Authentic Libertarianism

When I hear the word, “authentic,” I reach for my pistol.

~ Gary North

This phrase is usually attributed to Hermann Goering, with “culture” substituted for “authentic.” I doubt that he ever said it. He may have said, “When I hear the word ‘culture,’ I reach for the strudel.” I think he spent a lot more time with strudel than with culture or pistols.

Whenever you hear the adjective “authentic” applied to a movement, ideology, or worldview, you can be sure of one thing: the person who just used the adjective has a definition in mind that excludes at least 80% of the members of the group that he imagines himself to me a member of. Maybe it’s as high as 98%. The word “authentic” is a kind of encircling barbed wire barrier that excludes the uninformed barbarians who have surreptitiously weaseled their way into the movement.

The word “authentic” implies that there is an unauthentic version. In usually implies that there are several unauthentic versions. But you can be sure that the critic has a definition of the real thing. This definition excludes not merely the masses but the interlopers. In fact, the masses really do not count, since they have never heard of the movement, ideology, or worldview.

THIS THING CALLED LIBERTARIANISM

I first heard about libertarianism sometime around 1960. I read articles now and then by Murray Rothbard, which were published in obscure newsletters. By this time, I had been reading The Freeman for two years. By 1960, I was already persuaded that the State was far too large and needed a good shrinking.

In 1960, that belief made me a conservative. But it also made me a libertarian. The notion of big government conservatives was as distant as big government libertarians. Those were the days, my friend. We thought they’d never end.

In 1962, I had a verbal run-in with Willmoore Kendall, one of Leo Strauss’s more coherent students. As I recall, I was defending Hayek’s view of free speech. Kendall called me a liberal. By this, I knew he meant nineteenth-century liberal. I had read Hayek’s Postscript in The Constitution of Liberty (1960), “Why I am not a Conservative.” I forthrightly agreed that this was what I was, at least on this particular issue.

Hayek was a Darwinian evolutionist, and this extended to his social theory. This was not clear to me in 1962. Hayek made this point ever more clear as he grew older, until it became the bedrock epistemology in his final book, The Fatal Conceit (1988). In fact, Hayek makes the important point that the Scottish Enlightenment was evolutionistic with respect to the development of society, and Darwin merely applied this view to biology a century later. So, to the extent that nineteenth-century liberalism was Darwinist, I was not a nineteenth-century liberal. Hayek’s social theory was ultimately not based on ethics. It was based on the unplanned, evolving accommodation of the corporate division of labor, hedged in and governed by civil law, in an evolving universe. There is nothing in his social theory to say, “This is wrong, now and forever. Don’t do it.” I make this point in Appendix B of my book, The Dominion Covenant: Genesis (1982), which is on-line for free at www.freebooks.com.

I read Ronald Hamowy’s critique of Hayek on the day I received Vol. I, No. 1 of New Individualist Review (April 1961). Hamowy made it clear that Hayek was soft-core in his opposition to the State. Hamowy was a zero-State critic. In this sense, he took Rothbard’s position.

This position was not Mises’ position. Mises, like Leonard E. Read and the writers in The Freeman, believed in limited civil government, sometime characterized as the night-watchman State. The Foundation for Economic Education sold Human Action and The Constitution of Liberty. Had I not received FEE’s catalogue of books, I would not have bought those two volumes. I bought both books in June, 1960. (In those days, I wrote on the front page my name and the month and year that I bought a book.)

Read had written Elements of Libertarian Leadership. I had not read it in 1960, but I knew the term “libertarian” from his book. In 1961, I met F. A. Harper, who had been on FEE’s staff, but who had split with Read over the issue of civil government. Harper opposed it completely. Harper was with the William Volker Fund in 1961, the largest pool of money in the libertarian camp, although I did not know this at the time.

Mises refused to offer a moral defense of the free market. He was a utilitarian epistemologically. Harper had told me of a discussion he had with Mises. He asked Mises, “If socialism were more efficient than capitalism, would you favor it?” Mises answered, “But it isn’t.” After several attempts, Harper dropped it. He said he was not going to get anywhere along these lines.

In 1962, Harper was tossed out at Volker. He set up the Institute for Humane Studies. The man who replaced him at Volker was Ivan Bierly, a former FEE senior staff member. He had been one of Harper’s Ph.D. students at Cornell University. He hired R. J. Rushdoony and several others, including the pro-Hitler revisionist historian, David L. Hoggan [HOEgun] and Thomas Thalken, who later became the senior librarian of the Herbert Hoover library in Iowa. I worked as a summer intern at Volker in 1963.

In 1971, I joined FEE’s staff, replacing George Roche, who had taken over the presidency of Hillsdale College.

In between, Milton Friedman had emerged as the most famous spokesman for reducing the government’s control over the economy. The University of Chicago’s department of economics and parts of the economics faculties at UCLA and the University of Virginia were defining limited government for the academic community.

And then there was the old girl network known as Objectivism.

Each group had its own epistemology. Each group had its own version of the role of ethics in defending the free market. Each group had its own limits of acceptable discourse. All were known as libertarian.

THE QUEST FOR AUTHENTICITY

In 1969, I attended a conference of graduate students and senior professors of economics. It was held at Claremont College. Harper had raised the money for it. The professors were Chicago School men, though not on the Chicago faculty. Armen Alchian was one. Henry Manne [MANee] was another.

Alchian argued, as he had been arguing for two decades, that not only is ethics irrelevant to economic theory, the concept of purposeful action is also irrelevant. The survival of the profitable will produce the same results. (Alchian, “Information, Uncertainty and the Allocation of Resources,” Economic Forces at Work, Liberty Press, 1977). This was a frontal assault against Mises’ concept of human action.

At that conference, there were several Randian attendees. The split between Rand and Nathaniel Branden had just taken place. There were two factions of Objectivists meeting in separate groups. This was all beyond me. I was so far out of the loop that I was unaware of the names of the major Objectivist players. I had not known that some, including Branden, had changed their names to incorporate RAND. His name had been Blumenthal.

The mutual excommunications had already begun. I mean, it was like Luther and the Pope. Objectivists had to take sides or be condemned by both sides. It was Pete Seeger singing “Which side are you on?” Reason apparently was as incapable of settling the dispute as the Nicene Creed had been in settling the Reformation.

So, here I was, a Calvinist, along with Calvinist Doug Adie, lectured to by Chicago School professors, inductivists all, surrounded by Randian grad students, rationalists all, at a conference funded by a Misesian.

In retrospect, I can picture the Philip Morris page, five feet tall in his spiffy uniform and cap, walking into the room and shouting, “Call for authentic libertarian!” Ten people would have rushed him. “Me! Me! I’m your man!”

A TAR BABY STRIKES

I was motivated to write all this by an exchange I had with Eric Z. Eric wrote me: “But how can you consider yourself an authentic libertarian, when the Bible is full of laws that authentic libertarians would vigorously oppose.” Like a dummy, I replied. I should have reached for my pistol.

I replied that “authentic libertarians are at war with each other over what it means to be an authentic libertarian.” Eric shot back: “A true libertarianism cannot be consistent with Biblical Law, because Biblical Law was the basis of the feudal system, and capitalism came into being by replacing that.”

In just one e-mail, he had moved from “authentic libertarianism” to “true libertarianism.” Here was a tar baby. I knew better than to continue, as I have previously written. But I did.

Get more than 2 libertarians in a room and get them to define “true libertarianism.” You get 2 answers. After 40 years, I have seen this every time.

That was not enough for Eric. It never is. “As regards the issue I raised, your answer is that you don’t have an answer, which is what I had expected to be the case.”

Funny thing about tar babies. No matter what answer you give, it’s never good enough, and they knew it wouldn’t be.

Then why do they ask?

Now, for all to see, here is my answer. I have written approximately 8,000 pages of Bible commentaries on 11 books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus (3 volumes), Leviticus (4 volumes), Numbers, Deuteronomy (3 volumes), Matthew, Luke, Acts, Romans, First Corinthians, and First Timothy. These commentaries deal exclusively with economics. You can download any or all of them free of charge. For their web addresses, send an e-mail to commentaries@kbot.com. You will receive an instant-reply answer. Eric, this includes you.

What I found is this: the concept of the rule of law was Mosaic, not Greek (Ex. 12:49). The concept of private property is supported in the Decalogue’s laws against theft and covetousness. The Mosaic economic law as a whole was pro-market, pro-private ownership, pro-foreign trade, pro-money-lending (Deut. 28:12). The New Testament did not break with most of these laws, and the few that it did break with, such as slavery and the jubilee land law, made the resulting position even more market favorable.

It is my goal in life to do what I can to persuade people to shrink the State. The messianic State is a crude imitation of a religion of redemption. It makes the State the healer and, ultimately, the savior of all mankind. This messianic religion is what the early church battled theologically and risked martyrdom to oppose. Christians refused to toss a pinch of incense onto the altar symbolizing the genius of the emperor. For that seemingly minor resistance to State power, they were thrown to the lions. Both sides knew the stakes of that contest. Christianity was a dagger pointed at the heart of the messianic State.

It still is.

CONCLUSION

As to who the authentic libertarian is, I withhold judgment. When it comes to footnotes, I use Mises, Rothbard, Alchian, Harper, Friedman, and a host of others to document this or that illegitimate invasion by the messianic State. I even use Rand once in a while. I don’t recall ever using Branden, but I’m open to suggestions.

Making a case for rolling back the State is a full-time job for me. In the division of labor, there have been many specialists who have demonstrated that this or that piece of legislation is deserving of repeal.

There is only one libertarian whose books I have never read: James Bovard. Although I have bought several, I have never been able to get through more than 25 pages of a Bovard book. I get too angry.

My attitude is this: turn Bovard loose on the whole damnable system, and let me fiddle with my footnotes. That’s the division of labor I want. When he is finished, the rest of us can argue over what to put back in or take out.

Let me know just as soon as he’s done.

August 28, 2004

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit http://www.freebooks.com. For a free subscription to Gary North’s newsletter on gold, click here.

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