In Defense of Libertarian Absolutism Reply

In his discussions of libertarian strategy, Murray Rothbard warned of two grave errors libertarians might be inclined to make. (1) One of these is “left sectarianism”, a position that is so attached to abstract ideological principles and theoretical purity that real world strategic considerations are ignored and discarded. I am known for my strident criticisms of those pie-in-the-sky utopian anarchists of the left who make this mistake. To be frank, I have the same criticism of some in the anarcho-capitalist milieu as well. (2) For example, Hans Hoppe’s idea of private armies and police forces run by insurance conglomerates often sounds more feudal than anarchistic and, indeed, Hoppe has even made the dubious claim that medieval feudal society was stateless. (3) On the other end, Rothbard also warned against “right opportunism”, a process whereby pragmatic interests become paramount to the point that basic principles are severely diluted and compromised. With this latter point in mind, I refer the reader to an article by Bruce Ramsey entitled “Dialog With an Absolutist”. This article appears in the July 2003 issue of Liberty magazine. (4)

I like Liberty magazine. I have been reading it for over ten years, and while its flavor is often a little too centrist for my tastes, it contains much excellent journalism and features commentators from across the spectrum of libertarian opinion, from David Boaz to Bob Black.(5) I also like Bruce Ramsey and regard him as one of the best among Liberty’s regular contributers. Ramsey is a libertarian is the tradition of Hayek and the elder Friedman, rightward leaning, utilitarian and uncompromisingly pragmatic in strategic outlook and ideological foundations alike. In his well reasoned article, Ramsey takes issue with libertarian “absolutists” (anarchists, Randians and others) whom he places, for all practical purposes, in the left sectarian category described above. Of anarchists Ramsey says:

“Pursued to its ultimate end-which is where the absolutist pursues all ideas-the non-coercion principle does not allow the imposition of taxes or even of citizenship. It leads to anarchism, a philosophy that has no more real-world application than an M.C. Escher drawing”.

Like Ramsey, I would agree that a consistent application of the non-coercion principle inevitably leads to philosophical anarchism and that anarchism automatically excludes the coercive imposition of taxes. Citizenship is a little more problematical. For these and other reasons, I am in fact an anarchist. Ramsey takes it as a given than anarchism is absurd on its face and dismisses the anarchist position in the same a priori manner typical of nearly all statist critics of anarchism. In all the years that I have been studying anarchist theory and the attempts at refutation offered by its critics, I have very rarely encountered any anti-anarchist who offered any argument beyond that of the presuppositional “it won’t work” garden variety. (6) Perhaps it is indeed true that an unadulterated “anarchy” could never be achieved in the real world but this does not solve the intellectual problem involved. Criticism of the state as an institution extends way beyond that offered by modern anarchists and libertarians. The great Christian theologian Augustine of Hippo regarded states without justice as nothing more than robber bands writ large. Although I shy away from the metaphysical notions of “justice” that dominate much of traditional Western philosophy, and much libertarian theory also (I am more of a Nietzschean subjectivist), even the most elementary application of the irreducible minimum of commonly shared ideas about ethics that run through all human cultures indicates that no state has ever behaved in a consistently or even predominately “just” manner. Hence, we are left with the conclusions of Rothbard and the classical anarchists alike that the state is nothing more than a criminal gang that exists only to control territory, expands its power, protect an artificially created ruling class, and exploit its subjects. Additionally, anarchist thinkers from Spooner to Hoppe have shown the economic and logical fallacy of modern attempts to justify the state under the cover of “democratist” or “constitutionalist” theory.

The fact that world peace may never be completely achieved does not legitimize war or mean that peace is unacceptable as a matter of principle. The fact that murders and rapes may never be eliminated from human society does not mean that such acts should be intellectually defended. As Pierre Joseph Proudhon, the godfather of classical anarchism, remarked:

“It is scarcely likely, however far the human race may progress in civilization, morality, and wisdom, that all traces of government and authority will vanish.” (7)

Similarly, the eminent mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell observed that anarchism is “the ultimate ideal to which society should approximate”. Yet Russell was notoriously pragmatic in the application of his political views, usually functioning as the voice of a nominal classical liberalism, in the tradition of John Stuart Mill, on the left wing of the British Labor Party. (8)

Of course, I realize that individual human beings do not exist in the same manner as asteroids floating about in the vacuum of space. Of course, I realize that society cannot be organized in such a manner as though every individual were a sovereign nation unto themselves, except for in the case of those who prefer a hermitic existence in the Arctic or Andes. What I would offer in the place of traditional states would be confederations of voluntary communities or associations organized according to the values of their members and participants. As David Michael, a theoretician of an interesting movement called “national-anarchism”, comments:

“…as an alternative to powerful state systems we would advocate the formation of small communities, which may govern themselves however they wish. Those that wish to apply the sort of social system that (the classical anarchist Mikhail) Bakunin preferred may, of course, do so. However, those that do not like his brand of socialism would be free to run their affairs as they wish. Thus, if particular groups want religious education, or banks, or a even a monarchy, they are quite free to have them. Some communities could be socialistic, others capitalistic, others deeply religious, others anti-religious. This is not, indeed, the ‘total abolition of the state’ but rather the delegation of the functions currently associated with large states to the community or homeland level, together with the freedom to carry out those functions however they wish. What is being abolished is not government but rather supra-community government, imperialistic government, and the imposition of ideology upon unwilling communities. And this, surely, is the great strength,…an anarchism of ‘nations’ or ‘homelands’ or ‘communities’-an anarchism that liberates communities from imposed government…rather…than purports to work at the individual level but, in practice, would not work at all.” (9)

Such a vision is fairly consistent with the private contractual communities favored by libertarian and market anarchists as well as the decentralized, town meeting-type “governments” favored by left-libertarians and populists alike. (10) With this vision in mind, we are now ready to examine Ramsey’s critique of “absolutist” libertarians. Ramsey begins his arguments by attempting to define and clarify his own views. He says:

“We are libertarians because liberty is our central political value. It is our defining principle, our badge. That does not mean that we follow it without thinking.”

So far, so good. Nearly all professed libertarians, and not a few non-libertarians, would agree with this sentiment and no one should ever follow anything without thinking, whether sequestered religious cults or absolutist libertarianism. Ramsey goes on to describe his position by quoting Louis Rukeyser:

“First, I am for liberty; second, I am for what works.”

Says Ramsey: “That’s me. Liberty, and what works.”

Well, that’s me, too. So far Ramsey and I are on the same page. But then Ramsey backtracks and offers ten different scenarios where the principle of liberty is insufficient and must be complemented (or replaced), presumably, by statism. It would be easiest to refute his objections by discussing them one by one so here goes:

1) The first is the argument already mentioned, specifically, that a consistent application of libertarian principles necessarily implies anarchism. So be it. As mentioned, the fact that what is right may never be realized is by no means reason to disregard it on the moral or intellectual level.

2) The role of children in a libertarian society and the nature of their rights against the rights of their parents cannot be clearly determined by libertarian theory. I agree. The question of children is one of those gray areas in libertarian ideology where easy answers cannot be located. Here we have to look to non-rational sources of guidance like custom and tradition and strike a pragmatic balance between competing interests and concerns. Some libertarian communities may recognize a five year old’s right to run away from home. Others may consider children the property of their parents until some determined age of “majority”. Any reconciliation of this issue is likely to be arbitrary.

3) “Lifeboat situations”. Here, Ramsey ignores the “worst case scenarios make for bad precedents” rule. His specific example is military conscription and he points out that Switzerland saved itself from Nazi aggression, in part, by imposing a military draft during World War Two. He rejects the claims of the likes of Robert Heinlein and Ayn Rand that a society that cannot defend itself voluntarily is not worth defending. But that is simply his subjective individual preference, rooted in emotion and personal interests, not an objective principle. I am not going to damn the Swiss for imposing a draft when threatened with invasion from neighboring Nazi Germany. Speaking for myself, I would rather do time in the Swiss militia than in Auschwitz.(11) But that’s my choice. Who am I to say those who would rather take their chances under Nazi occupation than submit to Swiss military conscription are wrong? That’s their choice.

4) Matters of so-called “public health”. The examples given are the spread of AIDS through gay bathhouses (one of David Horowitz’s hot button issues)(12) and, of course, drug abuse. I would say that those who risk contracting AIDS by frequenting gay bathhouses are no different than those who risk acquiring lung cancer by smoking four packs a day. Good luck to them. I thought libertarians were supposed to be believers in personal responsibility, including responsibility for caring for one’s own health. Thomas Szasz has said that, were it not for its tongue-twister nature, “responsibilitarianism” might be a better term for anti-statist ideology than “libertarianism”. As for drugs, Ramsey argues that “for some prohibited drugs there is no safe use. But libertarians argue as if chemistry and biology were irrelevant, which would imply that it would be okay to sell any drug that did anything”. Well, why not? Again, the question of personal responsibility arises. I fail to see why I should ingest whatever exotic chemicals I wish and then blame those I bought them from when something goes wrong. Ramsey also shows his ignorance of how illegal drug markets actually work. Prohibition encourages the use of more potent, addictive drugs as these are the most profitable in a black market. A genuine free market in psychoactive drugs would once again make available smokable opium, chewable coca leaves, coca-based beverages, foods containing marijuana and hashish and even harder drugs like heroin or designer drugs like “ecstasy” would be manufactured by competent professionals rather than basement chemists, thereby resulting in fewer deaths from unknown dosages and poisoned supplies. The end of alcohol prohibiton largely eliminated rotgut and white lightning in favor of “light” beer and wine coolers. The end of drug prohibition would likely have the same effect.

5) The use of eminent domain to build highways. On this point, Ramsey takes it for granted that stealing someone’s home, land or business is justifiable for the construction of roads. Why? Because “all societies have used eminent domain to build roads” and because “Richard Epstein thinks so” (yes, he actually uses these arguments!). At one point, nearly “all societies” practiced slavery, which would certainly be an easy and cheap way to acquire the labor needed “to build roads”. If the market will not support the building of a road, then perhaps the road simply should not be built. Also, subsidies to road construction and eminent domain serve as de facto political favors for large companies whose profits are heavily dependent on shipping, long-range cargo transportation and trade relations over a large geographical area to the detriment of their smaller, more localized competitors. In other words, eminent domain and public works are largely just another form of corporate welfare and monopoly privilege.

6) Public streets. Ramsey says “absolutist libertarians envision a world 100 percent privately owned” and responds “I think I am freest with millions of islands of private property-little sanctuaries for owners like me-connected by public arteries and supplied with occasional public spaces.” I, for one, agree with this sentiment and I would also agree that many libertarians do indeed miss the boat on this issue. But, as ASC’s own Carlton Hobbs has shown, there is no reason why there cannot be tracts of “common” property in a libertarian society that are in fact owned by the community at-large on a customary basis and with each having a common law right of access, as in the case of public thoroughfares. (13)

7) Ramsey also objects to the emphasis placed on the gold standard by many libertarians and the related opposition to central banking. His argument is that history has shown that gold-backed currency is not entirely stable and can be subject to mild fluctuation and occasional inflationary or deflationary pressures. He also notes that the current system of fiat money co-exists with an inflation rate of 2 percent and wonders what exactly the problem is. Ramsey’s position is that “as long as we have Alan Greenspan or his clones running the fiat-money system, the case against the status quo will be entirely theoretical, which means that system will not change.” Perhaps the state should subsidize research into producing clones of Alan Greenspan. We could call them “Dolly Greenspan”, “Dolly Greenspan Model Two” and so on. Ramsey ignores the big picture on the question of monetary policy. While it is true that inflation rates have been modest in recent years, the value of the dollar has been reduced by more than fifty percent since 1981 and is still falling. In the early sixties, a man who made ten grand annually would have been considered rather affluent. Today, he would be on the verge of destitution. Inflation and ongoing currency devaluation, even if gradual and predictable, are hidden taxes that eat up the savings of working people, particularly the elderly. I agree that some libertarians and populists alike act as though hard money and a precious metal standard are some kind of universal economic cure-all. I don’t think that. It’s simply the best there is. And from a libertarian perspective, there is also the question of how a centralized, monopolistic cartel of private banks receiving state-imposed privileges (i.e, the Federal Reserve system) can be reconciled with anti-statist principles.

8) Ramsey supports laws requiring the listing of ingredients found in packaged foods, potential side effects of medicines, full disclosure and the like, arguing that these are necessary for consumers to make informed choices. He notes that brewers are not required to list the ingredients in their beers, and so they don’t. Well, people typically do not acquire botulism or experience seizures from beer. If a manufacturer will not give you the information you need to make an informed consumer choice, then that might be a good indication that purchasing his products would be unwise. Has Ramsey ever heard of “Consumer Reports”? Is he familiar with the way the Food and Drug Administration keeps life-saving medicines off the market for years with all sorts of bureaucratic red tape and political machinations while people die needlessly? Does he know how essential pharmaceutical products are priced out of the range of ordinary consumers by means of monopolistic or protectionist patent laws? I’m not going to go to the barricades to oppose food labeling regulations. I just don’t think it matters all that much.

9) Gun laws. Should everyone be allowed to own machine guns? Cruise missles? Land mines, tanks or nukes? Ramsey wants to know. Once again, Ramsey ignores the economics of the market for such hardware. I find this surprising. As a business reporter by profession, Ramsey must certainly have some elementary knowledge of the principles of economic science. Tanks, missles and “weapons of mass destruction” are simply out of the range of affordability of most people. Perhaps a Bill Gates could afford a small arsenal of unconventional weaponry. I suspect that a genuine free market would result in fewer concentrations of billions of dollars into the hands of a single individual or small group, although I realize there is disagreement among libertarians on this point. Tanks and cruise missles both cost a million or two bucks a piece. Not exactly manageable on a factory worker’s salary. Even regular machine guns and other more conventional military weapons are rather expensive. If one prefers a case study on this question, fully automatic rifles and other firearms were apparently sold “over the counter” in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Yet crime rates were much lower there than in just about any American city of any size. Swiss militiamen are issued fully automatic rifles and a year’s supply of ammunition to be kept in their homes. Yet Switzerland is not plagued by school massacres and drive-by shootings. The problems of this type in America are the result of moral and cultural failures, not lax gun laws.

10) Lastly, commercial sex. Ramsey asks “Is anything allowed? How about a bordello designed as a ten-story erect penis?” As an unapologetic cultural libertarian, I would have no objection to the “erection” of such a structure. I have been to the infamous Red Light District of Amsterdam where “anything” (and I mean anything) is indeed allowed. It’s about as threatening as a trip to Disney World. The ancient Greeks seem to have had literally no conception of sexual “morality” yet their culture is often regarded as the apex of Western civilization, particularly and ironically by conservatives. Ancient Rome is renowned for its orgies and alleged decadence, yet the Romans achieved a very high level of civilization that lasted for millennia. Certainly, many people in our society are offended by graphic displays of public sexuality and above board and out in the open vice industries. Restrictive covenants on the part of business associations, homeowners associations, schools, churches and other civic or social institutions are no doubt the solution. If a neighborhood or business district establishes a common agreement to exclude from their midst sex clubs, strip joints, whore houses or whatever, then this is entirely compatible with libertarian principles. In a society ordered on the basis of libertarian anarchy, some communities could be as free-wheeling as the Mardi Gras while others could be as closed as that of the Nazis or the Taliban.

Ramsey goes on to argue that none of these issues really matter that much because “none are issues currently on the table: our society is not debating commercial sex, or the right to own rockets, or the selling of city streets. It is talking about issues such as: 1) War and foreign policy; 2) Taxes and government spending; 3) Schools; 4) Welfare; 5) Social Security; 6) Medicine; 7) Race preferences and the freedom of association. On these, libertarian theory has something to say.” He goes on to endorse “Social Security private accounts” and other Cato-type “libertarian” ideas. Ramsey continues:

“I trust a free people in cases of economic demand and a working market. Not always otherwise. Maybe there aren’t enough libertarians to screw in a light bulb. And maybe I don’t want to be in the dark.”

Well, I don’t want to be in the dark either, but I’m not about to force my fellow citizens to pay taxes to buy me a light bulb any more than I am going to get a light bulb by sticking up the local hardware store. On one hand, I would commend Ramsey for at least pointing out that, like any other philosophy, libertarian anarchism is not without its weaknesses. I am highly eclectic in the ideological realm and highly pragmatic in the strategic realm. I draw on the legacy of many different strands of anarchist and libertarian thought and try to use these to create a syncretic whole that best applies to the world as it actually is. On strategy, I take a multi-faceted approach. Unlike some libertarian anarchists, I believe there are times when “working within the system” by voting or lobbying or whatever are not only legitimate but vital. Unlike many anarcho-pacifists, I also believe that there are times when armed struggle, “violent revolution” and perhaps even terrorism are not only legitimate but vital. (14) I recognize that there are many gray areas in the application of libertarian ideology. These include abortion, capital punishment, children’s rights, animal rights, ecological concerns, the proper interpretation of just war doctrine, how property rights are to be defined, mercy killing, and many, many other things. I believe that a libertarian society can accomodate a variety of libertarian tendencies, each with their own communities and institutions, and that libertarian communities could possibly co-exist somewhat peacefully with anti-libertarian communities as well. Because of this approach, I have been criticized as statist by some, extremist by others, reformist by some, inflammatory by others. Like Ramsey, I believe in liberty and I believe in what works. I just disagree that Ramsey’s approach works.

The last thing we need is a “libertarianism” that is just another variation of the dominant corporate-social democratic paradigm along side the neoconservatives and left-liberals. This is where Ramsey and his ideological kin at Cato, Reason, IFJ and elsewhere would take us, whether that be their intention or not. Libertarians are not just another species of fiscal conservatives or “low-tax liberals”. Libertarians are, or should be, guardians of the anti-statist faith. Ramsey’s approach strikes me as profoundly inattentive to principle. Let’s just delay the ultimate bankruptcy of Social Security a little while longer. Let’s cut those marginal income tax rates just a bit. Let the state pay for everyone to go to “private” schools at taxpayer expense. Why bother standing up to the profiteers of the War on Drugs and the prison-industrial complex? Who cares about the slaughter of thousands of innocents in Third World nations by the American imperial machine? Why worry about those social scapegoats persecuted by the state? What are a bunch of psychiatric prisoners, penitentiary inmates, sex workers or homeless kids going to do for us anyway? What do the poor folks herded into the urban reservations of public housing matter so long as middle-class civil service bureaucrats can preserve their state pensions?

The more commonplace a particular term becomes, the more its meaning becomes diluted. In recent years, I have noticed that more and more people have started calling themselves libertarians. The arch-statist, arch-Zionist, arch-warmonger David Horowitz, who favors prosecuting antiwar protestors for treason, has called himself a “libertarian irregular”. Irregular is right. After “Vegas Bill” Bennett, who favors the public beheading of drug sellers, gave an interview that included lip service to the states’ rights provisions of the Tenth Amendment, the foolish Nick Gillespie of Reason magazine praised Bennett for his “grudging, pragmatic libertarianism”. The Foundation for Economic Education went so far as to invite Rudy “Il Duce” Guiliani to be the keynote speaker at its convention. Mark Skousen considered this to be quite a coup. Of course, all this idiocy does is reinforce the already overblown stereotype adhered to by many radicals that libertarianism is just a variation of right-wing, capital “C” Conservatism, which is in turn regarded as just another flavor of fascism, often with considerable justification. These types of “libertarians” we can do without.

Notes:

1) See Rothbard’s chapter on libertarian strategy in his “Ethics of Liberty”.

2) For an example of my critique of modern left-wing anarchism see the following:

“Anarchism of Anarcho-Social Democracy?” www.attackthesystem.com/anarchism2.html

“Learning the Hard Way: My Life As An Anarcho-Leftoid” www.attackthesystem.com/learning.html

3) See Hoppe, “Democracy: The God That Failed”. Hoppe’s critique of modern statism and the “democratist” ideology on which it is based is quite penetrating, but he romanticizes pre-modern monarchical societies in the same way that Rousseau-influenced leftists romanticize “primitive” cultures.

4) Bruce Ramsey, “Dialog With an Absolutist”, Liberty, July 2003.

5) David Boaz is an official at the Cato Institute, a liberal-corporatist “libertarian” think tank. Bob Black is an iconoclastic anarchist writer best known for his essay, “The Abolition of Work”.

6) For example, Lansing Pollack argues that if libertarian rights theory implied anarchism, a claim that he vehemently denies, this would be a fatal blow to libertarianism. See Pollack, “The Free Society”

7) Proudhon, “Du Principe Federatif”

8) For a concise but excellent biography of Russell as a political activist, see “Bertrand Russell: A Political Life” by Alan Ryan

9) See Michael, “On a Decisive Break With Far Right Ideology” at www.nationalanarchist.com/break1.html

10) For this statement, I will no doubt be accused of statism by some. My own approach to anarchistic theory may be in need of clarification. I agree with the central claim of traditional philosophical anarchism that the state is simply a criminal gang writ large. Yet virtually all serious theoreticians of anarchism offer what appears to be little more than an alternative type of state, whether these be the decentralized socialist collectives favored by anarchists of the left or the private industrialized feudatories favored by anarchists of the libertarian variety. I have previously discussed this problem in “Anarchist Law” at www.attackthesystem.com/law.html Rather than adopt a prescriptive form of anarchism that postulates an intellectually conceptualized utopian framework for the reconstruction of the world, and thereby falling into the trap of the conceited “constructivism” that Hayek warned against, it may be better to focus on the identification and deconstruction of concentrations of coercive force wherever they appear. Foremost among these would be the so-called New World Order of global corporate mercantilism under American imperial hegemony followed by the system of centralist corporate-social democratic nation-states that dominate the modern world. These bureaucracies should be dissolved in favor decentralized confederations of regions and communities whose content include the entire spectrum of cultural and ideological orientations. Some communities or regions could have institutions such as those advocated by Rothbard or Hoppe. Others could organized themselves according to the ideals of Proudhon, Bookchin, Chomsky, Southgate, Rand, Jefferson, Spencer, the Unabomber, the Army of God or whomever.See M. Raphael Johnson, “Nations and Anarchy: Towards Putting An End to the Myth of the Nation-State” at www.terrafirma.rosenoire.org/articles/SUMMER2003RaphaelJohnson1.html

11) David Friedman makes this point in “Machinery of Freedom”

12) In “The Politics of Bad Faith”, Horowitz blames gay activists for the spread of AIDS by lobbying against the closing of the bathhouses, thereby becoming a right-wing counterpart to the liberals who blame tobacco companies and firearms manufacturers for lung cancer and “gun violence”.

13) See Carlton Hobbs excellent article at www.anti-state.com/article.php?article_id=362

14) This is not to say that acts of political violence against innocents is acceptable. Tyrannicide, yes. Destruction of the headquarters of deadly government organizations, yes. Concentrated guerrilla warfare, yes. But wholesale massacres of powerless non-combatants a la Tim McVeigh, no.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s