“The Trouble with Liberty” Part II: American Libertarian Incoherence

NOTE: this is an unfinished essay from last year that I’ve decided to publish, notwithstanding its incompleteness. In part, I motivated to do so because of this recent article at the Huffington Post, Ron Paul, Libertarianism and The Anarchist Connection

Libertarians are proponents of limited government. We are not anarchists.
Robert Levy, chairman of the Cato Institute’s board of directors.

We have to accept Big Government for the duration — for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged … except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.
William F. Buckley

This is part II of a three part series penned in response to Chris Beam’s The Trouble with Liberty. Part I is here.

To summarize part I: Enlightenment liberalism, born from “British Liberty,” drew a distinction between State and Civil Society. This “civil society,” however, was not birthed by decree, but rather was an emergent property of a more or less anarchic tradition. The US Constitution was not a document drawn by “We the People” for the governance of “We the People,” but rather by the “elite State Builders” in a pit of interests against interests, particularly with an eye toward territorial expansionism.

British liberty, however, was not the only “liberal tradition.” There was another tradition, one that was much more radical, that originates from France. In an exhaustive historical exegesis, you could actually trace the roots of this more radical tradition back to the French Physiocrats and their model of “class conflict” that arises from land ownership. The Physiocrats were the precursors of the French Laissez Faire economists.

In “Revolutionary France” Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine would duplicate their roles played in the American Revolution. Jefferson, on loan to Paris as a diplomat, would play a vital role in the composition of “Declaration of the Rights of Man,” the French analogue to the American Declaration of Independence. Paine would revise his role as agitator and propagandist with his “Rights of Man,” a more radical analogue to “Common Sense.” But there is an important distinction between “Revolutionary France” and “Revolutionary America.” Revolutionary America was a rebellion against a distant empire who was acting in contrivance against its own principles(of British Liberty) in arbitrarily violating the exercise of American self-rule and the natural functioning of its civil society. It was a rebellion against a perceived violation of its natural order.

Revolutionary France was a rebellion against its own political class, and it’s more radical ideals of liberty and egalitarianism were not rooted in any long-standing civil tradition but rather in an idealism of the way things ought to be. In a sense, the American Revolution could almost be viewed as a restoration. The French Revolution, contrastively, was actually a “revolution.” The failure, however, of Revolutionary France to politically achieve these idealistic goals sowed the seeds for libertarianism. Libertarianism proper was born when Enlightenment Liberalism met the bureaucratic Ancien Régime.

In France, the Enlightenment Liberal distinction between State and civil society would not survive the “class critique.” Libertarianism was the abolition of the State for complete laissez faire in civil society. But just what exactly type of order would naturally emerge from laissez faire was a subject of much debate. Libertarianism would spread across Europe, but the European version would largely reject “bourgeois civil society” as being anything spontaneous or anarchic; rather such was viewed as a product of Statist privilege. The European version would largely become associated with what today we would call anti-property, anti-bourgeois “left-wing anarchism.” In the United States, “a self-identified libertarian movement” would not emerge until the latter part of the 19th century, but it took a bit of a more “homegrown attitude” toward “bourgeois civil society.” American libertarianism was more or less “liberal anarchism.”

In the 20th century, American libertarianism would lose it’s identity with “liberal anarchism” and instead become associated with a movement to restore the “Enlightenment Liberal” conception of the State. This despite the fact that globally and domestically, neither establishment politics nor radical politics adhered to this ideal anymore. The deconstruction of this effort is the subject of “Part II.”

First, an irony that must be pointed out, one that serves a foreboding reminder of the problems of “libertarian political reform,” is that this 20th century “enlightenment liberal restoration movement,” that became associated with the GOP, was born from the perversion of the late 19th century “laissez faire” political reform movement adopted by the Democrats. When the Plutocrats write the history, you are told that “laissez faire” was a product of an 18th century constitution. A complete historical fabrication. The reality is that politically speaking, “laissez faire” was a late 19th century reform movement sparked by the defection of the Northeastern Republican Mugwumps to give rise to a new breed of Democrat, the Bourbon Democrats, as a counter to the corruption of post-civil war political economy. Yes, Grover Cleveland was a Bourbon Democrat, but so were Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. “Corporate Liberalism,” the “New Deal State,” the things that sparked a 20th century “enlightenment liberal restoration movement” in America, were themselves a final product of an earlier “laissez faire” political reform movement.

When the Plutocrats write the history, we are told that the conflict between the New Deal State and the “Lochner courts” was a battle between the dawn of a new era vs the twilight of an old, long era. No it wasn’t. Lochner was a product of “laissez faire” political reform, and the battle than between Lochner and Corporate Liberal political class, which derived from the same political “reform movement,” is every bit similar to the same conflict today we see today between “libertarian activist judges” and the conservative political class that appointed them(as a result of libertarian-conservative fusionism).

The “New Deal,” rather than sparking “enlightenment liberal restoration movement,” probably should have served instead as warning against expropriated “libertarian” political reform. It doesn’t end well.

The “enlightenment liberal restoration movement” would become associated with “conservatism.” Conservatism, in this context, was more or less an invented term. What did a term historically associated with European caste society have to do with “enlightenment liberalism”? Nothing. It was “rebranding propaganda effort,” in no small part due to William F. Buckley and National Review, that (1) invented a false, revisionist religious history to “explain the distinction between State and Civil Society” and (2) tied the modern retention of this distinction to the necessity of anti-communism.

Buckley’s invented conservatism, in pretending to honor and restore enlightenment liberalism, only served to once again demonstrate the futility of politics and enlightenment liberalism. Buckley essentially destroyed the distinction between State and market civil society because market civil society now inherently relied on the State for its protection. The threat of communism justified whatever encroachment of the State on market civil society because the latter could not survive without the State.

The Vietnam War and the military draft is what actually launched the 2nd self-identified movement in the United States. This would lead Murray Rothbard to reach back into history and rediscover “liberal anarchism.” For Rothbard, however, it was Austrian Economics, not classical economics that underlined market civil society. So it was Capitalist. But another catastrophic event would set the stage for libertarian divergence. This was the collapse of Bretton Woods. This would set in motion the transformation of Political Economy from Neoclassical Keynes to Neoclassical Chicago.

4 thoughts on ““The Trouble with Liberty” Part II: American Libertarian Incoherence

  1. Very enlightening. I must have been born on the wrong continent. Push comes to shove, I’m an anticapitalist first and an antistatist second. I have no real complaint with British anarchists such as Phil Dickens speaking in defense of NHS, for example. It has theoretical problems, but I’m admittedly 30% theoretician and 70% tribalist, and am far more troubled by individualist anarchists adopting elements of paleoconservative rhetoric such as ‘negative liberties.’

    1. far more troubled by individualist anarchists adopting elements of paleoconservative rhetoric such as ‘negative liberties.’

      “Negative Liberty” neither originates nor derives from paleoconservative rhetoric. You are about 1000 years off.


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