“Libertarian”? What?

This past summer, after three years, I resigned as the (founding) Editor of The Christian Libertarian Review. There were various reasons for this, including the unique demands and requirements of trying to run a new publication, but also ideological ones as well. I’ve received some inquiries about my evolving socio-economic and political views, so this brief essay is an attempt to better explain myself and summarize some of the things I’ve learned.

(Note: “Libertarian” by the late 1800s was used internationally for “anti-state socialism” and for many decades, before getting redefined in the 1950s as right-wing free-market capitalism. See McKay, Property is Theft, p. 1)

Many people identify as “libertarian” for a variety of reasons. I first got into libertarian circles and spent considerable energy writing under that label because it was a space that seemed to promote ideas and actions that I aligned with. To me, libertarianism was/is a good fit because of the following:

  1. Its rejection of two-party politics. As Ron Paul famously put it, “there is only one party in Washington.” Both Republican and Democrat parties are owned by corporations (sometimes the same ones!), and neither are interested in systemic change. They are also terribly unprincipled and continually compromised. Being loyal to either party therefore seems irrational and an unreliable way to ensure any kind of integrity and credulity. Voting for the lesser of two evils is still voting for evil, and it has usually resulted in disappointing results for everyone anyway (as recent social science has proven).
  2. Its emphasis on nonviolence. The “principle of non-aggression” (NAP) states that it is illegitimate and/or immoral for a person or group to initiate force on another. While individualistic and sometimes having exceptions, this axiomatic framework seems to make a lot of sense. Furthermore, “nonviolence” entails an anti-war disposition, and for anyone who has seen the effects of war (well, everyone has felt them in some way), it is something to be avoided at all costs. There are few political philosophies that give nonviolence such priority; they certainly play no substantive role in the red/blue dualism of America.
  3. Freedom should be a value. Using force to achieve a utopia is a dystopia. Everything should be voluntary insofar as that is possible, and freedom should have some kind of priority in our social and political thinking. If it isn’t, coercion easily creeps in.
  4. The state is illegitimate. Nation states are territorial monopolies on the physical means of violence, as any good sociologist describes (Weber, Giddens, Oppenheimer, etc.). They are large scale gangs with elections and a few marching bands. The consent of states from the people isn’t genuine consent; the social contract is a fiction. And states’ collectivism (with nationalism) naturally sacrifices the rights of individuals. The modern-nation state and any similar arrangement is an inherently violent social order that should be opposed. (Some libertarian really mean this, and are therefore “anarchist” in one sense, while others are not—so-called “minarchists.”) Statism (a social ethos centered on the state and its glorification) has a terrible history in the last century and should be deeply opposed and protected against.
  5. Politics must deal with the realities of sound economics. Libertarians are more interested in talking about economics than almost any other political group. Whether their economic ideas are right or wrong, this discourse is at least a necessary one to address what can only be described as economic problems.

I came to learn that there are many other reasons why people identify as libertarian, however. For example, libertarianism’s emphasis on individual freedoms relieve a group of having to address social and structural evils. They also condone various behaviors considered vices (prostitution, drug use, etc.) that many would see freed-up. Many are libertarian simply because they hate government processes, politics, and in general, or because they just want massive tax decreases, or because they want to maintain capitalist control over the economy, or are simply paranoid about statist communism coming into existence, etc.

At any rate, I’m generally not part of “those” particular libertarian groups. Indeed I have had to distance myself a bit more in the last year from libertarian circles (and tend not to use the label) for the following reasons:

  1. Libertarian circles and organizations often fall under the same uncritical, internalized cult of superiority like any ideology. In other words, the ideology is a perfectly coherent system that explains all relevant facts, and as such, the right answers can be provided before questions are even asked and data even observed. Very few libertarian public intellectuals have actually read Marx, the half dozen varieties of 19th century socialism, or the academic works of contemporary democratic socialist theorists (except maybe to criticize), and yet feel confident and informed enough to publicly and regularly criticize Marxists, all forms of socialism, and basically any dissenter. As a professor who has lived through many degrees, intellectual journeys, and assisted many students through various phases of their own intellectual lives, this kind of environment is always precarious and problematic. I’m done playing that game myself. (I’ve learned that when I’m always right, this is the surest sign that I’m wrong!)
  2. Similar to the above, the Austrian school of economics in particular (which is dominated by libertarians and anarcho-capitalists) is known for embodying this problem, being highly anti-empirical. Being aware of the modern-post-modern shift and familiar with the false absolutisms and the obsession of quantifiability and “measurable outcomes” of high modernism, I actually sympathize with many of these sentiments. My wife is a narrative therapist (the most critical of “science” and the medical field’s incursion on mental health) and I’ve cited Michel Foucault more than once in my own scholarly publications. I did my graduate work as a critical theorist (a feminist in this case). History has also shown how “science” is used as a cover for racism, sexism, and homophobia—or as legitimation of some corporate product or project. “Science” can be bought and manufactured. However, the world of empiricism and empirical science is known for keeping our “feet on the ground,” for all of human knowledge appears to be gained through observation and experience (cf. Ward, The Christian Idea of God, 2017). It allows us to decisively refute the flat-earthist. Or at least, science should! The trouble is, the praxeology of Von Mises lacks this falsifiability element and in a way, cannot be wrong. (If data doesn’t fit the theory. the data is wrong, not the theory…!) That’s great for people who always want to be right, but it’s bad for people who are actually looking for truth and don’t care where the data and observations lead, and aren’t willing to give up when life becomes super complex.
  3. The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 made these problems evident and exposed the reactive, anti-intellectual side of libertarianism. Libertarians had already written the script for pandemic responses in advance, and knew with infallibility that countries and states with no forced restrictions would yield better outcomes, and that the government…and medical establishment…and, well, anyone who disagrees, would be wrong. Libertarian ideologues had to…even if that’s not where the data pointed. (I write this from South Dakota, ground zero for the pandemic, priding itself on its libertarian approach—despite having more cases than New York state!). Along the way, every manner of anti-science, anti-professional, anti-medicine, anti-establishment, and anti-government rhetorical ploy was used, such that the pandemic was categorized as just “the flu” (yes, months before it had even fully disseminated into the population). Of course the government is taking advantage of lockdowns and the state is coming into its own with curfews etc.; but libertarians have not been able to take the log out of their own eye, finding fault with every statistic, every organization, every policy, except their own—again, regardless of the actual observations. The hotel just blocks from my house has never housed dozens of flu patients. My nurse friends have never seen so many blood clots from flu patients. Etc. There is evidently (no pun intended) no amount of observation or empirical data that can disrupt the infallibilities of the theory. (It is not a surprise that many or most Christian libertarians tend to be fundamentalist evangelicals and Catholics; the dogmatic, anti-science attitudes are largely the same.)
  4. Libertarians cannot acknowledge the historical and contemporary fact that crony-capitalism (state-capture by private profit-seeking sector) has always been (a) the norm, not the exception in a post-feudalist world, and (b) is not fixing itself, theoretically won’t fix itself, and naturally continues to get worse with deregulation/”more freedom.” This disagreement was partly illustrated in an episode of EconTalk between Russ Roberts (asserting that crony-capitalism isn’t that serious and will probably fix itself) and Michael Munger. Supposedly “capitalism” and more “freedom” will somehow prevent the consolidation of economic and political power. On the contrary, that’s precisely what created this problem. (Anarcho-capitalism, furthermore, would embody this problem on the largest scale possible, such that the private sector would ultimately function like a state; see further remarks below).
  5. Free markets and capitalism are not neutral. The legal system, court system, economic system, education system, real estate system, has had slants and curves and biases of all kinds throughout history; they empower some groups far more than others. The more and more of a “free-market” there is, the more and more these biases can be exploited and produce unjust results that benefit certain groups. Definitions of “property” and “money” aren’t neutral. Definitions of “corporation” and “family” aren’t neutral, and continue to evolve. Libertarians generally disagree, and see “free markets” and “capitalism” as the lack of ideological re-enforcement instead of its perpetuation.
  6. Indeed, even “freedom,” “liberty,” and other stock terms are malleable, often used as a cover for power-grabs, not just words to describe tenets of a philosophy. In the non-neutral environment noted above, “freedom” is more important than justice to those who can take advantage of such freedom the most. The powerful and privileged want freedom, not justice. Markets aren’t fair, and won’t produce fair results. So the question for me isn’t “how can we ensure everyone is the same” (a caricature of egalitarianism), but rather, what is a free society (and why is it desirable) if it is systemically unjust?
  7. Libertarians tend to apply Lord Acton’s maxim (“Power corrupts”) to the political sector, but not to the economic sector. This is a double-standard, especially if we begin to see that the state is the coercive arm of capitalist interest, not a separate entity that if we just eliminate, will solve the problems of injustice and violence. (The modern nation-state and industrial capitalism grew together as brother and sister for the last 500 years, sometimes fighting, but usually cooperating.) Economic concentrations of wealth are dangerous and corrupting just as political concentrations of wealth are dangerous and corrupting. That the state has explicit control of armies is irrelevant as private armies may serve the same function (and two private armies competing for each other to attain monopoly status in an anarcho-capitalist world is hardly different than two states conducting war). Furthermore, consolidation and centralization of power is a feature, not a bug, of free-market capitalism. Corporations intentionally seek monopoly status and total market power for both efficiency and profit-making ends. This is observed in reality and in economics textbooks. Peter Thiel was explicit in his book Zero to One: the goal is conquest of a specific territory.
  8. Indeed, libertarianism is somewhat an extension, or at least an unconscious legitimation, of colonialism. Leading theorists adore “western civilization” and abhor those anti-segregationists, feminists, reparations-folk, and those who want to empower conquered peoples. This is obviously ironic, but, hey, so was slave-owners talking about all people being “born equal” in the Declaration of Independence! In any case, conservative pundit and libertarian-leaning Ben Shapiro authored The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great the same year Acton Institute Director Samuel Gregg authored Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilizationyears after Tom Woods wrote How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, and on and on. “The west is the best,” and (evidently) no amount of systemic genocide, torture of heretics, religious wars, or slaveries can change that narrative. Indeed, the reason why such defenses have to be made by libertarians is precisely because the old mythology has lost the credibility and authority it once had. I don’t see why it is not possible to just appreciate the things certain philosophies and civilizations contribute instead of either (a) lifting them up as eternal representations of God’s order or (b) uncritically defenestrating them in toto.
  9. Libertarians must defend contemporary capitalism as being inherently good, no matter how bad it may be. (In addition to western-civilization apologetics, it reminds one of statists and the police: just a “few bad apples.” No systemic change is necessary. “People will fail.” Etc.) On the contrary, there are systems-level problems that continually reproduce predictable and problematic results. For example, corporate managers have a fiduciary duty to profit shareholders as much as possible—and that means reducing expenses from usually the most expensive sector: human labor. In other words, CEOs in this particular structure are choosing “profit over people” and must do it if they are to fulfill their function as profiting shareholders. This a feature, not a bug (literally known as “Friedman’s Doctrine”), and it produces long-term, growing gaps between laborers and those exploiting labor (capitalists), and a perpetually stratified economy that benefits the wealthy the most.
  10. Libertarians downplay capitalist coercion, as if it were not real, or as if it does not matter because political coercion is so much worse. On the contrary, whether a private company controls your labor, rent, and land-rent or a public state does, the results are largely the same: a powerful party maintains a legal claim and a power that can coerce you into doing something. Libertarians, in typical utilitarian economic tradition, argue that voluntary exchange necessarily benefits both parties, but (as critics of the utilitarian tradition have argued for over a century) it is not truly voluntary or “free” if the only other option is death. “The threat of starvation was as coercive as a threat of death by violent means” (History, 158, summarizing William Thompson). We cannot treat one person’s decision to become a prostitute the same as another if the first’s alternative was starvation and the second’s was working at a department store. Libertarianism, however, says we must treat them equally, because neither wasn’t “real coercion.” The fact is, the actions of a single agent isn’t required to enact coercion; coercion is something that exists in systems (that have emerged from individual people) as much as in individual encounters with people. (Rothbard charged that “society” isn’t anything but a collection of individuals, but then turns around and talks about “the state” as if it was more than this…my emergentism comes through here.)
  11. Indeed, libertarianism is a mouth piece of neoliberalism and cannot come to grips with the fact that negative aggregate outcomes that affect all can and do result from uncoordinated choices of individuals. Global warming is a prime example. No individual chose to warm the earth by excess carbon emissions. Rather, the result emerged from unplanned decisions over a long period of time. This is why libertarian economists must invest so much energy and time trying to question global warming in the first place: more freedom can’t fix it. Saying “the state can’t fix it” isn’t a solution or a meaningful response, anymore than “but Hillary is evil” is a meaningful response to Trump’s rape charges. Systemic problems require systemic changes, whether we have ready-made solutions for them or not.
  12. Libertarian responses to BLM in 2020 has revealed its racist, sexist, and homophobic biases to a more disturbing level. The explicit racism in Hans Herman Hoppe and Rothbard over the past quarter century has already been thoroughly documented (e.g., here and here), but one should add the explicit patriarchalism and sexism of Gerard Casey in the (first chapters, strangely) of Freedom’s Progress? and others, like Thomas Woods, who are allergic to anything “feminist” or even “progressive” in general, and more than once featured white supremacist Stefan Molyneux on his show to discuss racism and male privilege. When Jo Jorgenson (rightly) aligned herself with the protestors of police brutality in 2020, the libertarian community had many disgruntled dissenters, imagining that the “Marxism” of BLM was somehow more concerning than, well, continued lynching of a systemically disempowered people. Once again, it seems the concerns about violence are only as important as who they affect. Were the libertarian community made up of more of those scary “black transgender marxists” than old white guys, you can bet things would be different.
  13. “WWJD?” He definitely wouldn’t have become a contemporary apologist for the obscenely wealthy and powerful, regardless of how that wealth and power was earned. For the “Christian” element in “Christian libertarianism,” it became intolerable trying to do faithful scholarship of the Hebrew prophets and New Testament (especially the life and teachings of Jesus) while maintaining that capitalism and profit-seeking was (a) an important value, and also (b) the best arrangement for economics in God’s world. Why? Because everything there seems to point in the opposite direction. The typical excuse “but economics was different back then; people got wealthy by exploitation not voluntary exchange” is misguided and uninformed about the remarkable similarities of the (in particular) the Greco-Roman market economy and ours today. And, again, libertarians are in general denial about how capitalist wealth came to be; no, Marx wasn’t right that all capital comes into existence by violence and conquering, but he would be right to say much or most of it has in colonized areas (which happens to be over the majority of western landmass, and, at one point or another, most of earth’s landmass). The fact is, Jesus didn’t come to make anyone wealthy, and he continually warns everyone about it (even pitting wealth as being an obstacle to entering the Kingdom of God, much like Jesus was pitted against Caesar; indeed, “one cannot serve both God and money.”). Wealth is power, and with too much power, there is no way to be reasonable responsible anymore. Jesus and the early church was more socialist than capitalist because of its concern for (a) distribution of resources according to need, (b) decentralized power structures, (c) the hazards of being wealthy, (d) cooperation as opposed to competition as the overall dynamic of social and economic life (cf. 2 Cor 8:13-15, Acts 4:32–35; 2:44-47). Trying to shove industrial capitalism into the parable of the talents is as desperate as it is unpersuasive. Libertarians are pre-programmed to react, instead of think, about the very word “socialism,” so there is an intellectual brick-wall anytime the subject comes up—just like talking about transgender parenting with an evangelical, or supporting anti-racist protests with a Republican.

Most libertarian intellectuals are in an intellectual bubble and not as informed as they proport to be. I haven’t heard of a Christian libertarian who is even familiar with the long tradition of Christian socialism emerging out of British Anglicanism in the 19th century. Many or most libertarians think that Marxism and socialism are the same, and that socialism and statism is the same, or that anarchism and socialism are opposites. This is all nonsense and has no basis in history or primary and secondary resources on the subjects. It doesn’t take much to learn any of this. But the endless essays of FEE and constant misuse of economic words and terms seem to triumph over reasoned discourse and sound scholarship. I am also surprised that some false claims can survive for so long in libertarian circles (such as that the Fed isn’t audited; it is). But then again, now I’m not so surprised. The capitalism vs. socialism discourse is as useless as the democrat vs. republican discourse. Tom Woods was right: if you’re asking the wrong questions, the answers don’t matter. If only this was used for all ideologies and not just those we disagree with…

Well anyway, I have much reading to do and also publishing commitments on these subjects, so I look forward to learning more and listening more to other voices I haven’t paid attention do—William King, Maurice and Kingsley, Proudhon, Bakunin, Bookchin, etc. If you’re curious yourself what I’m getting into, here you go: