A Libertarianism with No Exceptions

“One gratifying aspect of our rise to some prominence is that, for the first time in my memory, we, ‘our side,’ had captured a crucial word from the enemy… ‘Libertarians’… had long been simply a polite word for left-wing anarchists, that is for anti-private property anarchists, either of the communist or syndicalist variety. But now we had taken it over…”

-Murray Rothbard, Betrayal of the American Right

“The word ‘libertarian’ has long been associated with anarchism [sic]… It came however to be applied to anyone who approved of liberty in general. In anarchist circles, it was first used by Joseph Déjacque as the title of his anarchist journal Le Libertaire, Journal du Mouvement Social published in New York in 1858. At the end of the last century, the anarchist Sebastien Faure took up the word, to stress the difference between anarchists and authoritarian socialists.”

-Peter Marshall, Defending the Impossible

The philosophy of libertarianism is quite like the mushroom’s mycelium system; the fruit which stem from it are multiplicitous, but regardless of their differences belong to the same species. Unlike mushrooms however, libertarians will try to define certain sub-species out because of such differences, making what a system of mutuality into a system of constant tension and conflict. Liberty is and perhaps will always be seen differently by those who wish reap its rewards, and thus calls on us to have conversations on how to approximate closer to it. But to disregard sub-species simply because of the differences they have cuts us all off from the mycelium needed for our survival. A liberty ruled by a libertarianism is no liberty at all; the scythe we use to cut off other sub-species will in turn cut us off. In other words, we will reap what we sow.

This is the main problem of the libertarian qua libertarian in our education of libertarianism to the world. We are so convinced that our project within the scope of libety is the one that will bring us closer to the liberty we dream of that different projects are regarded as not libertarian or not relevant to the libertarian of the here and now. Instead of defining a libertarian as “someone who holds that liberty is essential for human flourishing provided that said person holds with equal value the liberty of others”, a libertarian is defined as “someone who believes that liberty is important for human flourishing and also holds close to the project that I may be a part of.”

Let us use the example of American libertarianism to illustrate this problem (note: they are not the only ones who try to define others out of libertarianism). The American libertarian concept is one which holds that liberty is best attained through a pro-property, pro-market, and individualist standpoint. While systems of gift-economies, mutual aid, and community projects can exist within this system, the freed market must be the over-arching factor in there project of liberty. Those who might hold true to the idea of a libertarian communism of sorts do not hold claim to libertarianism in the American sense. This is because their system abolishes property and an over-arching market allowing no one to try their hand at a market-friendly approach. This creates a totalizing system, the antithesis to liberty, and therefore libertarian communists cannot be defined as libertarians in the American meaning of the word. The conversation of libertarian ideas in America then is only limited to conversation of post-classical, individualist economics (Austrian, Chicago School, Public Choice Theory, etc.) and classical liberal philosophies which either get close or fully attain anarchism. Mentions of social libertarian and anarchist philosophies and economics are made to either show that they are not libertarian or that their systems of production, consumption, and organization can better be done in a market setting based on individualist economics. If they are too skeptical of property and markets, they cannot be a libertarian by any relevant meaning of the word to the American libertarian.

This is where confusion and conflict start to kick in for the American libertarian and those having a conversation with them. For starters, many libertarian communists retort back showing the genuine nature of their libertarian standpoint and how they do allow for individualism in a full communist setting (i.e.- the Spanish Anarchists in Catalonia). They will also be quick to point out the two quotes by Murray Rothbard and Peter Marshall shown above, that the word “libertarian” was appropriated by the American side, and that the word was used to signify difference between the two sides of socialism, anarchists and authoritarian socialists. They will question the American libertarian’s credibility in libertarianism and perhaps doubt any good intentions the American libertarian may have. All the while, those on the outside of libertarianism become confused about what anything means to a libertarian because no one will show them the full spectrum of what libertarianism is. Thrown into the worlds of our ideologies, we become wrapped up in what is the most relevant libertarianism, or who is promoting “tr00 liberty”.

It is not that in-fighting has caused this (balance is found by conversation), but blind devotion to whatever specific project may be preferred in our quest to liberty. We do not take the time to sit down with people and explain to them the different flavors of libertarianism. Instead, we give them our biased preference to what a good or relevant libertarianism may be and then leave the other libertarians as an aside or fodder for a take-down. This in turn creates more libertarians of a biased nature rather than libertarians who think creatively to give us something more than just either a market or communalist alternative to liberty. Our biases create the scythe which cut the heads off of libertarians, leaving us a body to constantly fight but without a head to question if our fights are always useful.

This is what has been wrong with libertarian’s education of libertarianism to other people. It teaches within its comfort zone, making favored positions more respectable and others seem illogical or anti-liberty. Instead of a majority of thinkers, it unfortunately creates a majority of reactionaries (i.e. internet trolls) who repeat cliché arguments and spout rhetoric that they were given to them by us without considering other possibilities. If we want to create a world of liberty, then we need to stop being limited in our definition of libertarian. We need to always answer uncomfortable questions with which (re)broadening makes, such us “how do we define our anti-capitalist commitments” and “can property/communist systems be totalizing and create an ideological authority?”

We must take heed of the words of Emile Janvion in our goals of educating others on libertarianism:
“It is not at all a question of compelling the [student] to think and act as an anarchist, of weighing, in a word, on their determinations. That would be contrary to our conception of liberty and by doing so we would wound ourselves with our own weapons.

But we will teach them to conduct themselves; we will not constrain their independence and initiative, by confining them to the narrow mold of programs; we will teach them to answer only to their conscience, without desire for reward or fear of punishment, without the dire effects of discipline, source of dissembling and lies, and of grading, generator of rivalries, jealousies and hatreds.

Far from wishing to cast the child, ignorant of the reigning theories, disarmed into life, we will impartially show them the pro and the con. It will be up to them to make their own resolutions later. The simple truth will be the remains.” (“Our Free Education”, Emile Janvion, l’Aurore 3 no. 637 (July 17, 1899): 2)

What are the top 5 most important issues for libertarians?

I have a strong affinity for lists and ranking things so lately I’ve been thinking a lot about what the most important problems are from a libertarian perspective. Libertarians have a whole ton of problems with modern institutions and society but just which are the most pertinent? My friend, Thomas Michie posed a similar question on Facebook, so I decided to write up my top 5.

1. War

I tend to be a bit harder on war than the average libertarian as both an anarchist and a pacifist. I’ve long been against pre-emptive war, interventionist foreign policy, and standing armies. I’ve also recently started to identify as a pacifist, in the sense of being against war, not any individual instance of self-defense, as I found Bryan Caplan’s “Common-Sense Case for Pacifism” strikingly compelling and…well, implied by basic common sense.

With this in mind, it’s no surprise I think war is the most important issue for libertarians. In fact I think it should be the most important political issue for anyone with a conscious and I don’t think it’s particularly close. It’s obvious that war is the biggest threat to humanity. It causes the most destruction, damage, chaos, and death than any other institution we have. This is even more apparent after the 20th century; the era, as Jeffrey Tucker calls it, of the “total state.” The century where totalitarianism was widespread and mass murder was common. The time period with more war than peace. The amount of pure awfulness caused by war was, and will continue to be, unmatched. The problem of war and foreign entanglement is further complicated by technological advancements such as nuclear weapons and biological warfare. These issues, to me, only give us further reason to be adamant that war is not, and never will be, on the table.

My preference for peace underlines all my political thought. My support for strong private property rights, markets, and the division of labor are all strongly based on my belief that these institutions are favorable towards peaceful resolution and social cooperation. My disgust for states, monopoly, and centralization are all rooted in my belief that those institutions are more conducive to war-making and make peace less likely and/or more difficult to maintain. A large reason I’m an anarchist is that I think markets are a levelling force; that competitive forces create accountability and checks and balances. That is, that markets, especially in the legal and defense industries, would promote non-violent conflict resolution by forcing firms to internalize all their costs. The state socializes the costs of war and intervention through taxation and inflation, making war much easier to pursue. If there were, instead, competitive forces governing the defense sector, the costs to violence would be obvious and apparent, and therefore serve to make war less appealing.

But even if you aren’t an anarchist, war is still the most awful thing ever. Even if you don’t think that abolishing the state is the best answer, common decency says that war is just the plum worst and should be avoided. This is something all libertarians ought to agree on, even if we all have slightly different conclusions about what really prevents war most effectively. Is it a market in defense? Is it a minimal state with no standing army? Is it a non-interventionist foreign policy? These questions are vital as they address the biggest threat to human life and flourishing on the planet, but regardless of how we all answer those questions I hope we all have the same end or intent in mind: peace.

I think there is a bonus reason why this issue should be especially important for libertarians: we have been historically too soft on this issue. Many historical libertarians and a few big modern libertarian organizations have been entirely too easy on mass murder. They have either said things friendly to certain instances of war making or outright advocated for war. To further drive the point home and to make up for our predecessors past mistakes, libertarians today ought to make war our biggest concern, bar-none. We need to be unwavering and principled in our opposition to war lest we go down in history as another hypocritical, failed social movement. The libertarian movement needs to be synonymous with the peace movement.

2. Foreign Policy

See 1.

3. Non-interventionism. 

See 2.

4. Mass Murder. 

See 3.

5. Peace. 

See 4.

Geometry, A Belgian Anarchist, and Two Generations of Radical Youngsters

In the early 1950s Murray Rothbard began attending the economic seminars hosted by Ludwig von Mises at the New York School of Business. Murray’s right-leaning ideological origins were a perfect fit for Mises’ Austrian economics that place the individual as the primary economic unit and sees private property and free exchange as crucial for human flourishing. At these weekly night seminars, Murray met more youngsters infatuated by the Austrian free market view and together they created a small group of young radical libertarians led by Murray called The Circle Bastiat, after their favorite French classical liberal. Regular meetings and all night discussions at Rothbard’s Manhattan apartment were routine.

In addition to their craving for intellectual development, the Bastiat Boys were also jokesters. As recounted by Brian Doherty in Radicals for Capitalism, 

The Circle Bastiat boys [Murray Rothbard, Ralph Raico, George Reisman] were also pranksters who liked to disrupt other people’s realities for their own amusement and occasionally for moments of libertarian Zen wisdom. When talking to young socialists, they enjoyed turning some of the socialists’ predictable rhetoric back on them, for example, soberly explaining that socialism might have been all right in the primitive conditions of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. But in today’s complex, modern machine era, surely they could see that we must have lassiez-faire—it’s just the irresistible motion of history, the inevitable wave of the future, no point in fighting it.

One of their favorite stunts involved filling the audience at a talk by the governor of New Jersey air on a TV program called Youth Wants to Know, and hitting him with their brand of questions from all sides, which included adopting the attitude that theirideological universe was the norm and his was some sort of aberration. “What, governor? You are forpublic schools? Where did you get such strange ideas? Can you recommend any books on this subject?” A favorite technique of theirs was to dominate the social reality in any gathering of right-wingers or leftists. By appearing en masses (but not obviously as pals) and talking their libertarian talk, they thought they could make their opponents see them as a legitimate and real “other side” of some issue and force the majority to grapple with their viewpoint. They’d go to any right-wing meeting they could find and loudly air an anti-draft or anti-Eisenhower viewpoint. Rothbard loved the technique of pushing people who might be on the correct path further toward libertarianism.”

The origin of the circle’s name came from the 19th century French political economist, Frederic Bastiat. It seems that the Circle adopted his name around the time the Foundation for Economic Education, of which the circle’s mentor, Mises was strongly involved in, was translating and printing mass copies of Bastiat’s works. Around the time that Rothbard and his friends had discovered Bastiat, they also delved into some of the French political economist such as Comte and Dunoyer, but most importantly, Gustave de Molinari, Bastiat’s protégé. Molinari is credited with publishing the first defense of market anarchism with The Production of Security in 1849, arguing that competitive forces should replace the state’s monopoly on security and defense. Rothbard was clearly influenced by Molinari (he became exposed to his views around the time he was writing his magnum opus, Man, Economy, and State), and the arguments of other 19th century American individualist anarchists, such as Lysander Spooner and Benjamin Tucker, and integrated their views on individual liberty and the state into his ideas.

Belgian born political economist, Gustave de Molinari (1819 – 1912) was strongly influenced by the classical liberal tradition and French political economists such as Jean-Baptiste Say, Benjamin Constant, Charles Comte, Charles Dunoyer, and Alexis de Tocqueville. Roderick Long details Molinari’s wide-ranging achievements,

“Writing in a clear, engaging, and witty style modeled on Bastiat’s, Molinari penned dozens of works in economics, sociology, and political theory and advocacy, on topics ranging from the economic analysis of history to the future of warfare and the role of religion in society, as well as memoirs of his travels in Russia, North America, and elsewhere; his contemporaries described him as “the law of supply and demand made into man.”  He eventually served as editor of the prestigious Journal des Économistes, chief organ of French liberalism, from 1881 to 1909.  He is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery, in a grave adjoining that of fellow radical liberal Benjamin Constant.”

Long further explains Molinari’s claim to fame as the founder of market anarchism,

“…while these thinkers tended to speak of turning governmental services over to the realm of economic enterprise rather than to that of political compulsion, they offered no real details as to how such functions as security might be provided in the absence of the state.  And here we see the significance of Molinari’s contribution.  Molinari’s account may not have been as sophisticated as those of some of his successors; he may not have addressed all the objections with which those successors have had to grapple; and he may have said disappointingly little about the market provision of legal norms, a topic that looms large in more recent market anarchist thought.  But Molinari was the first thinker to identify and describe the economic mechanisms by which the nonstate provision of security might be effected; and this arguably entitles him – despite his not using the term “anarchist” himself – to be considered the originator of market anarchism.”

Molinari also has, “concerns about unequal bargaining power between labor and capital [that] are often regarded as a concern exclusive to the anti-market left” explains Long, but he seeks to address the problem through the elimination of, “the partial insulation of employers from market discipline,” which is caused by, “laws favoring employers over laborers,” as well as the formation of, “a private network of labor-exchanges whereby employers could bid on the services of workers near and far.  Labor unions and mutual credit societies would ‘provide their collective guarantee to enterprises of transportation and job placement’ and thus secure ‘to the mutualized laborers the funds necessary to pay the cost of transporting them to the most advantageous market,'” in order to alleviate the fact that, “labor is also hampered by its lack of mobility in comparison with capital.”

Long ends his essay by noting that,

“Molinari remains not only an interesting historical thinker, but also a vital lodestar for the liberty movement today.  He understood that the solution to abuse of power is not to elect better people into power, or to persuade current holders of power to play nice, or to rein them in with paper constitutions whose interpretation the powerful themselves will ultimately control, but rather to dissolve that power by extending the range of competitive markets.

All over the world, ordinary people long to be free of the tyranny of bosses and rulers; Molinari’s labor-exchange proposal, however flawed, plausibly identifies lack of competition as the linchpin of employer privilege and abuse, while his market anarchism, however incomplete, likewise plausibly identifies lack of competition as the linchpin of state privilege and abuse.  Both proposals embody the same essential insight:  the way to break the power of plutocrats and statocrat alike is to subject both to the rule of competition – the adamantine chains of laissez-faire.”

Like the Circle Bastiat did in the 1950s, we at the Circle Molinari crave intellectual development, often have all night discussion on Facebook instead of a New York apartment, and have a penchant to joke around. Our favorite classical liberal, however, is Gustave de Molinari as he took the ideas of individual sovereignty and equal liberty to their logical conclusions. That is, classical liberalism’s foundational values don’t imply handing over the power to initiate force to a monopoly, but a total rejection of that monopoly as it must be, even at its smallest level, maintained by arbitrary, violent authority. They imply Anarchism.

Like Molinari, we share a concern for worker empowerment and agree that labor’s bargaining power is artificially reduced due to state policies that protect capitalists from competition. We see corporations not as the result of voluntary, market arrangements, but of statist policies that socialize diseconomies of scale and inhibit competition to politically entrenched elites. Furthermore, corporations tend to promote a culture of obedience and reduce the autonomy of workers through hierarchical, power relationships. We think a freed market would give labor more bargaining power, as Molinari suggested with his labor exchanges, and promote smaller, flatter firms, worker cooperatives, and self employment as more realistic alternatives than under state capitalism.

In addition to corporate culture, we reject racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, heterosexism, nativism, national chauvinism, religious or economic elitism, environmental degradation, militarism, party politics, a disregard for child welfare and animal welfare, and in some cases religion, the use of mind altering substances, and resistance to technological change as we view these cultural values as detrimental and incompatible with the cause of liberty. It is impossible to specify the application of the principles of liberty or to even adopt the principles of liberty without invoking tangential values. Lew Rockwell explains,“…no political philosophy exists in a cultural vacuum, and for most people political identity is only an abstraction from a broader cultural view. The two are separate only at the theoretical level; in practice, they are inextricably linked.” While Rockwell defends a rightist version of libertarianism, we embrace a leftist version.

Th Circle Molinari is a group of left libertarian market anarchist students who met, not at the economic seminars of Ludwig von Mises like our 5 decade old counterparts, but through their joint efforts at school and community organizing, conference planning, mass education, and direct action aimed at communicating the idea that, “the true remedy for most evils is none other than liberty, unlimited and complete liberty, liberty in every field of human endeavor.”