There is more than one kind of libertarian, and several uses of the term “libertarianism.”
There is, first, the distinction between metaphysical libertarianism (the doctrine of free will) and political libertarianism (the doctrine of individual rights and limited government). I will concentrate on the political philosophy.
Then there is that curiosity of modernity, the “civil libertarian” — which stands for a person who supports a limited set of individual rights . . . to free expression, religion, etc. These creatures are great folks, in the context of our statist age, but they usually allow all sorts of tyrannies to over-ride individual freedom. That is, most so-called civil libertarians have no trouble with the government tromping all over the right of freedom of contract. Unless, I guess, it’s about gay marriage. But hiring a worker? Forming a partnership? A business? These activities remain heavily regulated by modern states, and are a huge burden upon the peaceful and the industrious. But civil libertarians don’t even pretend to be interested. Civil libertarians are apparently lulled into the narrow purview of their dogmatic slumber by the mere existence of the first few entries into the United States Constitution’s Bill of Rights.
It is also a point of fact that the word “libertarian” began to be used as a euphemism for “anarchist” in the early 20th century. The anarchists back then had every reason to euphemize. Some amongst them were murderous revolutionaries, and there was a major government crackdown on anarchist writing, speaking, and organizing, especially after the assassination of President McKinley. “Anarchist” became a dangerous word; “libertarian” a safe one.
But by the time the New Deal rolled around, and progressives had cleverly stolen the word “liberal” from what we now call “classical liberals,” those remaining liberals of individualist bent needed a new moniker. And they adopted the word “libertarian.” A stroke of genius?
So, today, there are “left libertarians” of the old anarchist type, basically communists pretending to be anti-authoritarians, and there are “right libertarians” of the classical liberal type — “right” because they believe in private property. The “left” as defined by socialists were thoroughly anti-private-property, so, on that one criterion, the classical liberals can be legitimately considered “of the right.”
Of course, when it comes to authoritarianism (another possible criterion for distinguishing left and right) the classical liberals are arguably far more “left” than any practicing socialist. And on the grounds of warfare, classical liberals and some socialists often find themselves “left” outside of mainstream discussion, trying to avoid mass murder and easy justifications for warfare.
These terms “left libertarian” and “right libertarian” are further compromised by two currents within the American libertarian movement, and can be sourced to none other than the ostensible “Mr. Libertarian,” Murray N. Rothbard. In the 1960s, Rothbard tried to make inroads on the left, and his anti-war stance contrasted sharply with the anti-communist interventionism of many libertarians hailing from America’s hopelessly confused conservative upsurge. So Rothbard was thought of, along with Karl Hess and others, to be a “left libertarian.”
During the years of his early Libertarian Party involvement, Rothbard tried to maintain a “plumb line” approach, but this did not last for long. Rothbard was captured by political entrepreneur Lew Rockwell, a former Ron Paul staffer who formed the Mises Institute, ostensibly in honor of Mises, but really promoting Rothbard. (Perhaps it would be nicer to say they captured each other.) And, seemingly under Rockwell’s influence, Rothbard lurched into what he called “paleolibertarianism,” an attempt to gain political trendiness and relevance by latching onto the paleo-conservative “groundswell,” with its inherent social conservative biases. Even after Rothbard’s death, Lew Rockwell continued, for a number of years, to excoriate against “left libertarians” within the movement who, he said, were hopelessly bohemian, egalitarian, and libertine. You know, the kind of people who could “ruin” the movement. Taint it. Give it bad press.
Amusingly, and as if in revenge upon the shade of Rothbard, a number of libertarian stalwarts obviously in Rothbard’s leaned left again. Some of them, including Roderick Long (often speaking at Rockwell’s Mises Institute events) and the brilliant writer Sheldon Richman, argued a number of points that made “the left” somehow better than “the right.” These writers explicitly defend a “left libertarianism,” though as far as I can tell their nomenclature revisionism has all the intellectual traction of Sinead O’Connor’s shiny dome rotating on oil-covered ice.
I do find a few of their allegedly heretical positions attractive, such as Long’s case for a certain type of public property (rather than the narrow and relentless private propertarianism that Rothbard had always pushed) and their more standard, plumb-line criticisms of “vulgar libertarianism” (the too-common eliding of the difference between support for free markets and the defense of current big business). But mostly I find the new “left libertarianism” to be just more sucking up to the allegedly “cool” culture of college and media bullies. There is nothing really cool about any of the left. It’s all pretense and bluster. Further, most current distinctions between “left and right” within the libertarian movement seem silly at best and tyrannical foolishness at worst. (In the latter category I lump discussions of “privilege” and “microaggression” that burble up from collegiate progressive left.)
As I see it, “libertarianism” is a great name for a political position that some people do hold. They should have the term to themselves. Everybody else who disagrees in whole or part should let those folks have it.
What is that position? It’s the “simple system of natural liberty” (Adam Smith), and nothing but. It’s Liberty conceived as “the Law of Equal Freedom” (Herbert Spencer) or “freedom from interference” (Henry Sidgwick) and “non-aggression” (Rothbard). It is the right to liberty construed as the only basic right, with all other rights flowing from it, grounding on it, and with this one right and the resultant rights structure determining the proper scope of government.
That’s it. I find the position mightily attractive. I judge it the most interesting political idea ever stumbled upon by Distracted Man. But I am not certain that it is workable, and believe that we are so far from it now, in political and legal practice, that I do not believe we can actually know whether it will “work” — that is, will engender a sustainable social order to the benefit of the overwhelming run of humanity.
I am, in fine, an agnarchist, as Jesse Walker once dubbed me — an agnostic about the ultimate size, scope and shape of government as delimited by individual liberty.
By my narrow definition, Herbert Spencer would likely qualify as a libertarian, but F. A. Hayek would not. French liberal Frédéric Bastiat was something very close to a libertarian, but American economists and Nobel Laureates James Buchanan and Milton Friedman were not.
Hayek and Buchanan and Friedman contributed mightily to the development of modern libertarianism, but were liberals of a very old sort. Hayek, at least, got more libertarian with age, as the Leviathan State betrayed more and more of the principles of a free society. And he saw the libertarianism’s attraction. But he was no laissez-faire liberal, much less a pure libertarian. Friedman was much closer, but more than willing to compromise with the existing order, concocting some remarkably illiberal half-measures as a way of securing a little more freedom.
Of course, classical liberals close to the libertarian position have every reason to want to be considered as part of the tradition. They are. After all, liberty is valued highly by both groups. But liberty is more integral and dominant to those who deserve the moniker. And the purer position deserves a name.
When I was first introduced to libertarian ideas, the big split in the libertarian intellectual movement was between “anarchists” and “minarchists.” The former notion, the anarcho-capitalist idea, was ably defended in a variety of ways, particularly by Murray Rothbard and David Friedman. The nightwatchman state of the minarchists was defended by Ayn Rand (in a dogmatic and mostly unhelpful way) and Robert Nozick (in a brilliant if puzzling and problematic way). Most of my friends came away from the discussion favoring anarchy; I came away from such discussions mostly in the agnarchist position.
But in one way I was vexing to both groups. I annoyed putative anarchists by denying that their idea was well-described as anarchist at all. The anarchists I had read before reading Nozick hated the state, no doubt, but they opposed a lot more than monopoly political governance. There was a reason the first deviser of the idea of “competitive government,” Gustave de Molinari, avoided the term “anarchy.” He knew anarchists, and both he and those anarchists knew he was no anarchist. They hated private property; he supported it. They hated trade, period; he was a free trader. They hated the cops; he wanted them hired for fee, or by insurance, like the Pinkertons so loathed on the anti-property left.
And yet he had cooked up, out of the radical individualistic liberalism of his day (especially out of the ideology of such forebears as Say, Comte, Dunoyer, and Bastiat) what we now call anarcho-capitalism. A better term than “anarcho-”anything is in order. (“Voluntaryism,” perhaps? “Panarchism”?)
More vexing, I insisted that both putative anarchists and “minarchists” (a term coined by an alleged anarchist —an “agorist,” no less) promoted the same thing: government by contract. They were, together, aiming for something new and novel in political philosophy: contractual government.
The difference between the libertarian anarchists manqué and the minarchists-in-theory was that the minarchists thought they could derive a concept of obligatory political territory — borderlines — directly from the right to liberty. The attractiveness of the competitive government position is that it forsakes the mental gymnastics and (seemingly) tortured logic that would make that derivation.
From what I can tell, this argument is not over. The “anarchists” seem to have the best arguments, but the minarchists have tradition on their side. And the idea of eradicating “monopoly” political territory in a world where private property (individual territory) remains, does rub up against an evolutionary mindset, and conjures up doubts about the confidence of the anti-territorial, competitive government position.
Next to the minarchists reside the advocates of constitutional government. Whereas pure libertarian approach of liberty-alone amounts to an attack on the idea of government sovereignty (replacing it with the extremely limited-government notion of government-by-contract), constitutional government defends the idea of sovereignty as well as territory, admits of taxation, and is quite familiar to most Americans.
Constitutionalism is thus, often, the political stance — the exoteric stance — of many even radical libertarians.
The key concepts on the spectrum of politics, from a libertarian perspective, are, thus,
- Taxation, public “takings” and the whole panoply beyond laissez-faire, of government-as-we-know it, including warfare and
- Regulatory mechanisms leading to Dirigisme
- Socialism and totalitarianism.
How can one look at this set of concepts and not see a “slippery slope”? In jeopardy of sliding, we try to stick to some principle that might prevent the descent downwards, towards total statism.
For Molinari men, it’s an insistence that all institutions be established and maintained by explicit contract, with government territory not drawn by borderlines, and in which peaceful, law-abiding independents (those lacking institutional backup) should be tolerated (at worst) and defended (at best). For Nightwatchmen it may be the denial of sovereignty to any institution, including “government,” that is not derived from an individual’s sovereignty. For Constitutionalists, explicit formulated limits on the use of taxing and takings power — and the simultaneous promotion of a package of rights — is enough.
History knows few examples of contractual government. Those that start out in this fashion often export their illiberal tendencies in warfare (some pirates set up contractual governments, but engaged in criminal activity to out-groups), and wind up accepting sovereignty notions and corrupting any actual contract with notions of territory and majority rules, etc. Or else being destroyed.
This continuum of ideas is muddied by questions of adaptation to current conditions — by preference falsification and ideological caginess. Those libertarians who aim to influence current events and political arrangements often pretend to positions they do not hold with candor or confidence: competitive government advocates pretending to be constitutionalists; minarchists pretending to be Hayekians. The reason for these compromises are clear. First, the State exists, and its current power is nearly unlimited. Even a self-proclaimed anarchist would have prudential reasons to use, say, the concept of rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights in defense of some liberties — no matter how confused by terms of art and politic perversion those rights may be.
Further, libertarians are so out of the mainstream of political discourse that it is almost impossible to get anywhere by starting with the most radical notions and demanding acceptance from others . . . who see little advantage in caving in on their confidence game of unlimited government.
So almost every libertarian I’ve talked to floats a dual system: ideal ethics and practical ethics, or, as Herbert Spencer put it, Absolute and Relative ethics. There may be no way of getting around this, even if it sets up a distinction often encountered in cults: exoteric vs. esoteric doctrine.
The real and most recalcitrant differences among libertarians-as-such are probably these questions of “radicalism vs. gradualism” (an old term from my early days in the movement). Alas, they are not well explored, in part because of the variety and vaguenesses of the philosophies libertarians bring to ground their philosophy.
Most discussions of radicalism and gradualism are horribly simplistic. And are likely to remain so for the near future.
Which is why I consider libertarianism still a doctrine in its adolescence, and why my own position remains, vexingly, that of “agnarchism.”