This article is a response to Cory Massimino’s noble, but confused, blogpost on what libertarianism is. There is one thing I agree with, and that’s Cory’s title, “Libertarianism is More Than Anti-Statism.” Everything after that is, unfortunately, an argument that his specific preferences and views are actually the core of libertarianism. Some of those views are very reasonable views that I also support, but just because Cory and I happen to like the same pizza flavor, doesn’t mean that pizza is part of a joint political philosophy.
Before we start, it is necessary to make an etymological point. Historically, there was (classical) liberalism, a philosophy with anti-state anarchists like Lysander Spooner on the one hand and (very confused) welfare state liberals such as John Stuart Mill on the other. It is very clear from history that “classical liberalism” was a broad spectrum of ideas. This is also the reason I refer to myself as a classical liberal most often — I feel proud to be part of a tradition with economic, political and moral analyses, as well as a general framework rooted in good social science.
One possible interpretation sees libertarianism (which is, in itself a stolen word – a topic I will not address here to avoid further complication of the issue at hand) as a part of the classical liberal tradition, but a more specific part focused on property rights and non-aggression, that is only compatible with minarchy (e.g., Nozick) or anarchy (e.g., Rothbard.) Personally, I think this is the most proper usage of the word. This would mean that SFL is most properly termed a “classical liberal” organization, welcoming libertarians, Objectivists, minimal welfare liberals, etc.
However, this is a battle that I won’t win in the short run. In the short run, at least, it seems usage of the word “libertarian” is more in line with how I use the term “classical liberal.” Which is fine, still leaves a confusion in Cory’s essay. The historical tradition of classical liberalism – henceforth “libertarianism” – is indeed not about anti-statism. Libertarianism is about safe-guarding voluntary interaction, where the key mechanism to guard this is (broadly spoken) Lockean rights. A respect for Lockean-esque rights also includes property rights arrangements like Ostromian private common resources, mutual aid organizations and worker cooperatives, as well as hierarchical religious arrangements or for-stockholder-profit businesses.
Anti-statism is an implication of libertarianism because the state is an organization that limits, encroaches upon, or is even parasitical in nature to property rights and voluntary interaction. I am open to the argument, and including those who think, that minimal welfare (Hayek, Milton Friedman) or minarchist governments (Mises, Rand, Nozick) can have a meaningful role in increasing voluntary cooperation within society — they are also part of the libertarian tradition.
The core question that libertarianism historically attempted to answer was: how can people with different views of the good life live together peacefully and cooperatively? This, to me, is the key emphasis on what libertarianism is (as well as why we are still, intellectually, cousins to modern day high liberalism (Rawls and all).
It might well be that Cory sees very similar reasons to be a libertarian as he does to advocate feminism, anti-racism, gay and trans liberation and worker empowerment. To some extent, I am sure the overlap can be reasonably defended. Just like the view that a minimal welfare state can be defended within libertarianism, large parts of the ideas that Cory defends are part of the tradition.
But other views be reasonably defended as well. Hoppe famously wrote that in voluntary communes based on conservative, religious family values, it might be necessary to eject certain people from the commune with values and preferences that are antithetical to the commune’s overall philosophy. The question for a libertarian is: should people have the right, and be free to make, such communities and eject people based on these seemingly arbitrary preferences?
Not only do I think the answer should be a resounding “yes” based on moral arguments that their property rights really are theirs to control – even if one disagrees with the decisions they take, – I also think that there is an additional non-moral argument. If we focus on voluntary social interaction, and if we believe that mandating (or prohibiting) social interaction hurts social cooperation in society, then this is also true in cases where we disagree with people.
Let’s quote Cory:
“My aligning myself with the ideas of feminism, anti-racism, gay and trans liberation, and worker empowerment is an outgrowth of my libertarianism. I am committed to those principles for the same reasons that I am committed to anti-statism,” he writes.
This might well be the case – and I’ll readily admit there is some possible overlap in one’s foundational views. But remember: regardless of one’s foundations for libertarianism, the core of it is voluntary social interaction. People who have different foundations, might not necessarily see the same implications – for example, if your foundational view is a hard-line property rights structure, the implications are surely different.
Rather than making those ideas the core of libertarianism – which is voluntary social coordination based on broadly Lockean rights and then discussing what maximizes this – it is “merely” a part of the broader tradition. For example, Cory talks about “the avoidance and disavowal of authoritarian relationships.” But obviously, not all authoritarian relationships are equally problematic: a politician’s power over you, a burglar robbing you, your parents telling you what to do, your boss ordering you, your partner mandating you to help in the household and your friends insisting that you come to a party with them can all be reconstructed as authoritarian. One might have opinions on what the best ways to deal with all of these situations are, but not all of these are a necessary part of your political views.
Obviously, one could argue that all of these are part of libertarianism, which would cut out everyone who has different views on these. This seems like an intellectually wrong move to make. Even from a strategic point of view, it seems better to analyze the core (and what the correct institutional answer is to this core question) and differentiate it from auxiliary cultural goals that one wants to achieve, even if one strongly believes that there is a big overlap.
Within philosophy there is a debate on how authoritarian political beliefs are. If Cory wants to make libertarianism at it’s core an all-encompassing political view, then, at it’s core, it’s far more authoritarian than anything Rockwell or Rothbard ever wrote. It would cut out the wide diversity and plurality that is possible within a libertarian world. Now, I don’t think that all diversity and plurality is equally desirable, but I also don’t think that it is desirable that at the core of political philosophy one limits all diversity and plurality, even if one disagrees with it.
None of this implies that I don’t agree with, for example, Sheldon Richmann, when he says that some values, although theoretical compatible with libertarian, are potentially corrosive to a libertarian society. However, this still doesn’t mean that it is part of the core. As a libertarian with values, I care about those issues, and there are good reasons to use similar kinds of arguments. But that doesn’t equate them. Political philosophy is not all encompassing, nor does it need to be.
If one wants to fight racism, sexism and wants to work on worker empowerment, that is all fine. But just because you are also a libertarian, does not mean that these goals are part of libertarianism. These venn diagrams might intersect partially or heavily, but they do not overlap completely. And, more importantly, other venn diagrams might overlap as well.
So to end with a revision to Cory’s pizza metaphor: voluntary social cooperation is the libertarian pizza. Feminism, anti-racism and other social goals are who we want to share our pizza with. But if someone wants to share his pizza with conservative, religious values or even actual despicable ideas, that is libertarian too. We can criticize them, but they are still eating and sharing pizza, in sharp contrast to the state who is stealing our pizza and throwing it into our face if we disobey.
Lode Cossaer received master’s degrees in philosophy from the University of Antwerp and the Catholic University of Leuven and is currently working on a PhD proposal.
He teaches economics in Brussels, at a private business school. Cossaer was a political officer of the LVSV. He is an executive board member of European Students For Liberty and president of the Murray Rothbard in Belgium.