A Political Philosophy or a Social Attitude?

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What Is Libertarianism?

Recently by David Gordon: Murray Rothbard and the Cold War


The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong With America. By Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch. Public Affairs, 2011. Xv + 264 pages.

Gillespie and Welch rightly see that the Ron Paul movement represents a new force in American politics, but Paul is not really to their taste. On the one hand, these authors note, "Ron Paul said something truly distinct in 2008 about the nature of power – namely, that government should have less of it on all levels and in every instance. u2018I don't want to run your life,' Paul said. I don't want to run the economy. . .I don't want to run the world.' Such sentiments are simultaneously radical and fully in the Jeffersonian tradition of governing best while governing least." (pp.38-9)

On the other hand, though Gillespie and Welch applaud this message, they do not care for Paul personally. He has "a stage presence straight out of an Asperger's syndrome conference. . .For a thousand reasons. . .Ron Paul is in no way a viable candidate for anything other than his safe congressional seat." (p.38-9).

Gillespie and Welch's ambivalence toward Paul reflects a fundamental problem with their book. To them, libertarianism is not only a political theory and program: it is a social attitude and even an aesthetic sensibility as well. Because Paul does not for the most part share their social preferences, they cannot fully embrace him. He is not really one of their sort.

They characterize libertarianism in this way: "While there are competing definitions of what u2018libertarian' means, the simplest understanding attaches to people who believe that government is less efficient than the private sector, that people should be left alone as much as possible to lead their own lives, and that tolerance is the most important social value."(p.34) This very much differs from the conception of libertarianism defended over a lifetime by Murray Rothbard. As Rothbard saw matters, libertarians are committed only to defining the permissible use of force. They are free to adopt whatever attitudes they wish towards people's lifestyles, so long as they respect rights. They are emphatically not required to be "social liberals". Though Rothbard indisputably ranks as a towering figure of the modern libertarian movement, his name nowhere appears in the book.

The authors might respond, "So what if we differ from Rothbard; we prefer our own view." If they were to say this, they stand open to two objections. First, people such as Ron Paul and many of his followers who are social conservatives have been excluded from the libertarian mainstream by definitional fiat. Further, Gillespie and Welch's account raises the question, why are the social attitudes they favor correct? Are they mere expressions of preference, or do these authors claim for them objective correctness?

They extend the net of libertarian social values very wide; musical tastes, one gathers, are included. They mock William Buckley and Frank Sinatra, among others, who disparaged rock music. "Such dismissive critiques of rock music and other American ephemera like comic books, movies, and video games. . .proceed apace." (p.86). Of course, people who like rock music should be free to play it, and Gillespie and Welch offer an interesting account of how governmental suppression of it helped spark revolution in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere. But why must libertarians like it? Can you not be a libertarian in good standing yet regard this music as raucous noise?

What do you think of interracial marriage? It would be hard, offhand, to think of a question less relevant to libertarianism, as usually understood. Of course, no one has the right forcibly to prevent such marriages. What more need a libertarian say about this issue?

Gillespie and Welch disagree. They praise Tiger Woods for calling himself a "u2018Cablinasian', a neologism that combined his various racial and ethnic components. Weren't we – finally – at a point in history where everyone was ready to move on from simple, either-or categories?. . .As a Cablinasian he [Woods] represents something that's in all of us." (pp.130, 140) Why is mixing categories a libertarian issue?

The authors also welcome other sorts of diversity. "Most interesting of all, one needn't interact with the mainstream to create an identity. Online pornography caters to more types of fetishes than there are varieties of Pop-Tarts, arguably rivaling Starbucks in its ability to slake any and all thirsts."(p.136).

Their celebration of variety and change leads them on issue after issue to miss the essence of libertarianism, the use or threat of force. They support the free market and oppose government regulation of the economy, but this is not enough for them. Opposition to government intervention for them takes its place as part of a larger movement toward individual choice of certain kinds. "It is worth lingering a moment to marvel at the velocity of career change not available to those working in the media (and elsewhere).(p.107) What if your ideal in life is to get a stable job and remain in it through retirement? Are you less of a libertarian than someone continually on the move?

Even worse, what if you prefer to work for a large corporation? Then, it would seem, you have shown yourself to be an "organization man" and displayed a spirit antithetical to that of libertarianism. "The creative destruction of the Internet, along with the trailblazing pre-Internet example of disorganization men such as [baseball statistician] Bill James across thousands of disciplines, has destroyed corporate monoculture and subservient workplace identity as we know it." (p.114).

Gillespie and Welch miss the crucial distinction between freedom from coercion and their own preferences for particular outcomes of choice that manifest wide variety. In their discussion of education, this mistake leads them to some dubious proposals. They say, "without making any sort of fundamental change in funding levels, structure, or school taxes, we can accomplish significant educational improvement virtually overnight through widespread implementation of what is known as the u2018weighted-student formula'". (pp.192-93). In this formula "the money follows the students"; students may enroll in any public school that will accept them, and actual enrollment determines how much money a school receives. To the authors, "With a minimum of fuss from the outside, weighted-student formula funding creates a market in education." (p.103) The authors fail to grasp that a choice among government institutions and a free market are very different things.

They are certainly not opposed to free market education, but they do not call for the government to exit entirely from the field. To the contrary, they enthusiastically favor vouchers. To them, as always, choice and variety, not libertarian rights, stand uppermost. "That essentially one model dominates the delivery of education is a sign that something is very wrong, that a monopoly impervious to its customers' needs is calling the shots."(p.195)

In 1980, Murray Rothbard memorably criticized the Libertarian party campaign of Ed Clark for offering "low-tax liberalism" in place of libertarian principle. As a result he earned the enmity of the Kochtopus, an enmity that his death by no means has brought to an end. It is not hard to imagine what his opinion would have been of the pseudo-libertarian concoction we have here on offer.

Books by David Gordon

August 29, 2011

David Gordon [send him mail] is a senior fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute and a columnist for LRC. He is, most recently, the author of The Essential Rothbard and editor of Strictly Confidential: the Private Volker Fund Memos of Murray N. Rothbard. See his Books on Liberty. See also his Books on War.

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