Last fall, I took a day to visit the original Occupy Wall Street encampment at Zuccotti Park. As it turned out, the day I chose was to be an odd one, as it was the day that investment broker Peter Schiff decided to visit with the intent of opening a dialog. He set up a large banner in front of a small camera crew for maximum exposure and attention gathering. The banner read: “I am the 1%, Let’s Talk.” Mr. Schiff’s theme was that the goals of the OWS movement were misguided; that it is not capitalism that deserves to be protested, but the government; that more capitalism, not more government or socialism, will lead to greater freedom. It had the predictable effect of drawing a large crowd of Occupiers who argued with him into the evening.
This interesting episode came to mind when I read an interview with Schiff on his participation in a debate where he argued that China’s version of capitalism is superior to America’s. Some stand-out quotes:
Slate: You’ll argue on Tuesday in support of the motion that China does capitalism better than America. What do they know that we don’t?
Peter Schiff: First of all, I don’t think either the United States or China does capitalism all that well. America did capitalism a lot better in the 19th century than China does it now, but today, China does it better than we do. Though both countries have far too much government involvement in the economy, we have more. They’re Communists, supposedly, and we’re not, but our government screws up our economy more than the Chinese government screws up its.
Slate: What lies ahead for China politically?
Schiff: I think there will ultimately be more freedom than there is today. Will China ever become a one man, one vote democracy? Hopefully not, for the sake of the Chinese. Doing so has certainly not served our interest. We enjoyed a lot more freedom and prosperity when we were less democratic. In the 19th century we were quite undemocratic in the way government ran, and we benefited from that lack of democracy. But as we became more democratic, we grew less free and therefore less prosperous. If they’re wise, the Chinese won’t follow that example. They’ll try to model their government after what America used to be, before we screwed it up.
This is a lot to take in. It seems that when Schiff argued that the government is the problem and capitalism the solution, he did not merely have in mind the extent of government operations but its very form: a representative democracy. There’s a lot of familiar stuff here. I have commented previously on the trend of libertarians viewing the 19th century in the United States as a golden, rather than gilded, age, and on the propertarian opposition to democracy. They are entwined here in a very disturbing way: as the franchise expanded to the poor, and then to black people, and then to women, “we grew less free.” Greater citizen participation in government led to a decline in the freedom “we enjoyed” which did not serve “our interest.” Viewing Schiff’s use of the first person plural very literally and personally, I suppose he is entirely right: rich white men like him had a lot more freedom than others back then.
A little over a year ago, I wrote a very long review of Atlas Shrugged which deconstructed the book’s utopian vision to reveal its implicitly totalitarian message. It ended with what I think of as an appeal to the “average libertarian,” the sort of person who feels strongly against government intrusion in all fields but who might not understand the perverse implications of Rand’s thoughts. Granted, Objectivism is not the same as libertarianism, but the former has provided enough intellectual backing to the latter that I felt the warning worth making.
This was predicated on the idea that most libertarians, regardless of what I thought of the impact of their ideas, really did care about freedom and saw their ideas as key to improving the human condition, in sharp contrast to the message of Atlas Shrugged, that the common good is irrelevant and plutocracy is self-justified. As I looked into libertarianism more and more, in the time since then, I found a number of things that challenged this picture, from statements by libertarians and their fellow travelers to unfortunate implications of libertarian arguments. I have written about them on this blog, but always thought of them as odd flukes, or a few cranks letting slip their darker motives.
At this point, while I still don’t doubt that the majority of people calling themselves “libertarians” have good intentions, I can’t extend this benefit of the doubt the activists and thinkers of the movement any more. Libertarianism is, inherently, nothing more than a defense of plutocracy. Its ideal, the propertarian minarchy, creates the perfect apparatus for the private dictatorial control over everyday life, with the state serving no function but enforcing the will of those with extraordinary economic power by the protection of property rights. It used to be that the idea of liberal democracy as a sham was a leftist or Marxist preoccupation. It was said that this theory justified tyranny since, after all, parliamentary representation is nothing but a bourgeois dictatorship. Now, however, the shoe is on the other foot. Libertarianism is the radical communism of the 21st century, in that it is a utopian ideology that values certain principles and goals above everyday freedoms and accountable government. And like the communists of the early 20th century, its adherents are either blind to the hellish implications of their ideas, or cynically exploiting the rest for their own ends.
What is “Libertarianism”? A Tale of Two Freedoms
One of the more frustrating aspects of attempting to discuss a subject like libertarianism is simply defining what it is. Its adherents often make reference to an incredible ideological diversity such that it is impossible to brand them all with one label. There is some truth to this. Historically and globally, the word has taken on many meanings. From this high vantage, it would seem impossible to lump together, say, anarcho-capitalists and libertarian socialists under the same banner. Because of this, I need to clearly define a scope for discussion. This article takes as its theme the hidden or implied meaning of libertarian ideals as a matter of immediate urgency, and so a deep historical or global perspective is unhelpful: as I live in the United States and observe most closely its politics in the present time, that is the scope I will limit myself to. When the field of ideas is so restricted, the supposed diversity of libertarianism resolves less to a rainbow than to many shades and tints of one color. To demonstrate the meaning of this characterization, consider one of libertarianism’s most successful propaganda ploys: the two-axis political spectrum used in The World’s Smallest Political Quiz.
Crafted by a libertarian organization, this quiz defines a person’s political ideology as a point on a grid defined by a “personal issues” axis and an “economic issues” axis. It and its variants have become wildly popular, to the point where even non-libertarians may define themselves according to these two dimensions: traditional conservatives are “economically libertine, socially conservative,” for example. Those who promote such a framing advertise it as an enhancement over one-dimensional “left-right” political spectrum because it acknowledges that the diversity of issues “left” and “right” might encompass are often contradictory, and do not perfectly align with their adherents’ ideals. Therefore, by categorizing issues such that they occupy two different domains which can be individually plotted, a more complex and accurate picture of political ideology emerges. In abstract, this makes sense, but the particular method of categorizing issues which the Smallest Quiz and its variants use is highly suspicious: both leading and incomplete. In my view, it should have gone without saying, long before it ever became this popular, that the quiz and its ideological rubric are a sham, a marketing technique without real descriptive merit.
Firstly, we should consider the underlying basis for the axes, that is, what quantity they measure. The quiz’s information page explains that an axis on personal or economic issues measures the degree of government control over that domain which a person of a particular ideology is comfortable with. This leads to the following conclusion:
The central insight of the political model promoted by the Quiz is that the major difference between the various political philosophies, the real defining element in what a person believes politically, is the amount of government control over human action. In other words, there’s not just a left-right axis, but an up-down one — DOWN toward authoritarianism and UP toward liberty! (Emphasis theirs.)
Is it any real wonder what ideology happens to occupy the quadrant of maximum “liberty” on both axes? The results page for the quiz even has a helpful “Find Out More” link under the entry explaining the meaning of “Libertarian.” It’s very advantageous to define your own political ideology as pro-liberty and then frame political issues such that all other ideologies are about less liberty in a number of ways. 1 Let’s imagine for a moment an alternate grid: one axis measures “stability at home,” another “stability abroad.” The implicit opposite in each case is “instability,” suggesting chaos and strife. What ideology might benefit from such a ranking of political ideas, such that its opponents are in favor of chaos and strife at home or abroad? If I wanted to promote authoritarian fascism, getting everyone to think along these lines would be incredibly useful.
On that note, it’s worth looking at the nature of the contents of this quiz (and its variants). You can find the original here, and a variant called “The Political Compass” here. Some of the original’s propositions, to which you can agree, express uncertainty, or disagree, are transparently leading. Instead of simply asking if we ought to privatize Social Security, for instance, it prefaces this goal by characterizing privatization as “Let[ting] people control their own retirement.” Are you in favor of allowing others to control peoples’ retirement, you tyrant? Another proposition asks if we ought to “replace government welfare with private charity,” implicitly framing welfare programs as “public charity” instead of, say, a social safety net. Of note is that the most leading propositions are all about economic issues. The personal issues are phrased more neutrally. Also of note is a distinct lack of propositions on foreign policy. The two that come closest relate to military service (voluntary vs. drafted) and international free trade, both propositions with domestic implications. There is nothing about diplomacy or waging war. The “Compass” quiz propositions are more even handed, sometimes being neutral statements of moral principle without direct political application. Rarely do propositions with clear political implications have any preface framing them in a particular way. But again, foreign policy issues are nearly non-existent. Out of 62 questions, only one (“Military action that defies international law is sometimes justified.”) deals with diplomacy or war, while a few other questions deal with issues with domestic and foreign implications.
The emphasis on domestic policy issues is both an indication of this framing’s inadequacy and incompleteness, and reveals that modern libertarianism is, in the first place, an ideology focused on the relationship between the government and its citizens. Issues about the governments’ actions abroad are peripheral, which fits with a personal observation that there is still great variety in libertarian positions on foreign policy, such that there are both hawk and dove libertarians. Another revelation, from the phrasing of the “World’s Smallest” propositions, is that libertarianism is most combative on economic issues. It is in the realm of political economy where it has the most work to do. That libertarians might be in favor of legalizing drugs or marriage equality is almost taken as a given, but when it comes to pro-market policy, more work is needed to finesse the issue in such a way as to appeal to an audience.
What this might also suggest is that “personal liberties” are much less important to libertarians than “economic liberties.” This also fits with my own observations. Some months ago I posted an analysis of the Mercatus Center’s eponymous ranking of “Freedom in the 50 States.” The interesting thing about this report is that it is one of the few libertarian rankings of freedom that actually pays any attention to social or personal liberties. Even then, it selectively defines these liberties in a strange way: many of them have more economic than personal implications, and many issues of social liberty important to liberals are labeled too controversial to rank, thus awarding conservatives a more favorable ranking in social liberty, contrary to the usual characterization. This reflects a pattern in mainstream politics where libertarians more often ally with Republicans than Democrats, as if conservative economic policies were more important than liberal personal policies. A final test of the commitment of libertarians to social liberty is to observe that while a “libertarian” might argue that the government should not intervene in private business by banning racial discrimination in hiring and commerce, a civil libertarian never would:
I’m not in favor of any discrimination of any form,” he responded. “I would never belong to any club that excluded anybody for race. We still do have private clubs in America that can discriminate based on race. But I think what’s important about this debate is not written into any specific ‘gotcha’ on this, but asking the question: What about freedom of speech? Should we limit speech from people we find abhorrent? Should we limit racists from speaking? …I don’t want to be associated with those people, but I also don’t want to limit their speech in any way in the sense that we tolerate boorish and uncivilized behavior because that’s one of the things freedom requires. -Rand Paul, interview with Rachel Maddow
Rand Paul’s statement is not a fluke by any means, regardless of his own hasty retraction. In personal discussions with libertarians, I have often seen them argue that freedom of association requires, unfortunately, that private businesses be allowed to discriminate on the basis of race. This ties into a talking point with a connection to Rand Paul’s father, Ron Paul, who was embroiled in a minor scandal over dog-whistle racism published in newsletters with his name attached. These comments appear to be part of a ploy by libertarians to reach out to racist paleoconservatives by casting issues of government spending and welfare in racially charged terms. From this comes a claim that reaches deep into the atavistic cesspit of anxiety over “race mixing” that buttressed Jim Crow: that Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement “replaced the evil of forced segregation with the evil of forced integration.”
How could it be that an ideology so concerned with freedom embraces so many ideas and conclusions antithetical to the civil rights and liberties we, as a nation, have fought so long and so hard for? As it turns out, it’s a matter of principle.
The Iron Laws of “Freedom From”
I’d like to take an opportunity to note, in the spirit of fairness, that this is, in fact, a point on which libertarians are not united. It’s not like every one of them holds their nose and sanctions racial segregation so long as the government isn’t involved. In my research for the above section I came across an article on a blog called “Bleeding Heart Libertarians” (whose writers, its tagline informs us, champion “free markets and social justice”) denouncing Paul’s newsletter and its strategy for courting racists. I mention this as a way of reiterating my earlier statement that most rank-and-file libertarians, ordinary folks who adopt that label for their political convictions, probably really do care about personal liberties and might be genuinely disturbed at the strange places to which modern libertarianism and its activists, intellectuals, and politicians wander. There is a strain of libertarianism that can be a force for good. So why do I focus so much on the bad, to the point of identifying libertarianism itself with these worst elements?
This is really a question of labeling. For all that I’ve criticized political identity framing of the “Smallest Quiz” variety, it does have a kernel of truth: political ideals and political identities are hard to match up and are more complicated than a one dimensional spectrum allows for. Careful readers will note that in my own analysis, I have resorted to the very categories I expressed skepticism about, crafting two labels: “civil libertarian” and some generic, common, vaguely understood “libertarian,” sans modifier. These roughly correlate to the ideas of personal freedom and economic freedom respectively. From where I am sitting, there is very little binding them together in garden-variety libertarian ideology. The former will always be sacrificed for the latter. It might actually be better to call the second variety of libertarians “propertarians.” Only a few libertarians explicitly identify themselves as such,2 but this has the advantage of untangling identities from ideas, since it is the ideas that concern me. Libertarians aren’t the only people who espouse what I will describe as propertarian ideas, although most modern libertarians, especially its activists and intellectuals, do. Ultimately, whether someone calls themselves a libertarian or not isn’t as important as the ideas undergriding their political ideals. So what is so bad about libertarianism of the propertarian variety?
A comparison to traditional market conservatism should make this clear. Market conservatives and propertarians have much in common in terms of goals. They would both like to see smaller government, lower taxes, and freer markets. A market conservative, though, has different reasons. She favors smaller government because she does not trust the government to do a better job than the private sector. She favors lower taxes because generally, in her view, the more money people have to spend that’s not going to wasteful government programs, the better. She favors free markets because she believes that the more obstacles you get out of the way of private sector innovators, the more prosperous we will all be. What’s interesting about these lines of reasoning is how pragmatic and realistic they are. By this I mean, they set real-world results as their standard. They are also “generalized” ideals, or ideals which are a matter of degree. The market conservative believes that they are generally correct. She can admit that sometimes we need to raise taxes, sometimes the government should perform some function, and some regulations are needed without betraying her convictions. This is because a few concessions to the opposition does not undermine her belief that lower taxes, less government, and freer markets are usually the best way to go.
A propertarian is not so down-to-earth. A propertarian opposes taxes because taxes are theft: they represent an “initiation of force” to take from some and give to others. He opposes expanding the scope of government for the same basic reason: if taxes are an inevitable burden, then they should be used only to prevent criminals and malcontents from “initiating force” to interfere in others’ lives, a violation of their rights. These rights are of necessity defined as “negative liberties” in that they represent a freedom from coercion or the use of force. Government regulation, once again, is a use of force to interfere in peoples’ business, and the government should have no right to interfere in anyone’s life unless they are interfering in someone else’s. The optimal government, then, exists only to defend life and property, enforce freely-entered contracts, and provide a venue for civil suit. What’s notable about this in contrast to market conservatism is that it’s an entirely idealistic set of political values. Instead of starting from real world results, the propertarian starts from abstract moral principles and assumes that implementing these perfect morals will have good results. He then holds his nose and defends all sorts of horrible things because after all, no one has “initiated force” by, say, refusing to serve black customers, or buying someone who consensually sold himself into slavery, or letting the sick and starving die if they can’t afford food or medicine. Making exceptions for these cases would not compromise market conservatism much, but it would wholly repudiate propertarianism, which is described in terms of absolute moral principles. The moral need for exceptions implicitly debunks the moral rule.
It is easy to see how a market conservative might slip into the propertarian mind-set: if the real world will, in many cases, not oblige to demonstrate the general superiority of limited governments and free markets, then there is nothing to do but to stand on principle. In this case, the principle is one that we all hold dear, freedom. But it is a limited concept of freedom market apologists fall back upon, and which propertarians champion: the negative rights of “freedom from.” If you assert that the freedom to be left alone is the essence of liberty, then it does not matter how disastrous market conservatism is in practice, because it is right, morally and politically, and so any down-sides are the necessary prices we pay (potentially including but not limited to: the return of racial segregation, sickness and death for any who cannot afford medical care, and near complete powerlessness and objectification in the labor market) for our valued freedom from interference.
If propertarian ideas were only the hobby-horse of a few peripheral cranks making graphic novels about talking gorillas then none of this would be of any more than intellectual interest, a philosophical curiosity. The problem is that it’s going mainstream. At Tea Party rallies you will see signs exhorting us to “Read Ayn Rand,” and where conservatives might have talked about government waste or burdensome regulations, now any sort of welfare program is a communist redistribution of wealth, seizing from the innovators and producers and giving to the moochers and looters. The propertarian ideal is becoming popular outside the identity of libertarianism. It’s for this reason that I can make reference to, for example, Peter Schiff and the Tea Party movement without caring whether any of them “are” libertarians. They express and promote propertarian ideas, and that is enough.
Signposts on the Road to Serfdom
Red-bating is alive and well way past its 1970 sell-by date, in this out-of-control political world where a milquetoast Democratic president is the vanguard of radical socialism. Normally, we would only find “the lesser of two evils” a begrudgingly persuasive selling point, as in the contest of a milquetoast Democrat vs. a “Hockey Mom” one very old senator’s heartbeat away from the red button. When it comes to entire political economies, however, somehow “better than Stalinism” becomes a very compelling pitch. We are reminded that any even remotely progressive use of tax money for social aid spending is the thin edge of the Bolshevik knife, still sharp decades after the wall fell. Or, expressed as a more coherent metaphor, the first step on the road to serfdom.
So compelling is this idea that it is the title of a major work 3 in the libertarian canon. Somewhat unfairly, I might add: Hayek was much more nuanced than those who currently make use of his ideas. He was not concerned with any expansion of “government” leading inexorably to socialism, participating in the crude government vs. market framing that has become the default, but that any attempt to implement a centrally-planned command economy would inevitably end democratic government. He was essentially arguing against state socialism, not “big government” or any social welfare programs at all, in favor of a market-based competitive economic system, not “the free market,” in the sense of laissez-faire capitalism. Indeed, in much the same way that Ronald Reagan might be too left-wing for the modern Republican Party, Hayek might have been too “statist” for modern libertarians:
The successful use of competition does not preclude some types of government interference. For instance, to limit working hours, to require certain sanitary arrangements, to provide an extensive system of social services is fully compatible with the preservation of competition. There are, too, certain fields where the system of competition is impracticable. For example, the harmful effects of deforestation or of the smoke of factories cannot be confined to the owner of the property in question. But the fact that we have to resort to direct regulation by authority where the conditions for the proper working of competition cannot be created does not prove that we should suppress competition where it can be made to function. To create conditions in which competition will be as effective as possible, to prevent fraud and deception, to break up monopolies— these tasks provide a wide and unquestioned field for state activity. -Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, “The Liberal Way of Planning”
But there are two kinds of security: the certainty of a given minimum of sustenance for all and the security of a given standard of life, of the relative position which one person or group enjoys compared with others. There is no reason why, in a society which has reached the general level of wealth ours has, the first kind of security should not be guaranteed to all without endangering general freedom; that is: some minimum of food, shelter and clothing, sufficient to preserve health. Nor is there any reason why the state should not help to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance in providing for those common hazards of life against which few can make adequate provision. -Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, “Two Kinds of Security”
Who is this left-wing radical?
There are many criticisms one might raise of the ideas Hayek expresses in The Road to Serfdom, some of which are historical, and thus of great interest to me, but out of my depth on specifics. I am not anything like an expert on 20th century history, but Hayek’s account of the rise of the Nazis as facilitated by creeping central planning seems simplistic, and the post-war political history of many European nations seems to debunk the idea of greater and greater government control as precursor to inevitable tyranny. For the purposes of this article, however, two problems with Hayek’s theses and arguments stand out to me: their incoherence, and his insincerity, both of which have been, in some sense, inherited and exaggerated by modern libertarianism.
Hayek discussed in detail the differences between two kinds of economic freedom and security, a legitimate and an illegitimate kind of each. Legitimate economic freedom is freedom from coercion, illegitimate economic freedom is the freedom from necessity:
To allay these suspicions [of socialism leading to tyranny] and to harness to its cart the strongest of all political motives—the craving for freedom — socialists began increasingly to make use of the promise of a ‘new freedom.’ Socialism was to bring ‘economic freedom,’ without which political freedom was ‘not worth having.’
To make this argument sound plausible, the word ‘freedom’ was subjected to a subtle change in meaning. The word had formerly meant freedom from coercion, from the arbitrary power of other men. Now it was made to mean freedom from necessity, release from the compulsion of the circumstances which inevitably limit the range of choice of all of us. Freedom in this sense is, of course, merely another name for power or wealth. The demand for the new freedom was thus only another name for the old demand for a redistribution of wealth. -Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, “The Great Utopia.”
But on the other hand, consider his position on economic security: as noted above, the security of a certain minimum for subsistence and health is entirely fine. Where does this security come from, except a redistribution of wealth? What is it but an attempt to free people from necessity, if you provide at least all of the necessities?
This inconsistency reflects an even deeper incoherence in the propertarian conception of rights and freedoms: the contradiction between the need for a government to protect negative rights and the freedom from any coercion, and a misunderstanding of the close relationship between need and coercion. In the first case, while Hayek had not reached the nadir of reason to which today’s “taxation is theft” idea sinks the public political discourse, that idea is but an exaggeration of the contradiction he struggles with, and resolves by the selective use of language. Coercion he implicitly defines as “arbitrary” power of one person wielded over another, which legitimizes any number of non-arbitrary uses of power. Necessity he describes as “the circumstances which inevitably limit the range of choice of all of us,” skipping over what, exactly, limitation of one’s choices might be if not a limit on one’s freedom. These difficulties arise because the concepts of power, freedom, consent, and security are more complex and tightly interwoven than any binary schema can deal with. In the propertarian understanding of these concepts, lacking any explicit threat of violence in an exchange, the exchange is a free and consensual agreement between rational, self-interested equals. In reality, this kind of exchange is an edge case.
Consider the following (equally “fringe” but demonstrative) scenario: Jane’s house is on fire, and she is trapped within it. Jack comes along and offers to help her escape if she has sex with him afterward. From the limited understanding of power and freedom which propertarianism offers, this is perfectly fine. Jack, a random passer-by, didn’t set Jane’s house on fire, so he’s not coercing her in any way. She simply happens to be in a circumstance which limits her choices to “burn to death” and “any alternative to burning to death which presents itself.” According to the propertarian conception of consent, Jane certainly does have the choice of burning to death. If anything this is all her fault for not taking better precautions to avoid a house fire.
In the sense that no one is holding a gun to Jane’s head and making her perform sex acts on pain of death, Jack’s offer may not be coercive, but it certainly is exploitative. Exploitation has been saddled with a lot of baggage as a concept to the point where it is almost used as a sarcastic punchline, but at root, it is about taking advantage of someone’s limitations for your benefit. As the above example shows, exploitation can in fact be “mutually beneficial” in some sense. Indeed, it would not be useful if it weren’t. Jack would not be able to exploit Jane’s predicament if he were not able to provide her the benefit of saving her from a fiery death. It doesn’t really matter who is “at fault” for the fire, or what Jack’s intentions or obligations with respect to Jane’s situation are, because once he makes his offer, Jane has few viable options; literally, turning him down is not “viable” in the sense that she will die if she does. Looking at the situation from Jane’s perspective, the experience of considering Jack’s offer is indistinguishable from considering a similar offer absent a house fire, but including a rapist’s gun held to her head. They are equally coercive of her behavior.
Now, what if he offered to save her if she paid him? Is this a legitimate transaction, say as a matter of privatized firefighting? Or what if instead of a fire, she’s simply at the end of her means and a step away from homelessness and starvation? In this case, Jane is facing eviction and has not a penny to her name, but Jack offers her a job if she sleeps with him. This is no longer an edge case, nor even a hypothetical. According to the propertarian conception of consent and coercion, there is nothing wrong with your boss propositioning you to have sex with him, or else lose your job. It’s all consensual. You can always just leave the job.
But of course, you really can’t always just quit. You’ve got bills to pay. This is the struggle faced by ordinary people subjected to the competitive market which Hayek champions. The pain of this struggle is what socialists appeal to, and Hayek has an answer for them:
There is, in a competitive society, nobody who can exercise even a fraction of the power which a socialist planning board would possess. To decentralize power is to reduce the absolute amount of power, and the competitive system is the only system designed to minimize the power exercised by man over man. Who can seriously doubt that the power which a millionaire, who may be my employer, has over me is very much less than that which the smallest bureaucrat possesses who wields the coercive power of the state and on whose discretion it depends how I am allowed to live and work?
In every real sense a badly paid unskilled workman in this country has more freedom to shape his life than many an employer in Germany or a much better paid engineer or manager in Russia. If he wants to change his job or the place where he lives, if he wants to profess certain views or spend his leisure in a particular way, he faces no absolute impediments. There are no dangers to bodily security and freedom that confine him by brute force to the task and environment to which a superior has assigned him. Our generation has forgotten that the system of private property is the most important guaranty of freedom. It is only because the control of the means of production is divided among many people acting independently that we as individuals can decide what to do with ourselves. When all the means of production are vested in a single hand, whether it be nominally that of ‘society’ as a whole or that of a dictator, whoever exercises this control has complete power over us. In the hands of private individuals, what is called economic power can be an instrument of coercion, but it is never control over the whole life of a person. But when economic power is centralized as an instrument of political power it creates a degree of dependence scarcely distinguishable from slavery. It has been well said that, in a country where the sole employer is the state, opposition means death by slow starvation. -Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, “Planning and Power.”
There is much to unpack here, but at worst, you can see this as the kind of “damning with faint praise” I discussed above. I don’t think we should be content with being better than Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, and if Hayek’s thoughts on the role of government are anything to go by, he agrees. To be fair, in the context of his specific argument against a centrally-planned command economy, this comparison is a sensible reply, but it does not do to underestimate non-state power. Absolute impediments to change in circumstances, and dangers to the body from the threat of violent force, are not the only kinds. Hayek admits that the economic power conferred by property can be coercive, but says it is only capable of total control when centralized in a single hand.
Yet, one might wonder further about even greater decentralization of this economic power than Hayek might be comfortable explicitly allowing for. Would this not further reduce the degree of power one holds over another, and increase most peoples’ scope of choices? As much as he rails against this idea as the essence of socialism’s “old demand” for wealth redistribution, his support for the security of a certain minimum puts wealth redistribution for the sake of economic liberation in action without any kind of central planning or command economy. The only government command it involves is the power to tax, and he has not objected to that. If you are assured of enough of an income or resources to be healthily fed and adequately clothed and sheltered, the “merely” coercive power which employers have is even further lessened, since losing your job and being unable to get another is not, to borrow a phrase, a sentence of “death by slow starvation.” You have the luxury of time to choose what kind of work you want to do, and under what conditions, and even to start again on a new path. None of this requires any bureaucrats overseeing any economic activity beyond the signing of checks. Whatever other criticisms one might make about the welfare state, it is not any milestone Hayek warned of.
Modern propertarianism does not have Hayek’s tight focus on state socialism, and subsequently, its handling of this problem is even more confused. Rather than championing market forces as opposed to central planning, it deals with a supposed conflict between “the government” and “private enterprise.” In this scheme, any government involvement in the economy is undesirable and always represents the imposition of some form of tyranny. This is based on a simple formula: since the government, as the institution with a territorial monopoly on the use of violence, is inherently coercive, its operations beyond a strict minimum are illegitimate. Or in more basic terms, taxation is legitimized theft, social welfare spending is the looting of some peoples’ wealth to benefit others, and the government should have no role beyond protecting the strictly defined legitimate (i.e. negative) rights. This is the ideal of the propertarian minarchy, which not all libertarians support in its pure form, but which all propertarian ideas approach or even exceed.
There is something instantly suspicious about an ideology that focuses so much on the government as violent and coercive, and yet seeks to limit the government to, essentially, its apparatus of violent coercion. In a propertarian minarchy, that’s all the government is: a provider of public safety, protector of property, and enforcer of contracts. To this limited end it consists only of institutions sufficient to accomplish this goal: the police, the courts, the military, each an institution based on coercion or violence in some way. It’s not actually clear, however, why the government’s legitimate functions should be so limited. There is something inherently incoherent about describing the government’s operations as coercive since they are based on “legal looting,” but to support only particular uses of its ill-gotten funds, as incoherent as calling “theft” the means of revenue which support the organizations that prevent property crimes, thus allowing for the legal institution of private property, a prerequisite for “theft” to have any meaning.
Take, for example, the simple maxim that it is moral to support the government’s use of force only when you would support an individual’s use of force. You would be fine with someone using force to protect others, so the government should be allowed this. You would not be fine with someone using force to help the needy at others’ expense, so the government should not be allowed to do that. Again, propertarian minarchy in a nutshell, but would you accept someone using force to take someone’s money so that they can buy a gun to protect others? Because that is how the government uses force to protect people: it must first use force to collect the money it needs to fund institutions that protect people. Such a simple maxim, then, is little more than special pleading.
Some try to square this circle with more sophistication by arguing from a conception of rights, by defining negative rights as the only legitimate basis of freedom. Legitimate rights, in this scheme, do not require the active participation of others to enjoy them. A right to healthcare requires the active participation of a doctor, and so for the government to secure it, someone would be forced to provide medical care; if not the doctors themselves, then the taxpayer as a source of funding to hire doctors. In contrast, legitimate, negative rights are passive in that no one else’s active participation is required to enjoy them. Rather, it only requires that others not act in interfering ways. A right to free speech, for example, only requires that others not prevent you from expressing yourself. In securing this right, the government is only using force to stop others from using force.
Except, this does not actually escape the bind described above, since if the government has a legitimate role in preventing others from interfering with your enjoyment of your rights, then it seems like those rights do actually require the active participation of others. Why else would we ever put up with taxation, if the institutions it funds are not necessary for the enjoyment of our rights? In fact, they require the actions of the agents of the government whose job it is to protect us, which are supported by the coercive collection of funds. Absent this, your enjoyment of your negative rights is insecure and provisional on someone else choosing not to forcefully interfere, or on your ability to ward aggressors off; a precarious enjoyment in either case. If a “positive” right to healthcare requires the active participation of doctors, a negative right to free speech requires the active participation of law enforcement to prevent others from silencing you. The distinction between active/positive and passive/negative rights is meaningless.
It is important to understand this incoherence in order to see why the libertarian ideal should be called a propertarian minarchy. In reality, it is not based on any high-minded understanding of rights and the role of government. It is based on the desire to protect property rights, and the basic personal safety required to enjoy any such rights, which are understood as inherent, passive, and negative. Those with this desire will happily part with some fraction of their wealth to support a government that exists only to protect their enjoyment of that wealth. The danger of this emphasis can only be made clear by examining the other critical problem with Hayek’s arguments: he doesn’t really mean it. He is not concerned with the destruction of political rights and freedoms and accountable government in service of a utopian ideal, any more than propertarians are concerned with the actual experience of being free. Both arguments are nothing more than smokescreens for an essentially plutocratic agenda, the protection of private property above all.
Another Road to Serfdom: The Banana Republic
One of Hayek’s goals in The Road to Serfdom was to refute the idea that fascism was a capitalist reaction to socialism. Rather, he argues, fascism was a natural outgrowth of socialism. This idea forms the nucleus of one of the densest conceptual concentrations of irony, hypocrisy, and cognitive dissonance in modern politics. At the start of this article, I discussed several examples of propertarian arguments against universal suffrage. In an article on the subject, I noted the great irony that so many of these arguments start with the premise that allowing the poor to vote would result in populist dictators rising to power on the promise of looting the treasury for their benefit. So, we learn from propertarians that the solution to populist demagogues promising to the poor the proceeds of taxation is to rescind the right to vote from those without a certain amount of wealth, effectively instituting a plutocratic oligarchy instead of a democracy. We are not invited to wonder what dictators might arise in such a political climate.
Again and again I see those swayed by propertarian ideas arguing, in the same rhetorical breath, that expanded social welfare spending is the death of liberty, and that those benefiting from welfare should not be allowed to vote. “Liberty” is once again narrowly construed to mean “property rights,” without which, apparently, accountable government and political rights are not worth having. But here, I can’t even avoid paraphrasing Hayek: “Socialism was to bring ‘economic freedom,’ without which political freedom was ‘not worth having.’” Surely, with his commitment to preserving democracy and political liberty from the inevitable danger of central planning, he would rebuff such arguments?
Consider the following:
I am sure you will agree that, in Britain with our democratic institutions and the need for a high degree of consent, some of the measures adopted in Chile are quite unacceptable. Our reform must be in line with our traditions and our Constitution. At times the process may seem painfully slow.
This is a selection from a letter written by Margeret Thatcher in reply to a letter from Hayek on the Pinochet regime (quoted in The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein). We don’t have the letter to which she was replying, but we can get an idea of the kinds of sentiments he might have expressed by looking at another of his opinions on the Chilean dictator:
[I have] not been able to find a single person even in much maligned Chile who did not agree that personal freedom was much greater under Pinochet than it had been under Allende. -Hayek, letter to the London Times, quoted in Empire’s Workshop by Greg Grandin
A strange thing has happened here. Hayek is defending Pinochet’s record on “personal freedoms,” which presumably do not include participation in the political process. What freedoms do count can be understood by comparison to Pinochet’s democratically elected left-wing predecessor, Allende.
[A]s long-term institutions, I am totally against dictatorships. But a dictatorship may be a necessary system for a transitional period. At times it is necessary for a country to have, for a time, some form or other of dictatorial power. As you will understand, it is possible for a dictator to govern in a liberal way. And it is also possible for a democracy to govern with a total lack of liberalism. Personally I prefer a liberal dictator to democratic government lacking liberalism. – Hayek on the Pinochet regime, interview in Chile
Curiouser and curiouser, still. Note that “liberal” in his usage does not mean what it does in modern American politics. It corresponds more closely with “classical liberalism,” an Enlightenment-derived understanding of rights and limited government which many libertarians harken back to. Yet, even this is deceptive. It is clear from the comparison Hayek makes between Pinochet and his socialist predecessor that property is paramount in his consideration of a state’s “liberalism,” while political participation and accountable government are not, else he would not excuse dictatorship. This is a maimed conception of classical liberalism, almost a parody. At best, we can find a precedent in the ancient world from which the original Enlightenment liberals drew inspiration, and cite the nobility of Cincinnatus’s temporary dictatorship, while ignoring the outcome of Caesar’s assumption of these powers.
Some of Hayek’s arguments take on a new light when reconsidered from this perspective. For example, his thoughts on emergency measures which are not permanently acceptable is applicable to his rather Leninist idea of a temporary dictatorship to secure liberalism:
Individual freedom cannot be reconciled with the supremacy of one single purpose to which the whole of society is permanently subordinated. To a limited extent we ourselves experience this fact in wartime, when subordination of almost everything to the immediate and pressing need is the price at which we preserve our freedom in the long run. The fashionable phrases about doing for the purposes of peace what we have learned to do for the purposes of war are completely misleading, for it is sensible temporarily to sacrifice freedom in order to make it more secure in the future, but it is quite a different thing to sacrifice liberty permanently in the interests of a planned economy. -Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, “The Great Utopia”
This would seem to provide a partial justification for supporting a dictator in a state of emergency, except that this passage is about reacting to a dire external and politically existential threat. In other words, it is about preserving an existing system against a radical change imposed from without. To take this logic and apply it to a transition from one system to another is to take up the same justifications as the revolutionary socialists he refutes. Allende’s plans for nationalization of industry would have been, according to Hayek’s thesis, a critical step on the road to serfdom, defined as a state of absolute dictatorial government power. So apparently, a right-wing military dictator who would usher in laissez-faire capitalism is the appropriate solution? Some authoritarian regimes, it seems, are more equal than others.
…to weld together a closely coherent body of supporters, the leader must appeal to a common human weakness. It seems to be easier for people to agree on a negative program — on the hatred of an enemy, on the envy of those better off — than on any positive task. The contrast between the ‘we’ and the ‘they’ is consequently always employed by those who seek the allegiance of huge masses. The enemy may be internal, like the ‘Jew’ in Germany or the ‘kulak’ in Russia, or he may be external. In any case, this technique has the great advantage of leaving the leader greater freedom of action than would almost any positive program. -Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, “Why the Worst Get On Top”
So which is it, then? Is an external threat a reasonable justification for temporarily suspending certain liberties, or the fraudulent pretext for an authoritarian ideology which an aspiring dictator uses to ascend to power? Allende was not even an external threat, indeed any threat he posed was internal and ideological, and only in terms of Hayek’s belief in the inevitable slide to tyranny in pursuit of central planning. He himself was not a tyrant, though. He was the legitimately elected president.4 He represented the opposition to the liberalism Hayek supported, so better to allow a military coup to remove him from office and install a temporary liberal dictator before he abuses his power it or allows it to be abused… by a dictator’s coup? As I mentioned previously, there is possibly an interesting historical argument to be made against Hayek’s opinions on the rise of fascism as an outgrowth of socialism rather than a capitalist reaction, but I am not sure it is really necessary at this point. Hayek’s own excuses for the Pinochet dictatorship put the lie to his own claims.
In some sense, this propertarian contradiction on how to defend “freedom” from socialism is a 20th century American tradition. After all, the coup that overthrew Allende had CIA backing, and this was hardly the only time that U.S. foreign policy favored right-wing dictators who would play ball with American business over democratically elected leftists. There is some sense of poetic justice in this line of thought coming back to haunt us, at home. Just as the first World War taught Europe the lessons of colonial war which it had practiced abroad, perhaps propertarian ideology will turn America into the banana republic it has imposed on so many Third World nations.
This article was the first in a two-part series. It has focused on deconstructing the propertarian trend in libertarianism, investigating its intellectual roots, and exposing its inherent contradictions. The next part will look closer at the various concepts and ideals which defend propertarianism, follow them to their problematic conclusions, and use this as a basis for some speculation on the nature of any approach to propertarian minarchy, and beyond.
1. In a later section, I will explore the writings of Friedrich Hayek, but before then, it might be interesting to look at what this ur-scholar of libertarianism has to say on the recruiting techniques of authoritarian ideologies: “The most effective way of making people accept the validity of the values they are to serve is to persuade them that they are really the same as those they have always held, but which were not properly understood or recognized before.” How wonderful it is to have a quiz that diagnoses our naturally “pro-liberty” political inclinations as having supported libertarianism all along!
2. It’s come to my attention that “propertarianism” as a self-labelled ideology needs a little more attention. Throughout the article, I use the term to refer to the general tendency in libertarian thought of prioritizing property rights above all else. However, propertarianism-as-such is a slightly different beast. When I talk about a “propertarian minarchy,” for example, I include more functions of government than most self-styled propertarians would support. Specifically, a good portion of them apparently believe that courts should be private operations rather then apparatuses of the state. This bears more investigation, but for now, just keep in mind that my use of the term refers to something more general than the ideology actually called “propertarianism.”
3. All quotes come from this online excerpt.
4. This is not to defend Allende, who was no angel, nor his term as president, which was troubled. But even an elected president who at times overstepped his bounds has to be counted as more benign than a dictator who came to power by force.