I empathize with those who find ideological categories and labels confining and reductive. Many people hold a wide variety of positions which defy one easy overarching classification while others claim Radical Centrism® either out of extreme cognitive bias, intellectual laziness, logical incoherence or moral cowardice. Still others claim one set of principles in the marketplace of ideas, but subordinate them to one of the dominant political parties out of a sense of pragmatism. The political process certainly doesn’t help matters by herding people into the rigid confines of partisan bickering. The flattening of political thought is only exacerbated by the outrage du jour that is now a staple of our 24/7 social media enabled news cycle. As problematic as labels may be, they serve a purpose of distinguishing broad principles and ideas around which people organize. Words have meaning, and when it comes to political philosophy, it’s especially important to be able to clearly specify principles and objectives. If there’s one political philosophy which distinguishes itself on adherence to principles above all else, it’s libertarianism. Or at least that’s what I thought.
For those who aren’t in the liberty movement, libertarianism is undergoing a bit of identity crisis. This is nothing new. It isn’t the first time and it won’t be the last. Scorned and ridiculed by conservatives and progressives alike, libertarians have always had a reputation for being the gadflies of politics. If you thought the 2016 election cycle was fractious for conventional partisans, it was even more divisive for libertarians. Libertarians are already divided over numerous issues, and if anything, infighting and disagreement are features of being in the liberty movement. The aftermath of the 2016 election only seems to have amplified these divisions. In the run-up to the 2016 election, you had self-described libertarians for Donald Trump, Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, and most inexplicably, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. And that doesn’t even include the anarchists who didn’t vote. If that doesn’t leave you a little confused over what libertarianism means, you’re certainly not alone.
On the one hand, it’s great that there is such a diversity of thought and a robust culture of debate within the liberty movement. On the other, having such disparities in political activism dilutes what is a fairly well established body of thought. Such diversity may not lend itself towards building a future for a movement that is already vilified as a collection of nerds who are more invested in being militant iconoclasts than in achieving tangible political goals.
Is it important for libertarians to have a uniform ideology? Will having clearly defined principles result in purity tests and purges? Can an ideology that’s so resolutely individualistic and anti-state build a meaningful coalition? Is deference to state authority too deeply imprinted into the human psyche after thousands of years of psychological evolution? As the ultimate hierarchical organization, does state authority provide a salutary psychological benefit that libertarianism takes for granted? Are historical examples of anarchist societies evidence that anarchy can work or are they proof of their anomalous and unstable nature? Is state power an inherently corrupting influence on those who wield it or is the corruption merely a reflection of the absence of morality within the culture over which it presides? Moreover, is it realistic to advocate for a stateless society given that libertarianism is already a marginal philosophy within the context of what was arguably the most overtly libertarian attempt at a limited state: the United States of America? If true libertarianism is strictly defined as advocacy for the abolition of the state, are the ideas strong enough to sustain a lasting social order? Specifically, is the Non-Aggression Principle sufficient to sustain a stable and cohesive society? Or would it require strong familial, cultural, and religious communities? Do libertarians ultimately have to accept that large swaths of human civilization will simply not voluntarily buy into the idea of a stateless society? Is standing up for pure libertarian principles a brave position or is it little more than the libertarian version of virtue signaling?
While I don’t have definitive answers to these questions, I still regard libertarianism as a beautiful and edifying vision. I also believe that the most trenchant critiques of state power are found within the liberty movement. In light of the schisms that have emerged, I think it’s useful to take a look at the various libertarian factions and evaluate their respective merits.
Roughly comprised of beltway think tanks, tenured academics, LP aspirants, Reason readers and Radical Centrists® disenfranchised from the two party duopoly, this group of libertarians seeks to cast the widest net for the liberty philosophy. This crowd also seems most eager to lay claim to the legacy of classical liberalism by building a largely secular libertarianism from the likes of Hayek, Friedman, Nozick, Rand and Mill. What they lack in criticisms of central banking and the warfare state, they make up for in advocacy for legal weed and prostitution. Though there is a wealth of good journalism, research, and libertarian theory emanating from this corner, there are also some troubling sops to social justice activists, Islam apologists, open borders crusaders, and “post-scarcity” futurists cheerleading for universal basic income. This also happens to be the home of the “libertarians” for Hillary. That should have been an oxymoron, but for some reason, it was a thing.
What is to be made of the LP and Gary Johnson contingent? Johnson ran for president on the LP ticket in 2012 and 2016, and let’s just say his candidacy left most libertarians uninspired to say the very least. Most people saw Johnson’s credibility go up in flames over the infamous Aleppo gaffe, but the sad truth is that his debate and town hall performances did the job for him. While most libertarians were craving a principled candidate willing to articulate the liberty philosophy with clarity and conviction, what they got instead was a bumbling figurehead who seemed caught flat footed with every question. His mealy mouthed platitudes about being “socially liberal and fiscally conservative” just made him sound like Republican Lite. Since most libertarians spend a good chunk of their time and energy honing their arguments for liberty, Johnson’s intellectual lethargy was especially galling. He often seemed like he just wanted to be a more respectable “libertarian” version of Jeff Spicoli. Among many other dubious statements, Bill Weld’s rather open embrace of Hillary Clinton didn’t exactly endear him to movement libertarians either.
Despite fielding candidates like Ron Paul and Harry Browne in past elections, the LP has beclowned itself in several ways recently, too. If the striptease at the LP convention didn’t leave you bewildered, might I recommend a look at their Twitter account. Some of their recent flacking for North Korea has prompted both ridicule and revulsion. Judd Weiss’ sobering expose of the behind-the-scenes cannibalism and backstabbing of the 2016 election dispelled all notions that the LP were somehow above the bloodsport of major party politics. And that’s saying nothing of Nicholas Sarwark’s strange, unprovoked attack on Tom Woods. Though the LP has a radical caucus, it’s future prospects are murky at best.
Basically, these are the SJWs of the liberty movement. They seem almost wholly consumed by cultural progressivism and railing against entire spectrum of -isms that most have come to associate with the term “social justice warrior”. Best exemplified by the Center For Stateless Society and Bleeding Heart Libertarians, these so-called libertarians are putting a market mutualist spin on the entire progressive agenda from universal basic income to healthcare. There is surely some overlap with the Cato Libertarians, but for my money, there’s little daylight between this crowd and your garden variety gender studies freshman. For a group of people who claim to be promoting heterodox thought, it sure sounds a lot like the establishment.
The real schism in libertarianism seems to reveal itself when it comes to where you stand on the work of the Mises Institute, Murray Rothbard or Hans Hermann Hoppe. Given the fact that Murray Rothbard himself was excommunicated from Cato and split from the LP, it should come as little surprise that the Mises institute and everyone in their orbit seem to attract the most controversy. Unsurprisingly, this is also where you’ll find the most robust vision of libertarianism.
The two recent speeches given by Jeff Deist and Hans Hoppe demarcate the divide between the punters and the warriors for liberty. Both speeches laid out a practical way forward for the liberty movement while avoiding the temptation to impose abstract ideals of libertarian universalism. Deist laid out a strategy for radical decentralization from the grip of an overextended federal state and the tentacles of globalism coupled with a return to localized cultural and familial bonds. Hoppe echoed Rothbard’s call for libertarian populism by laying out a very specific set of actions where libertarians could make common cause with the broader conservative movement in order to make greater advances towards a libertarian social order. Besides his very explicit contention that libertarianism is strictly the advocacy for a stateless society, Hoppe’s speech was also a stinging rebuke to Libertarianism Lite as well as the Alt Right.
Naturally, both speeches drew a chorus of autistic screeching from every ideological corner. Deist’s speech was reviled as a crypto-fascist “blood and soil” screed while Hoppe’s speech was similarly attacked as a white supremacist dog whistle. The Rothbardian tradition has synthesized Lockean natural rights with a radical theory of laissez faire free markets and Burkean traditionalism. It’s an elegant and logically consistent ideology while taking into account human nature, history and tradition.
But libertarianism is staring down the corridor of history filled with centuries of monarchies, city states and nation states. Human psychology has evolved to submit to some kind of sovereign governing body. Even if some small scale version of Ancapistan is created, it will be forced to coexist alongside actual formal nation states. Its members will have to perform a private equivalent of every function currently performed by actual nation states. Including and especially border control and collective defense. And if necessary, physical removal.
Can libertarianism win and secure its victory for posterity? Can libertarianism win exclusively through persuasion in the marketplace of ideas? Can a meaningful coalition be built by completely eschewing the acquisition of state power? Would a polycentric society lend itself towards the kind of stability of tradition which Burke and other classical conservatives envisioned? I don’t know for sure, but I know it’s going to remain a hard sell. It’s perhaps the toughest pathway by which to build a consensus, but perhaps the one which presumably will grow the deepest roots amongst its adherents.