Category Archives: Mises

Whither Libertarianism? Reflections on the Revolution Within

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 CentrismĀ® 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.

LP/Cato Libertarians

Roughly comprised of beltway think tanks, tenured academics, LP aspirants, Reason readers and Radical CentristsĀ® 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.
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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.

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Seriously, LP?

Left Libertarians

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It’s like dialectical materialism, but way more #WOKE, dude.

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.

Rothbardians/Austro-libertarians

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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.

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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.

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Ludwig von Mises: Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth

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Despite its track record of failure, oppression and misery, socialism has enjoyed a seemingly endless parade of apologists and defenders.  As improbable as it seems, the argument for state socialism was hotly debated in the 20th century. This inexplicable allure is surpassed only by the seemingly deathless appeal it holds to this day.  While there are many academics who are eager to put a new coat of paint on socialism’s rotten edifice, it seems that too few pay attention to the individuals who challenged socialism and were proven correct. This is likely due to the fact that this is exactly what academic elites and apparatchiks want. Regardless, everyone should read what is widely regarded as the definitive demolition of the argument for the socialist state, Ludwig Von Mises’ 1920 essay, Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth. It is important not only because it identified the failures of the socialist state with devastating accuracy, but because it is a purely economic critique of socialist economics.

Mises’ argument is built on three central theses:

  1.  A socialist state with a monopoly on production goods is effectively destroying the natural market price system and rendering rational economic calculation impossible
  2. A socialist state which prioritizes labor based valuations on consumer and production goods is ignoring individual subjective preferences
  3. The socialist state destroys personal responsibility and initiative by removing the incentive to economize

Mises draws an important distinction around production goods and consumer goods at the outset.  He observes that consumer goods, the final result of production which a consumer can use to fulfill a desired end, are valued in monetary terms.  Consumers can subsequently engage in trade using monetary exchanges amongst themselves in order to fulfill their subjective preferences.  The entrepreneur, on the other hand, is not afforded the same opportunity.  In order to prioritize production goods and engage in the act of economizing, the entrepreneur needs to perform economic calculation through a free floating price system which emerges through exchange in a system of private property.  Because the socialist state monopolizes production goods and dispenses them through an arbitrary and bureaucratic allocation process that’s devoid of rational pricing, the entrepreneur is hamstrung. An efficient division of labor cannot even take place.  No single human mind or collection of human minds can replace the social nature of the price system in a competitive free market.

Because Marxism, the philosophical font of virtually all socialist economics, posits that an exploitative relationship exists between the entrepreneur and the laborer, socialists attribute an inherently predatory quality to exchange relations in the production process. The entrepreneur is somehow extorting and expropriating from each laborer and depriving him of the surplus value that results in the final exchange of consumer goods. Socialists have wrongly assigned virtue to the state monopoly on production goods, and subsequently, end up destroying the uniquely human capacity for rational calculation. Once socialists have gained control of the apparatus of the State, there is no underlying set of principles by which the socialist state can proceed that is even remotely comparable to the price system of the free market.

When Marxism solemnly forbids its adherents to concern themselves with economic problems beyond the expropriation of the expropriators, it adopts no new principle, since the Utopians throughout their descriptions have also neglected all economic considerations, and concentrated attention solely upon painting lurid pictures of existing conditions and glowing pictures of that golden age which is the natural consequence of the New Dispensation.

Marxism also posits a juvenile theory of alienation inherent in capitalism, but attribute the malady to the wrong source. Socialists bemoan the allegedly dehumanizing qualities of free market exchange while conveniently ignoring the fact that state intervention exists everywhere. Modern neoclassical macroeconomics reinforce and perpetuate an unchallenged activist role for the state in economic affairs as well as the reduction of economic life to increasingly abstract mathematical models.  As Dr. Joseph Salerno astutely argues in the essay’s postscript, it is exactly the reverse.

Abolish all, or even one, of these institutions and human society disintegrates amid a congeries of isolated household economies and predatory tribes. But not only does abolition of private ownership of the means of production by a world embracing socialist state render human social existence impossible: Mises’s analysis also implies that socialism destroys the praxeological significance of time and nullifies humanity’s uniquely teleological contribution to the universe.

Dr. Salerno goes further to argue that despite Mises argument against full scale state socialism, the argument retains its relevance to contemporary state interventions in healthcare and energy production.  Whether they be tax breaks, subsidies or loan guarantees, the myriad interventions and subventions in the managed market economy create numerous distortions. Perverse production incentives, misallocation of resources, and institutionalized mediocrity are but a few of the deformations which result from keeping entrepreneurs insulated from the forces of supply and demand.

Mises predicted the failure of socialism with devastating accuracy years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. While China’s version of market socialism is undoubtedly an improvement over Mao’s regime, their economic and monetary policies have lead to massive instability and mismanagement of resources which lend further credence to Mises core argument.

Almost a full century has passed since the initial publication of this essay.  Despite socialism’s continued failures here and abroad, the champions of socialism continue to flog the rhetoric of a discredited ideology while remaining seemingly oblivious to the intellectual and moral void at the core of their pursuit.  The leading lights of socialist thought have not offered any meaningful rebuttal to this problem since perhaps Oskar Lange, but as Mises already correctly argued, mathematical models cannot replicate human action.

Socialism offers nothing but a license for the unlimited expansion of state power packaged as a litany of grievances dressed up in a pretense of intellectual profundity and moral rectitude.  The promise of “equality” is never achieved, but socialists peddle these pathetic fantasies with the same chicanery and mendacity as a televangelist. Mises offered a theoretical framework and a set of economic principles that were grounded in sound scientific reasoning and a respect for individual liberty.  His arguments deserve a proper reckoning.

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