A new libertarianism is coming. It is more accommodating, less strident, more pragmatic, less hard core, more moderate. It is more in line with mainstream American values and less opposed to core elements of a mixed economy and the modern welfare state. It is being developed in libertarian think tanks, political science departments, and campaign headquarters across the country. If the new doctrine keeps spreading and makes its way into political platforms and public policy, the last major American political doctrine even nominally defending individual rights will be gone.
Let’s call the new doctrine simply New Libertarianism. And let’s look at where it came from, why it is importantly different, and why it is generating both excitement and contention. To do that, we need to understand where the current libertarianism came from. And to do that, we need to review some history.
The term “libertarian” has long been used to refer to anyone who believes that citizens have rights and that a proper political system is one that protects those rights. The 1934 textbook The American Problem of Government called Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin “convinced and fairly consistent libertarians.” These men believed a good government protects rights to life, liberty, and property. In the late 1800s there were also writers who thought rights would be more secure if there were no government at all. These writers also called themselves libertarians.
In the mid 1900s, there were lively debates about what rights citizens actually have. The rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were widely accepted. But Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed to go further. His New Bill of Rights (1944), included, for example, rights to a decent home, a good education, and adequate medical care. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) added, among others, a right to paid holidays and a right to good working conditions. Conflicts then necessitated debates. How will everyone be provided with housing and education without violating the rights of citizens to choose their own profession and keep their earnings? Who will fund the unemployment insurance, the pensions, the medical care, and the paid vacations if employers and other citizens do not voluntarily provide them?
Out of these debates grew the main sort of libertarianism of the last fifty years. It was based on a principle articulated by Murray Rothbard in the 1970s this way: No one may initiate the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else. The idea had roots in John Locke, America’s founders, and more immediately Ayn Rand, but it was Rothbard’s formulation that became standard. It became known as the non-aggression principle (NAP) or—since Rothbard took it as the starting point of political theory and not the conclusion of philosophical justification—the non-aggression axiom. In the late twentieth century, anyone who accepted this principle could call himself, or could find himself called, a libertarian, even if he disagreed with Rothbard’s own insistence that rights are best protected when there is no government at all.
The non-aggression principle sets boundaries on what is and is not a right. If a proposed right to paid vacation would conflict with the right of an employer to offer whatever employment terms he wants, then the proposed vacation pay has to be rejected, since forcing the employer to pay for vacation time would amount to a threat of physical violence against him or his property. The same logic applies to minimum wage laws, government-provided pensions (Social Security), tax-funded schools, regulated medical care, prohibition on recreational drugs, an enforced postal monopoly, and many other aspects of a mixed economy and the modern welfare state. All violate the non-aggression principle. Over the objection of “left libertarians” who reject the content of Rothbard’s axiom and of Objectivists who reject its being an axiom, libertarianism has come to be seen as a principled defense of laissez-faire capitalism based on the doctrine that people have an inalienable right to be secure in their person and property.
From the time of the Progressives, both Republicans and Democrats increasingly abandoned this doctrine, even if they kept some of the old language. Woodrow Wilson (D) said liberty is an attribute of societies, not of individuals. A society is free if it runs without obstructions. “It is still intolerable,” he said, “for the government to interfere with our individual activities, except where it is necessary to interfere with them in order to free them.” Herbert Hoover (R) insisted he was an individualist, but of a distinctly American sort. He was proud to have abandoned the laissez faire of the 1700s and said the first consideration in government should be a high and increasing standard of living. This preference for advancing the collective over protecting the individual has become the norm. John F. Kennedy (D) said, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” John McCain (R) took “Country First” as his 2008 presidential campaign theme. Before Clarence Thomas’s 1991 Supreme Court nomination hearings got redirected into allegations of sexual misconduct, the primary attack against Thomas—launched in the opening statement by then Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Joe Biden—was that Thomas actually still believed in the doctrine of natural law and inalienable natural rights. The Cato Institute, the country’s leading libertarian think tank, paraphrased Biden’s attack as “Are you now or have you ever been a libertarian?”
The Libertarian Party was founded in December, 1971. Although it is the third largest political party in the United States, it remains tiny. Much more influential now is the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. Congressman Ron Paul was the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate in 1988, but in 2008 and 2012 he sought the Republican Party’s presidential nomination instead. His son Rand Paul, also a self-described libertarian, is a Republican senator. Joining him on the Senate’s libertarian wing is another young Republican, Ted Cruz of Texas, a Tea Party favorite. In the House, Republican Justin Amash of Michigan, another self-described libertarian, is chairman of the increasingly influential House Liberty Caucus. Libertarianism is becoming more mainstream. But the cause is not, or not just, that Americans are warming up to libertarian’s laissez-faire principle of non-aggression. It is that libertarianism itself is changing. It is becoming less distinctive, less different from other political ideologies. And some old-timers don’t like this.
Rothbard was an anarchist. He held that rights could best be protected if there was no government. After all, he argued, governments have been the worst violators of rights in history, much worse than private companies have ever been. Private companies could, he claimed, provide the same protection that people had commonly sought in governments. This claim was rebutted by the Harvard philosophy professor Robert Nozick. Nozick argued that even if we adopt the non-aggression principle and start with private companies that provide legislative, judicial, and enforcement services, these companies will become indistinguishable from a minimalist, Lockean or Jeffersonian, rights-protecting, laissez-faire government. The companies’ executives would for all purposes act just as mayors, sheriffs, governors, congressmen, and judges would. Nozick’s 1974 Anarchy, Utopia, and State became the standard theoretical defense of libertarian government.
But Nozick is increasingly being replaced as libertarianism’s canonical theorist by F. A. Hayek, Nobel-winning economist and author of The Road to Serfdom (1944) and The Constitution of Liberty (1960). Our entire civilization, Hayek insisted, depends on capitalism. There is simply no other way to inform individuals how to contribute as much as possible to society’s total product. No central authority could ever match the economic efficiency of many people left to make their own decisions. If government just sticks to establishing and enforcing an objective set of laws, a spontaneous order will emerge and prosperity will be maximized. Hayek did not defend the propriety of laissez-faire capitalism by saying government regulation and coercion violate the individual rights of citizens. Rather, he said, arbitrary governmental coercion is bad because it prevents a person from using his mental powers to the full and consequently from making the greatest contribution he can to his community.
So Hayek is no strict laissez-faire defender of free markets. He insists that laws should be objectively written and consistently enforced, but he offers no strict principles about what those laws should prohibit or allow. He himself believes providing minimum food, shelter, and clothing, providing social insurance, prohibiting certain kinds of trade, enforcing minimum wages, providing an education system, running public works projects, regulating techniques of production, and regulating factories are all legitimate functions of government. He might object to some of these on grounds of economic efficiency, but he has no objection on moral grounds. He also has no objection to laws justified on religious grounds—again, as long as they are written objectively and enforced consistently.
Hayek’s eclipsing of Nozick is one aspect of the recent change in libertarian political theory. But another is crucial. This is libertarian’s growing adoption of the Progressive’s doctrine of social justice. To understand this, again, some history is needed.
Any theory of individual political rights is necessarily based on a morality of individualism. Whether you say individuals have a right to life, liberty, and property, or to food, clothing, and shelter, or to free speech and unhindered religious practice, or to equal wages and low-cost medical care, you put at the center of your theory an individual demanding something for his or her personal benefit. You hold that individuals may justifiably place demands on society—even if the demand is just to be left alone. In the Enlightenment and in America into the nineteenth century, this was not particularly controversial. “Individualism,” “selfishness,” and “egoism” were not treated with the disdain they are nowadays. As late as 1888, John Oberly, a commissioner in the Department of the Interior could get to the motherhood-and-apple-pie summary of his public report on what a good job he was doing by saying he was spreading the “exalting egotism of American civilization,” where a man could say “I” instead of “we,” “This is mine” instead of “This is ours.”
But the morality of individualism came under strong attack in the mid-nineteenth century, first in Europe and then in the United States. In 1844, young Karl Marx railed against how the “self-interest,” “practical need,” and “egoism” of the “everyday Jew” had become the norm among Christians. In France, Auguste Comte invented the term “altruism” to oppose “egoism.” He said that we must consider society as prior to the individual. People should give up their selfishness. A proper political philosophy could not tolerate rights, for such a notion rests on individualism. Rights are absurd and immoral. They must be eliminated. In the American South in 1857, the defender of slavery George Fitzhugh said the “present philosophy” of human equality, selfishness, individual sovereignty, and right of private judgment may have stimulated a revolution, but it is false, untenable, absurd, and must be replaced. He rightly observed that if that philosophy were true, then clearly slavery would be wrong.
The moral attacks on individualism of the mid 1800s turned into the Progressives’ attacks on laissez-faire capitalism in the 1910s and ’20s. In 1901, a baker named Joseph Lochner received his second fine for violating a law against letting an employee work more than sixty hours in a week. Lochner challenged the conviction and the case made it to the United States Supreme Court. The Court ruled in Lochner’s favor, saying that a labor law regulating terms between employer and employee amounted to an “unreasonable, unnecessary and arbitrary interference with the right and liberty of the individual to contract.” But things soon changed. Wilson sought to ensure the machinery of society ran freely even if this meant interfering with individual liberty. In the 1910s and ’20s, the United States got a federal bank, national factory regulations, national labor laws, major “public works” projects, a ubiquitous and compulsory government-run education system, and a national income tax. Roosevelt’s New Deal accelerated the change and brought a national old-age pension program, laws to support labor unions, a national lending program to provide citizens with housing, and large government-run farms. The Federal government became the largest employer in the nation. The so-called Lochner Era ended in 1937, when the Supreme Court ruled that voluntarily agreed terms of employer and employee could legitimately be overruled when doing so served the “interests of the community” or the “public interest.” All the main pillars of the modern mixed economy and welfare state were laid.
The moral standard for political institutions had changed. No longer was it protection of individual rights. It became the advancement of “social justice.” Wilson: “We must inspirit our people with the prospects of social justice.” Hoover: “We now legislate for social and economic justice.” Social Justice: A Critical Essay was published in 1910, Essays in Social Justice in 1915, Stephen Leacock’s The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice in 1920. And the term took on a particular meaning. Leacock’sElements of Political Science, probably the most popular textbook on political theory all through the 1910s and ’20s, said, “The view that social justice demands that the individual should be left in possession of his ‘natural rights’ may therefore be discarded.” It had to be discarded, for “the narrow individualism of the nineteenth century refused to recognize the social duty of supporting somebody else’s grandmother,” Leacock wrote. “Social justice” came to mean altruism applied to politics: Everyone should work for the good of others. Trade between citizens must be regulated to meet societal goals. Nearly all income above a certain amount had to be handed over for distribution by government authorities. (Federal marginal tax rates were above 90% for most of the 1940s and ’50s.) Social justice came to mean equality for all.
This norm was upset in 1971, with publication of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. Harvard professor Rawls worked from a simple premise: A rational and self-interested poor person should not demand equality if he could be better off with inequality. A smaller share of a bigger pie might be better than an equal share of a smaller pie. The poor person should be content with inequality if he himself is better off. This part of Rawls’ theory (the “difference principle”) came to be the new standard of social justice. Economic inequalities in a society should be distributed to the greatest advantage of the least advantaged. That social institution is morally best which best serves the interests of the poor.
In a field dominated by calls for economic equality, Rawls was at first seen as a reactionary. To be a defender of inequality was to be a defender of laissez-faire capitalism. But the tide soon turned, and Rawls became the primary political theoretician of America’s political left. His argument was forceful. There is no good reason for the rational poor to shoot themselves in the collective foot by demanding equality, when inequality would serve them better. Let the rich keep some of their money, as long as the poor realize a net benefit. By the late 1970s nearly all political philosophy took Rawls’ standard for redistribution of wealth as its reference. Robert Nozick was not only answering Murray Rothbard’s anarchism. He also said, “Political philosophers must now either work within Rawls’s theory or explain why not.”
Rawls became the standard theoretician of the political left. Hayek replaced Nozick as the standard theoretician of the libertarian right. And that is where American political theory stood at the end of 2006. And that’s when the foundations of libertarian philosophy got hit by an earthquake.
Brink Lindsey, then Vice President for Research at the Cato Institute, called on libertarians to abandon the doctrine that a good government is one that protects the rights of its citizens, abandon the non-aggression principle, and instead adopt the moral standard of social justice advanced by Rawls. By Lindsey’s reasoning, free markets are not moral because they protect individuals’ rights to keep the fruits of their own labors and to freely contract with other individuals doing the same but are moral because they benefit the poor. Period.
The proposed new libertarianism would be a marriage of left and right, “liberaltarianism”; it would be a marriage of Rawls and Hayek, “Rawlsekianism.”
Brink Lindsey and his collaborator on this, Will Wilkinson, left—or, many speculate, were made to leave—the Cato Institute. But the cat was out of the bag. There was now a new libertarianism to be reckoned with, advanced by one of Cato’s most distinguished thinkers. The American Conservative, The Atlantic, Slate, and Salon took notice. Lindsey took the proposal to academic venues across America. A conference dedicated to it was held at the Woodrow Wilson School of Princeton University in October of 2008. The idea was picked up at leading academic centers of libertarian philosophy, such as the University of Arizona’s Center for the Philosophy of Freedom and Brown University’s Political Theory Project.
Then, in October 2012, after the organization appointed a new president, John A. Allison, Brink Lindsey returned to the Cato Institute as a Senior Fellow. He has since become, again, Vice President for Research.
Lindsey calls for a union of progressive ends and libertarian means. He proposes a compromise: Lift regulations to encourage economic growth. Then use the resulting wealth to improve the social safety net. Treat economic policy issues as empirical questions about what works rather than as tests of ideological commitment. When we do this, and make some adjustment to the details, libertarians should, Lindsey believes, accept policies they have been rejecting. “Go ahead, tax the rich, but don’t do it when they’re being productive. . . . And tax everybody’s energy consumption.” Go ahead and have the government fund unemployment insurance, pensions for the indigent, health care for those with catastrophic expenses, various programs for the poor.
In academia, the call for a Rawlsian libertarianism has been defended most vigorously by (my colleague) John Tomasi, professor of political science at Brown University. His book, Free Market Fairness, was released in February 2012 and for at least a year, there was, on average, at least one colloquium, lecture, or workshop a month on it, at venues that include the Cato Institute, Princeton University, Stanford University, University of Notre Dame, George Mason University, and several forums in Europe. Tomasi calls for an end to the antagonism between the Rawlsian critics of free markets on the left and the Hayekian defenders of them on the right. He is being hailed as “one of America’s leading social and political philosophers” and his book as “the very best philosophical treatment of libertarian thought, ever.” Stalwarts of libertarian and conservative thought, such as Charles Murray, Michael Zuckert, Richard Epstein, and Loren Lomasky are cheering Tomasi’s proposal.
A more accessible treatment, for a non-academic audience, is Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know, published in 2012 by the young scholar and recent graduate of the PhD program at the University of Arizona, Jason Brennan. Brennan claims there have been three kinds of libertarians: classical liberals, such as Adam Smith, John Locke, F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and America’s founders; “hard libertarians” such as Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, and Nozick; and neoclassical liberals, such as Brennan, Tomasi, and others of the new Rawlsian doctrine. The first group were defenders of liberty but not as doctrinaire as the hard libertarians, Brennan says. And those hard libertarians of the late 1900s, he assures his readers, are now only a fringe part of libertarianism. (Older libertarians have been appalled to be so marginalized.) Libertarians that are now the mainline, Brennan reports, are not dogmatically committed to the non-aggression principle. They defend their commitment to free-market institutions because these institutions are the ones that best “serve the interests of the poor and least advantaged.” The new mainstream libertarians are not ideologically opposed to, say, government schools or social safety nets.
The academic new libertarians have a web site, BleedingHeartLibertarians.com. Regular contributors include Brennan, fellow Arizona graduate and John Tomasi’s co-author Matt Zwolinski, and a dozen others dedicated to, as the masthead say, “free markets and social justice.” Guest contributors include Tomasi, Lindsey, Wilkinson, the University of Arizona’s Founding Director of the Freedom Center David Schmidtz, George Mason University’s BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism Peter Boettke, and other young and influential scholars.
Another prominent defender of free markets, Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, a large think tank dedicated to limited government, private enterprise, and individual liberty, is actively promoting the bleeding heart defense of capitalism. Brooks calls it “conservative social justice.” He says that the problem with Social Security and Medicare is not that they take money from one group of citizens and give it to another. It is that the programs’ impending insolvency imperils the social safety net for the neediest citizens. New approaches to education are needed, he says, not because it is immoral to educate the children of some parents using money forcibly taken from others but because poor children deserve good schools.
The young Senator Ted Cruz, mentioned above as a Tea Party favorite, a thought leader on the Republican’s libertarian wing, says his party needs a new message. “Republicans should conceptualize and articulate every domestic policy with a single-minded focus on easing assent up the economic ladder. We should assess policy with a Rawlsian lens.”
New Libertarians endorse many conventional liberal social programs, including government schools (Adam Smith, they note, gave it limited support and Thomas Jefferson, after all, founded the University of Virginia), anti-trust laws (Milton Friedman endorsed them), government-funded health care (Hayek allowed it), government pensions (Hayek again), product regulation (Hayek), and minimum wages (Hayek).
Many New Libertarians are now particularly enthusiastic about making welfare universal, using what is called a basic income guarantee (BIG): Instead of giving welfare money only to those who can claim to need it, send welfare checks to everyone, and then, using taxes, take the money back from those who don’t really need it. Having everyone on the dole is supposed to be more efficient and to create fewer weird incentives than conventional welfare.
New Libertarians confuse benefit and justification. Not all benefits, no matter how wonderful, make legitimate standards of right and wrong. Having grandchildren is a wonderful benefit of having children. There should be no end of meetings, books, and web sites about the joys of grandparenting. But if you make your parenting decisions based on what will bring you grandchildren, you will make some very bad decisions.
Let’s not stop celebrating all that secure private property and unfettered free trade can do for the poor. But if helping the poor becomes your very standard of right and wrong, you’ll end up proposing universal welfare and other schemes that abandon even a facade of defending people’s individual and inalienable rights to life and liberty.
That’s what New Libertarianism does.
To keep up with New Libertarianism and other developments in libertarian thought, watch bleedingheartlibertarians.com, www.libertarianism.org, and www.cato-unbound.org. For a criticism of BIG, see Craig Biddle, “The Libertarian Case for Legalized Plunder.” For a criticism of Rawls, see my “A Dog-Eat-Dog World: Rand vs. Rawls.”
“In the 1910s and ’20s, the United States got…” followed by a litany of government programs as though they simply fell out of a clear blue sky or were conjured up from a volcanic fissure by an evil wizard. Let’s try not to forget that early capitalism was run by tight fisted, predatory, exploitive cruel hearted war lord sons of bitches who basically adopted the value system of the aristocracy, and in many cases, became the neo-aristocracy themselves, tho their origins were often humble. These new-money aristocrats paid slave labor wages, worked employees and their children to death, maimed them with dangerous equipment and non-existant job site safety, robbed them with company stores, and spit their bones into piles like good Aztec priests. THAT is how the United States got all them pesky laws and bureaucracies, THAT is how Karl Marx & Co. managed to take over the world cultural paradigm. Conservatives piss and moan from sun up to sundown about regulations, big government, taxes, liberal media, Marxist academia, libertine arts, fuck you youth culture, yadda yadda and never once suss that these LOST BATTLES may have had a cause other than some delusional philosopher magician hypnotizing an army of intellectual zombies…a cause such as wanting to put one’s fist through the face of the bosses that locked the doors to the Triangle Shirt Factory. We need to discover that history didn’t begin with the onset of our personal libertarian epiphany. History has a cause, and one of the biggest causes is individuals banding together to protect themselves from sadists, psychotics and tyrants. If capitalists can’t regulate themselves via a set of ethics and simple human decency, then…here we are.
John P. McCaskey, reply to Walter Alter
It is surprising how seldom these kinds of arguments appeared in the Progressive’s proposals of the 1910s and 20s. The much more common argument was that although individualism had brought tremendous “progress” in material prosperity for the population at large—including in the health and education of children—even greater progress was possible if the government would actively coordinate the activities of its citizens, that is, if politicians acted more like businessmen coordinating the work of employees. Read Hoover, Keynes, Wilson, Roosevelt, Leacock, et al.
Walter Alter, reply to John P. McCaskey
You could be right, I don’t have any research oriented insight into labor struggles and labor organizing after the turn of the century. I do know that factory owners and bosses fought tooth and nail against improvements in working conditions and wages, improvements that are now commonplace and that, when violated, could land the boss a fine that would wipe out investor dividends. The pressure for workplace reform, tho beneath the revolution boiling point, did in fact, erupt in a series of pro-worker legislations, that were the foundation of current policies, directly after the New York Triangle Shirt Factory fire in which bosses had locked the sweat shop doors to keep union organizers out which led to well over a hundred deaths of the teen aged women who could not escape when a pile of rags caught fire and gutted the upper stories of the building. The relevant episode in Ken Burns’ documentary series “New York” is beyond poignant on this.
That event broached the dam containing barbaric war lord enterprise policies that, generations later, resulted in factory owners finally, if reluctantly, understanding that the worker was not only valuable to the success of the enterprise, but essential. It seems that factory owners need to be dragged kicking and screaming into this realization by being forced into a situation of labor scarcity, even if in the form of an artifice of union power, the strike, able to directly compete with boss power straight in the face of a surplus of job seekers. But strategies of artificial scarcity are no surprise to monopolist minded capitalists, cf. the Irish Potato Famine and the oil shortage hoax of the early 1970’s. This has been as much a strategic struggle over irrationally entrenched psychology as it has been a struggle over the means of production and profit levels.
Implicit in your point is that government employees have little incentive to excel unlike business employees driven by competition. I agree that guaranteed job security and union defense of incompetence needs to feel the pressure of competition. As it stands now, union employees are a mini-aristocracy whose purpose is to cling to their post rather than excel, suggest improvements on the assembly line and impart their skills and wisdom to the next generation. At least in business, when this psychology is carried to pathological levels, the business fails.
I think we have a gigantic failure of ethics in the modern world, whether or not that ethics is tied to collectivism or individualism. Both sides sell out cheap, barter their honor, betray their esthetics on a daily basis under situations far removed from matters of life and death. We need a better manual on what behaviors should be situationally defined and which should be guided by principle. I think it’s basically a conflict between short term and long term thinking. The former is animal thinking and the latter is angelic thinking, lol!
Stop calling Ayn Rand “libertarian”, please. She hardly represents real American thought, having been born, raised and educated in Soviet Russia. All her theory is purely a reaction to the oppression she experienced. Her views on Native Americans are as dull, predictable, and stupid as Adolf Hitler’s.
I think the greatest error is to call this nonsense New Libertarianism. Just as the collectivists co-opted the term liberal, they now are co-opting libertarian. They will never stop this game of stealing any popular term and pasting it on their communism. Communists are thieves – they steal language as well as property – always claiming to have a caring eye on the collective good.
Dean Striker, reply to John Howard
I completely agree. To use “New Libertarian” for anyone who is not at all Libertarian is dang near criminal. It also kinda negs this article!
This is great.
Mr. McCaskey: Well presented article, and a very scary perspective on those who would undermine the only remaining political philosophy that would protect all human liberty.
The one thing that I think is an obstacle for more people to accept libertarianism comes from the dogmatic perspective of the non-aggression axiom. While it is an utopian dream state, it is not rooted in the fundamental essence of humanity. Non-aggression only works if every person accepts it as a fundamental premise. Unfortunately, the nature of humanity is that some want to rule others. These people will not accept and willingly and faithfully comply with the non-aggression axiom, instead, using their ability to muster force to subjugate others. Why this fundamental understanding of humanity was so elusive to the likes of Rothbard and Hayek baffles me. Even Ayn Rand, though she certainly understood this underbelly of humanity in her looters of Atlas Shrugged, seemed to believe that this could be overcome and is a fundamental tenet of her Objectivist philosophy. Since most rational people understand this inherent aspect of humanity, they reject libertarianism based on this irrational non-aggression axiom.
I believe that instead of this new “social justice libertarianism,” what is needed is Constitutional Libertarianism. This would be a political philosophy that returned to the founders intent of a republic of sovereign states, with a federal government with limited enumerated powers beyond which all other power was vested in the people or the individual states. This would return a Supreme Court to a trier of fact against law and not the final arbiter of what is “constitutional.” It would eliminate absurdities like the departments of Health and Human Services, Education, and Commerce just to name a few. In fact, most operations of the government other than a system of courts, a military, a small federal police, a system of IP protection, and a cadre of ambassadors diplomats. This recognizes that humans will seek to rule other humans, thus a military force is created to prevent this from happening from outside the nation, and a small federal police force would prevent it from happening within the nation but only in those instances where the individual states could not separately serve the purpose.
Dean Striker, reply to Robbie53024
The reason the NAP axiom works is because it sorts out the criminals from all others. Within a Voluntary system of true Liberty, the criminals will either “get right” or be eliminated by the good folks whom had been victimized. Those “some who want to rule others” will find themselves without a podium.
Daniel Hackney, reply to Robbie53024
The nonagression principle certainly doesn’t assume that all people will adhere to it. It also doesn’t prevent people from retaliating against those who do break it. That’s called pacifism. The nonaggression principle says that you cannot initiate force against someone else; if they are the initiator, you are fully justified in retaliating.
The people who don’t live by the nonaggression principle are called “criminals” and are treated appropriately.
oldoddjobs, reply to Robbie53024
We tried that and it created the biggest government in world history.
John P. McCaskey, reply to oldoddjobs
Remember that government in the US, when it limited itself to protecting inalienable rights, was not and could not be particularly large. The progressive turn away from that limitation sought large government as a goal. It succeeded.
oldoddjobs, reply to John P. McCaskey
Well, yes. So maybe there’s something naive about expecting the wolf to guard the hen house?
John P. McCaskey, reply to oldoddjobs
Only if citizens think of themselves as wolves and hens. It hasn’t always been that way.
oldoddjobs, reply to John P. McCaskey
I guess we just disagree on the limiting powers of constitutions per se. I side with Anthony deJasay on this question, which makes me an anarchist I suppose. Not a particularly fervent one, mind you.
brucejc04, reply to Robbie53024
Robbie is right!
This is the best piece of reading on the matter I’ve seem so far.
Been quite some time since this new spectrum of libertarianism has been bothering me, I just couldn’t put it in words as clear and straight as you did.
It looks like Milton Friedman point of view changed on anti-trust laws.
“My own views about the antitrust laws have changed greatly over time. When I started in this business, as a believer in competition, I was a great supporter of antitrust laws; I thought enforcing them was one of the few desirable things that the government could do to promote more competition. But as I watched what actually happened, I saw that, instead of promoting competition, antitrust laws tended to do exactly the opposite, because they tended, like so many government activities, to be taken over by the people they were supposed to regulate and control. And so over time I have gradually come to the conclusion that antitrust laws do far more harm than good and that we would be better off if we didn’t have them at all, if we could get rid of them. But we do have them.”
I think Marx would call them “Useful Idiots”
Good piece. Although, I’m critical of philosophical pretense in knowledge of social justice as much as I am rational pretense in knowledge of the market.
If any judgment is beyond our perception, and any concept of social justice is, then we must, as in all other matters where complexity exceeds our perception, develop some kind of instrumentation and means of calculation such that we can reduce that which we cannot perceive, to some analogy to experience that we can perceive. Moral rules are not sufficient for achieving that kind of instrumentation, or performing that kind of calculation. The problem requires formal institutions and means of calculation. We have the market for cooperating on means even if we disagree on ends. We have the government for forcing cooperation on means and ends by majority rule. We have accounting to assist us in the perception of that which we cannot possibly grasp without it. And we have economics to attempt to measure our success. But we have no such instrumentation and means of calculating social justice – or even defining such a thing as social justice. (Which current psychologists and economists suspect is reducible to status seeking, and insurance against risk, and nothing more.)
While we might continue in the methods of the past, and attempt to concoct yet another empty incalculable moralism for the purported common good, these are value judgements and nothing more. They are incalculable. Most of the post-enlightenment effort has considered society a monopoly, in contrast to the pre-enlightenment condition of most urban cities, as federations of minorities denied access to political power, and forced to compete outside of politics, in the market. So the idea of social justice is an artifact of monopoly democracy rather than a federation of disparate interests.
However, libertarians rightly argue that the only moral test is that of voluntary exchange free of violent coercion. I argue that this ‘test’ is incorrect, since no in-group human organizations demonstrate that low a level of trust, And instead all groups demonstrate and require higher standards of trust, tah also forbid free riding, deception, cheating, as well as burdening other group members indirectly. However, whether we accept a low trust society and high demand for external authority that low trust societies demonstrate, or a high trust society and the low demand for external authority that high trust societies demonstrate, the underlying argument that the only test of moral action is voluntary exchange. So the effort that political philosophers left, libertarian and right have expended under the universalist assumption of the enlightenment has been to find some justification for moral decision making even if the knowledge to make such decisions is impossible both in the market, and afterward, using the profits created from the market.
The question instead, is how to construct institutions with which groups can conduct voluntary exchanges, which are by definition moral. Majority rule does not allow this. Majority rule is sufficient for the selection of priorities in homogenous polities with homogenous interests. The market is the means by which heterogeneous polities cooperate on means despite different interests on ends. But how can we construct an institutional system that allows the construction of commons, and other exchanges between groups and classes, but is not dependent upon a monopoly bureaucracy, majority rule, or representatives open to influence, special interest, and corruption? Because a government of contracts, not laws, would allow the exchange of say, adherence to traditions and norms, or requirements for married families in order to obtain redistribution. This would make government a means of cooperation rather than the source and facilitator of conflict.
The Propertarian Institute
This is an informative and excellently written piece.
Mr McCaskey, this is a great piece. Clear, honest, analytical, coherent, well-written. I admire your fairness in treating the Rothbardian anarcho-libertarians among other hard libertarians. I too have been distressed to see the rise of these social-justice type libertarians, and dislike their attempts to relegate principled libertarians to some fringe status. As I see it, this is just factually false; the number of libertarians has risen, because of Ron Paul etc., and many of them gradually move to more radical, “hard” positions, often influenced by Austrian economics.
This is an informative and excellently written piece. I’ve tried to summarize some of my thoughts on the bleeding heart – conventional libertarian divide here: http://predragrajsic.blogspot.ca/2013/12/brief-economics-of-bleeding-heart.html
Question about this quote:
“Any theory of individual political rights is necessarily based on a morality of individualism. Whether you say individuals have a right to life, liberty, and property, or to food, clothing, and shelter, or to free speech and unhindered religious practice, or to equal wages and low-cost medical care, you put at the center of your theory an individual demanding something for his or her personal benefit.”
Is this quote your own views on individualism or a summation of the historic view of individualism of those in the early 19th Century?
The individualism that I know says that the individual is sovereign, that he is an end in himself, that he does not exist for the sake of others. However your claim that individualism supports both the right to property and the “right” to others’ property a la equal wages is contradictory and leaves “individualism” devoid of all meaning since it would mean anything to everyone. Just because the voter is supposed to be the intended beneficiary doesn’t make it a form of individualism. All of the new “rights” you list are forms of collectivism and are therefore not rights at all. It seems that you are trying to define individualism too broadly by some non-fundamental personal benefit basis.
John P. McCaskey, reply to Michael Caution
Much of Progressivism was indeed cast as a promotion of individualism. In Herbert Hoover’s book “AMERICAN INDIVIDUALISM”: “we safeguard to every individual an equality of opportunity to take that position in the community to which his intelligence, character, ability, and ambition entitle him.” See John Dewey’s “INDIVIDUALISM: OLD AND NEW.” Progressivism co-opted (and, yes, corrupted) a long tradition of the state vs. the individual, of the individual serving the state vs. the state serving the individual.
My claim (and I think it is original) is that the doctrine of “individual rights” collapsed in the later twentieth century not because of an inescapable conflict between “negative” and “positive” rights, not because of the existential conflict between one person’s right to keep stuff and another person’s right to be given stuff, but because those advocating for positive rights to a job, an education, health care, vacation, or whatever had to say it was moral for an individual to demand something for his or her personal benefit. And that ran counter to altruism, regardless whether getting the thing demanded actually would be of personal benefit.
Recall that the subtitle of Ayn Rand’s VIRTUE OF SELFISHNESS is A NEW CONCEPT OF EGOISM. She was entering a conversation in which there was already talk of individualism and egoism. She wanted to say, as you do, that if you essentialize and give proper grounding to these concepts, you find much of what had been going by the terms was in fact faux or corrupt. (See Nathaniel Branden’s essay “Counterfeit Individualism.”) But even if he has a distorted understanding of egoism, an anti-egoist cannot defend personal and individual rights to anything. He has to be an all-out collectivist and can’t defend any sort of individual rights, even “positive” rights to take other people’s stuff.
You cannot defend any individual rights in politics—regardless what particular rights you claim—without defending individualism in ethics.
I think Jared Rhoads is on to something. This seems like something of an elite phenomenon. The mass of libertarians who came out of the Ron Paul campaign were attracted and converted to a more hardcore style of liberty. The libertarian establishment will try to sway them. Given that quite many are young and with Ron Paul not as a noticable as before, they might be able to push them in this direction. Certainly the institutions Ron Paul left behind/inspired have already been taken over either by moderates who want reconciliation with foreign policy crowd on the right or by left-libertarians who are hostile to the social conservatives.
Rand Paul so far has been quite succesful with appealing to different crowds and is exactly the type of guy who can wingle his way through all these opposing interests. He has already shown he is nowhere near as hardcore as his father. It shouldn’t be a stretch for him to connect with these new libertarian intellectuals who could help bolster his appeal. His personal(but not political) social conservative views could be a problem when the left eventually attacks Rand and the bleeding hearts for defending him. That will be the acid test.
Dean Striker, reply to Sam
Well, Rand Paul lost it with me when he ditched his dad at the RNC. Along with that Ron ought to have left the Rhino Party and returned to the LP. We of the LP lost the greatest-ever potential for becoming at last a voice to be reckoned with.
Social justice itself is an oxymoron, because each individual has an individual conception of what THE “social good” is, when in truth, it is an abstraction and non-objective. Once the non-aggression principle is thrown out, then one is tacitly accepting the premise that aggression against innocent others is acceptable, provided that it is in the service of what one perceives as being “THE social good.” In other words, it is “sometimes” OK to “do unto others as one would NOT have them do unto oneself.” The problem is, this rule applies to everybody. What determines whose conception of “THE Social Good” is to prevail? Politically directed force. As Rand put it: “Where force is the standard, the murderer wins over the pickpocket.” The problem of “social justice” and Rawls’s position, is that justice is not “social,” meaning collective; it is individual, because it is only the individual who thinks, decides, and acts. Groups are abstractions, especially when such groupings are arbitrarily assigned by people other than the individual. They are presuming the ability to foresee outcomes that are in reality neither objective nor even predictable. What is worse, however badly conceived the ends are, the means are also problematical. In fact, under the classical conception of justice, it is the epitome of injustice to judge the individual solely according to some arbitrarily determined collective membership. Some of the worst and most grotesque injustices in history have been perpetrated by members of one self-identified group inflicting harm on people perceived as being members of some other despised group. In the end, “Social Justice” boils down to Lenin’s “Who? Whom?” With this means is it not obvious that these criteria select in favor of the most ruthless? Is it any wonder that Hayek was right when he observed how “the worst get on top”? If it weren’t so often tragic, it would be risible to consider how often “Bleeding Hearts” are left scratching their heads wondering how “the bad guys” snookered them again. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions…and popular delusions. The advantage of universal rights and dispersal of authority is that nobody is presumed to be an aristocrat or an angel, with the righteous authority to “cheat” according to his whims and subjective value judgments.
A focus on social mobility is good politics. It also serves traditional libertarian goals, since the major obstacles to social mobility are the progressive income tax (in effect a tax on social mobility), minimum wage (a device to prevent unskilled laborers from offering their labor at a market price) and regulation (wiping out the class of “too-small-to-succeed” businesses, i.e. poor businessmen). Let’s free the economy and help the poor! Remove obstacles to economic success!
This is not libertarianism, they can call it the social justice league for all I care, but if you ignore libertarianism main tennet of non aggression you aren’t a libertarian. You’re more likely a political hack or a liberal capitalist.
Xerographica, reply to Dave
I definitely agree that they should call it something else. Given that your comment has received the most votes, it’s painfully obvious that the word “libertarian” is now synonymous with “vulgar libertarian”. So there should really be a new word for a thoughtful libertarian.
A thoughtful libertarian is somebody who endeavors to understand and articulate the socially beneficial consequences of individual liberty. You clearly are not a thoughtful libertarian. You’re a vulgar libertarian. You’ve embraced the NAP which makes it entirely unnecessary for you to make a case for liberty. This is because the second you try and justify your rule you’ve abandoned it.
For a vulgar libertarian…slavery is wrong because it violates the NAP. For a thoughtful libertarian…slavery is wrong because the consequences to society are extremely detrimental. Why are the consequences so detrimental? You don’t know and you can’t care…because if you do…then you’re acknowledging that the consequences are relevant…which would of course negate your rule.
If liberty is at all protected, then it will be despite, rather because of, libertarians such as yourself.
What you describe may be social liberalism, but it’s not libertarianism.
John P. McCaskey
Jason Brennan has a short and philosophically important response at http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2014/04/monday-morning-links/
Here is a thread that may be of interest to Objectivist watchers of libertarianism and of Cato in particular: https://www.facebook.com/john.p.mccaskey/posts/10152127771568720
Thank you for the very informative post. As someone who doesn’t follow that particular area closely, I must say I’m surprised that the movement has been in that direction. The notion that we are morally obligated to help the poor, the weak, the helpless is always the wrecking ball. Look at the mess it makes of their thinking.
You have omitted The Order of Public Reason from your (helpful) review: http://www.amazon.com/The-Order-Public-Reason-Morality/dp/1107668050/
This is an interesting development indeed. Five years ago, based on my interactions with students at many libertarian- and classical liberal-oriented conferences, I might have predicted something quite different–that it would be the “anarcho capitalist” strain that would gain some prominence. Rothbard was everywhere, Rand was much less “cool,” and Rawls was practically out of the picture. (I’m talking about just student conferences.) Then again, those students are just barely out of graduate school and they probably aren’t yet being hired by Cato, AEI, and the like. I wonder if, ironically, New Libertarianism is most popular among older libertarians tired of operating on the fringes and looking to broaden their appeal.
Dean Striker, reply to Jared Rhoads
As a much older and longer Libertarian, “broadening the appeal” can be little else than standing upon the fine principle base long established.
crazy j, replay to Dean Striker
Let me know how that works out for you.
I always felt the line of thought of the bleeding heart libertarians was essentially routed in the idea of rebutting any accusation that a libertarian society would make things worst for the poor however i believe there is no universally accepted view among the “New Libertarians”. If a welfare state can help along with a free market and a more free society, i don’t see that it’s an abandonment as you say and that it is merely a more pragmatic and empirically routed version of libertarianism. Hayek proposed a welfare state (As mentioned) and Nozick believed in rectification for unjust acquisition. Libertarianism has always had elements of “left” ideology Nonetheless this has characterised much of a new school of thought which appeals to people generally a bit put off by elements of libertarianism.
John P. McCaskey
Facebook shares and threads: https://www.facebook.com/BHLBlog/posts/679673352093242, https://www.facebook.com/john.p.mccaskey/posts/10152127771568720, https://www.facebook.com/stuart.hayashi/posts/10153994139815431
Thank you for bringing more attention to this phenomenon!