Misconceptions about libertarianism and Statism

September 1, 2009 – 12:48 am by John

I find that correcting misconceptions about libertarianism amounts more to correcting misconceptions about the State than anything else. Statists don’t understand libertarianism because they don’t understand their own philosophy.

Libertarianism is individual liberty, personal sovereignty, voluntary association, and moral egalitarianism for all people. By “moral egalitarianism” I mean everyone is equally imbued with and bound by the same rights and the same moral obligation to respect the identical rights of others; no one has the right to do anything that anyone else may not also do. I think the existence of those rights and the non-aggression principle that follows from them come as close to epistemological certainty as they can get, and the burden is on Statists to explain why these principles are imaginary, illegitimate, or impractical and why they have the right to threaten murder on any who would assert these rights.

I doubt very many people oppose those beliefs in principle. What they oppose are their fantastical imaginings of what those beliefs would imply in practice. At the same time they remain willfully ignorant of how the State opposes those innate rights—is essentially the institutionalization of the negation of liberty. What they refuse to grasp is that the very existence of the monopolistic State implies threats of murder to anyone who secedes or doesn’t participate. As hard as it is to come to grips with, Statists must realize that peaceful abstention is a violation of their moral code, and that this is abominable.

It would be helpful to the blogosphere and to the worldwide discourse on political philosophy in general if a significant number of Statists would challenge themselves as far as they could with this question: “If the first principles that libertarians endorse are right and just, then why does (my vision of) their practical implementation strike me as so frightening, so horrific? What experiences, conditioning, or other principles make me either (a) reject the implementation of those principles anyway, and/or (b) insist that Statism and not freedom are the natural corollary of those principles?”

Most people’s experience with states, living their whole lives under one, never considering what true freedom can do for a society and not looking too closely lest their Statist foundation be shaken, causes them to believe that states are a force of good even when the balance of evidence is against them. So they lash out in ridicule at libertarians instead of focusing their skepticism on their own beliefs, which is where everyone’s skepticism belongs at first.

In the comments to Radley Balko’s very good, polite, short post about Ted Kennedy, a few peculiar Statist sentiments blemish an otherwise sensible discussion about the lack of merit in Ted Kennedy’s career and agreement with Balko that Kennedy shouldn’t be venerated simply because he’s no longer eligible for the census. On the other hand, they did provide me a good starting point for yet another instructional blag post.

As you could have guessed, the contentious comments concerned Balko’s opinion that we shouldn’t admire Kennedy’s “ability to use politics, as opposed to civil society, to solve problems” and that “Getting elected to political office in itself adds no value to society as a whole”.

One commenter began,

Huh? How would be have better effected change via civil society? Presided over the local kiwanis club? Written the Great American Novel? Become a pundit? Blogger (journalist)? CEO?

Always interesting to hear what libertarians value, how small-minded they are – I guarantee there’s total radio silence on the passing of major business figures, however they themselves used (and use) the levers of state power to advance their interests. However corrupt and crass they are within their own sphere.

Instead of living off of the labor of captive taxpayers and voting to take and spend more of their money every year, Kennedy could have spent his inherited wealth on charity, community organizations, and private businesses that provided goods and services to people who wanted them, voluntarily. The reason people donate to non-profit organizations and do business with private companies is (usually) because they want to, because they prefer the goods or services more than they prefer the money they part with and more than the goods or services they could get elsewhere. The reason the state and federal governments have to take your taxes upon threats of murder is because the government is not voluntary and people don’t want to give their money to it. Even Ted Kennedy himself didn’t want to give more of his money to the Imperial Federal Government than he had to…otherwise he would have. He could have worked for free, but he didn’t.

In this instance, we see that the commenter’s failure to understand that “civil society” is superior to government action results from his failure to understand what “government action” implies: Submit to their edicts and give them your money, or they will take the money plus penalties and they will enter your home or business to make you comply; insist on keeping your money and living your life how you please, as is your perfect right, and they will enslave you in a metal-and-concrete cage for five or ten years; resist their beatings, kidnapping, and enslavement, as is your perfect right, and they will shoot you. It is not possible to misunderstand that the State and all its agents are the aggressors in this scenario—in the real world, every day.

If committing the atrocious offenses of not sharing much of your money and behaving or doing business in frowned-upon ways is enough to warrant the death penalty, then surely actually threatening people with murder and interfering with their lives in myriad ways is a crime against humanity that removes all pretense of legitimacy from their operation. If you would claim the latter response is necessary and proper for the former offenses, then it still remains to be explained how non-violent non-participation ranks as criminal, or even dangerous, to the Statist. The laws and the infrastructure to make and follow through on the threats precede any act by any citizen; in fact, they predate even the birth of every citizen (except at the founding of a new state); so they cannot reasonably be passed off as a response to a preexisting danger.

Doubtless the true believer would respond, “But it is in man’s nature to be contentious and violent; the preexisting State with its threat-and-punish infrastructure keeps everyone civil, cooperative, and happy.” Glossing over the fact that this is simply false, it is obvious that elected and unelected officials are not angels; they are impaired by the same shortcomings as everyone else. Further, it is obvious that the types of people who are attracted to the violent, deadly police power of the State suffer from even greater hubris, intolerance, greed, and megalomania than the average person and in proportion to the power they aspire to attain.

I have stated what principles libertarians value and gone into a little detail about what we oppose in the State. So we’re “small-minded”? Believing in the strength of community, free exchange, voluntary cooperation, and the physical, emotional, and psychological independence from the controlling hubris of others—the conviction that the answer to many of our material and psychological problems is in ceasing to kill, threaten, and coerce each other—this is small-minded? You can’t possibly comprehend what is implied by our statement “peaceful action is a better way to effect change than is governmental coercion”—what’s implied is an all-encompassing, revolutionary conception of community, law, economics, war, peace, and everything else about human interrelationships—and still refer to it as small-minded.

The better libertarian thinkers (and those of us who follow them) rail against “major business figures” who “used (and use) the levers of state power to advance their interests” as fervently as we do against the government agents themselves. See, for instance, this masterful essay by Roderick Long, this Kevin Carson column, and this post of mine. Maybe my fellow libertarian blaggers can leave some more links in the comments; there must surely be 100 easily accessible anti-corporatist writings that I can’t think of off the top of my head.

The commenter continued,

You could say the same you said here about FDR or Lincoln: proper management of the state, and the main institution that’s capable of dealing with collective action problems in a connected, fast moving world – it’s oh-so-dirty. Libertarians would rather sit on a perch apart from it all, sometimes hiding their eyes, sometimes throwing peanuts, or pretending like all problems can be solved via a little Mill or communitarianism. And that there’s a nice clean wall between politics and everything else.

7/15/2050: Radley Balko dies, contributed not much of anything because he spent his life as a journalist, and on the basis of a little Rand and Econ 101 and utilitarian philosophy decided that it would be of some value to humanity or even his community to give the stock libertarian take on whatever was at the top of the news cycle. And what do journalists really do for us anyway?

Obviously you are not paying attention.

We could say the same about FDR or Lincoln? Child, much, much worse has been said about FDR and Lincoln, and deservedly so. They are more responsible for our corporate-military-socialist state than any other two people. The death and impoverishment they permitted to be visited upon innocent people is, quite possibly, incalculable.

It is almost unfathomable to me that anyone could think the State is “the main institution that’s capable of dealing with collective action problems in a connected, fast moving world.” I shall take the liberty of assuming this statement refers mainly to economics—the allocation of scarce resources to satisfy our needs. The claim is that the government can take care of any problem or need that arises in a community better than the free market—especially in the 21st century with technology making the entire world more connected than ever and the pace of business faster than ever. Though my libertarian readers are already familiar with Ludwig von Mises, Statists would benefit—if only to bring a little more knowledge and sophistication to the debate—from reading Mises’s seminal essay on why socialism can’t calculate and Murray Rothbard’s perspective on Mises, his opponents, and the calculation debate.

Without reading an entire economics essay, Statists could just answer me this: How is it that elected officials and coercive referendums voted for by “the people” are better able to govern society than the cooperative choices and economic exchanges made voluntarily by “the people”?

If the “collective action problems” he refers to are legal and court systems, his position is no less secure. Check out my posts about Anthony de Jasay’s masterpiece The State (here) and Bruce Benson’s masterpiece The Enterprise of Law (here and here).

Another commenter answered his smear that libertarians, journalists, and others outside of the professional criminal class do nothing for society:

MLK never had to get elected to spur social change.

And BTW, Radley helped get a guy off of death row because of his work. More than I can say for Ted Kennedy. Other journalists have also managed to force a president’s resignation over Watergate and bring to light the massacre at My Lai just to name a couple of things. I would say that journalists have done more to expose corruption and spur change than any politician ever has.

We don’t just sit on our perch either. Go check out the work that Libertarians have done at the Institute for Justice and FIRE. Real results that actually matter to every day people who are being mistreated by peaceful legislators and their good intention regulations.

The discussion was mostly downhill from there:

“Working as a legislator isn’t a peaceful way to make change. After all, the laws that Sen. Kennedy helped passed (all of them) required our compliance or else we would be imprisoned or fined. There isn’t anything peaceful about that at all.”

And here’s the reason folks, why libertarians will never have any serious chance as politicians in the country. Nutters.

Yes, it is “nutters” to insist aggression is wrong, that keeping the peace by threatening imprisonment and murder is wrong, that encouraging a sense of community by forcing everyone to live by your rule whether they voted for it or not is wrong. The part in quotation marks, which the commenter thought was “nutters,” is a perfectly accurate and admirably principled way of understanding the world; I am constitutionally incapable of imagining how anyone could be more succinct and correct about the role of a legislator or how someone could object to it. Unbelievable.

“the laws that Sen. Kennedy helped passed (all of them) required our compliance”

And he was elected to do so as public official by you, we, the people of the country, along with the other 99 senators. You’re acting like this is a dictatorship.

Ah, yes, the old Might Makes Right justification—a majority voted your personal liberties and a large chunk of your money away, so don’t go spreading social discord and spewing hatred because you disapprove of our mob-rule. Sure, you voted against all the people in power, but the best thing about our enlightened system is that we force everyone to comply whether they agree or not.”

It is more common than I would have thought, though no less peculiar, for Statists to justify a rights-violation because multiple people commit it rather than one. What difference does the number of people committing it make? Seriously. Blags have comments for a reason. I like getting comments.

Referring to the same passage that the previous person thought was “nutters,” the original Statist commenter wrote:

This is childish. You need to grow up. It’s not different from me saying that prisons are bad because people get locked up against their will, but refusing to take on what to do about murderers.

What to do about power and how one should distribute power is the paramount question for any society at any time in history, and solutions are judged in terms of bad and less bad. If you can’t bring yourself to stare it in the face and maybe try to make the best of it, your opinion on anything to do with politics is worthless. You don’t get to complain and be taken seriously if you want to hide.

As a policy I only address things that make sense, so the last few sentences I will ignore. (I included them to give you a full appreciation of this person’s thought processes.)

What is childish is the Statist attitude that the majority should rule, that people who peacefully abstain are somehow doing some unspecified thing that endangers your person or property, and that everyone who disagrees with your grand vision of how to run the world should be punished and made to comply. I can think of nothing more childish in the political arena. You have made no effort to understand any theory of ethics or morality, nor anything like property rights or economics. Literally the only framework you go by is “majority rules.” You don’t appreciate that people have good reason to object to their freedoms being put to a vote and to complain after losing the vote. You refuse to see how pointing guns at, restricting the preexisting freedoms of, and taking property from people who haven’t harmed or even threatened anyone is worse than the hypothetical harm that they might have done; that the government agents are committing aggression even by their own standards. You are unable to understand how anyone could object to being lorded over by a charlatan with a bright smile and a fancy suit, nor have you shown any ability to grasp how rights or freedoms could exist prior to and independently from a monopolistic state. Your political philosophy begins and ends with “majority rule.” This is the single least nuanced idea in the history of the world since “woman submit to man because he is stronger.” You are a childish buffoon who should have NO SAY in how I or any other human being run our lives.

Our objections to the aggression that defines states are very different from objecting to locking real, actual aggressors up in prison (though you just said “people” and libertarians know that governments should lock up their own people before anyone else). Your analogy looks, to me, like this: illegitimacy of legislation : no alternative to legislation :: illegitimacy of prison : no solution to murder.

Okay, analogies weren’t your strong point in fifth grade. You are ignoring stuff YOU WROTE, in the same discussion thread. Our alternative to governmental legislation is offering a goddamned product to people and selling it to them for an agreeable price. Writing a book. Starting a charity. Educating your own children instead of leaving it to the State. Et cetera, et cetera ad nauseam. These are the things you ridiculed in your first post as being ineffective compared to coercive legislation. Libertarians have plenty of solutions to murder, and all crime. Eliminating the police state is a nice first step.

Distributing power is not the paramount question for all societies. It is protecting individual rights, which allows real community to develop voluntarily and “organically” and which allows for the material progress that has increased our standard of living over the centuries. When private property rights are protected and individuals have a sincere, personal, reciprocal interest in the well-being of their neighbors, then power and many other things will be distributed more heterogeneously. Surely you don’t think giving power to politicians and taking it away from the public will distribute power in any just way? If you’d like a scholarly but brief and accessible discussion on the distribution of power in society, read the first part of Our Enemy, the State by Albert Jay Nock.

You seem very dissatisfied with this country. There are plenty of other ones out there. Why don’t you try the libertarian oasis of Somalia? You won’t have to worry about the pesky ‘dictatorship of the majority against the minority” (also called Democracy) there! You’ll be free to do as you please. No pesky governments to get in your way (they won’t even bother to build your roads!)

If things get too tough, you can always try your luck in the socialist hellhole of Sweden or Norway :)

Seriously, most of you sound like Ruby Ridge wannabe’s under a guise of reading a few Ayn Rand books, which is why you won’t be taken seriously.

Personally, if I were going to compete for a Special Olympics medal on a political website, taking the contradictory stance from what I know most readers there take, I would go to some effort to gussy up my arguments and review my thought processes to make sure I was representing my ideology well. You know, being a good ambassador for libertarianism.

None of that for these Statists. Why don’t you try the Statist’s wet dream of North Korea, or Cuba, or Zimbabwe? You gave the worst example of (what you misunderstand as) anarchy; it isn’t fair to counter with the worst examples of your beloved monopolistic States? Oh, there’s only one type of anarchy but many varied and sundry types of states. I see. And that American and Ethiopian military force attempting to impose order but, somehow unsurprisingly, only supplying murder, terror, and destruction to Somalia—you gonna pin that one on the anti-military, non-interventionist libertarians, too? You haven’t made sense yet; you might as well shoot for the moon and hope some more of your hysterical mischaracterizations of libertarianism stick for your Statist brethren.

We have observed no fewer than two of the classic inane, ignorant dismissals of libertarians in a single comment thread about Teddy freaking Kennedy: “You’re always free to move elsewhere” and “Oh, you’re just a stupid Randroid.” Add a third item to the list of ideologies Statists don’t understand. OBJECTIVISM IS NOT LIBERTARIANISM! WE ACTUALLY DON’T LIKE EACH OTHER VERY MUCH!

Sorry for rambling. I got up on my soap box for the first time in a while and wanted to flesh out my thoughts thoroughly. It’s clear from reading the whole discussion thread that brief, pointed criticisms of their statements are insufficient to sway them in the least. I know this was old hat for my libertarian colleagues; this was written to any and all non-libertarians, so I hope they read it and find some sense in it, coming away with a better understanding of freedom and the State than Radley Balko’s commenters came with.

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