Skip to comments.van den Haag observes libertarianism
Posted on 05/19/2002 3:02:10 PM PDT by aconservaguy
Another fascinating critique of libertarianism, although extremely dated.
Ernest van den Haag, National Review, June 8, 1979 ©1979 National Review, used with permission.
Libertarians & Conservatives Conservatives are suspected of believing that the future will not be better than the past and tightly holding on to what they have, ignoring those who have nothing but hope for the future. Conservative" thus rings gloomy to many ears. "Libertarian" however, sounds sunnily optimistic. Who is against liberty? or prosperity, which we are told, comes as a bonus with it? But How to get, and keep both? The libertarian answer is beguiling simple: the government is the problem, not the solution. Do away with it, and we will all be free and prosperous. Society has been wrong for the last few thousand years in making laws and demanding obedience to them. Murray Rothbard will put it right. (The temptation to be flippant is hard to resist.)
Our more and more intrusive, restrictive, paralyzing, and costly government makes the sweeping libertarian ideology quite appealing. Thus, what was once regarded as a crank nostrum is becoming a fad. But libertarianism has also attracted some good minds and bears serious examination. So does the well-financed libertarian movement.
Both libertarians and conservatives believe that only a free market can produce widespread prosperity: neither believe in vast coercive redistributive schemes which are self-defeating the intended beneficiaries hardly benefit and (libertarians believe) immoral. Both believe that people are entitled to whatever they can earn in a free market: that individuals should have the right, singly or incorporate groups to own, produce, buy, and sell whatever they wish, at whatever prices they can get and to hire whomever they wish, at whatever wages are acceptable, with a minimum (none for libertarians) of government regulation or monopoly. Both groups believe that economic freedom is essential not just to prosperity and efficience but also to individual freedom. "Liberals" make the government the star player. Conservatives see the government as umpire, or rule-maker, -interpreter, and -enforcer. Libertarians feel that the game goes better without an umpire.
Libertarians oppose all taxes and all public services (not always the services, but always their public, legal, and tax-paid character). Libertarians favor activities only when volunteered or privately coerced. 1 Libertarians oppose public courts, laws, police, armies, roads, parks, education, health. They want no government whatsoever. Conservatives oppose many public services altogether and would have others performed by private industry. But unlike libertarians, conservatives do not believe that all laws, all taxes, or the state are immoral per se, or unnecessary. Liberty requires a social order articulated by laws. Government is needed to secure the rights of the citizens.
[text missing in original] cess with compensation ("eminent domain"), e.g., to build a road. Libertarians would eliminate the licensing of planes, or pilots, or surgeons, of any profession, activity (e.g., marriage, or hunting), or installation: and anybody would be free to buy or sell any drugs.
Conservatives, too, want to replace most licensing by certification. Just as there are CPAs, there could be certified physicians, plumbers, teachers, or barbers. Certification could be private or public, but would not grant a monopoly, as licensing does. There is no settled conservative doctrine on this, or on drug prescriptions, heroin addiction, or subsidies for mass transit. (A major part of conservative doctrine is not to settle things by sweeping principles but rather to look at one thing at a time and consider experience with alterative solution. Libertarians, in contrast, have principles for everything.) Many conservatives are willing to modify public education through Milton Friedman's voucher system, which would return the choice to educational institutions to parents. But some education however achieved would remain compulsory. Nothing would be, in a libertarian system.
If not abolished altogether in a libertarian society, armies or police would become private groups without legal authority, financed by voluntary contribution. Communal health, welfare, and educational activities also would be financed by voluntary contributions. A number of ingenious (but doubtful) private devices would take the place of laws, of public authority, and of public enforcement. Legal tender would be abolished. People would use gold as money unless they decided on something else: no contract monetary authority would control the quantity of money and credit creation.
Conservatives are, well more conservative. Convinced that there is by far too much government activity (taxing, subsidizing, licencing, and regulating), they would greatly reduce it. But they would consider that specific merits of cash activity and decide case by case. About half the present government activities, employees, and expenditures could be done away with, with no significant loss to society. But it is the other half about which conservatives disagree with libertarians.
Conservatives believe in public (as well as private) roads; they believe in public defense, police, law, central banking, legal tender, and in taxes to pay for these things. Fire departments and other services might well be privatized to advantage on the merits, however, and not as a principle. Government would remain, its power curtailed in some respect. Conservatives believe in limited government. But in some respects state power might be extended. Most conservatives would strengthen the ability of the government to apprehend and punish criminals, to impose the death penalty, and to control pornography.
Since libertarians have turned away from their anarchist ancestors toward a free market, their views on economics overlap with conservative views. The libertarian's new name also is great public relations; "anarchism" does have a bad image. Old-style anarchists were opposed to private property and to capitalism. With the exception of Max Stirner, they believed in some woozy and incoherent form of decentralized communal socialism. In contrast, new-style anarchists libertarians take their cue from Ayn Rand; or (via Murray Rothbard) from Ludwig von Mises; or finally, via some of his Chicago disciples, from Friedrich von Hayek. Oddly enough, none of these would agree with the libertarian (anarchist) development of his doctrine. 2
Thus, von Mises wrote "Government as such is not only not an evil but the most necessary and beneficial institution, as without it no lasting cooperation and no civilization could be developed or preserved." Hardly a libertarian doctrine. Friedrich von Hayek writes: "Freedom is an artifact of civilization made possible by the gradual evolution of discipline [which] protects [man] by impersonal abstract rules against arbitrary violence. . . . Since we owe the order of our society to the tradition of rules which we only imperfectly understand, all progress must be based on tradition." This anti-utopian doctrine, too, is inconsistent with libertarianism. Libertarians are antinomians, i.e., opposed to law and traditional institutions. They oppose government in principle. They want to invent a social organization based not on history but on their rationalist principles.
Finally, Ayn Rand, who admittedly inspired many libertarians, has vehemently dissociated herself from their development of her views. She regards her would-be followers as silly and intellectually inadequate. She may have a point. So may the libertarians who attribute the repudiation to her personality.
There is something refreshing about the libertarians' unabashed defense of the free market and their attack on government interference everywhere. Some conservatives feel that libertarianism deserves support as a perhaps exaggerated, version of their own belief in the free market just as some liberals kept a soft spot for Communism as an exaggerated version of their own beliefs. They were wrong. So are conservatives who keep a soft spot for libertarianism. There are unbridgeable chasms on moral, political, and social issues: despite the shared belief in free markets despite the shared opposition to big government, to excessive taxation and interference, to the restriction of our freedom in favor of a phony equality (actually of bureaucracy) libertarian and conservatives beliefs are mutually exclusive on essential matters. Libertarianism is opposed to all conservative tradition, to tradition itself. It is inconsistent with the anti-utopian conservative view of life and society.
Conservatives believe that (limited) constitutional government is essential "to secure these rights" to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Libertarians repudiate this insight of the Founding Fathers. They oppose all government, and they repudiate the need for social cultivation of the social bond, for public authority, and of legally enforced rules. They are opposed to the Constitution and to the American heritage. Indeed, libertarians repudiate essential elements of civilization as it has historically developed everywhere.
To paraphrase Lord Keynes, they "repudiate all versions of the doctrine of original sin, of there being insane and irrational springs of wickedness in most men. [They are] not aware that civilization [is] a thin and precarious crust erected by the personality and the will of a very few, and only maintained by rules and conventions skillfully put across and guilefully preserved. [They have] no respect for traditional wisdom or the restraints of custom. [They] lack reverence . . ."They are a belated offspring of the eighteenth century Enlightenment, of rationalism in its most virulent form. They believe that we can do away with the perennial tension between the individual and the group by denying the legitimacy of any social authority.
Libertarians rely on the rationality of individuals, thought of as rational economic calculators 3 actually on the rationality of the living to supply all the bonds and norms that are presently generated and enforced by the traditional social institutions. Emotions, values, philosophies, religions, national feelings, and symbols are not denied by libertarians: but they are rigidly confined to a private sphere, of which society need take no account, except by allowing liberty. (Although not by protecting it: in a libertarian society individuals have to find their own way of protecting their liberty from others.) Society is denied the ability to impose or even to publicly cultivate social norms and bonds. Only individuals and private groupings of individuals can do so. There could he no public regulation or enforcement of parental obligations, or indeed of any obligations from serving in the army to not smoking in the subway.
I doubt that I would like a libertarian society, but I needn't worry because it is wholly utopian (the word means "nowhere"). However, utopian, thought can be dangerous. The desired Utopia cannot he achieved: but the destruction of an existing society may be. And it is quite likely to be succeeded by a worse one.
Societies of insects, animals, or men, survive and are held together by the solidarity produced through the mutual identification of members. Among insects or animal groups, mutual identification is secured by scent or other natural characteristics. It is thus that members of a species, or subspecies, or group a swarm of bees, a termite society, or a herd of elephants can have a shared organization, a society, and can act together to survive and to ward off outsiders. They have a social bond.
In human societies the social bond is psychic. A common culture, including language, shared institutions and traditions, animating, all of these shared values, takes the place of physical characteristics, or supplement them, in making possible human societies and subsocieties. Culture, added to nature, makes it possible for members of any society to recognize one another, to identify with one another and to develop a minimal human solidarity which restrains them from eating one another and generally from using one another solely as means. We recognize that others, like us, are ends in themselves.
Solidarity starts within families and extends to ethnic groups, nationalities, and ultimately societies. All social life rests on it: we are human qua social, and social because socialized by social institutions, which impress on us shared values which we internalize. (Historically, religion has played a prominent role in this process.) Without these shared values and institutions, which are cultural and not instinctual, no society has survived. Nor can individuals, however much they may disagree with some values or laws.
Institutions form a social order, ultimately articulated and defended in essential respects by the state, through the monopoly of legitimate coercive power exercised by its government. Any particular coercion (law) of the state may well be contested. But libertarians object not just to specific laws, but to legislation, to the authority of the state, and to its coercive power per se. Libertarians dissent from history and from the political institutions it has created in all known civilization. For, although political institutions vary no society has been able to do without them, as the libertarians propose.
How do libertarians deal with the Hobbesian bellum omnia contra omnes [war of all against all]? In one of two ways: 1) by denying that, in the absence of coercive laws, homo homini lupus [man becomes wolf]. This was the view of most anarchists in the past. They thought that the state creates the evils it is presumed to control. However, most libertarians now admit that people are not necessarily "born good" as J. J. Rousseau thought. Hence, 2) they admit the need for the enforcement of some rules; they contend that these rules could be enforced privately. Coercion would be imposed by private organization that would form spontaneously. They would gain their power from the voluntary, rational, collective actions of members, who would be free to leave or join.
Your life would be secured by a protective organization you may join. It would protect you and "punish" those who would interfere with you. They, in turn, would join protective associations which would defend them against yours. Competing protective organizations would agree on arbitration of conflicts, or fight in out. The monopoly of legitimate force the government now has would cease to exist. So would the authority of the law. The coercive powers but not the legal authority now exercised by governments would be held by competitive private organizations.
The advantage would be small, if the private organizations would actually do most of the essential things governments now do. Could it work? As well as the Mafia, which these private organizations uncannily resemble. There is no reason to believe that they would be more benevolent, or that conflicts among them would be settled without violence anymore than conflicts among Mafia "families" are. In fact anarchy is actually impossible. The monopoly of legitimate force held by the state can be replaced only by polyarchy which cannot but be worse.
The situation conjured up with much ingenuity by David Friedman and other writers is the situation we actually have now among nations. 4 Peace is maintained by a precarious balance of power, by mutual deterrence, by negotiation and occasional arbitration. But it is a precarious peace because there is nothing above the power to adjudicate their conflicts and to deter violence, as the state does domestically. Thus, to abolish the coercive domestic authority which is the essence of the state it is force each individual to face domestically, the situation each power now confronts in the international area. Sovereignty, according the Bodin's definition, is potesta legibus absoluta: power not regulated by law. (The sovereign is the supreme lawgiver: he would not be supreme if he had to account to any earthly tribunal.) The individual would be fully sovereign in the libertarian non-society and peace would be as precarious among individuals as it is now is among the powers.
The advantage of the present order is immense (despite international anarchy) precisely because anarchy and violence are confined to the relations among states. Owing to the authority and the coercive power of the government, individual life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness can be secured which is why "governments are instituted among men."
Contrary to what James Madison thought, government would be needed even "if men were angels." For the need for coercive authority arises not only from the wickedness of all, or of some, and from the infinite wish for power (palpable as these are): even among good men, even among angel, conflicts may arise that can be decided only by violence unless there is a superior authority that can decide, and enforce its decision. Thus, although Ralph Nader thinks all good men are with him, some good men may feel that, in a given situation, nuclear power is better than no electricity. Other "angels" may disagree. Unless there is an authority (whether vested in a majority or in a court), force will have to decide the issue. Belief in a government authority, albeit a limited one, distinguishes conservatives, who continue to support the American Constitution and the principles underlying it, from libertarians, who reject it. Consider now a few particulars.
Externalities. Some things, are desired by most people. But the desired things cannot be so limited that only those benefit who are willing to pay. The benefits of national defense, of the education of children (if their parents cannot pay, or if they are orphans), of public parks, streets, traffic lights, police, etc. are indiscriminate and diffuse. Nobody can be excluded for not paying, and voluntary contributions will not suffice. If such things are to be provided at all they have to be paid for by taxes, which libertarians oppose.
Other externalities are negative. An activity that is profitable to some persons may generate costs to others who do not profit, and who have not volunteered, for, say, pollution, or infection, or for having truck traffic nearby. If it is unnecessary, one may prohibit such activity. If it is advantageous, one should tax the activity so that those engaged in it profit only after paying all the costs, including those born in the first place by other persons (who may be reimbursed with revenue). Without the prohibitive power, or the tax power, or the power of the courts to enforce the payment of damages, all this would be impossible. Upstream people must be compelled to refrain from, or to pay for, downstream pollution. It is hard to see how the private downstream associations would be able to prevail over the private upstream association. Nor would it be possible to compel an unwilling individual to defray his share of the costs of a dam that benefits him as well as others.
Punishment. Libertarians believe variously that punishment for crime 1) is unneeded altogether, or 2) could be administered by private associations, or 3) could be replaced by restitution. But all libertarians believe that crime is a matter between victim and victimizer, a matter of retaliation or compensation, not an act that organized society must punish according to law, regardless of individual victims.
Those who believe in restitution alone neglect the obvious fact that, if he had to pay no more than restitution to the bereaved, a rich man would have a license to murder, and that anyone could murder or abuse those who had no chance to join protective association e.g., young orphans or those who have no one to whom restitution would be owned. Further, a burglar could go about his business, and pay full restitution when caught. Since burglars are rarely caught, burglary would become even more profitable and frequent than it is now. What restitution does a spy owe?
If restitution involves more than payment of the actual market value of what has been lost, it becomes punishment (which at least some libertarians want to abolish). Since most criminals could not pay, we would be back to a system of forced labor, which Murray Rothbard contemplates in Assessing the Criminal: Restitution, Retribution, and the Legal Process (Barnett and Hagel, eds., Ballinger, 1977, p. 261).
Ingenious libertarians have tried to meet these problems. Where they have been successful, the solution remarkably resembles the institutions it was to replace. In other cases, I cannot see any solution. Consider abortion. The question is: Should the fetus have rights enforceable by society, against the rights of and wishes of the mother, when the two are in conflict? One can deny the fetus the status of a human being in spe. But there is nothing that commits libertarians to that position. Some, indeed, oppose abortion. But they could not outlaw it in a libertarian society: nothing could be outlawed. Nor could the fetus join a private security association to protect itself, nor ask for restitution or punishment. The parents, who are responsible for its extinction, certainly won't. Who but society could protect the fetus, or babies, incompetents, and orphans? Libertarianism ignores any social good unless individual will pay for it or are willing and able to defend it.
Lest I be accused of making up these paradoxes, let me quote Murray Rothbard. About murder, Rothbard writes: "The victim, or his heirs or assigns, could allow the criminal to buy his way out [Rothbard's italics] of part or all of his punishment." A rich criminal thus would be licensed to commit whatever murders he is willing to pay for, if the victim's heirs are willing to take the criminal's money, rather than (say) his life. Since libertarian principles require payment according to damage (not according to the criminal's means) wealth would license any crime so long as either only restitution is required, or the victim's heirs are willing to accept money in lieu of punishment. If no private claim for punishment or restitution is made well, the criminal is lucky. People without heirs are bargains for murderers. If you want to get rid of your father whose only heir you are, you may hire a killer, or do it yourself. You are the only one who can claim compensation for the murder of your uninsured parent. You won't. Congratulations! You are an heir.
Rothbard contemplates no punishment, except what victims, their heirs, or their insurance companies want. He writes, "Suppose that A has severely beaten B, B now has a right to beat up A as severely, or to hire someone to do the beating for him..." It seems logical though Rothbard is too discreet to mention it that if A has ruptured B's spleen, B can have A's spleen ruptured.
To the objection that theft cannot be punished by theft, defamation by defamation, Rothbard replies: "...Theft and forgery constitute robbery [!] and the robber can be made to provide restitution and proportional damages... defamation is not a crime." Rothbard does not explain who determines whether defamation is, or is not, sufficiently victimizing to authorize retaliation. The non-existent legislation?
The idea that a crime is committed only when there is an individual victim rests on moral obtuseness and is incorrect even with regard to minor violations. Suppose one of my students cheats. There are no individual victims. (I don't grade on a curve.) Suppose he bribes me. No individual victims. Yet, I think punishment is needed, if grading is not to become so unreliable as to damage society.
Rothbard does not tell how to punish rape, if it occurs by threats without actual assault. (With assault the rapist would in turn be punitively assaulted. Would he be raped?) However, he refers approvingly to Thomas Jefferson's "Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishment," which he does not actually quote. I will.
Whosoever shall be guilty of rape, polygamy, sodomy with man or woman, shall be punished, if a man, by castration, if a woman by cutting through the cartilage of her nose a hole of one-half inch in diameter at the least. [And] whosoever shall maim another, or shall disfigure him...shall be maimed, or disfigured in the like sort; or if that cannot be, for want of some part, then as nearly as may be, in some other part of at least equal value...
Rothbard may not entirely agree with Jefferson's selection of crimes. But the punishments are in the retaliatory spirit with which Rothbard wishes to replace laws. (I don't really believe that Rothbard is as bloody-minded as his views would indicate. But if he is not, he is unbelievably frivolous, or what amounts to the same thing, infatuate with ideas the actual consequences of which he prefers to ignore.
Randy Barnett writes, "without a real victim there can be no crime, [and] no compensation without a harm having occurred." 5 and advocates replacing punishment with restitution, which he regards as a new (!) paradigm (!). He shares with all libertarians the idea that it is the individual victim alone (or his heirs or assigns) who has any claim against the criminal.
This notion is absurd. When a person fails to observe rules needed to secure everybody's life, liberty, or convenience (e.g., traffic rules) while others observe the rules as they wait in line, his jumping ahead may cause an accident with an individual victim to whom, indeed, he owes restitution by present law. But even if there is no individual victim, failure to observe the rules harms all those who did observe them and discourages them from doing so in the future. Unless punishment deprives the offender of the profit yielded by his violation, it remains profitable and places those who observe the rules at a disadvantage. They too could have gained by breaking the rules they refrained because of fear of punishment. They lose the advantage they would have gained, while the violator gained at their expense. Of course, within a short span no rules would be left.
We all renounce rape, burglary, murder, and fraud because we are collectively better off that way. For this reason we try to make it costly for individuals to commit crimes. The criminal takes unfair advantage of our willingness to abstain from doing what he does. His crime does not merely harm the individual victim (if any) but all law-abiding people. Kidnapping or holding hostages on a plane harms specific victims. But even if they all were willing to forgive, or to be paid off, the kidnapper must be punished. His act endangers others besides the actual victims; it makes flying, and society, less safe. However necessary restitution to victims may be, the main issue is: shall we all submit to law and punish those who don't or shall each of us provide for his own security as best he can? On this issue conservatives are for, libertarians against, law.
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II. The Libertarian Movement
There are almost as many libertarian groups and ideas as there are libertarians perhaps more. They range from the silly to the intellectually respectable. All these groups, and the magazines that articulate major libertarian ideas, are influenced by Murray Rothbard, who, it seems fair to say, is a spokesman for the libertarian movement as a whole if anyone can be. 6 Rothbard has written treatises on economics and philosophy which limned libertarian ideology. He is now the resident guru of the Cato Institute of San Francisco. Funded by Charles Koch (of Koch Industries), the Cato Institute in turn funds libertarian research institutes, conferences, and the newest and slickest of the libertarian magazines, Inquiry [see p. 740]
Unlike other libertarian magazines, Inquiry attempts to appeal to the unconverted. Nat Hentoff, an extreme civil libertarian in the conventional sense, but not a "libertarian" (he is a leftist socialist), is among Inquiry's regular contributors. Many other old and new leftists and Village Voice contributors have surfaced in Inquiry. But the magazine also publishes competent literary reviews, by critics who are no more libertarian than those in The New Republic. Other magazines, such as The Libertarian Review and Reason (the most intellectually ambitions and least extreme) have exclusively libertarian contributors and, one surmises, readers. 7
On major political issues national defense and foreign policy, Soviet expansionism, the domestic nature of the Soviet Union the libertarian movement has consistently taken extreme leftist positions. Even on such issues as the history of the cold war, or the spying of Alger Hiss, the libertarian position is indistinguishable from the Communist position. (Reason magazine has been less leftist than the other magazine. But it is the exception.) The well financed movement magazines and groups led by the Cato Institute have unmistakably leaned Left. 8 Let me start with national defense.
"Fear about Soviet intentions have been grossly exaggerated and systematically played upon...these [American] militaristic rantings are wrongheaded, mistaken, and potentially disastrous." (Libertarian Review, July 1978)
"...unilateral initiatives such as banning tests and cutting back one hundred missiles with multiple warheads are very modest proposals for reducing tension and halting the Soviet-American arms race." (Inquiry, July 24, 1978)
"Libertarians should clearly welcome any move reciprocal or unilateral toward either military or economic disarmament." (Libertarian Review, July 1978.)
"In the recent past, the American presence in Ethiopian combined numbers of civilian advisors and uniformed troops has been, at times, as large or larger than the current Russian and Cuba presence..." (Inquiry, April 3, 1978.)
"...recent Soviet activity in Africa has been largely a response to Western actions...." (Inquiry, May 29, 1978)
...we should not only withdraw our forces from Korea, but also eliminate those units from our force structure and dissolve our security commitment to South Korea." (Inquiry, December 5, 1977.
It is fair to say that libertarians would be willing to disarm unilaterally, that they oppose any military or economic support from American allies, and that they feel that "fears about Soviet intentions have been greatly exaggerated." There are no doubt honorable exceptions. But they affect the movement as little as honorable and exceptional Nazis or Communists affect these movements.
This leftist view extends to the past as well:
"Carter's resurrection of these antiquated cold war postures is the worst kind of folly. The [American] policymakers...were responsible for wars in Korea and Indochina, the acceleration of the arms race, the waste of hundreds of billions of dollars." (Inquiry, May 15, 1978.
"It should occasion no great surprise, then, if ...a democratic and relatively far freer United States has been more aggressive and imperialistic in foreign affairs than a relatively totalitarian Russia and China." (Murray Rothbard in Libertarian Review, April 1978.)
Rothbard's view, though recognizing that Russia and China are "relatively" totalitarian, insists that the US has been more "imperialistic." To write of "a relatively totalitarian Russia or China" is as helpful as writing, "Hell is relatively hotter than heaven." Only a person who believes the difference unimportant would write in this manner.
"But if one disregards the Russian conquests in Eastern Europe, there is relatively little evidence remaining of Communist imperialism. There are occasional minor interventions, in Africa and elsewhere, but these are nowhere near the scale of a great many American interventions since the Second World War." (Libertarian Review, March 1978.)
Indeed, "if one disregards" the fact that cannibals eat people, their diet hardly differs from ours, and one can point out that we eat more meat. Why should one disregard Russia's conquest of Eastern Europe? Or the reconquest of Czechoslovakia or Hungary? Why belittle the intervention in Africa (Mozambique, Angola, Congo-Brazzavile, Guinea, Somalia, Ethiopia, to name the obvious ones.) These are "occasional [and] minor." Cuba does not count (it is inconvenient). On the other hand the American imperialists...where have I heard this before?
"...perhaps...their almost hysterical view of the alleged threat of Communism prevents [free-market economists] from acknowledging any dissolution in the supposed monolith of menace. Communists countries...are increasing and ineradicably forced to de-socialize, and will therefore eventually reach the free market. The state of the undeveloped countries is also cause for sustained libertarian optimism..." (Murray Rothbard, "Left and Right: The Prospect for Liberty," in The Libertarian Alternative.)
Besides Rothbard, not many people have noticed the "dissolution in the supposed monolith of menace" and the turn of the Soviet Union toward the free market. That "the state of the undeveloped countries is also cause for sustained libertarian optimism" tells us more about libertarian lack of realism than about the undeveloped countries.
Libertarians rationalize their proposed policy by denying the Soviet threat. Yet the Soviet Union spends a far higher proportion of its national income on armaments than Western nations do. (Their expenditure also buys more, since the Soviet Union pays its soldiers much less than we do, using coercion where we have to attract volunteers. This matters little to libertarians.) Libertarians also want to abolish the agencies that may inform us that libertarian thinking is, well, unrealistic:
"The CIA should simply be abolished." (Inquiry, July 10, 1978.)
Any leftist found guilty in an American court must be innocent:
"...is [Philip] Agee the victim of an international frame-up, hatched by the CIA and put into effect by the agency's European allies?...smearing Agee serves the CIA in much the same way as smearing antiwar activists served Richard Nixon." (Inquiry, May 29, 1978.)
How delusional libertarian positions can become is illustrated by Thomas Szasz, a professor of psychiatry at the State University of New York, and a regular columnist for Inquiry. Consider:
"For the past decade the Western press has been waxing indignant over what it calls the political misuse of psychiatry in the Soviet Union. This is a case of selective indignation with a vengeance." (Inquiry, December 5, 1977.)
"To my knowledge, Soviet psychiatry has not been used to suppress dissent (or to defame living or dead persons) outside the Soviet Union, whereas Western psychiatry has been so used....The actual figure [of dissenters committed to mental hospitals in the Soviet Union] is still a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of persons who are compulsorily hospitalized in the West not since 1962 but annually for their 'beliefs'" (Inquiry, February 6, 1978.)
In both the USSR and the US improper commitments take place. There is no reason to believe (and Szasz gives no evidence) that they occur less often in the Soviet Union than in the United States. In the US these commitments are not used by the government to get rid of political opposition or dissent. Democrats make no efforts to commit Republicans; or conservatives; or libertarians; or Communists. Nor have Republicans made such efforts; nor has any American Government. However much commitment procedures are abused in the US (less so now than in the past, owing, in part, to the meritorious efforts of Dr. Szasz), they are not abused for political purposes. Dr. Szasz and the editors of Inquiry are in no danger of commitment for their political views.
However, in the Soviet Union the government has made a deliberate effort to label as insane, commit to institutions, and mistreat its political opponents. The government has found soviet psychiatrists willing to use institutions as weapons against the political opponents of the Soviet government. At long last the civilized world and the profession of psychiatry have protested the use of psychiatry by the Soviet Union to imprison and torture its opponents and critics. One would think, the "libertarians" would, if not lead, support such protests.
One would be wrong, Dr. Szasz and Inquiry insist that the Soviet government doe nothing the US Government does not do, except that the US Government does it more often. This is patently untrue. The wrong persons may be committed in the United States; or one may believe, as Dr. Szasz does, that all involuntary commitments are wrong in all countries. But the US Government does not use psychiatric confinement selectively to imprison its critics; the Soviet government does. Dr. Szasz either willfully ignores this difference (in which case he writes in bad faith), or does not understand it (in which case he is incompetent). There is a third possibility which he would, but which I cannot rule out: an unmanageable obsession has taken possession of him.
Sanity and good judgment are characterized by the willingness and ability to make important distinctions. Libertarians fail to distinguish between the systematic Soviet use of psychiatric commitment as a political weapon against dissidents and the random, nonpolitical abuse of commitment in the USA by mistaken and foolish psychiatrists. Libertarians lack either the willingness, or ability, to make crucial distinctions with respect to Communism.
Stalin declared that there was no real difference between the Nazism of his ally Hitler and Western democracy or social democracy until Hitler attached him. Stalin and his followers made the Second World War possible. The libertarian leaders who cannot see, or who soft-pedal, the differences between Western democracy and Soviet totalitarianism are apt pupils not of von Mises, who knew that difference quite well, nor of Hayek or Rand. They went to Stalin's school, and they side with the greatest enemy of liberty on this planet, the totalitarian system of Communism.
Murray Rothbard is not unaware of where he is pushing the libertarian movement although I suspect that his awareness is selective and incoherent. He appears to have fantasies of becoming a libertarian Lenin. This sounds out of this world. It is. Still, here is Rothbard in his own words taken from his mimeographed Toward a Strategy for Libertarian Social Change a monograph meant to outline the future shape of the movement.
"Those critics...who attack Communists for being willing to kill capitalists...are incorrect: the problem with the Communists is...that their ends (e.g., dictatorship of the proletariat) are incorrect...the libertarian criticism is against Communist goals and principles, and not against their insight into the relationship between means and ends." (pp. 10-11.)
"...The Marxists, as do libertarians, identify certain majority classes of society who are oppressed by other, minority classes..." (P.35)
" Lenin...pointed out that nothing can be achieved...without an organization to advance and propound the truth in the real world. Hence the importance of the 'cadre' (those in full possession of the libertarian doctrine)...to transform the world..." (p. 50.)
" Lenin grasped that mere amateurs in any field of endeavor...will get nowhere by themselves: that vital to the success of any endeavor, is a group of professionals, who are able to devote their full-time careers in advance of the cause." (P.50)
" Lenin saw that every ideological movement necessarily begins as a congeries of small, local discussion circles, in which each member is an undifferentiated amateur, and whose actions are 'spontaneous' and unplanned....a coherent national organization, an organization run by a cadre of professionals, becomes necessary." (p. 51)
" ...a special, very small, directing center must be set up; a network of executive agents must be developed...What Lenin was basically doing was instituting a vitally important innovation: applying modern organization theory and practice to a movement for radical social change. [Lenin's] concept of 'democratic centralism' has been bitterly attached...but...members of an organization should loyally abide by the decision and by the directives of the chosen officials so long as they continue to be members." (pp. 53-54)
"...with the cadre at the top of the ideological pyramid as the consistent and uncompromising ideologist, and then with others at the lower rungs in possession of varying degrees of approximation to the truth...with a smaller number of people at each higher stage." (p. 60)
"A coalition or what the Marxists-Leninists call a 'united front' strategy maximizes the influence of the numerically small cadre..." (p. 96)
It is the "united front strategy that leads libertarians to present themselves at times merely as committed liberals as did Communists. Neither is to be believed. The Communists are totalitarians. The libertarians are well, let the reader decide.
Lenin's creation of a centralized organization of cadres, obedient to central direction, ultimately and unavoidably obedient to central direction, ultimately and unavoidably led to Soviet totalitarianism. Not because of Stalin's wickedness (although he used the organization to serve his sadism and his power drive), but because of the means Lenin used to accomplish his ends, means which defeated the professed ends of Marxism, as Rothbard's would defeat the professed ends of libertarianism. Lenin too wanted to abolish the state, which he professed would "wither away" under Communism. Rothbard may be unaware of the meaning of his proposals. He may be unable to learn. In which case he is innocent and foolish. Or, he may be aware. In which case he is neither.
The character of the libertarian movement is now such that all true lovers of liberty must oppose it. It has already achieved on the intellectual level a seemingly impossible synthesis: anarcho-totalitarianism. Incoherence, however, does not vouch safe ineffectiveness. The libertarian-leftist coalition is already damaging in minor ways: and it is dangerous to the Republic in the future. 9 To support it is not only to cease being a conservative. It is also to cease being a democrat and a believer in limited government.
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1. I have seen few references in the libertarian literature to the questions posed by John Stuart Mill: should you have the right to contract away, to give up, your liberty? (See my "Liberty: Negative or Positive?" Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy [summer 1978].) I do not know the libertarian answer but suspect that libertarians might grant the right to contract for anything including one's own slavery.text@note1
2. Many Chicago economists are sympathetic to libertarianism, although they are nineteenth century liberals rather than anarchists. (Hayek is very tender-minded about his libertarian disciples and has not directly repudiated them.) Some have a tendency not just to apply economics to life which is fine but to reduce life to economics, denying that it has any aspects which economics cannot exhaustively handle, and which should not be left to the free market.text@note2
3. The economic model of man is immensely instructive. But models, to be instructive, ipso facto are meant to simplify reality by including only the features essential for their purposes. Such models should never by confused with the reality from which they are abstracted, any more than a map should be confused with the landscape it maps. text@note3
4. Besides being cleverer than most libertarians, Friedman is mistrusted because he is a utilitarian, whereas, libertarians, firmly committed to natural rights, which they find all over the place. text@note4
5. Assessing the Criminal Restitution, Retribution and the Legal Process (Barnett and Hagel, eds., Ballinger, 1977, p. ???. By "real" or "harm" the author means "individual" or "harm to an individual", to him society is not real and cannot be harmed. This view is shared by most libertarians. text@note5
6. Rothbard's contributions to economics are philosophical rather than technical. Clever and competent in microeconomics, Rothbard is morally obtuse; blackmail to him is a economic service not telling for which the blackmailer is justified to ask for payment (his view, of course, goes beyond an economic explanation to a pseudo-economic justification of blackmail). In his notions of money and macroeconomics Rothbard is naive. Gold becomes a mystical article of faith. Generally, libertarian economists suffer from a degenerative form of the Austrian disease legalistic philosophical principles derived from nature take the place of empirical studies. Economics is treated as a normative system rather than as a predictive science, a series of platonic axioms and dogmata from which largely normative deductions are made. Positive (empirical) economics is neglected. (The original Austrians such as Menger or Boehm-Bawerk were what "Austrian Economics" degenerated from.)text@note6
7. The libertarian movement has attracted more than its share of kooks, neurotics, and perverts. The attraction of ideas is not unrelated to the character of those attracted. But the ideas and the libertarian movement deserve analysis independent of the people attracted to them. I here confine myself to written materials. text@note7
8. Nonetheless, most libertarians are well-intentioned idealists. So were most Communists, the value of a cause is not determined by the good intentions of its followers. text@note8
9. Whether the libertarian movement will ever be effective enough to be dangerous to freedom is hard to say. Lenin and Hitler originally were centers of minuscule groups, yet both managed to become dictators. text@noted9
Yes, I'm sure there are a few libertarians so extreme as to be indistinguishable from anarchist. But they are a tiny minority.
In fact, his description of what a conservative is sounds much like typical libertarian positions:
Both libertarians and conservatives believe that only a free market can produce widespread prosperity: neither believe in vast coercive redistributive schemes which are self-defeating the intended beneficiaries hardly benefit and (libertarians believe) immoral. Both believe that people are entitled to whatever they can earn in a free market: that individuals should have the right, singly or incorporate groups to own, produce, buy, and sell whatever they wish, at whatever prices they can get and to hire whomever they wish, at whatever wages are acceptable, with a minimum (none for libertarians) of government regulation or monopoly. Both groups believe that economic freedom is essential not just to prosperity and efficience but also to individual freedom. "Liberals" make the government the star player.
I'm sorry, but I see many officeholders that call themselves "conservative" that do not believe in the principles outlined above. They support the current high levels of taxation. They support continued intrusiveness of the federal government, in the name of such monstrosties as the drug war.
Conservatives see the government as umpire, or rule-maker, -interpreter, and -enforcer. Libertarians feel that the game goes better without an umpire.
This is flat out not true. Libertarians completely understand the need for a system of courts and law enforcement. Some idealistic libertarians do believe that private alternatives would work better, but they also know that's an academic point until we get the government back to constitutional minimums. Many so-called "conservatives" seem mostly to have given up on getting that far, or even going in the right direction.
I read the first 4 or 5 paragraphs of this article and decided not to waste my time. This was obviously written by someone who has no clue as to what libertarian philosophy is about.
This was the first warning sign that the author has a poor conception of libertarianism.
Libertarians oppose public courts, laws, police, armies, roads, parks, education, health. They want no government whatsoever.
And this clinches it. Why not just call libertarians "anarchists" and save the bandwidth, you know?
Where libertarians and conservatives disagree primarily is that libertarians believe that virtually nothing can be done by the state without harming someone directly or indirectly. Libertarians tend to oppose almost all zoning regulations for example. Libertarians want a 100% secular state, but one that places no restriction on freedom of religion. I am mostly a libertarian so on that I can say that we do not support any taxation period on churches and any business they run should be treated like any other business. We have no problems with non-coercive public prayers including students praying privately in classrooms so long as the teacher does not initiate it because that scares the other students into thinking that if they don't join in their grades will be affected. After school, let the teacher direct prayers with willing students as long as they and the parents want to.
The personal freedom area we differ the most is that we place virtually no value on "morality" that exists only because of a coercive state. For example banning Cradle of Filth's music is pointless, it is an intrusion into their right to freely express himself and it won't make their followers moral. They have chosen to be immoral and their choice of music reflects that. In case you are wondering, CoF is a blatantly satanic rock band. It doesn't sing about depravity like Manson does (IIRC he is an atheist, not satanist) they glorify satanism in their music. Essentially where we differ is that we realize that coercion alone is incapable of changing them. You can put a gun to their heads and they will only "give it up" in order to not be killed, but their minds won't have changed for the better. In fact you will probably have made them more determined in their belief that they are right and you are wrong.
And this clinches it. Why not just call libertarians "anarchists" and save the bandwidth, you know?Because the author isn't interested in writing about libertarianism, he's interested in discrediting it by claiming that it's "really" anarchism. Which is much, much simpler than honest debate or analysis.
Perhaps so. But a lot of them were not, at least by the time I got involved in the early 1980s.
And your observation is about the LP, which has always been a long way from being all libertarians. In 1977, Edward Crane split with the LP to found the Cato Institute, which has represented the "moderate" libertarian viewpoint for 25 years now. I'd defy anyone to describe the Cato Institute as "anarchist".
The point is that libertarians were never solely (or, I believe even predominantly) anarchists. The article equates libertarianism and anarchism, which makes it a silly piece of opinion, even in 1979.
In reality, American conservatism is very much a liberal movement. And American liberalism has nothing to do with it, having been perverted to mean essentially "spending liberally".
Libertarianism would spell the death of our nation and must be rejected.
Or perhaps he knows more than you think you do.
No, it is you who does not know what libertarianism is about. You have a comic book-level understanding of libertarianisn which is why you are so easily used and manipulated by brighter, better-formed proponents of your vain and silly ideology.
Whenever it is pointed out that Marx was a libertarian in the truest and fullest sense of the word (he hated the idea of central goverment just as much if not more than Harry Browne does) libertarians blink dully, laugh nervously, take a toke, and say, "No way, man!" Yes, way.
Socialist billionaire pro-doper gadfly George Soros is one of your core allies. You owe it to yourself to find out why. But he is more cunning and better informed than you are; you may not find out before it is too late.
All the superficial thinkers who boast of being libertarian will ignore this essay. They could not stand the cognitive dissonance that would resound in their craniums if they were to actually try to study it critically and learn from it.
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