Libertarianism on the Rise?

I suppose with statistical trends pointing to increases in libertarian attitudes, something Nate Silver neatly summarizes here, we shouldn’t be surprised with the increasing frequency of libertarian deconstructionism from the ranks of non-believers. Some fairly positive; some not so much. An example of the former would be this recent exposition on Herbert Spencer, How an agnostic, libertarian hypochondriac invented “survival of the fittest”. An example of the latter would be this takedown, The Liberty Scam, of Robert Nozick, the supposed “philosophical father of libertarianism.”

A closer examination of this contention of “scam” is in order. Stephen Metcalf writes:

With libertarianism everywhere, it’s hard to remember that as recently as the 1970s, it was nowhere to be found. Once the creed of smart set rogues, H.L. Mencken among them, libertarianism all but disappeared after the Second World War. What happened? The single most comprehensive, centrally planned, coordinated governmental action in history—that’s what happened.

Yes, I would agree that the consolidation of “Corporate Liberalism” after two world wars eliminated any variant of radicalism, not just libertarian variety, from the general political scene. At least for a while. And I suppose you can cast these wars as “the single most comprehensive, centrally planned, coordinated governmental action in history,” but Metcalf’s prose implies this was a good thing, almost as if he were thumping his chest when he composed the line.

Metcalf continues:

By the ’50s, with Western Europe and America free, prosperous, happy, and heavily taxed, libertarianism had lost its roguish charm.

Ah, another instance of the progressive, a presumed forward-looking creature, with feet firmly planted in the idyllic 1950’s of “Leave it to Beaver.” Of course, this bucolic period was just an artificial product of this “single most comprehensive, centrally planned, coordinated governmental action in history(SMCCPCGAIH)”, and it lasted all of about a decade. By the 1960s, the oligarchical regime of mass production(“What’s good for GM is good for America”) and it’s cultural conservative norms were being challenged. In a real sense, the same people responsible for SMCCPCGAIH were also responsible for the planned obsolescence of the GM model, given that the post WW II Bretton Woods Institutional model was meant to standardize global corporate competition. And the Vietnam War, a product of the progeny of SMCCPCGAIH, threw gasoline on the counter-cultural revolution. Certainly, by the late 1960s, radical politics had returned in full force to America.

However, it is safe to say that libertarianism would really be the only radical form of politics that would emerge on the other side of the 1960s–i.e., the 1970s. And here is where the irony perhaps becomes a bit thick for the progressives to digest.

At the turn of the 20th century, libertarianism, i.e, “individualist or liberal anarchism” was a minority subset(more of an intellectual movement) compared to the population of left, “social anarchism(more of a labor movement).” However, even libertarianism was anti-capitalist. But Corporate Liberal consolidation essentially subsumed the “social anarchist” movement(i.e., labor) and beat the remnant of the libertarian movement like a pathetic, yelping dog over to the capitalist side.

In 1926, Benjamin Tucker, in a postscript to his original “State Socialism and Anarchism” essay, argued for an educational propagation of a libertarian remnant to allow the possibility of a future movement to gain political power to execute a massive redistribution of political power to break the monopoly trusts. But Tucker’s libertarian remnant would not survive. Instead, “the remnant” would survive via the so-called “Old Right,” which was a network of businessmen, journalists and the refuge from the crumbled regime of Bourbon Democrats. Tucker’s “radical political redistribution objective” would be supplanted by an objective for the revival of “Lockean liberalism,” which would entail the restoration of the “social contract” along Lockean terms, and not the outright abolition of all political authority, which is what libertarianism proper demanded.

The New Left Critique against Corporate Liberalism that emerged in the context of the political radicalism of the 1960s was an academic critique. But there was no “civil society” of labor, a “remnant” so to speak, that could actually take advantage of it and run with it. The “new” social anarchism of the counter-culture communes was no match for the realities of latter-half 20th century Global Corporate Capitalism. Libertarianism was the only radical framework that had built up a “civil society,” or a “market,” that could take the New Left Critique and run with it in the context of 20th century Global Corporate Capitalism.

The reality is that the New Left inadvertently played an important hand in spawning “anarcho-capitalism,” the capitalist version of individual anarchism in the late 20th century-early 21st century America. So the reason that, say, Gabriel Kolko is not eulogized today as the father of “modern American Syndicalism(a movement, of course, which does not exist)” is the same reason that Nozick should not be eulogized as the father of libertarianism.

In short, Nozick did not create the libertarian movement; rather, he was the product of it. Nozick’s “Anarchy, State and Utopia” may have “legitimized” “libertarian theory” in academia, but as we saw with Kolko, academia does not “father” a context; often, it is smack, dab embedded in the middle one. Kolko himself, at least early on, was horrified that his deconstruction of corporate liberalism had been expropriated by radical libertarianism.

Frankly, “Anarchy, State and Utopia” should actually be construed as a critique of libertarianism. The book more or less had two objectives: (1) to counter the distributive justice theory of Rawls (2) to counter the libertarian claim of illegitimacy of the State by demonstrating that libertarian social theory(specifically, the anarcho-capitalist one) would result–without any rights violations–in a State.

Rather, Nozick’s book should be viewed as the one of the definitive modern apologetics of enlightenment liberalism revival. Nozick himself viewed ASU as a more satisfactory foundation of the Lockean social contract than Locke’s own “Second Treatise.”

The typical failure to discern the actual fundamental rifts in modern American libertarianism between the historical libertarian position and enlightenment liberal revival accounts partly for the confusion when critics of libertarianism circulate in the popular press.

This lack of discernment is full display in Metcalf’s piece. Much of the piece is a critique against Nozick’s minimal State utopia, that is, a State that permits individuals to closely approximate the life they actually want to live. Metcalf attacks this position by claiming that Nozick’s utopian outcome rests upon a utopian assumption of perfect competition, an ideal that doesn’t exist. Without this ideal perfect competition, Nozick’s utopian outcome results in a predatory outcome. This is the gist of Metcalf’s argument.

But this is actually a bad critique of Nozick. One might guess that Metcalf perhaps read only part of the book because Nozick’s minimal State depends on a Natural monopoly in protection firms, something that could never happen under conditions of perfect competition. If Nozick were to assume perfect competition, then there would be no State to begin with. Robert Nozicks entitlement theory of justice does not depend on perfect competition.

At the conclusion of his critique, Metcalf proposes an alternative formulation of the debate, one that–I’m sure unbeknownst to him–is borrowing from the radical libertarian model: libertarianism vs authoritarianism. That the real division is between libertarianism vs authoritarianism goes back to Benjamin Tucker, articulated in 1888 essay, Anarchism and State Socialism. In our modern setting, this framing of the division is particularly associated with Anthony De Jasay. In the De Jasay model:

Libertarianism involves a presumption of liberty, which means any denial of a liberty claim has to be rooted in a falsification of that claim(demonstrate specific harm). Authoritarianism, however, is rooted in the presumption of authority, which is an un-falsifiable claim(the burden is to demonstrate that a liberty claim would do no harm under any objection). The former is consistent with the epistemological foundation of science and the latter is not.

The presumption of liberty leads to the libertarian principle: “Anything peaceful is tolerated”
The presumption of authority leads to the authoritarian principle: “Anything not explicitly permitted is prohibited”

De Jasay’s rational choice methodology, operating under a presumption of liberty, is more or less able to demolish any claim to political authority vis a vis any hypothetical social contract. You cannot get to Rawls by way of a “libertarianism vs authoritarianism” framework; if you propose such a framework, you will be forced to concede to the libertarian conclusion against political authority(mind you, without any need to introduce the dialectical contextualist tools of “class theory”).

In conclusion, it should be noted that Metcalf’s piece was generally panned in the blogosphere because of factual inaccuracies and charges of misrepresenting the libertarian position. The first criticism is true and the second partly true. But then again, I think the libertarian movement largely misrepresents and confuses the libertarian position to begin, so it’s impossible for anyone not to “misrepresent it.”

Simply, the modern American libertarian movement is incoherent. If you want to attack it, that’s how you attack it. Case in point, this Cato rejoinder against Metcalf. Writes Aaron Ross Powell:

libertarians don’t believe that liberty is the primary value, we believe that liberty is the primary political value.. Like so many critics of libertarianism, Metcalf does not understand the scope of the libertarian argument.

Really? With this “rise in libertarianism,” I’m seeing libertarian pro vs. con case for every political issue under the sun. The Libertarian case for abortion, the libertarian case against, the libertarian case for immigration, the libertarian case against, the libertarian case for Wal-Mart, the libertarian case against, the libertarian case for privatizing social security, the libertarian case against, the libertarian case for tax cuts, the libertarian case against, the libertarian case for War XYZ, the libertarian case against…On and on, etc, etc…

In short, with any rise of libertarianism, the last thing you would perhaps want to experience is “liberty as a political value.” The source of the modern American libertarian incoherence revolves around the debate of the legitimacy of political authority. But, so far, this is something the popular press has failed to flesh out.

8 thoughts on “Libertarianism on the Rise?

  1. Great post, but I’m wondering if we’re really seeing libertarianism on the rise. The survey Nate Silver discusses shows both increasing social liberalism and increasing economic conservatism, but it doesn’t look at if the same people are adopting both views. It could just be a rise of liberals and conservatives, and a decline of people who previously were not sure, or mixed on their views (like populists) with no increase in the number of libertarians.

    There certainly feels like a revival of the use of the word libertarian in the media and public discourse today, but I can’t place how much is an attempt to find an ideological foundation for opposing Obama and the Democrats and how much is a broader movement representing Americans falling out of favor with government.

    1. I suspect something inbetween the two is happening: conditions are encouraging people to consider things further from center — that is, further from their interpretation of the default political consensus — and emphasizing the anti-government elements of those as a symbol of their frustration.

      It’s interesting how common remarks about collusion are in casual conversation these days.

    2. yes, libertarianism is on the rise; it’s been on the rise since the 1960s. But there needs to be a distinction between ideas and attitudes and politics. And we should also note that this “rise” has been simultaneous with the “rise” in a glorification of authoritarian organs: the police, the military…This intertwined dynamic lies at the heart of the “Pink Police State.” The Pink Police State is:

      (i) expansion in cultural freedom(or choices), decrease in political freedom
      (ii) official culture very conservative; unofficial culture libertarian/libertine
      (iii) Pink Police States likely don’t engage in totalitarian hard censorship; rather totalitarian soft censorship.
      (iv) the cognitive dissonance between official vs unofficial, particularly when the unofficial life of someone bubbles up into the official, of course demands “psychiatric treatment.” When officials, politicians, celebrities “get busted,” it’s off to “treatment” for rehabilitation. All very “Orwellian”…

      The Pink Police State is, in a sense, Huxley + Orwell…

      The problem of reversing the Pink Police State is a type of Collective action problem. However, politics, particularly the American Political System, works against this because:

      (i) The 2-Party system follow a Cournot Duopoly, which means a game of strategic substitutes. In practical terms, this means if Party A, say, plays a libertarian strategy, Party B plays a less libertarian strategy. The Party that plays the libertarian strategy will be the one that is out of power(specifically, the one that does not hold the executive branch). Of course, the objective of the party that is out of power is to regain power.

      (ii) in one sense, Cournot competition is supposed to be a safeguard. It’s supposed to be a “feature.” That is, the reason that any “rise in libertarianism” doesn’t result in a “libertarian government” is the same reason that a “religious rise or revival” doesn’t result in a theocracy.

      If we combine Cournot competition of political parties with a public choice treatment of lobbying–that is, government is a market; symmetric payoffs among the smallest effective lobbying coalitions–we end up with something resembling the Madisonian model.

      (iii) However, if government is not a market, that is, the benefits being accrued to special interests far exceeds(by orders of magnitude) the lobbying dollar outlays, then we have a Plutocracy.

      Cournot competition of political parties then works to preserve the plutocratic institutional status quo.

      I call this condition “Catastrophic Liberal Institutional Failure(CLIF)”.

      I’ve discussed these ideas in more thorough detail here:

      CLIF under Cournot competition requires a radical political dynamic to alter the equilibrium, either a radical re-orientation of a political party or a replacement of a political party with another, or the abolition of Cournot competition itself(the 2 party system) or the abolition of the current form of the State itself.

      So this is part (A) of the Collective Action Problem, namely the US(i.e., the Pink Police State) as a Plutocracy. Part (B) is the US as oligarchy, and by this I mean, in part, totalitarian censorship. Here, I don’t mean “hard,” but rather, “soft.” In either case, totalitarian censorship is the “boot” against radical politics. In the instance of “soft censorship,” I’m referring to total surveillance of money and de facto total control over a financial intermediary system to block monetary payments to any “prohibited” agency.

      The US has experienced (A) before but not (B).

      It should be obvious that the Reason/Cato “David Boaz” voter is not a solution to either (A) or (B). And to have a chance at (A), which requires a significant counter-institutional/organizational underpinning, you have to overcome (B).

      When I talk about “libertarian incoherence,” I’m referring , in part, to the Reason/Cato directive of a “fiscally solvent” Pink Police State–entitlement reform. They are concentrating on the wrong “entitlement reform.”

      The problem of (B), which is the collective action problem of overcoming “soft censorship,” is an entrepreneurial problem that is being attacked by the more “cyberpunk” element of libertarianism, a culture that is a product of the libertarian movement, but one that is utterly unconcerned with the internal squabbles of the libertarian movement. In the “Libertarian Theory of Revolution,” an entrepreneurial minority can overcome the collective action problem of revolutionary change. But it is hardly a given…

      1. I wish I knew more, followed more, and understood more the cyberpunk elements of libertarianism that you speak of. Unfortunately I feel like a fish out of water on that front. But I do appreciate this blog for helping me keep a little bit more informed.

  2. “Libertarian” gets used to describe the political thought of Nozick, Rand, Rothbard, Chomsky, and Kevin Carson.

    A term this flexible is all but doomed to incoherence. When someone like Metcalf says “libertarians are wrong because of X”, he doesn’t really know who he’s arguing against, and neither do we. If he did, he might even have a point. Who knows?

  3. Robert Nozick, the supposed “philosophical father of libertarianism.”

    Only someone who wasn’t a libertarian would suppose that.

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