My take on Libertarianism

Or: “I used to be a Minarchist, but I ran out of excuses”

Yesterday, me and Obo did what can only be called gang-banged Sunny Hundal on twitter. Not over the smoking ban, or the budget, or some other irrelevant triviality, but over the much more general question of Statism v Anarchism. Both Obo and DK picked up this gob-smakingly, penny-droppingly, cognitively-dissonating tweet*:

* These are probably not words.

Obviously, it was aimed towards me, and the context it was placed in was one in which I was asking Sunny how it was that using force against citizens of other nations (wars) can be rightly dismissed as evil, whilst not seeing as wrong use of the same institution of force against a State’s own citizens. To be fair to Sunny, he was probably referring to “force” as in “military force”, whereas I was talking about “force” in the libertarian “coercion” context.

And so it went on, in the inane twitter argument, 140 letter chunks that twitter arguments inevitable turn into.  It slowly turned into a discussion about “The name game” that politics insists on playing so often, what it means to be a “libertarian”, or “left wing”. The problem is, the name game is almost inevitably used in order to define terms in one’s favour, rather than finding a good description of what both  sides stand for. That’s why it’s useful for those on “The left wing” (whatever it is) to define libertarians as “right wing”, thus lumping them together with Conservatives, and, at a push, fascists. Conversively, those on “The right wing” find it useful to lump social democrats, Fabian socialists, and, at a push, communists together under the label “left wing”. But, at the end of the day, all this does is act as a tool for political sides to try and define their opponents as “the bad guys” from the beginning; in other words, to set up straw-men they intend to burn down later. This is useful as a piece of realpolitik, but the downside is that it means that similarities between two sides of a debate have their similarities covered up, and their differences over exaggerated. No wonder politics is seen as Labour versus The Tories as polar opposites, while there isn’t really much reason to believe this- their differences are barely more than skin deep.

Ok, so, if political debate is ever going to advance, the first step is to allow all sides to make it clear what they’re actually standing for- not what it’s best to make them look like they’re standing for, so that “we” may benefit”. Well, here’s my personal take on it- what I stand for, in my take on libertarianism, and being a libertarian. That is to say, not what the Mises Institute, Rothbard, The Cato Institute (although they all, amongst other people and group, have influenced me), and especially not The Guardian or the New Statesman will, and often do, claim that I stand for as a Libertarian.

Libertarianism is a broad church, much like socialism. These churches are so broad, in fact, that they overlap, and there’s a weird area in the middle where you’re not quite sure which God you’re praying too. This fact throws off many people who are trained in the left-wing, right-wing view of political discourse. Libertarians are often deemed to be right wing, whilst socialists are firmly at home in the left. Here’s a random example plucked from today’s news.

Mexico’s president Felipe Caldéron is the latest Latin leader to call for a debate on drugs legalisation. And in the US, liberals and right-wing libertarians are pressing for an end to prohibition.

Libertarianism is a broad church because, although liberty is, for all libertarians, the key issue in politics, there is no monopoly on what form liberty takes. We all know about the constant conflict between negative and positive liberty that, to many people’s mind, defines the left-right conflict, but even within the largely negative liberty orientated libertarian movement, there’s massive disagreement about what form such a society would take. You have anarcho-capitalists, such as Rothbard or David Freidman, who argue that a libertarian society would strictly adhere to private property rights, both in chattels and capital, as well as land, then you have libertarian socialists who disagree. You have mutualists in the middle, with people such as Kevin Carson arguing in a free market environment, co-ops and other mutual organizations would be much more common, or even dominate. This is but one example of countless. In other words, for a world view that holds the ideal of liberty universally, libertarians have a hell of a lot to disagree about. That’s why I’m going to outline my interpretation.

At this moment in time, I would define myself preferably as a Voluntaryist. I would also accept Left-libertarian, anarchist or market anarchist, or good old fashioned libertarian. At the end of the day, the exact word you choose to call me (most would prefer “cunt”) isn’t that important to me. The name game isn’t one I like to play when not necessary.  I haven’t always been this way; if you were to ask me just last year, anything other than Libertarian would be an insult. I would also be big on the term “capitalism”, always saying this like “I’m a big believer in capitalism”, or “capitalism is the best economic system”. This has changed too. I don’t mind the term capitalism, but prefer “free market”, or “freed market” if making a point. I’ll come to that later.

First and foremost, I am an individualist. To me, this means that the basic political “unit” in society is the individual, and that society, to be understood, needs an understanding of how individual people act. In addition to this, every individual person has rights that may not be infringed, by virtue of their being a person. Such rights are best defined within the context of the non-aggression principle/axiom. My personal favourite definition of this comes from Rothbard in For a New Liberty:

“Aggression” is defined as the initiation of the use use or the threat of the use of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else. Aggression is therefore synonymous with invasion.

There are other definitions out there. In my own words, however, I would describe it as the general rule that actions are only ethical to the extent that they are voluntary to all people involved. The reason I view it as the best basis for a society  to operate on are threefold:

  1. When coercion of violence is used for political goals, this means that there will be those whose rights have been violated for the benefit of those who use violence. In other words, redistributes property, resources and wealth in ways that benefit those who use violence. If a thief steals £10 from me, he has gained £10, but I have lost it. His attack on me benefits him, whilst harming me. This is, in the most basic way, a sort of “class”, or “tiered” society- those who live on coercion, and those who are coerced.
  2. Violence is destructive. When wealth is redistributed using violence, it means the mutual benefit that naturally happens through voluntary trade doesn’t exist. That means, in a society where resources are directed by coercive force, there’s going to be less wealth at the end of the day than there would otherwise be. As an example, look at the more statist, command economies, and notice how shortages of basic goods are common place.
  3. There seems to be, throughout human civilization, a basic set of ethical principles that generally side with the non aggression principle. I know of no societies that encouraged theft, murder, rape, burglary, or, at least, not between citizens, even if they were tolerated, in a very one-sided way, between the State and citizens. Such a society wouldn’t last long after all.

Ok, that’s the basic principle. It’s the guideline, if not the absolute. 99 times out of 100, my stance on a particular issue will be pretty easy to deduce from this concept. Once this is understood, it’s easy to understand why I have a borderline rabid opposition to the State. The role and form of The State is, of course, pretty much the key issue in all politics. Every ideology has a view on what it should do, and how it should operate, and here’s mine.

The State, to me, is an institution of privilege. It’s a series of institutions, including (but not limited to) the Judicial system, Parliament, the armed forces, and the police force. Now, these services are not, per se, aggressive. At least, not necessarily.  What makes them aggressive is that they are involuntary. If you live in the UK, you will be governed by these institutions, and you will also abide by their rules, and pay them to the extent they decide you should. There is no option to opt out of abiding by Parliament’s law, (regardless of what TPUC and Freemen of the land claim), and you’re not able to send them a letter saying not to bother providing you with their services anymore. It’ll be ignored. More to the point, in the case of, say, roads, they have claimed a monopoly service, meaning you’re unable to chose another service even if you wanted to.

So, The State is an involuntary monopoly of certain services, that claims a right over you and your life, regardless of your opinion, or personal preferences. It’s only tool is the use of coercive force to enforce this monopoly. Break its laws, and you are caged, stolen from more, or otherwise punished. Historically, it’s also had a tendency to maximize its influence, not only over the citizens it claims to have a right to rule over, but also, through war, over the citizens of lands it didn’t claim that right over to begin with!

The state is obviously not libertarian. It’s only tool is coercive force, which, again, I don’t think works as a sound basis for society to work on. So, I reject the State as a necessary institution. I’m an anarchist. We got the basics out of the way? Good. Now, here’s some more contentious areas in libertarianism.

Big business. Libertarians are often accused of being apologists for big business, and of multi-national corporations. This, I feel, is largely down to neoliberalism and “state capitalism” becoming routinely confused for the free market. Ayn Rand famously spoke of big business as “America’s persecuted minority”, for instance. We’re accused of deregulating in the name of corporate interests, and generally of being obsessed with greed. I have a different take on things, though. Although I don’t object to big business per se, I am very aware that much of the corporate structure we have in our modern world is the result of interventionism by the state in favour of the special few. It seems to me that through various policies such as intellectual property protection, incorporation, limited liability, and regulation in favour of big market players at the expense of smaller ones and new entrants to the market, the State has created market situations in which it’s very easy for those already established in their respective market to maintain and increase their market share. This means artificially inflated profits, amongst other things.

I also feel, and this will rile certain libertarians up- that Naomi Klein has a damn good point in her book “The Shock Doctrine”. It’s been a while since I read it, and really should reread it, but if I remember correctly, her main thesis was that unpopular economic reforms are passed by the state through the use of military force, and other forms of “disaster”. Now, taken at face value, no one in the world can deny this is absolutely true. But the blame lies at the feet of the State. Big business does not send troops into Latin American countries. Only the State has the power to do this. But it does it, to the benefit of corporate sponsors. It’s not so much an attack on free markets as it is an attack on State Capitalism. To quote Carson: “If I thought the free market actually meant what [vulgar capitalists and neoliberals] mean when they talk about “free markets,” I’d hate it myself.”

Yep. My view is that libertarians should not become apologists for corporations and big business. We are only to support them to the extent they hold to libertarian principles of voluntary trade and non aggression. When they are so involved with the State, and benefit from the violence of the State to the extent they do today, then it seems to me that we have a duty to oppose big business and any unethical practices it engages in. In this respect, I actually agree with the anti-globalization movement. There is, to quote Carson again (he is, IMO, the best in this particular area), an Iron Fist behind the Invisible Hand, and as a libertarian, I’m not going to support it.

Bet you never thought you’d hear a libertarian say that, eh, Sunny?

Intellectual property. This is an area of particular contention, with a growing interest in libertarianism as being anti-intellectual property. I’m a part of this little fetish. I used to think, back when I was introduced to libertarianism via Ayn Rand (who else?), that considering property of physical goods as the same as property in ideas. It just made sense. Work goes into creating inventions, or writing novels, or developing drugs, right?

Well, ok. I can understand this as a concept. But I no longer agree it’s justified. Intellectual property, I have come to believe, unjustified. The most common objection I come across is “They are a state enforced system of privilege, not a real property right”. This is half right. But not all anarchists object to intellectual property. Lysander Spooner argued patents should be granted to inventors without a time limit, as we have today. The Tannehills argued that in a stateless environment, free market insurance firms would bring legal action against patent infringements. I argue they’re wrong. They’re wrong because any form of claim to information, or an idea, that isn’t defined in a voluntary contract between parties is not a property right, but an initiation of force. It makes no sense that the originator of an idea is able to use coercive force against other people imitating that pattern even when they are using their own property to do so.

Ideas are not finite resources. They are superabundant and can be infinitely reproduced, without detracting from the idea in the original person’s head. As they are not finite, they aren’t subject to being economized in the same way physical goods are. They’re like air (unless you find yourself underwater, in which case an oxygen tank would be a very in-demand good), a “general condition of life”. I agree with Rothbard when he points out, in Man Economy, and State, that:

What goods become property? Obviously, only scarce means are property. General conditions of welfare, since they are abundant to all, are  the objects of any action, and therefore cannot be owned or become property. On the free market, it is nonsense to say that someone “owns” the air. Only if a good is scarce is it necessary for anyone to obtain it, or ownership of it, for his use. The only way that a man could assume ownership of the air is to use violence to enforce this claim. Such action could not occur on the unhampered market.

What goods become property? Obviously, only scarce means are property. General conditions of welfare, since they are abundant to all, are not the objects of any action, and therefore cannot be owned or become property. On the free market, it is nonsense to say that someone “owns” the air. Only if a good is scarce is it necessary for anyone to obtain it, or ownership of it,for his use. The only way that a man could assume ownership of the air is to use violence to enforce this claim. Such action could not occur on the unhampered market. (ME&S, p 92)

As they aren’t capable of being economized, there’s no case for turning them into a sort of pseudo-private property, even less by means of legal fictions created and maintained through coercive State action. Now, speaking of anarcho-capitalism…

Capitalism is normally believed to be the Libertarian’s buzzword. This is largely true, it’s gotta be said. Libertarians love good ol’ capitalism. That’s why Brian Doherty called his history of the libertarian movement “Radicals for Capitalism”, right?

The problem here is less ideological and more semantic. Yep, it’s the name game, all over again. Sorry guys. Libertarians can go on for hours about how “Well, we’re not referring to the corporate state capitalism of today…”, and that they’re talking about a totally different economic system than the one we’ve grown used to. Yeah, they’re right, they are advocating radical change from the Status Quo. But what must be understood is that “capitalism” doesn’t mean what we mean by it in the minds of many, if not most people. To many people, this corporate, globalized, state guaranteed system of for-profit multinational giants is the perfect depiction of Capitalism, and that logos are the new religious symbols. And you know what? They’re damn right. At the end of the day, “capitalism” means little more than private ownership of the means of production. What it doesn’t imply is the system of free trade and non aggression that libertarianism demands.

For my money, a better term would be the free market, or the voluntary market. There is nothing within libertarianism (except maybe objectivism) that insists that all property must be privately owned for profit. I know of no reason why naturally occurring collective properties could not arise under voluntary relations. I’d imagine this becoming common practice in the case of, say, streets in residential areas. I also feel that mutuals and cooperatives would be much more common place, as well as easier to organize and run, in a free market. Whether or not they would dominate ahead of more traditional private firms is debatable, but not vitally important. The real issue is how they go about being run. The really important part in “free market” is not “market”, as some neoliberals would claim, but “free”.

Put simply, I’m a capitalist in the libertarian sense of the word; but in the commonly understood sense of the term, I’m quite anti-capitalist. Although I have no real gripe with using the term capitalism when appropriate, I much prefer the term “free market”.

Well, that’s just a few contentious points covered. I was planning to do a few more, including the best method for advancing liberty, and what have you, but decided I’d best stop here before I end up writing Human Action. Hopefully this is final proof that, whatever the opponents of libertarianism claim, we can’t all be chucked into one giant pot. And to certain Libertarians, maybe this will give you an idea of where I’m coming from.

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12 comments to My take on Libertarianism

  • Loved this post. I wrote a similar one a while back in which I made some similar points especially about big business.

  • ‘Anti-capitalist, pro-free market’ is the right way to look at it.

    And alas for the curse of the conservative masquerading as a libertarian.

  • Great post,looking forward to,the best method for advancing liberty.

  • Anonymous

    Superb post. I particularly agree on the word “capitalism”; most people will understand that to mean “the system we have today”, or perhaps “the system we have today minus the very few things that make rule by big business bearable”. I can’t even use the term “free market” without being mistaken for a fucking Tory because it’s become so corrupted. One that gets me is the mainstream narrative that the “Thatcher era” of the “free market” failed, causing the 2008-onwards economic collapse. Why yeah, all our problems were caused by the fact that there isn’t a massive system of regulation, oversight, and government privilege in the banking system, and that was all because of Thatcher, that famous opponent of crony capitalism.

    Oh, wait.

    Jackart: you are doing it wrong. Completely, ahistorically wrong. I’ll probably address it over there in more length, somewhat belatedly, but the short version is that you did libertarianism a massive disservice by defending 19th/early 20th century Britain. Do yourself (and libertarianism) a favour and learn a little history; “liberal” Britain was ANYTHING BUT a free market. It was, in fact, the very epitome of systematic theft from the working class by the state. It was exactly the kind of exploitative, horrible system that all libertarians should oppose. We certainly should not be trying to claim the era as our own, because if the choice is between the English breed (1970s) of state-socialism and “liberal” Britain, any sane person would take the former.

  • Anon: re: 19th/20th century as ‘libertopia’… I agree Jackart misrepresented it, but it isn’t uncommon to see libertarians using the industrial revolution as an example of the power of capitalism to generate wealth and drastically lower poverty – for me a totally legitimate argument. Not that I’m saying you’d disagree, but perhaps that’s where Jackart’s admiration for the era stems?

  • This is excellent and much-needed. I’m glad that Kevin Carson’s work is turning up a little more in debates about libertarianism in Britain.

    (With regard to the argument going on in the comments: I think 19th-century Britishy libertopia, however, is pretty ridiculous. When libertarians are venerating a time when a significant proportion of the population of the country (married women) was refused the right to own property or enter into contracts, then we can assume that what we’re seeing is nostalgia, rather than any serious argument about the liberty.)

  • [...] Civil Libertarian wrote an excellent blog post on his left-libertarianism here. He also supplied the article where I took the quote ‡ from. Tags: anarcho-capitalism, [...]




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