Anti-Libertarian Criticism

Keeping libertarians in check and exposing it as a bankrupt ideology

Monthly Archives: May 2014

Why The NAP Is Smoke And Mirrors (A Quick Reminder)

In American libertarian ideology, the holy grail ethical concept is the non-aggression principle, which roughly states that no one may engage in or threaten aggression against others (and their property), often quickly qualified with the idea that defensive force may be used in the face of aggression. When stated in such a simple and abstract way, it is something that is hard for very many people to particularly disagree with, and because of this it also makes it such that it can be used to deceive people into thinking they might be libertarians.

But if you don’t just take it at face value and continue to talk to a libertarian about aggression, it will become clear that they have some specific notion of where the line is between “aggression” and “defense”, as most people do. And that notion is informed by other ideas and principles, by their analysis of society, and by the personality of the given libertarian. The way a person responds to different scenarios in what they consider justified and unjustified force will depend on these kind of factors.

Whatever particular interpretation the libertarian gives is functionally one version of the non-aggression principle out of many. The reality is that virtually everyone who is not either a pacifist, psychopath, or totalitarian believes in something resembling the NAP, and therefore there isn’t necessarily anything novel about it. Liberals, conservatives, socialists and libertarians alike. Different political views just define the social context of aggression differently, draw the aggression/defense line in different places, have different analysis of society.

Libertarians themselves have gotten into many heated internal debates over how this stuff is hashed out (different interpretations of property theory, minarchism vs anarchism, and so on). And for libertarians, how aggression gets defined in practice is highly dependent on their ideas about property and markets, and the principle is used as a rhetorical tool to push one into adopting a consistent position opposing the state. On the flip side, in the eyes of many of those who disagree with libertarians, there is aggression involved with upholding their ideas about property and markets.

The NAP is smoked and mirrors for what is a matter of debate about the proper use of force and how it is organized. Radical American libertarians frequently advocate for essentially privatizing the mechanisms of force in society – they are not against aggression as much as they are against aggression in the hands of public or quasi-public institutions. Anarcho-capitalists do this in the most blatant way by advocating private police and defense. Paleo-libertarians and libertarian racialists advocate aggression at least implicitly for the restructuring of society involved in what they propose to be enforced – the thought of all the forced evictions is horrifying. All of this stuff hinges on the ideas about property and the market. Non-compliance to the libertarian’s property regime merits aggression.

While libertarians might think of the NAP as a moral shroud, the emperor has no clothes. Many libertarians support aggression, either explicitly or implicitly, whether knowingly or not. Their philosophy is primarily about property and economic power, not non-aggression. For the libertarian in their propagandizing mode in discourse, the NAP is a rhetorical tactic to moralize one’s political opponents – “See, you support putting guns to people’s heads! You should be ethically consistent and oppose the state” or “you disagree about property? you support aggression!”.

This frequently ends up being a sensationalist pile of muck in which the libertarian cries aggression in even the most ridiculous of scenarios, parading around like “don’t you tell me what to do!” at the thought of property owners and market actors being held to reasonable ethical standards. The libertarian sees aggression in every disagreement with their notions of property and their policy ideas about the market, while being blinded to the aggression implicit in them. The NAP just begs the question and conceals the violence within libertarianism.

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The Economic Organism as Panopticon

As I stated in my piece on left-libertarianism, I don’t think libertarians generally grasp the essence of the problem with capitalism. The problem with capitalism is that our society has come to be shaped and structured around the concerns and conveniences of economic power. The success of humanity becomes measured not by overall well-being, but how much the market has “grown”, how well the world has been integrated into the industrial economic organism, and hinges on the volatile balance of stock markets in a kind of game of economic roulette. Our lives have become hostage to the games of economic powers outside our control.

It behooves us to recognize that the following things grant a form of power:
The ownership of land or public space – affects the right of others to existence in a given space, to have shelter, to travel, grants regulatory authority and power of exclusion to the owner(s).
The ownership of or access to large sums of money – affects the ability of individuals to obtain the needs of survival, opens avenues of political power, presents the opportunity for corruption.
The positions of authority within a business hierarchy – affects the ability of people to act as autonomous individuals and to speak freely, grants control over production and opens avenues of narcissism and bullying.

An important aspect of capitalism is that the average person, to one degree or another, must sacrifice some of their autonomy to the ownership class and business hierarchy in order to function in society and obtain the means of survival. This is a power dynamic unto itself born out of the play of economic forces – and the modern state partly developed out of the growing demands of those economic forces. The state did not intervene to force business to coalesce and become corrupt – it mainly did on its own. Rather, the state patterned itself around the reality of modern economic organizations and formed something of a symbiotic relationship with them. All the same, the economy has become such a big and complex organism that it is impossible to particularly control.

When you are born into the society, you are entering a complex social and economic framework of conditions that constrain your decision-making and even shape your psychology. You are “free to choose” and have earned the right to live – if you have the money. You are “free to get the money” and have earned the right to live in relative contentment – if you play by the rules and sign away a portion of your rights. In other words, you must rent and buy the privilege to not live as a criminal or brute, or a total dependent, from those who have monopolized resources. And your privileges come with the stipulation that you obey and play your role in the economic system, don’t complain, and maybe become a bit corrupt in the process.

You are also bombarded with media and marketing, always being “free to indulge” by handing over your money and being granted a “free press” within the confines of what is allowed by the business interests who mostly own the media. The continued development of consumable and dispensable products both helps keep contentment in society as a kind of pacifying force and allows business interests to continually make more money. The forging of personal identity and human relations becomes partly based on choices of consumption, and this especially impacts the forging of the psychology of young people in an atmosphere of media. Aside from the economic organism depending on you being a docile worker, it also encourages you to be a docile consumer.

Capitalism is also an ideological matter – it involves the crafting of “common sense” ideology that takes its necessity for granted. The narrative that the market is just the spontaneous result of free exchanges (as if it’s just a bazaar blown up to the global scale), obscures the larger structural reality and social dynamics of the situation; that your choices in the economy are largely determined and influenced by organizations and structures of power outside your control. Much like the illusion of political democracy being about public choice when it is represented by an oligarchy, “economic democracy” is not the reality of market interaction. And the narrative of the work ethic and social mobility, once internalized, traps people into supporting their own oppression. That’s capitalist ideology at play.

As long as the individual worker, consumer, and general economic agent does not particularly question the social norms that are taken for granted in capitalism, the economic system is their panopticon. A prison that they don’t even know they are in, with an extensive profile on their consumption habits and work history, a debt cloud hanging over their head, and a large bill for them to pay for the excesses and mistakes of their corporate masters. Even people in relative positions of economic power can be, in a way, imprisoned by the needs of the economic system, beholden to economic interest over anything resembling justice. They have a role to play too. Organizational ties bind us into doing what is best for the organization, whether we are casual wage workers or people in the business hierarchy.

Libertarians need a broader social theory if they really want to support human freedom and well-being. Support for “free markets” doesn’t cut it when the market is a behemoth of power of its own. Whatever extent one wishes to pin the cause of that power on the state (and of course I think the state has less of a role than libertarians claim), we have to cope with the realities of economic power as they currently are, and we can’t just call for the abolition of the state and expect economic power to automatically work out its own problems. We must realize that economic power enables social control and entraps us into participating in our own exploitation as a society. Smash the economic panopticon!

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The Indoctrination of a Young Libertarian

There is a certain trend among some young people in America to become entranced by libertarianism as they encounter it on the internet, and libertarians quite consciously have been using the internet as a means of promotion for a while. In an age in which the newer generations are born into a culture that struggles more and more to find meaning and identity, in which it is clear that the two familiar political parties are corrupt, some young people are tempted by the rhetoric and promises of libertarianism. Libertarianism may allow them to purposefully revel in a sense of being rebellious or politically incorrect, of having a kind of elite understanding in a world (a fundamentalist system of principles and various absolute claims) where everyone else has been indoctrinated.

But who has really been indoctrinated?

When I look back at my experience with libertarianism, I have little doubt that certain aspects of it share the traits of a cult or that it resembles a secular manifestation of a religious-like impulse, of a kind of fundamentalist drive. Except instead of it being about God and Satan, it’s about the fetishizing of the market and the demonization of the government. The writings of hardcore libertarians such as Murray Rothbard provide the believer with a firm set of radical claims and absolute principles, with simple and repetitious phrases and slogans, while there are figures such as Stephan Molyneux who explicitly form psychological cults online. Deviating from the basic group consensus in any significant way marks one as a fake libertarian, which regularly plays out as drama in libertarian circles.

Back when I was first getting into libertarianism, I was a vaguely liberal teenager fresh out of high school with some anti-authoritarian intuitions. This was just at the beginning of the post 9/11 era. I hated Bush and the Republicans because I hated violence and found the military scary, I disliked police power and abuse, and I couldn’t relate to social conservatism as an Atheist raised by a hippy and a social worker. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but tend to see the Democrats as establishmentarians who were weak when it came to actually supporting civil liberties. I watched the news and CSPAN a lot and came to dislike the general media political discourse that involved both groups and started to view the whole system as inept and full of idiocy. And I felt powerless.

Then I encountered Ron Paul, who referred me to the Ludwig Von Mises Institute and Murray Rothbard’s work. And the rest is history. I got heavily involved in online libertarianism from that point. This really isn’t all that uncommon of a path into libertarianism for young people, because durating that era, Ron Paul was starting to get more press and his stances on foreign policy and the depth and ferocity with which he seemed to criticize his own party ended up appealing to some disgruntled liberals. It’s just that some of us got sucked into buying into a good deal more than that, leading us into libertarianism. Libertarianism appeals to the disillusioned youth who doesn’t know any better by seducing them with the rhetoric of “liberty”, a term libertarians like to think they have a monopoly on.

Traveling in to the radical depths of libertarianism, one is lead to take the logic of free market economics and property rights (presented in an ideological way) to its extremes. Indeed, a misguided form of obsession with logic and internal consistency marks much of libertarianism: Austrian economics is built on a foundation of pure deduction and claims a priori knowledge, while the kind of “libertarian ethics” that is often talked about in those circles is designed as an absolutist set of principles that is a logical outgrowth of fundamental metaphysical facts of human nature. And the consequentialist side of libertarianism tends to fall back on the economics, bringing us full circle to a logically consistent theory that does not accurately explain the world. In either case, the radical libertarian tends to advance a certain faith in the mechanisms of the market while blaming the state as the root of all problems.

This belief is constantly reinforced via propaganda in the radical libertarian blogosphere and media. Anarcho-capitalism is all about keeping it absolute. Article after article, an ideological edifice is created in which the libertarian can shoehorn their agenda into the discussion of just about any issue, with an explanation in their back pocket for why the government is responsible for the problem and why “market alternatives” are the best of all possible worlds, whether one is talking about healthcare or the police department. Terms are defined in such a way as to explain phenomena without reference to important social contexts, by sticking to “methodological individualism” and generally having an analysis rife with prepackaged explanations based on simple and dubious dichotomies.

Now that I have been able to look at it from an outside perspective again, the libertarian diehard is someone that is convinced that they have the moral high ground in every political discussion, that everyone who disagrees with them is a “statist” (the ultimate libertarian insult) who supports violence, and that the market can do no harm, it can only spontaneously produce an order of optimal utility and correct itself along the way. And it’s all quite silly. Once one really peeks outside that echo chamber, does some serious introspection and teases out the consequences of ideas and deals with dissonance, and perhaps reads a decent sampling of philosophy and social theory that isn’t designed to propagate libertarianism, the world starts to look a lot more complicated.

But what generally happens is that the young radical libertarian gets sucked into an online and campus subculture that includes networking with other young libertarians, as well as older libertarians who have status and may function as intellectual icons and authorities (who are often economists, philosophy professors, and lawyers). Some interesting social dynamics play out with young libertarians online, and sometimes it’s very clear that the people involved are searching for identity and trying to make libertarianism into a kind of lifestyle. Furthermore, in some cases some of the young radicals are groomed as the next generation of talking heads. There are some notable libertarians who are in academia. Libertarians have consciously tried to get into academia and generally have the pretense of being on an education campaign – especially about their holy free market economics.

The way that many libertarians non-chalantly use the term “convert” is telling and bothersome.

Otherwise intelligent people with little experience in the world trying to discover themselves are vulnerable to misinformation and group-think. Libertarianism can powerfully fulfill this role insofar as it provides a simplistic explanation of a confusing world, as well as a victimology of a sort. In libertarian victimology, the individual (especially as a market actor) is a victim of the state. And all the young victims of the state move to Keene, New Hampshire, try to start their own currencies or use bitcoin, wield their guns, attend festivals where the choir is preached to, and plant pot with a shovel in front of city hall in broad daylight just to provoke their own arrest. Or they attend traditional anarchist events trying to “convert” people only to mostly meet confusion and resistance. This is what libertarian youth activism has stooped to. For these people libertarianism has become a product and a lifestyle.

Libertarianism has been sold to them…on the market. Through media. These are the dupes of rich old men in bowties, biased economics professors, and conspiracy theory activism. As for myself…well…

Left-Libertarianism Is Bunk Because It’s Still Libertarianism

The radical wing of...socially liberal capitalism.

The radical wing of…socially liberal capitalism.

I used to be a libertarian, starting about a decade ago. I took something of an ideological journey through different segments of American libertarianism and into its radical depths, and for a time settled on the segment that’s known as left-libertarianism – particularly a group of “free market anarchists” who also identify variously as “leftist”, “anti-capitalist” and sometimes even “socialist”. In the end, I had to abandon even left-libertarianism in spite of the fact that it seemed to represent the most relatively enlightened group of libertarians. My thought process lead me to reject libertarianism in general as an ideology, and in the aftermath of that I have come to see left-libertarianism as carrying the fundamental problematic aspects of libertarianism along with it for the most part: obsession with opposition to the state, the adoption of capitalist ideology of the market, reliance on overly simplistic and sociologically neutralized analysis, and so on.

I tend to think that being a left-libertarian in the mold of “The Alliance of the Libertarian Left” is kind of like being a capitalistic liberal hipster that tries to flaunt their social consciousness (by getting involved in cultural issues in terms of things like feminism and anti-racism) while simultaneously advancing the same basic narrative of free markets as the people from the Ludwig Von Mises Institute, The CATO Institute, The Heritage Foundation, and an assortment of both libertarian and more explicitly right-wing think tanks. The catch is that they try to put the spin on it that “the free market”, in a scenario after the fall of “the state”, will tend to spontaneously generate non-capitalist outcomes – hence the bogus rhetoric of “free market anti-capitalism”. They argue this by strongly identifying capitalism in terms of a system of state interventions and state fusion with business, but not particularly in terms of a system of social relations influenced by economic forces.

In other words, left-libertarians try to claim to be anti-capitalist without exactly understanding with capitalism is. They see some of the symptoms of the capitalism in the context of the state’s involvement in society, but they do not see how capitalism is a system of relations of power that simultaneously has functionality independent of the state and has an influence on culture in its own right. Their libertarian analysis leaves them stuck advancing a narrative focused on blaming the issues associated with capitalism on the state. As if, if only the state would get out of the way of the market, we could have a more egalitarian society. This shows a certain naiveté of the power dynamics and likely outcomes of the real world, the world in which markets function as a network of hierarchical systems designed around maximizing profit, growth, and social control.

Left-libertarians have engaged in some efforts to separate themselves from the explicit conservative cranks in the libertarian movement and sometimes sparked a good level of controversy in the libertarian movement over it, but it’s notable that this is often on grounds of social or cultural issues rather than economics and the basic content of American libertarian ideology of ethics and property. When it does touch on those topics, the internal debacles mostly have to do with either questions of terminology and rhetoric revolving around some of the more bizarre claims of the left-libertarians to be advancing “socialism” via emphasis on self-employment, co-op businesses, fraternal societies, and so on. The flavor of the left-libertarian’s proposed “alternatives to capitalism” is generally about models internal to markets and entry by private organizations into the roles currently handled by states, which brings it full circle back to capitalism and states.

The rhetorical way in which left-libertarians have tried to distinguish themselves as non-capitalist and “of the left” is by using terms such as “vulgar Libertarianism”, and more recently, “brutalism”, to signify other libertarians who openly embrace or legitimize some of the more ugly aspects of the system and who lack social consciousness about economic disparity. In so doing, perhaps they do show themselves as having more social consciousness than other libertarians, but the attempted distinction is nonetheless weak because of the general basic shared ideology about the market and property that the two groups have. Because the other side of the coin is that the left-libertarians are in denial about the involvement of market dynamics in the things they attack the “vulgar libertarians” for openly legitimizing. In a way, the “brutal libertarian” is more honest to the consequences of their views, while the “left-libertarian” either entertains utopian ideas about it or tries to sugar-coat it.

Left-libertarians function to implicitly legitimize the ugliness they want to attack or disassociate themselves from. For example, they can try to call out other libertarians for supporting overt racism, while the libertarian logic of the market and property simultaneously binds them to treat institutional racism as legitimate in a way, insofar as it is a private business decision. They can try to call out other libertarians for overtly supporting big corporations, but there is no reason to believe that the left-libertarian’s version of “the free market after the state falls” has any meaningful mechanism to overcome the current corporate landscape (all we get are predictions that the absence of certain state regulations will allow us more opportunity to start our own businesses, use alternative currencies, and do a variety of DIY stuff; which smacks of small-scale capitalism).

The left-libertarian ends up looking like a socially liberal capitalist, some of whom more or less try to pander to the left but are fundamentally at odds with the existing radical left. The left-libertarian is in a position of trying to “convert progressives” (who are also one of their favorite targets of criticism when they’re not going on about “vulgar libertarianism”) via convincing them of the obsessive anti-statist ideology of free market theory taken to extremes, while doing “damage control” for their own movement’s public image and trying to soften the “brutalism” of their mutual allies in libertarianism. They also sometimes get involved in dialogue with more radical left groups, but typically those end in disagreement and impasse, as the radical left has little tolerance for the free market rhetoric. Social anarchists certainly know that anarcho-capitalism is full of crap, and it’s hard for most left-libertarians to strongly distinguish themselves from anarcho-capitalism at the end of the day.

A polyamorist sex positive feminist anti-racist capitalist who is into 3D printing is still a capitalist.