Friday, July 14, 2017

Reply to a libertarian

My previous post on the Cato Institute attracted some interest, including a comment from a libertarian named Kurt who wrote:
The Cato Institute approves a model of society in which there are simply individuals in pursuit of their own self-interest (in particular their economic self-interest).

So do I. There is nothing in libertarianism that precludes people from living a more traditional lifestyle, if they so choose. In fact many libertarians do just that. It seems you have a beef with those who want to make choices differently than you.

They must band together, as a collective force. They must go on strike?

In a certain sense all human endeavors are collective. For example, a start-up company. You seek out others who share your commitment to a particular goal, then work together to accomplish that goal. So what? I work with all kinds of people in my daily life and in pursuit of my life goals. As long no coercion is involved, this is perfectly compatible with libertarianism.

One's body being the most private and precious of all property.

Of course. This is a tautology, especially with regards to bio-medicine and life extension.

I will say it again. There is no reason why like-minded individuals cannot live a "traditional" life in a libertarian society. It appears that your problem with libertarianism is not that it prevents you from living your own life, but that you can't force your choices onto others.

Kurt is suggesting that you can make society in general run along libertarian lines but within this society individuals could voluntarily associate to purse a traditional lifestyle together.

I want to point out a few of the problems with Kurt's suggestion. First, it does not allow for the preservation of real, historic nations of people. If the Poles, for instance, were to adopt Kurt's advice, they would not be able to say "we want to preserve our existing Polish identity at the state level, for instance, through immigration policy." You could not assert, at the public level, one thing over another as that would be "coercion" against individual preference. The best you could do would be for individual Poles to try to keep their tradition going by gathering together somewhere in Poland as part of a voluntary association.

In the meantime, you would have an influx of people into Poland not sharing the Polish identity or tradition and, most likely, being willing to use their resources and influence to make sure that the native tradition did not prosper. Would the little pockets, the little remnants, of Polish communities survive? Even if a few did, the effect of libertarianism would not be neutral - it would have forever impacted on the real existence of the Poles as a nation of people.

It's the same when it comes to family. A traditional society requires a stable form of family life. Libertarians, though, believe that family is whatever people choose it to be. Furthermore, libertarians see the family as a purely voluntarily association that people can choose to join or leave at any time and for any reason.

And so a traditionalist community would be radically countercultural within a libertarian society. It would require a massive undertaking by individuals without large-scale resources, to set up their own towns, schools, universities and mass media, where a traditionalist understanding of family could prosper in opposition to the libertarian one. In a sense, traditionalists would be creating their own society from scratch. It is a daunting prospect, that involves escaping libertarian norms, rather than one easily accomplished within a libertarian system.

And here's another issue. Libertarianism is not value neutral. Libertarianism rests upon a particular understanding of man and society that has evolved over time from a mishmash of intellectual influences. Kurt himself acknowledges that he agrees with "a model of society in which there are simply individuals in pursuit of their own self-interest (in particular their economic self-interest)".

So it is not possible for Kurt to claim that, in pushing for a libertarian model of society, he is not imposing his own world view on others. Libertarians are, in fact, imposing a very specific concept of man, his purposes, his relationship to others and the sources of meaning, value and human dignity. From these assumptions then flow the libertarian concept of how society should be organised politically.

Furthermore, once you accept the libertarian/classical liberal world view, then a particular kind of morality emerges, one that is inevitably held to seriously by the "thinkers" within such a society. For instance, if what matters is an untrammelled pursuit of individual self-interest by all, then it becomes critical that I do not in my own choices hinder or limit the choices of others. So the moral thing then becomes "non-interference" which leads to a moral system centred on attributes such as openness to the other, respect for diversity, non-discrimination, and tolerance. Particular loyalties, especially those based on inherited attributes such as race, sex, ethnicity - even culture - are thought of negatively as limitations, perhaps even "bigotry".

So a traditionalist community is once again going to be radically countercultural within a libertarian society. It is going to be countercultural at a deeper philosophical level, and, more immediately, in terms of the moral values of that society. The traditionalist community is going to be put in the position of having to resist the moral norms of the larger society, no easy task given the way that people generally conform to the leading ideas of the society they inhabit.

Finally, there is the issue of truth claims. If you set out to create a society with a multitude of religions and cultures, then it becomes difficult to hold to the deeper truth claims of any of them. To be part of one tends to become something like a "personal preference" or a "sentimental attachment" without a wider significance. The centre moves elsewhere, most likely to some sort of commercialised lifestyle and culture. In practice there is a hollowing out of the culture.

I remember the comment of one American classical liberal who forcefully insisted on cultures and religions being inconsequential:
Cultures and religions are either about weddings and music and fancy clothes or they're about to get their asses kicked...If all religions and cultures are equal then none is superior, and that is how we keep them in line.

Kurt, I hope you can understand from all this why I don't find the prospect of trying to maintain a traditionalist community within a libertarian system appealing. It is certainly not the ideal for traditionalists to aspire to. Nor does it make sense for traditionalists to accept the organisation of society according to a value system so much at odds with our own.


  1. This is an excellent post that sums up the issue nicely. I lived through the period when America when from having a traditional culture to where it didn't. I wish you had been blogging back then (of course, there was no internet back then and no blogs) to explain what was happening.

  2. Let me take the low road. Abortion questions for the devout libertarian: Is a fetus private property? Is it a trespasser, an invader or a day-boarder hanging on a whim of permission? Are direct sperm depositors property owners or carpetbaggers? Is all sex coercion? Can owners abuse fetuses or children prior to ejection or a later emancipation at some arbitrary age of consent? When do the living self-own? How about public funding of abortions? Should taxpayers pay for the murder of unborn babies or for the safe, modern medical disposal of unwanted parasites?

    1. All live, true libertarians, theorize from a fictional Crusoe, but have to live among us, so they make endless tradeoffs, like most of us do. It's inescapable unless you're a fanatic. We survive, and often thrive by Lawrence Auster's unprincipled exception.
      Tradcons are no different. We're immersed in histories, theories and abstractions, but we make our way in a corporeal, modern society by not often reacting.
      Modern liberalism doesn't even pretend to be pure. That's an enormous, powerful advantage.

    2. I barely understand what you mean and I don't need to know because I know enough to know you are just trying to excuse your belief in the Death Penalty. Absolute hypocrites

    3. Savvas, who are you talking to, and what are you talking about?

      I apologize to readers if my comment/formatting is confusing.

  3. A libertarian society is every bit the fictional utopia a communist is. Neither can be fully implemented due to constrictions of human nature. This leaves proponents able to say " we just haven't created the true libertarian (or communist) state yet." So they can try again and again.

  4. Libertarians are much like Marxists.

    Both sides find one kernal of truth and then try to build not just a worldview but an entire cosmology out of it.

    They've found a tree so the remainder of the forest is of no matter to them.

  5. Kurt, I hope you can understand from all this why I don't find the prospect of trying to maintain a traditionalist community within a libertarian system appealing. It is certainly not the ideal for traditionalists to aspire to. Nor does it make sense for traditionalists to accept the organisation of society according to a value system so much at odds with our own.

    Then you ought to realize that your job is to create a society that is separate from the rest of the world. Call it "steasteading" for traditionalists in the colloquial sense (even though it does not involve actual seasteading). Yes, I am quite the libertarian, and stand 100% by everything I said previously. In person, you will find that I am quite reasonable. I am a good neighbor in that I maintain my home and yard, do not play loud music or have parties at my house, pay my taxes, and generally obey the laws of the land. However, when it comes to my private, STRATEGIC life choices, I will never, ever brook any interference from those who do not share my worldview (and will fight anyone who tries to f**k with me on these matters). So, what are these strategic life choices that make me different from you? First is my choice (my wife and I) not to have kids. Naturally if I were single, then this choice would be mine and mine alone to make. You will also note that I regard the converse choice not to be an appropriate one for a single person to make. I do believe in the traditional family, meaning two parents, a man and a woman. Second (and this one is an even bigger issue for me) is my pursuit of radical life extension. This starts with my supplement and fitness program, and will soon include international travel (medical tourism) to undergo the SENS therapies as they are developed and possibly the CRISPR therapy for telomere elongation, possibly in 2-3 years. in other words, I am an 'immortalist" with my number one personal life objective to make it to actuarial escape velocity. I plan to use cryo-preservation if I do not make it.

    I will be straight with you. I reject utterly any philosophy, ideology, or religion that would question for a single instant my right and effort to pursue radical life extension.

    I actually agree with you traditionalists on some issues. I believe two parent families are essential for the raising of psychologically healthy kids. One does not need to embrace religion to understand this. One only needs to observe reality, especially as a teen ager, to understand this.

    I believe the notion that libertarianism is somehow incompatible with family values is nothing more than a cunard. Raising a family is like any other endeavor in that if its worth doing, it best to do it right or to not do it at all. Libertarianism is only about the right to choose or not to choose to have kids. Common sense alone is about doing it right, once you've made the choice. Hence, it is argued that libertarianism is orthogonal to family values.

    The other issue I actually agree with you is that of immigration. Believe me, I'm not open borders and, yeah, I do think Poland belongs to the Polish, Japan belongs to the Japanese, etc. I lived in Japan for 10 years and believe very strongly that the Japanese have made the correct choice NOT to open Japan up to immigration in general.

    Lastly, I am not a subjectivist with regards to cultures. I believe some cultures are superior to others, and that the culture of a particular people is usually optimized for the needs of the people that comprise it. I believe that Western culture is better and that Anglo-American culture (a subset of Western culture) is superior to all.

    You can call me a Heinleinian libertarian, which holds among other things, that you guys do not value liberty as much as I do.

  6. " that you guys do not value liberty as much as I do."

    There is no such thing as freedom. Freedom, like democracy, does not exist except in the form of illusions. Libertarians are, accordingly, deluded individuals who are infatuated with a narcissistic fantasy to such a devastating extent that their perception of external reality is severely distorted.

  7. Obviously, freedom exists in many forms and measures. As in; you're free to say otherwise. Democracy also exists, in the sense that most people have of it; free elections and rule by the people. It's dysfunctional, here in the U.S., but we the people still elect our incompetent, dishonest representatives.
    We're all deluded to the degree that we believe that any system can perfectly govern men. Libertarian concepts contribute a lot to the general effort toward better government. Thomas Jefferson wasn't deluded into fantasy. He and others always added a caution.
    No man is pure libertarian. Pure libertarian form does not exist, and if it can be imagined, no man could embody it. Again, only a fictional Crusoe comes close, and he would forever be alone. Perfect government, but not much of a society or future.

  8. Those of you who conflate libertarianism with Marxism forget one important detail. Libertarianism is not based on coercion, unlike Marxism and all of the other utopian movements.

  9. I do hope you will be able to reply to this comment, as I am having difficulty understanding the animosity towards libertarianism and the belief that it is somehow exclusive to collectivism and traditionalism which seems so commonplace, both here and in the right in general.

    I’ve tried to ask this question elsewhere, but it’s always met with binary thinking.

    Libertarianism simply says that you have the freedom to do what you want, until it impacts on someone else’s freedoms. The fact that Cato, Mises et al choose to tack Austrian economics, open borders etc onto this simply means that their great thinkers take the view that anyone who believes in individual freedom automatically refutes the idea of collective interests. Or, as I have seen some people commenting on this blog suggest, that a coherent society is not possible if comprised of individualists.

    History does not support these positions. The Western perspective has been, broadly since the Enlightenment, that the rights of the individual and the ability to pursue his/her interests are paramount. This hasn’t prevented us from great collective works, from magnificent architecture to beating back Mohammedan hordes to constructing functional societies.

    A classic example is the origins of the Trade Union movement (before their communist infiltration). Groups of individuals of like mind gathered together and suffered hardship in order to secure better wages and working conditions. The modern, liberal interpretation is that they did this for the “love of their fellow man” or some other garbage, but the reality is that they did so in order to improve their individual positions. They were individuals, who individually recognised that in one aspect of their lives collectivism was advantageous. There was no contradiction.

    Your example of the Poles seems to exhibit the same binary choice. You appear to suggest that, if the Poles wanted to stop immigration then there would be an inherent coercion against individual choice. Against whose individual choice? The immigrants’? Who cares? Not you, if you are Polish. The fact that Polish people as a collective were exercising their individual choice doesn’t carry any form of obligation to consider the feelings or rights of non-Poles.

    This all seems very straightforward to me and I’m wondering if people are confusing the 1960’s counter-culture which self-identified as libertarian in order to achieve its subversive agenda with the
    libertarian ideas which created the societies that they are so keen to (rightly) defend.

    It’s almost as though we are rejecting the very idea of individual freedom itself, simply because it has been mis-used by communists for the last sixty years.

    1. Simon, you wrote "Libertarianism simply says that you have the freedom to do what you want, until it impacts on someone else’s freedoms."

      But as the examples discussed in my post and your comment reveal, it is often the case that my freedom to do what I want will impact on someone else's freedoms.

      For instance, if I want to maintain Poland as a traditional nation, I have to curtail the freedom of those who are ethnically incompatible with the Polish nation to migrate there in large numbers.

      Furthermore, I have to curtail the freedom of businessmen who want to bring cheap labour to Poland. I also have to curtail the freedom of those who have no love of their nation and who favour open borders.

      In fact, whenever I make a claim that something is an objective good, that should be followed as far as possible by the community I live in, I am curtailing the freedom of others to act against this good.

      That is why libertarians are usually right-liberals of sorts. They prefer to think of individuals as pursuing their own individual subjective goods, preferably goods that aren't likely to impact on others, as these are more easily fitted into a system of "free to do whatever so long as it doesn't impact on a similar freedom of others".

      You mentioned in your comment that libertarianism has been around a while and didn't stop the functioning of Western society. But you have to remember that it was tacked on to other traditions in the West that limited it for a period of time, e.g. Christianity, the aristocratic code etc. It has also advanced in its logic in a gradualist way - it was applied to some areas of society before others.

      Even so, it was having radical effects on Western society by the 1800s, and by the 1900s was very obviously a dissolving influence on society.

      You are correct that we should not throw out the concept of individual freedom. But what we need to do is to rethink the relationship between the individual and the collective. We need to emphasise more that the individual cannot fully develop outside of certain social conditions - that he needs a certain moral culture, and certain institutions, to fully express himself as an individual. For that reason, it makes sense for the individual to make sacrifices for the larger conditions of life that he requires.


    2. Thank you for taking the time and for such a thoughtful reply.

      I’m fascinated by the fact that your reply seems to confirm my position on libertarianism.

      Both of the examples that you have used are addressed via the libertarian principle, without contradiction.

      A businessman’s attempt to import cheap labour impacts on my freedoms by virtue of lowering wages while transferring the social costs (subsidies for the low-paid in the form of housing benefits etc) to the taxpayer at large. Such actions clearly breach the rule of “freedom until it impacts others”. Curtailing the businessman’s activities are consistent with libertarianism (although perhaps not with individual rights, but that’s another subject). I think this is where Cato, Mises etc start to get confused.

      As for curtailing the rights of potential immigrants to Poland - they have no such rights under libertarianism as their presence would impact the Poles, for the reasons given above.

      I’ll have to read up on your ideas about the evolution of societies. I think you are suggesting that the excesses of libertarianism were contained by existing social traditions. I’m not convinced as, if anything, libertarianism is more restrictive of individual rights than the ideas that preceded it.

      I think the problem seems to be that many people think of libertarianism as a sort of “anarchy lite”, whereas it’s actually far more restrictive – e.g. you would not be having those problems with street gangs in Melbourne as a libertarian society would never have allowed them to immigrate from Africa in the first place (assuming that you agree that Australian people never wanted large number of unemployable street thugs imposed on them).

      Again, thank you for the reply.