think Boaz is a bit guilty of throwing stones from a glass house. If you look at the Cato About Page, for example, you will find the old refrain the libertarianism is just another world for liberal, and that libertarianism is the preferred term now because the term “liberalism” has been corrupted by contemporary American liberals. Boaz,after writing that article, appeared a day later on John Stossel’s show that devoted the entire hour to discussing the topic “What is Libertarianism?” The show had a relatively diverse panel that also included, for example, individual anarchist Wendy McElroy. Stossel ended the show with his own commentary wishing he could call himself a liberal, but he viewed that term has being corrupted by the contemporary liberals, so he now reluctantly uses the term “libertarian,” a term he views as being “manufactured”. To back this up, he humorously showed a clip surveying New Yorkers on the Street to define libertarianism. Yes, it was Leno worthy. Most were unfamiliar with the term.

Of course, Stossel was just parroting the Cato line. And in turn Cato is just parroting a line of thought that largely originates from Milton Friedman, in my opinion.

Uncle Milton, gold bless him, but he was wrong. Libertarianism is not another name for liberalism originating out of “British Liberty” or liberalism under the reign of Grover Cleveland. But this is exactly this line that Cato continues to push. Boaz went after FFF’s Jacob Hornberger to make a point, but there is much more richer material originating out of the bowels of Cato, frankly. Hornberger is wrong about his gilded age of liberty, but FFF is a modest private financed organization that has nonetheless included some radical libertarians(e.g., Sheldon Richman, Wendy McElroy) in it’s small band of authors. I read FFF; it’s not some bastion of “Tea Party Libertarianism.” On the contrary, it’s a publication with solid libertarian scholarship. Here’s the link to thr recent article index at FFF if you need to see for yourself. However, i can’t say the same about some of the putrid garbage, particularly with respect to the National Security State, that has been published by Cato. Not to mention the Koch brothers have been and continue to be major supporters of the Republican Party.

If you have been reading this blog as of late, a topic that has been discussed frequently concerns libertarianism’s historical roots in the more radical French liberal tradition. It doesn’t really originate from the customs of British liberty. Quite a bit of this “libertarian cat fighting” could be put in a better historical perspective if this simple fact would be acknowledged. Frankly, it’s a bit comical to maintain 1880s America was supposedly any golden age of liberty when it’s beyond documented fact that it was actually a golden age of American “radical politics.” 1880s America saw libertarianism emerge in the US as a self-conscious individualist component of radical class politics that was spreading internationally. Intellectually, this was all, in some ultimate way or another, rooted in the metastasization of the various French libertarian school critiques of French class politics, with it being up to the reader to conclude whether libertarianism should historically be classified as a complete departure from liberalism or just a radical branch of such.

Simply, if you want to know what American libertarians thought at the time about late 19th century “American liberalism,” read what they wrote. The likes of Shawn Wilbur have taken painstaking time to put an online archive of The Liberty Periodical. Read it…find out for yourself.

Conflating libertarianism with liberalism and then calling the 1880s a “golden age of liberalism” allows progressive critics to indulge in their typical historical fantasies that views progressivism as some sort of “correction” of libertarian institutional failure. In reality, the failure was in the republican/liberal institutions of the American State. If you know your history, you would know that, in many respects, the reign of the Bourbon Democrats was the first progressive movement of sorts, when you had the reform-minded Mugwumps join with the Democrats to interrupt the Republican reign in post civil war national politics. Many of the later “progressive heroes” of the early 20th century would emerge from the Bourbon democrats.

If you know your American libertarian history, as I’ve been pointing out, the libertarians were radical critics of this so-called “reform.” But as we also know, libertarianism didn’t survive long into the 20th century in the US. And progressivism(or “reform”) in the American 20th century shifted away from the model of the Bourbon Democrats to a “corporate model” that today we would call “corporate liberalism.” This lead to some interesting dynamics at the time, dynamics that are typically misunderstood or misrepresented historically. For example, the Lochner judicial era represented a conflict of sorts between a judicial philosophy rooted in the “Bourbon Democrat” reforms and a progressive movement shifting to the “corporatist model.” The identification of a wing of the Republican party with “limited government” was only the result of Bourbon Democratic reformists switching over to the Republicans after Woodrow Wilson and FDR. WWI caused a rift between the intellectual classes and the labor classes of the early 20th century (post Bourbon Democrat) socialist/progressive reform movements. Frankly, it’s debatable if the “corporate liberal” model would have won out if it had not been for the 2 global wars. In any event, after the 2nd world war, the intellectual classes of Corporate Liberalism, in the era of Bretton Woods, smugly congratulated themselves on the permanent eradication of radicalism from American politics. Of course, radicalism would return with a vengeance a mere generation later.

It’s safe to say the recent discussions concerning libertarianism at, say, Crooked Timber, operate according to some assumption of a parallel universe history where the corruption of Post Reconstruction America supposedly represented some idéal de laissez-faire, an absurdity given that “leave us alone”(arising out the French tradition) historically and contextually refers to a rejection of politically corrupt conferred market privilege. The Bourbon Democrats, in the United States, were not the “Status Quo,” they represented a reform movement, albeit a very temporary one. However, the libertarians attacked the Status Quo and the reforms, identifying the 4 monopolies that still stand today, the money monopoly,the land monopoly,tariffs, and patents. And the original American libertarians, in synthesizing the economic class critique with radical social movements, such as the “Free Love movement,” where very much in accordance with Déjacque’s Libertarie, which is why I have pointed out on numerous occasions that the 60’s counter-culture was much representative of American libertarianism than, say, the institutional supplanting of Keynes by Chicago. However, the fact is that the American Libertarian intelligentsia elite today, for the most part, dismiss “individualist anarchism” because it’s not a point of view exactly amenable with private dollars or public dollars institutional support.

Returning to Crooked Timber, it’s also safe to say they were whipped into some masturbatory frenzy by the “money shots” of Bryan Caplan’s snarky commentary about “coverture laws” in late 19th century America, commentary originally spawned by the Boaz-Hornberger scuffle. However, Crooked Timber is a bit guilty of cherry-picking because they ignored Caplan’s original rejoinder to Baoz, namely that the American Revolution was unjustified and that the US Constitution mainly served the purpose of institutionalizing slavery and Native American genocide. Yet, after Crooked Timber had their fun slurring libertarians as racists and misogynists, John Holbo delivered his supposed Coup d’état, “Libertarianism, Property Rights and Self-Ownership.” FD apparently found something of merit in his post, but I didn’t. To me, it was crystal clear that Hobo was rationalizing his own propertarian–without self-ownership–views of the State. There is nothing “thick or thin” about it. Holbo takes the propertarian view that you are property of the State, and denies “self-ownership.” Libertarians, of course, view self-ownership as inalienable, that you are not the property of others, and even the Rothbardian propertarians don’t view self-ownership as an alienable property right. Hobo, however, doesn’t take much stock in the idea of inalienable right of self-ownership, and argues some hypothetical counter-example of inviolable property rights leading to alienable self-ownership. He sees the argument being between feudalism and “the enduring institutions of liberalism,” or the so-called “social contract.”

The problem with Holbo’s take is that libertarianism rejects any inviolable property right claims against self-ownership. That’s why “right of exit” and “self-defense,” including arming oneself, is taken so seriously among libertarians, even as these concepts are ridiculed by most. To anyone reading this post, let me you clue in, it’s no revelation that enforcement of all contractual claims against self-ownership, which ARE violable claims(and yes, by force, if necessary), is a problem in libertarianism. Libertarianism is a profound critique against the State, but the elimination of the State itself is not a sufficient condition for a libertarian society. However, understand, the likes of Holbo are arguing against any notion of self-ownership. “The enduring institutions of liberalism” have always suffered from political failure, hypocrisy, and selective application of supposed universal principles. However, under the National Security State, the dissolution of the Magna Carta, the right to travel, and the right to work, as universal principles, is a systemic failure. The specter of the modern day National Security State is a problem for liberalism, but most contemporary liberals(although not all) are more concerned with partisan politics, babbling about “social democracy” while de-legitimizing anyone who disagrees them as “racist,” and now with their own man in charge, cheering on the expansion of the Security State(disturbingly, in following the republicans, as means of targeting political enemies).

At Crooked Timber, there was quite a bit of attention paid to Hayek, in particular, “The Road to Serfdom,” arguing that since the likes of Sweden haven’t become a Gulag, Hayek was wrong. Of course, I remind readers that the title of Hayek’s book was The Road to Serfdom,” not the “Road to Totalitarianism.” Animal Farm and 1984 were penned by George Orwell. And, it should be pointed out, that Hayek’s work on these matters was hardly original. For example, refer to this article, They Saw It Coming: The 19th-Century Libertarian Critique of Fascism or Tucker’s State Socialism and Anarchism: How far the agree, and wherein they differ. Actually, it’s Hayek’s work in information economics and “the Knowledge Problem” which precludes the type of Orwellian dystopia from forming or lasting very long in the modern world(at least without external state support). In the United States the “road serfdom” is paved by the “Commerce Clause,” an unlimited interpretation of such treating everyone and their actions as economic property of the State. This leads us to the Proudhon dictum: “To be GOVERNED is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so.”

Interestingly, while one progressive blog was denigrating libertarianism(of course, we know libertarianism is the one coherent critique against corporatism), another progressive publication was taking a dissenting viewpoint, in large part based on Hayek’s work, writing this lengthy article When Democrats are to the Right of Libertarians .

One thought on “Libertarianism is Neither Liberalism Nor Feudalism

  1. I have become interested in Libertarianism in the last year or so after hearing about the party for the first time. I find it to cater to many of my beliefs and I like reading articles like this which explain the philosophy more clearly.

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