Failures of the Classical Liberal Argument

Hans-Hermann Hoppe identified correctly the key fault of the classical liberals, which was their acceptance of government as a territorial monopolist of legal force. It was impossible to reconcile liberty and property and their protection with a territorial monopolist of legal force that established the extent of protective services, the kinds of such services, and the taxation to pay for these services. Such a government could not be restrained from exercising its powers against the people it was supposed to protect. Nothing has changed in the incentive structure brought about when a government takes over defense. What was true in 1789 is true today. It is still impossible to expect such a government to deliver the protection of property that the classical liberal imagines its role to be.

A recent statement of the classical liberal ideal appears in a blog by Eric Georgatos, as follows:

“…in America, the individual is sovereign, free. The government doesn’t exist to rule him; he governs himself, and the government’s job is to protect his right to do so. He doesn’t stand for a tyrannical mob telling him what he can do with his life, how much of what he earns he can keep, what his carbon footprint can be, what his food and drink shall be, what temperature his thermostat can be set to, what and where and from whom he shall obtain healthcare.”

This statement accurately captures some pertinent ideas that are central to classical liberal thought. First is the idea of the individual as free and sovereign. The libertarian agrees. Second is that the individual governs himself. The libertarian agrees. Third, the individual gives the government the job of protecting his rights. Not so! The libertarian, at least the Hoppean and Rothbardian, disagrees. I too disagree.

Why should anyone rationally turn this job over to a government, knowing that its role is that of a permanent monopolist in the use of legal force? If it’s not permanent, it’s not a government. It then would be a service provider whose services are contingent upon the demands of its customers. If not permanent, it would be a company or association of some sort that lacked the powers to tax and to decide upon the details of defense. If it’s not a sole provider, a single-payer if you will, and a single player in the realm of defense, then it’s not a government; for then it becomes subject to market competition. It’s impossible to conceive of a rational contract by which this sovereign and free individual American signs off to a government and assigns to it such permanent control over his life, his freedom and his property. This kind of a one-sided deal amounts to making oneself a slave. This contradicts the classical liberal premise that the individual is a sovereign and free person. Therefore, while protection of rights is certainly a good to be cherished and sought out, there is a gulf between that and saying that the government’s job is to handle this chore.

Look what happens next in Mr. Georgatos’s blog. He lists some of the things that the sovereign free person “doesn’t stand for”, like whom he can hire and fire, how much his taxes are, his carbon footprint, his healthcare services, etc. Libertarians agree fully with his list. But they are all things that government has done, is doing, and can be expected to do more of. And why is that? It’s because the government cannot be made to be limited to protection of rights and simultaneously possess the powers to be sole provider of protection services and taxer of its subjects. As sole provider, a government gets to define protection services and gets to set taxes to pay for them. These powers are bound to infringe on property rights and individual freedom; and there is no way that the subjects can control the tendency of government to expand and extend its infringements, because the government has the power to make the laws and to interpret the constitution, if there is one.

The only recourse, the only way out of this dead end, is a revolution that takes this “job” of rights protection away from the government, that is, gets rid of government, and replaces it by other means of freely contracting for them in markets for protection services. There is no other alternative. Freedom has to encompass freedom to choose protection services. By getting rid of government, this will automatically result in getting rid of the “tyrannical mob telling him what he can do with his life, how much of what he earns he can keep, what his carbon footprint can be, what his food and drink shall be, what temperature his thermostat can be set to, what and where and from whom he shall obtain healthcare.”

The classical liberal idea of individual freedom is paralyzed in the hands of Republicans. They pay it lip service, but their adherence to government itself is something they share with Democrats, who don’t give a hoot about individual freedom. The result is that Republicans have no fundamental way to dismantle big government or to maintain limited government. By supporting government itself, they’ve already lost the battle and the war.

It is not uncommon for Republicans to extol Lincoln for saving the nation, America as one nation. Worried about divisions, Georgatos writes “Most Americans know the nation as they have understood it is fundamentally at risk in 2019.” Here again is a problem in classical liberal thinking that endures to this day in the thought of both Democrats and Republicans. They think Americans are one nation and that this one nation supports the endorsement of one government. They think that this tie between people united as subjects, to their rulers, united in a single monopoly government, is a good thing; or at least a thing that’s consistent with the American ideal of the sovereign free individual. However, once again, the ideal of free individuals doesn’t lead to or imply that Americans are or should be one nation, much less under one national or federal government. The ideal of individual freedom, which when examined is grounded upon private property, actually allows for, even encourages, multiple nations and multiple means of obtaining protection services.

It’s just as difficult to wean a Republican away from Republican ideas of government as it is to wean a Democrat away from Democrat ideas, the reason being that they share the adherence to government itself.


7:51 pm on November 16, 2019