Why libertarianism (as well as Objectivism) is a transparent fraud

In the entry, “Has VFR failed to define political freedom?”, which is still active today, I said that freedom means not just individual freedom, but the natural right and power of a community to govern its own affairs. Speaking in the traditional American context, I gave the example of states outlawing sodomy, and of municipalities outlawing the sale of pornography. Bob A, the Rand-leaning libertarian who had launched the discussion, replied that a community with such laws was tyrannical, because, as he put it, “The government must only be an agent of retaliatory force. That is the ONLY way to restrain tyranny. It is the clearest demarcation line possible. [T]he non-initiation-of-force principle is the axiom on which all political theory rests.” That got me thinking, and I have just added this comment to the thread:

Here is the fatal self-contradiction in libertarianism and Randianism. (There are of course differences between the two ideologies, but in terms of the issues being discussed here, we can treat them as the same.) Libertarianism is a political philosophy which says that the state’s only legitimate function is to protect the members of society from force or fraud, meaning from external enemies who attack or invade the country from without, and from internal criminals who harm others through force or fraud. Since libertarians want the state to protect society from force and fraud, that means that they believe in the existence and preservation of society, which means, minimally, people residing together and sharing a common way of life in the same physical territory. Further, they believe in the existence and preservation of political society, which means the organization of a society into a political form, a state, for its own preservation and protection.

Libertarians also say that they want the federal government to be strictly limited in its powers and functions, so that the smaller units of society, the states and counties and municipalities, can run their own affairs.

But, as Bob A.’s response to me makes clear, libertarians regard any local community that runs its own affairs—for example, maintaining decent community standards by outlawing prostitution and the sale of pornography—as tyrannical. It is tyrannical because by outlawing prostitution and pornography the state is using its police power to stop people from engaging in activities which in themselves do not involve force or fraud. Such a community is thus the initiator of force against its citizens, which makes it a tyranny.

The assertion is problematic in the extreme. Any actual community is held together by shared habits, beliefs, and values that will go well beyond the prohibition of force and fraud. If a community cannot protect the beliefs and values that define it as a community, then it is not a community. But libertarians would allow no community or society to have any laws beyond those that prohibit force and fraud. A community or society that has no common standards other than, “You shall not commit force or fraud,” is too minimalistic to be a society in any meaningful sense. And since it is not society, it cannot be a political society either.

Libertarianism claims to be a political philosophy—indeed, the only true political philosophy. A political philosophy which precludes the existence of political society is a contradiction in terms.

Libertarianism is, in short, a transparent fraud.

- end of initial entry -

Spencer Warren writes:

As you note, Ayn Rand’s philosophy overlaps with libertarianisn; both stress individual freedom. But Rand is consistent with the traditional Western view of freedom as being free to live not as one pleases but as one ought, in accordance with moral truth, which she defined as “objectivism.”

Many years ago, in a letter to the NY Times, Rand wrote that libertarians, who exalt freedom to do as one pleases, are “hippies of the right.”

I remember reading her letter and often quote it.

LA replies:

Fine. But, as I said, the differences between Objectivism and libertarianism make no difference in this discussion, since the Objectivists’ only moral principle is that it is wrong to initiate the use force or fraud against another person. They regard any other moral principle, and the enforcement of such principle through community laws and standards, as tyrannical. And in this they are identical to the libertarians.

Therefore Objectivism as a political philosophy is a transparent fraud, just as libertarianism is, since both preclude the existence of political society.

Spencer Warren replies:

Yes. I see. Thanks. I have always loved her letter!

Timothy A. writes:

This is very well said. Libertarianism, like anti-Semitism, is one of those temptations which leads many would-be traditionalists up a blind alley.

Perhaps the most damaging influence in this regard is Murray Rothbard who identified Old Right conservatism with libertarianism. Thence lewrockwell, Ron Paul, alt right, etc.

Objectivism is a harder sell to young traditionalists nowadays with its straightforward, dogmatic atheism.

Leonard D. writes:

Well, I cannot just stand by while you impugn libertarianism! I have a number of responses to various parts of your argument.

First, let me draw a distinction between what one might call idealist libertarians, and more pragmatic ones. An idealist cleaves to the sort of libertarianism you depict: a single “immoral” law, at any scale from the nation down to a single small city, is tyranny, and must be defeated. Certainly there are many libertarians like this. I have encountered many of them, virtually, in various online libertarian fora. And they tend to be loud, although in my experience they are a minority among libertarians. To a rigid idealist, the scale of an “injustice” (violation of the non-aggression axiom) does not matter. [LA replies: So, you feel that my criticisms only apply to the extreme libertarians, not the moderate ones. But, as with Islam, does moderate libertarianism really exist? Perhaps there are moderate libertarians, like yourself, but no moderate libertarianism.]

I think most libertarians tend to be more practical than that. For us, the scale of a law matters: we will accept laws at a local level that we would not accept generally. It gets back to the matter of choice: to the extent that a person can opt out of a law, it cannot be tyrannous; and the degree to which one can opt out of any level of monopoly government is a function of its controlled area. This is why we like federalism: libertarians can go live a nice city with no laws except against force and fraud; conservatives can live in some other city or state and have all the laws they want according to their communal values. Even progressives might get their own state which they could earnestly ruin according to their nature.

Second, I think it is by no means clear—certainly not “transparently” so, as per your title—that a Western community requires “aggressive law” to protect its beliefs and values. Most of the beliefs and values we have in the West are perfectly compatible with liberty. In the other thread, D. from Seattle mentions some peaceful means of imposing social values: shaming and shunning. I would also mention that there are many laws that shape society that a libertarian would have no opinion on, such as inheritance law.

Put another way, my point is that libertarianism is only about restricting the uses of political power. A community or society can, and certainly should, have common standards beyond libertarianism. These are simply beyond the scope of what libertarianism speaks to. [LA replies: if the common standards that are necessary for a community or society are beyond the scope of libertarianism, then libertarianism is not a political philosophy, just as I said, and Leonard has admitted my main point. Libertarianism is at best a corrective against excesses. A corrective against excesses is not a guide to what should be. It reminds me when I was on a Boston radio show after 9/11 opposite a person from some pro-immigrant organization After a while I said to him: “The purpose of this program is to discuss what America needs to do to protect itself from Islamic terrorism. But it’s clear that you have NOTHING to contribute to that discussion, because your ONLY concern is to protect Muslim immigrants’ ability to keep coming to America. You have zero interest in how to protect America from terrorism.” In the same way, libertarians have no interest in the common ideals that form a society; they are only interested in restricting excessive government power. So they have nothing to contribute to the problem of how to form and preserve a society.]

But more than that, I think there may be a fundamental disagreement here about what causes the dissolution we see in modern society. To the libertarian eye, the state is doing all kinds of wrong things that dissolve society. I.e., it pays people not to work. It supports indolents of various sorts. It keeps a massive bodyguard of intellectuals on the payroll. It runs “free” schools used as indoctrination centers, and has truancy laws to force families to use them, which undermine any private education. All of these things would go by the wayside if libertarian values obtained generally. On the other hand, so would some other laws: sodomy laws, for example, and other laws against victimless crimes of various sorts. What would the net effect of such radical change be? To my eye, it would move society in a drastically traditional direction. People would have to work and save, not rely on the dole. Charity would return, run by to private groups, primarily I expect churches. Families would control their children’s education. Women would turn back to marriage to individual men, not the collective, as their source of male provision when they have a family: patriarchy would be reasserted. But yes, prostitution would be legal, people might smoke marijuana, etc. [LA replies: We don’t need libertarianism to eliminate illegitimate government action. Constitutional conservatism would do the same, without the useless ideological distractions brought by libertarianism.]

Certainly you can dislike such a society allowing prostitution; but the question here is not whether you can find something to dislike. The question is do you think such a society would be more or less capable of sustaining itself than our current society? Or even a traditional society: the thing about having the political power to impose aggressive law is that not only traditional conservatives control the state. Quite the opposite! If power is there to be used, a cult of power will arise to get to it. (That is what progressivism is: a Christian cult of power.)

Bjorn writes:

Leonard D. writes: “Charity would return, run by to private groups, primarily I expect churches.”

This libertarian expects churches and religion to play a role under libertarianism? Isn’t religion “the opium of the masses” and a total anathema to the libertarians and the objectivists? Yet here we have a libertarian expecting churches to be the prime vehicle for voluntary charities?

I suggest that Leonard D. try to build a community of like-minded people, move in it and observe, in no time, how close to law-less anarchy libertarianism truly is.

LA replies:

I would add that there has never been a libertarian society. Yet Rand-leaning libertarians such as Bob A. regard all societies that have actually existed, even the United States, as “mad and tyrannical.” So the Randians and libertarians are gnostics, warring against everything that actually is, in the name of something that cannot be.

Leonard D. writes:

Your comparison of libertarianism to Islam is apt. Of course they are radically different in content, but you have identified an important similarity: both are idealistic. In libertarianism, the ideal is individual natural rights; in Islam, the life of Muhammad as depicted in a collection of texts. In both cases, you have the problem that a “hard line” interpretation is incompatible with historical Western culture.

I would point out, though, that the differences are also quite important. In particular two differences stand out. First, Islam is entirely non-Western, such that even a moderate Muslim is still culturally alien to any Western nation. Within democracy, he will be a minority and therefore a natural voter for any anti-Western party. By contrast, libertarianism is a distinctly Western philosophy; it is almost unimaginable that it could arise in any non Christian society. In particular libertarians, to the extent they tend to vote at all, tend to support the pro-Western party. Second, Islam includes an exhortation to personal and collective aggression. Libertarianism explicitly abjures aggression, and is compatible with complete pacifism. So, even if the idealistic libertarian would unintentionally destroy his culture if his like got power, he is no threat in the minority. By contrast, Islam is unsafe in any numbers in the West exactly because they abjure non-aggression against non-Muslims.

On “political philosophy” we are running into definitional ambiguity. Libertarianism certainly is one, in the sense of “a philosophy concerning the use of political power.” But it is not one in the sense that I see you are meaning, namely, a complete philosophy. Libertarianism does not tell you what to do, what is a good life, what to value, etc. It only tells you what not to do: don’t initiate aggression. It is possible to imagine a wide variety of cultures and societies all living in perfect liberty but wildly diverse otherwise. [LA replies: No. It is not simply that libertarianism is not a complete philosophy concerning the use of political power. It is that libertarianism is not AT ALL a philosophy concerning the use of political power. It is nothing but a single, minimalistic rule, “don’t commit aggression,” and as such totally insufficent to any serious consideration of how society is to use and organize political power. Yet people go around speaking of libertarianism, and calling themselves libertarians, implying that there is a thing called libertarianism which offers society a good path to follow. THAT is the fraud I’ve been talking about. It’s not just that libertarianism is wrong; it’s that it is not even generically the thing it claims to be. ]

To Bjorn, I say that although many libertarians are hostile to religion, many are not. But even if religion is “the opiate of the masses,” to a libertarian that has very little practical import, since he has no will to attempt to use the power of the state to squelch religion. (Unlike, I might add here, both conservatives and liberals, both of whom use do or have used the public schools to keep children away from disfavored religions.) That churches would do most charity in a libertarian society is a simple deduction given that they did 100 years ago, and still do. (I am unwilling to call welfare “charity.”)

As for whether there has been a libertarian society, certainly there has not been from an absolutist idealist perspective. (In a degenerate sense there has: men have been marooned alone on a island.) But from a moderate perspective I would say yes: the America of 100 years ago. This was a society in which the average man could live his entire life and never have any contact with any Federal employee except a postman. I don’t think we have to have an example of a perfectly consistent society (of any kind) to discuss whether or not the governing philosophy of a society is sound. Certainly, we discuss the ramifications of liberality in our own society all the time, and it is by no means purely liberal.

LA replies:

The America of 100 or rather 150 years ago was not created by libertarianism and had nothing to do with libertarianism. It was the creation of the actual complex of factors that made America: the original British and northern European settlers; the Whig British heritage; the various Protestant denominations; the Revolution and the Constitution, the American national consciousness. Yes, among this complex of cultural forms, habits, and beliefs FREEDOM was salient in the American consciousness, the belief that government by and large should leave people alone. But that belief did not come from some ideology called “libertarianism,” it was a part of the total American belief system which contained many other elements as well, a totality that is erased from consciousness when people start talking about “libertarianism,.” which reduces the totality to one simplistic principle.

LA continues:

Imagine for a moment that the Founders had been libertarians. Imagine them trying to write the U.S. Constitution on the basis of libertarianism.

How would they answer the question of which powers the Congress should have?

“The legislative branch should never commit aggression.”

Hmm, that’s helpful. And what powers should the president have?

“The executive branch should never commit aggression.”

Hmm, that’s helpful too. And how are the president’s powers to be balanced by the Congress’ powers?

“Both branches must follow the principle of non-aggression.”

Get my point? When it comes to the actual construction of a political society, libertarianism has NOTHING to offer. It has no philosophy of power or of anything useful to the running of society. It just has one negative principle, non-aggression, to be asserted against the excesses of power. So its function can only be critical, never constructive. Yet it falsely presents itself as a political philosophy that can be the basis of a society.

In fact, libertarianism is purely parasitical upon those elements of the society that actually DO provide values, that DO provide political structure, but it never acknowledges this, because it pretends that ONLY libertarianism is valid. So libertarianism is a fraud from top to bottom. It consists of intellectual adolescents living off the moral, cultural, and political capital that others have created, which libertarianism did not and could not have created, while they, the libertarians, pretend that they and they alone have the answer.

Gary Moe writes:

I used to consider myself a libertarian, but then I realized that libertarianism isn’t practical. For libertarianism to be workable, you need to have a relatively homogenous, high trust society, whose citizens are of above average intelligence, with high future time orientation, and an above average work ethic. Those conditions have not existed in this country at least since the days of Grover Cleveland, and probably further back than that.

November 20

Van Wijk writes:

You wrote: “Yes, among this complex of cultural forms, habits, and beliefs FREEDOM was salient in the American consciousness, the belief that government by and large should leave people alone. But that belief did not come from some ideology called “libertarianism,” it was a part of the total American belief system which contained many other elements as well, a totality that is erased from consciousness when people start talking about “libertarianism,” which reduces the totality to one simplistic principle.”

Attempting to co-opt the American Founding and our subsequent early history is one of the more common libertarian tactics. Libertarians love to believe that Jefferson and Madison were also libertarians. I’ve even gotten into a few arguments with those who imply that the notion of liberty itself is the special property of libertarianism, and cannot properly exist within any other political framework.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at November 19, 2010 09:52 AM | Send

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