Do You Consider Yourself a Libertarian?

Kenny Johnsson interviews Lew Rockwell for The Liberal Post Kenny Johnsson interviews Lew Rockwell for Liberal Post


Johnsson: Do you consider yourself a libertarian?

Rockwell: Most certainly. What are the choices? Conservative is obviously out, even though the media describe us this way. The term’s heritage dates to the Tory party in Britain, the very mercantilist-landowners who resisted change in the Corn Laws. This group opposed capitalism as socially destabilizing. They didn’t like the merchant class making more money than the old families — meaning that they didn’t want to lose their privileges. In the US, the term conservative came about after World War II. It had no meaning, really, other than to refer to the general desire to be prudent in public affairs, in contrast to the revolutionary tendencies on the left. The problem is that it amounted to a defense of the status quo, and, after Buckley, it was irretrievably wrapped up with the Cold War cause.

I like the term liberal since genuine liberalism is our heritage. It was their insight that society is self-managing, and this is the greatest political idea ever advanced in human history. But there are two problems here. The first is that the term was hijacked by socialists during the Progressive Era and especially after the New Deal, when the liberals finally sold out to the state. The second is more obscure but it is important: even the good kind of liberalism was very much bound up with republican theory, that you could have a government made up of the people rather than the elites. This error, which is really utopian, led to a commitment to government as an essential institution. Advances in economics and political philosophy since that time have shown that this is a misnomer. There is no way to keep government in check, since by definition it is guilty of committing the very aggressions it is supposedly designed to keep at bay: namely, theft, murder, counterfeiting, kidnapping, and the like. So the liberal critique of the state just wasn’t radical enough.

There are other options, such as the term I once used, “paleolibertarian,” which refers to libertarianism before the movement emerged to institutionalize it as an ideological wing of the state’s political apparatus. This term was designed to address a very serious problem that libertarians in Washington had come to see themselves as a pleading pressure group hoping to find “market-based” solutions to public policy problems but within public policy, and thus do they support school vouchers, limited wars, managed trade, forced savings as an alternative to social security, and the like. Unfortunately, the term paleolibertarian became confused because of its association with paleoconservative, so it came to mean some sort of socially conservative libertarian, which wasn’t the point at all — though the attempted definition of libertarian as necessarily socially leftist is a problem too.

There are other strange terms bandied about from time to time, but in the end, I think we have to be happy with the term libertarian, while knowing that politics tends to taint all word usage issues. What is a libertarian? It is a person who believes in the absolute right of private property ownership. All else follows from that one proposition.

Johnsson: Your slogan on is Anti-War, Anti-State, Pro-Market; how do you define anti-state?

Rockwell: To be anti-state is to hold the intellectual position that there is nothing that society needs that the state can do better than the market. If you hold that view, you are anti-state. So in some ways, to say anti-war, anti-state, and pro-market is to propose redundancies of the same idea. I would defend the anti-state idea in every aspect of human life. The market is better in schools, energy, food, housing, charity, trade, consumer protection, justice, security, and even international relations. I know of no exceptions. The major burden of all the editorial work that I do is to make this point again and again. Does it grow weary? Not in any way. The number one, central, ubiquitous problem of our time and all time is the state. Whenever a criminal band manages to bamboozle the public that it alone should be granted the legal right to aggress on others, there is a problem that needs to be uprooted. The struggle for freedom is precisely this and no other.

Johnsson: What about anti-war? Are there no wars libertarians can support?

Rockwell: We can support any defense of person and property. But war as we understand the term in modern times is a government program like any other, meaning that it over-utilizes resources, causes destruction of property and life, and fails to achieve its stated aims. On the last point, war often leads to the opposite of its stated aims. Iraq is a good example. But it is important for us to realize that in this respect, it is like any other government program. Western history had this idea of “just war” that was supposed to prevent war from starting and prevent them from becoming total. But who is left to decide what is just and what is not? The finally authority here is the state. Of course it sees itself as just. That’s why we need not just rules but institutional change.

Johnsson: Who would you support in the 2008 elections?

Rockwell: I would like to see elections for public office abolished, and that is particularly true for the presidency. The idea of the president was initially that some far-seeing, wise person would emerge from the aristocratic class who would sit atop the apparatus of the state and make sure that all things ran well. The founders were not stupid: they knew there was potential for abuse. So they made it possible to impeach the president if there was the slightest slip up. Unfortunately, this didn’t work. It was like putting the chief inmates in charge of overseeing the conduct of the other inmates. The problem is that they all end up working together.

If you look at the crop of people who are running for president today, you gain new understanding of Hayek’s phrase “the worst get on top.” What an amazing bunch of dangerous nothings they are. The Democrats look positively dreadful. The antiwar people among them have touted the idea that every young person should be enslaved into national service. What are these people thinking? Most of them are nothing but voices for a special interest cause. The Republicans are creepy too: people in love with the idea of military force and who think more jails and more wars will solve all the world’s problems.

In many ways, it seems like the 30s all over again, when everyone thought we had to choose between socialism and fascism and that there was no other path. At least the confusions of the 30s have the excuse that a depression was raging. What’s our excuse for forgetting the liberal vision today? It is really disgusting.

Of course I’m cheering on Ron Paul because he is exposing the nature of the whole system. He is not running for president. He is running against the presidency as it is currently understood. Ultimately, however, I do not believe that politics offers a way out. What we need is a new consciousness concerning the idea of human liberty.

Johnsson: Would you vote for a libertarian in any election?

Rockwell: I don’t vote. Why play along? Your vote doesn’t count, unless the election is decided by one vote, and you have far more chance of being killed on the way to the polls than that happening. Besides, the vote is the sign and symbol of the democratic state. I abstain.

Johnsson: Do you think we should reform taxes?

Rockwell: The tax reform game is an old one. The idea is to tell people that taxes can be made simpler, easier, less intrusive, less distortive, less onerous, and all the rest. But it never seems to pan out, and for one simple reason: taxing always and everywhere means taking money from people by force. They try to disguise that in various ways, and that is really what is going on with tax reform. It’s like negotiating with a robber, who proposes to enter your house at night so he won’t disturb you, or asks for a key to the front door so that he won’t have to break in, or suggests that you give him some cash so that he won’t have to take the family silver. In the end, your property is gone. So reform doesn’t seem like a good path to me. What we need are lower taxes, or, ideally, no taxes. We should start by abolishing certain tax programs, such as the income tax.

Johnsson: Some say you’re an anarchist; is that true?

Rockwell: The term anarchist is mostly used to mean someone who believes that if the state and law are gotten rid of, all property would become collectively owned. It was the great insight of Murray Rothbard that this is not the case: private ownership and the law that support it are natural, while the state is artificial. So he was an anarchist in this sense but to avoid confusion he used the term anarcho-capitalist. This doesn’t mean that he favored somehow establishing a capitalist system in place of the state. What he said is that capitalism is the de facto result in a civilized society without a state. Has this position made advances? Yes, but not so many that we can use the term anarchism without causing confusion. If the purpose of words is to communicate, I’m not sure that the term does that well.

As to my own views, I do believe that society thrives best without a state. But I’m with Rothbard, Nock, Molinari, Chodorov, and others who believe in law and private government, such as we find in corporations, housing subdivisions, and church hierarchies. So if by anarchism we mean a society without law, I’m completely against that idea.

Johnsson: How did the Mises Institute get started?

Rockwell: I founded the Mises Institute in 1982 in cooperation with Mises’s widow Margit. The idea was to provide an infrastructure of support for Misesian thought, primarily in economics but also in other areas. Rothbard was an enormous help. We ended up as his main publisher at a time when others found him to be too radical, just as people found Mises to be too radical. The Mises Institute is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. It has become a major force in the world of ideas. I’m thrilled at the progress we’ve made.

Johnsson: Some have said Murray N. Rothbard’s view on economic thought is not reliable; do you agree or disagree with that?

Rockwell: Did Murray make mistakes? Of course. There are no oracles who see all and know all. But no one can read a masterpiece like Man, Economy, and State, or browse his massive History of Economic Thought, and say that his economic thought was unreliable. He was a great theorist and teacher in every way.

Johnsson: Do you agree with Ron Paul that we should go by the Constitution and that’s it?

Rockwell: The Constitution would be a major improvement over what we have today. But we need to realize that the Constitution itself represented a major increase in government power over the Articles of Confederation, which would have served us quite well had it not been overthrown. I’m not impressed by the bunch that foisted the Constitution on us. They were really up to no good. We’ve all but forgotten that most everyone opposed it at the time. It only squeaked through once the Bill of Rights was tacked on. The Bill of Rights isn’t perfect, but it at least had the advantage of spelling out what the government could not do. In a rather ingenious twist, even that has been perverted: it is now seen as a mandate for the federal government to tell lower orders of government what they cannot do, meaning that it ends up being a force for centralization. This is such a tragedy. If Patrick Henry could see what became of it, I’m sure he never would have tolerated it. The same might be true of Hamilton, for that matter. So long as we are talking about founding documents, the one that really deserves more attention is the Declaration of Independence. Now here is an inspiring document that shows us where we should go in the future!