Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Walter Block on Culture and Libertarianism

IV. Culture

Cultural conditions that are more or less conducive to creating and keeping a libertarian society are not at all my interest. Rather, it is the claim that both left and right wing libertarians are perverting libertarianism. However, as long as this subject has surfaced, let me offer my two cents on the issue.

Anthony Gregory is a cultural leftist; he lives in Berkeley California, which alone ought to qualify him as such. But, in addition, he is a long haired rock musician, and I have never seen him wearing a suit and tie. J. H. Huebert is a cultural rightist. With a crew cut and law degree from the University of Chicago Law School, both of which alone ought to qualify him as such, he clerked for a federal appeals court judge, and is now in private law practice in flyover country somewhere in the bowels of deepest darkest Ohio. I have never seen him without a suit and tie. He also scuba dives, a “privileged” right wing past time if ever there was one.

To listen to our left and right wing libertarian colleagues, we have to choose between these two, for the future of libertarianism. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. They are each amongst the most gifted, active, passionate and even at their relatively young ages, accomplished libertarian theorists. I am blessed by being co authors with each of them (Huebert and Block, forthcoming; Gregory and Block, unpublished). There is not a “dime’s worth” of difference between them in terms of adherence to the libertarian philosophy. If a mass conversion occurred, and billions of people came to resemble them, either of them, libertarianism would in one fell swoop become the order of the day.

A general comment: determining what cultural conditions that are more or less conducive to creating and keeping a libertarian society is an empirical question. I have no particular interest or expertise in this issue. Moreover, it is a sociological, not an economic or philosophic issue. Again, I have no particular interest, expertise or even pretensions in that field. But, suppose, arguendo, that it can somehow be determined, or even posited, that one or the other sets of conditions, left or right, is more conducive to creating and keeping a libertarian society. Suppose it lies in the X direction. What follows from this? Can we infer that we libertarians all ought to become X-ists? That we should open ourselves up to people who are presently Xs, and close ourselves off to those who now are non Xs? Maybe, that we should put all non Xs in concentration camps for these so far innocent people, utilizing some sort of right to preventive detention to promote and support libertarianism? None of things logically follow. It is a logical contradiction to pursue anti libertarian measures in order to promote liberty.

Homosexuality is presumably a culturally left enterprise. I am not going to mention the names of any homosexual libertarians. However, there are several notable ones, and each has made signal contributions to libertarianism. Indeed, I go so far as to say that even though there are only some half dozen that I know, when we take into account their contributions, it is safe to say that libertarianism would scarcely be the philosophy we now know it to be without their input. It is silly to make the opposite argument, but I will make it anyway: the heterosexual community, too, has made important intellectual contributions to libertarianism. And, what could be more culturally conservative than heterosexuality? All I can say is, Give me a break: this issue has nothing to do with libertarianism. Take a careful look at Appendix B; I defy anyone to tell me what any of this has to do with libertarianism: the non aggression axiom coupled with private property rights. No, these are all matters of taste, and de gustibus non disputandum.

V. Conclusion

The view of Rockwell (2006B) on conservatives is, I think, definitive:

The problem with American conservatism is that it hates the left more than the state, loves the past more than liberty, feels a greater attachment to nationalism than to the idea of self-determination, believes brute force is the answer to all social problems, and thinks it is better to impose truth rather than risk losing one’s soul to heresy. It has never understood the idea of freedom as a self-ordering principle of society. It has never seen the state as the enemy of what conservatives purport to favor. It has always looked to presidential power as the saving grace of what is right and true about America.

“I'm speaking now of the variety of conservatism created by William Buckley, not the Old Right of Albert Jay Nock, John T. Flynn, Garett Garrett, H.L. Mencken, and company, though these people would have all rejected the name conservative as ridiculous.38 After Lincoln, Wilson, and FDR, what's to conserve of the government? The revolutionaries who tossed off a milder British rule would never have put up with it.

“For my part, I'm hoping that the whole conservative movement will go down in flames with the decline and fall of the Bush administration. The red-state fascists have had their day and instead of liberty, they gave us the most raw and stupid form of imperial big government one can imagine. They have given America a bad name around the world. They have bamboozled millions. They have looted and bankrupted the country.”

However, Rockwell (2006A) is correctly an opponent not only of conservatives, but of liberals too:

“I don't mean to pick on the right exclusively. The left often … believe that the government can't but unleash Hell when it is waging war and spending on military machinery. But when it comes to domestic policy, they believe the same government can cure the sick, comfort the afflicted, teach the unlearned, and bring hope and happiness to all.

“Each side presumes that it potentially enjoys full control over the government it instructs to do this thing as versus that thing. What happens in real life, of course, is that the public sector – always and everywhere seeking more power – responds to the demands of both by granting each party's positive agenda while eschewing its negative one. Thus is the left given its welfare, and the right given its warfare, and we end up with a state that grows ever more vast and intrusive at home and abroad.

“What neither side understands is that the critique they offer of the programs they do not like applies also to the programs they do like. The same state that robs you and me, ties business in knots, and wrecks the schools also does the same – and worse – to countries that the US government invades. From the point of view of the taxed, the destination of the money doesn't matter; it is all taken by coercion and all of it saps the productive capacity of society. Similarly, the state that uses military power to impose its imperial will on foreign regimes – destroying property and lives, and making endless enemies – is the one the left proposes to put in charge of our economic lives.”

It is easy to see how libertarianism stems from conservative roots. There are members of the Old Right mentioned by Rockwell such as Albert Jay Nock, John T. Flynn, Garett Garrett, H.L. Mencken. There is also Ayn Rand. But Gabriel Kolko, W.A. Williams, Ronald Radosh, on the left, too, have made major contributions to libertarianism.

I can’t read anyone out of the libertarian movement. That has not been my purpose in this essay, nor is it within my power to do any such thing. However, in my assessment, both right wing and left wing libertarianism are missing the essence of this philosophy.

I end with a plea to both my right and left wing libertarian colleagues: In Oliver Cromwell's elegant words, "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken"..., I do not mean mistaken in some jot or tittle of what I have criticized above. As far as these things go, I am as likely to be mistaken about any of these specifics as are those I criticize. What I am talking about is what I see as a burgeoning schism within the libertarian movement, between left and right wing libertarians. Each is moving toward the position, as I see it, of excluding the other, or removing themselves from the other. That would be a tragic mistake. Both are in error in this regard.


Steven Gary said...

absolutly genius. as I also am unbeknownst of the specifics this is still completely solid in it's logistsics. a call to not simply reform or to the destruction of old ways, but to a merging evolution, aswell as growth, towards a truer version of liberitarianism. If have followed correctly this could be the birth of what my and my friend call "the peoples party". Hmmm. Get at me about this please!

DRS said...

If I understand you correctly you are wondering how to merge both left and right libertarians? The easiest answer is "indifference."
Indifference to what beliefs people hold would prevent the exclusion of either left or right thinking. In the sense that either side is still free to practice their beliefs sans govt. intervention. Of course with any political party the toughest obstacle to overcome is that of people trying to "tweak" it to fit "THEIR" needs.

Brainpolice said...

What's interesting is that, as Block points out, a lot of the spats between left-wing and right-wing libertarians are meaningless in the sense that both individuals are 90% or more in agreement on the issues. If either individual became the status quo, libertarianism in general would greatly triumph. Left and right in general are meaningless; it's just rhetoric. One way to look at the political spectrum is a plus sign, with liberty on the bottom, tyranny at the top, left on the left and right on the right. Or, one can simply replace liberty and tyranny with good and bad. In either case, left and right are just the confused middle of road between good and bad, liberty and tyranny. At the end of the day, Mother Theresa on the left, and Ron Paul on the right, while most certainly different culturally, do not have a dime's worth of difference between them in terms of liberty vs. tyranny or good vs. bad.