Friday, April 27, 2018

Not Worshipping Markets: Hating Government and Loving Liberty





There is a common misunderstanding about libertarians that we worship the market. We are supposed to believe that market solutions are perfect and if only the government would get out of the way, all our problems would be solved. Someone must have assumed that Adam Smith was not being ironic when he compared the market to an "invisible hand" and (foreshadowing Darwin) argued that it is possible to have an intelligent process without any kind of intelligent designer. The market is not providence. Libertarianism is a distinctly secular (in the classic sense of being neutral about religion) anti-utopian doctrine. We do not believe that anything resembling a perfect world is possible. Human beings are flawed, both intellectually and morally; any human creation, including markets, will inevitably inherent those same flaws to some degree. This anti-utopianism is balanced by an anti-nihilism. If a perfect world is not possible, a significantly better world can be fashioned through the use of reason.

It is because libertarians are such anti-utopians that, more than we have confidence in any Smithian hidden hand, we fear government. (Whether or not I can come up with a good alternative to government licenses, I do fear that the Trump administration will use them to round up opponents. Forgive me for taking liberal concerns over Trump seriously and not as mere political rhetoric.) It is government, particularly the kind that is willing to compromise on the checks and balances means for its own ideological ends, that possesses a utopian streak. Who but a utopian would be unable to imagine a day when the very institutions they created might be turned against them? If government means to use force, even murder, how can one justify committing such violence unless one is supremely confident that each specific government action would either lead to a significantly better world or at least to prevent a worse one from coming about? Furthermore, to agree to pay taxes means buying guns for anonymous people, who will then use them to kill people for reasons that you will never be told. The only way it can be morally justifiable to agree to such a deal is if you believe there is some moral guidance protecting government officials from ever making a mistake (something akin to nineteenth-century Catholic beliefs regarding papal ex-cathedra statements). Note that this is particularly true regarding democratic governments as monarchies and aristocracies deny that personal choice is even relevant to government decisions and claim no moral authority from them.

I would go so far as to say that those who claim that libertarians worship the market are revealing something about their own worship of government. They are so enraptured with government as the solution that they cannot imagine someone questioning the legitimacy of government as an instrument of violence and therefore considering an alternative. They, therefore, attribute their own utopian faith in government to libertarians and accuse libertarians of being market worshipers.

A useful test as to whether someone tolerates government simply on pragmatic grounds or worships it as the key to man's salvation is if someone is inclined to accuse libertarians of market worship. It should follow naturally for government pragmatists, who believe that government is an inherently flawed institution, that a better solution is hypothetically possible and that other people will wish to pursue it. Such people might be wrong in regards to their proposed alternatives, but there is no reason to assume that they are motivated by a blind faith in markets.

Alternatively, we can examine if a person is willing to accept Max Weber's (not a libertarian) definition of government as a "monopoly on violence." A person who feels the need to dance around the issue that government is an act of violence is presumably doing so because they are so wrapped up in government worship that they cannot think outside of it. If government is people coming together for the sake of civilization, peace, and love while everything else is darkness, then government cannot be violent. On the contrary, it is those who reject government who must be violent as they are opposing civilization, peace, and love.

For all of my talk about hating government and that taxation is theft, I do believe it is important to recognize the limitations of such a position. A libertarianism whose hatred of government is not matched by a love of liberty will fall to nihilism and eventually authoritarianism. The rise of the alt-right and Donald Trump should make this obvious. Part of the blame for the alt-right and Trump lies within the Rothbardian libertarian tradition as embodied by figures such as Ron Paul, Walter Block, and Tom Woods. (To any Rothbardians out there, much as part of the problem with government worshipers is that they cannot imagine how anyone in good faith could think of them as violent, your inability to imagine how someone in good faith might think that you are enabling the alt-right is a big part of the problem.) I supported Ron Paul for president and highly recommend Block's Defending the Undefendable as a gateway into accepting the more radical implications of libertarianism. The Rothbardians deserve a lot of credit for keeping the libertarian focus on the immorality of government. Without them, it would be too easy to fall into making pragmatic compromises that would endanger the soul of the movement. Rothbardians are an important part of libertarianism and need to be kept as part of the family. That being said, the Rothbardian habit of focusing on opposition to the government to the exclusion of almost anything else led to the development of a certain blind spot for angry white men, who hate the government and even the Federal Reserve, ignoring whether such views came from a genuine love of liberty.

Ideally, there should not be any laws against private discrimination. This does not mean that libertarians should not be extremely wary of those whose main objection to government is that it bans discrimination. It very well may be that Donald Trump was not worse than other Republican candidates and that the liberal media hated him the most. This does not mean that one should form a Libertarians for Trump group.

This also has implications for dealing with terrorism and authoritarianism. There are good reasons to oppose US policy in the Middle East. Benjamin Netanyahu and the Likud are not libertarians. I would even go so far as to say that a large part of the Israeli-Palestinian problem has been caused by thinking in terms of states as opposed to private property owners, whether Jews or Muslims, coming to personal agreements, likely leading to some kind of multi-political entity peace plan. That being said, this does not mean that one should not actively be more against Hamas, Assad or Putin than Israel. As libertarians, we should not support intervention in Syria even if Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. To go out on a limb to argue that he did not use such weapons and is merely the victim of a neo-conservative conspiracy (possibly true) is to signal that you are motivated by something other than liberty, likely a willingness to think well of anyone the CIA hates. That is an apology for authoritarianism and defending oneself by saying that libertarianism opposes tyranny, while true, simply means that one has completely betrayed libertarian ideals to the extent that libertarianism has become a dead letter ideology whose chief value now is to serve as moral cover for what libertarians should abhor.

You can justify supporting Trump on libertarian grounds (just as it would not be a contradiction for a libertarian to "feel the Bern.") There are also arguments to be made in favor of Hamas, Assad, and Putin. That being said, if, out of all the issues in the world you could have chosen, you go for one of these, I cannot take you seriously as being a libertarian in good faith. This issue is important precisely because libertarianism really can be used to justify anything in practice. Therefore, a libertarian movement requires that certain positions, a priori, render a person unacceptable for membership. Note that such a person might still be a righteous libertarian at heart even as I exclude him but not others who are ideologically less pure.

If one takes a step back to look at the Rothbardians, there is a deeper problem than Trump and other kinds of authoritarian apologetics. One is always going to have a lot of latitude in who to attack and who to defend when analyzed on a case by case basis. Inconsistencies are only going to appear when you compare who someone attacks with whom they defend. One of the curiosities of the Rothbardians is the paradox of both demanding strict ideological purity to the extent of attacking other libertarians with a willingness to tolerate figures from the alt-right. This apparent contradiction begins to make a frightening amount of sense if you take a party approach to ideology. If you assume that the point of libertarianism is to fight the government, you are going to have a problem in deciding between all the different ways of doing so. If you wish to maintain the pretense that your system is complete then you are going to need some kind of party to make decisions as to which of the many possibilities is the one true path. This means that party loyalty becomes the ideology. Under such circumstances, it becomes necessary to demonstrate party loyalty in an antinomian fashion by doing things that would otherwise appear to go against one's ideology. Rothbardians believe more in their party's strategy of courting angry white men, who hate the government than they believe in liberty. In the end, their libertarianism devolves into promoting non-libertarian ideas like "blood and soil" and claiming to be all the more libertarian for doing so.

A libertarian hatred of government needs to be matched with a love of liberty as an ongoing dialectic. For me, loving liberty means that each person has value as a narrative that they control through personal choices. People's choices matter all the more when we think that they are making a mistake. If it is not a mistake, then the choice has no positive value as a choice. Considering the limitations of human beings with their finite knowledge and lifespans, if people only remained individuals, their lives could have little meaning. Thus, the central choice of any human narrative is which society (if any and when) should a person submit themselves to. (Note that even Ayn Rand's heroes in Atlas Shrugged join a society.) To initiate aggression is to negate a person's choice, their very meaning in life. As government is the monopoly on violence, government stands as the de facto primary threat to choice. To equate government with society is to deny humans that most critical choice of all, what society to join and under what terms.

In loving liberty and not just hating government there is a challenge. If that love is expressed just in market terms, then it is going to look awfully like market worship. What is needed is an embracement of the full range of human choices, including ones that we do not approve of. It should be noted that just as this model celebrates the rights of individuals to defy society, it takes it as a given that there can be such a thing as something society disapproves of. Hence the celebration of choice has the paradoxical requirement of opposing the action. There can be no such thing as celebrating a choice you approve of. For example, I can celebrate the liberty of gay marriage precisely to the extent that I mourn the loss of traditional values. Similarly, I can celebrate the liberty of bakers refusing to bake gay wedding cakes as manifestations of intolerance. In both cases, I have paid the necessary "blood price" to allow liberty to have meaning. Note that this is not some utopian faith in liberty as leading to an ideal world. On the contrary, such liberty is founded on its tragic implications, one that ought to be avoided, human life having meaning be damned, if it were not for the fact that the government alternative is simply too horrific to accept.

Libertarianism is not some dangerous cult the encourages people to worship the market and be paranoid about the government. On the contrary, it accepts the sobering reality that government is an act of violence. The libertarian walks out from the ruins of his utopian dreams that he has abandoned with his rejection of government and seeks to learn to love the hard road of liberty. Hating the government is easy. Loving liberty, with all of its imperfections, is a challenge worth embracing.

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