More Libertarians Against Liberty
by Ari Armstrong, May 11, 2005
Last month I criticized "Libertarians Against Liberty." My thesis was that Peter Schwartz, author of "Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty," is essentially correct. Schwartz argues that libertarianism rejects any ethical foundation for its politics, which leads to a number of pathologies. Many libertarians adopt as an axiom that the initiation of force must be banned. The idea of non-aggression is okay as a generalization, but it can't serve as an axiom because it depends on a richer context of property rights and ethical theories that underpin the meaning of aggression and initiatory force. Libertarians, having rejected substantive ideology, tend to become reactionaries, usually against the state. They tend to substitute mindless activism and propaganda for substantive intellectual advocacy. They tend to blur the distinction between ethics and the law; whereas statists tend to argue that everything that is unethical should be illegal, libertarians tend to argue that everything that should be legal should be considered ethical. These problems, I have found, have become particularly virulent in the state Libertarian Party (LP), though they are present also in the national party and the broader libertarian movement. Since my previous essay, I have collected additional examples that illustrate Schwartz's point.
One fellow wrote several people familiar with the Libertarian Party for help with a college paper. One director of the state LP wrote back, "Sorry, I can't help you. I am knee-deep in the practical application of Libertarianism. I have no time for philosophy." It would have been one thing to turn down the request for lack of time, but the comment manifests a hostility toward philosophy as such and a view that "practical application" may be cut off from philosophy. In isolation, such a comment would not warrant review. But it is indicative of the general attitude of the leadership of the state LP.
Last weekend, the state LP held its convention in Montrose. One attendee notes, "About 45 members were in attendance." The attendee reports that Michael Badnarik and Pete Hendrickson spoke (neither of whom I regard as credible). The attendee also describes a "disagreement over the most effective strategy for membership growth -- hardcore vs gradualist." (It's not clear what those terms mean in context.) No mention is made in the report about anything related to central ideas.
Richard Randall, listed as the Legislative Director for the state LP, sent the following e-mail to a Libertarian chat list concerning the convention:
"I was AMAZED at how the convention membership united and stood their ground to prevent an admitted, registered Republican from participating in the voting process at a Libertarian business meeting! I thought it incredibly hypocritical of her (Sharon?) to state that she was '100% Libertarian', but a registered Republican! I didn't learn until mid-way through the meeting that she was Ari's mother. IF that is correct information, then I must confess that I am actually looking forward to reading in the 'Colorado Freedom Report' about how there was 'No Libertarian purity at all' in the LPCO convention preventing Ari's Republican mother from voting in a Libertarian Party business meeting! LOL!!!! That will take some serious 'spin'! Kudos to Norm for doing an outstanding job in maintaining the integrity of the LPCO! Kudos to every Libertarian who raised their voice to say that NO ONE registered with a different political party would be allowed to participate in deciding the future of the LPCO! Being a 100% Libertarian means also having the conviction, the dedication, and the courage to change your voter registration card to reflect that you are a LIBERTARIAN."
In what sense does writing the word "Libertarian" on a piece of paper require conviction, dedication, or courage? Note what Randall regards as significant. Not Armstrong's views, but her voter registration. Randall uses the phrase "admitted, registered Republican" as if that were a felony offense. Who cares if she's registered Republican?
Until last year, since the beginnings of the Libertarian Party as far as I can tell, the rules have allowed dues-paying members to vote at the state convention, regardless of their voter affiliation. It's perfectly understandable that Armstrong was unaware of the rule change last year, given the state LP continues to publish outdated rules. Article VIII of the (old) bylaws states, "Membership in the Party occurs when an applicant either registers as a Libertarian voter in the state of Colorado, or pays such fees as may be determined by the Board of Directors."
Furthermore, the bylaws of the national LP also allow voting members to be registered to vote with other parties. Those bylaws state, "Members of the Party shall be those persons who have certified in writing that they oppose the initiation of force to achieve political or social goals. Dues for membership in the Party shall be set by the National Committee."
So the national LP considers Armstrong a member (assuming she's current on her dues), and every year before this year Armstrong would have been allowed to vote at the state LP convention. Last year's rule change was not properly published. So why is this such a big deal to Randall now?
It is on this trivial matter that the "convention membership united and stood their ground." Last year, the same year the state LP passed a rule barring registered Republicans from voting at the convention, the membership also endorsed candidates who favored national anti-gun laws, the drug war, and various nanny-state laws. Earlier this year, the guy who just became the new state chair supported a Libertarian candidate who wishes to "continue education funding for K-12 children as the highest state government priority." In 2002, the convention membership selected Rick Stanley as a candidate. Stanley, who has since been convicted on felony charges, was popular with Montrose Libertarians.
So while members of the state LP support candidates grossly at odds with the stated views of the LP, they attack Armstrong for trying to vote at the convention based on rules published at the state LP's website. What can explain this absurdity? While libertarians tend to be reactionaries against the state, the Colorado LP has become reactionary against Republicans. What matters to this group isn't ideas, nor political proposals, but group identity. A "Libertarian" means someone who writes the word "Libertarian" on a piece of paper and mails it to the Secretary of State. What views that person advocates are irrelevant. What matters is membership in the tribe.
Randall tries to project his tribalism onto me. The fact that Armstrong is my step-mother is totally irrelevant. (For what it's worth, my understanding of the rules is that she's not allowed to vote.) For pretexts that don't merit review here, several Libertarians (particularly from Montrose) dislike my father, Linn, and me (and, apparently by extension, Sharon). Yet Randall claims, without cause, that my relationship with Sharon will impact what views I advocate on my web page.
Randall suggests that I would argue disallowing Armstrong's vote would reveal a lack of "purity." Randall's comment is wrong for three reasons. First, my evaluation of the appropriateness of her voting has nothing to do with my family relationship with her. Unlike Randall, I am not a tribalist. Second, voting is a procedural matter, and thus it has nothing to do with alleged "purity" (so long as its rules are fair). Third, Randall's comment about "purity" manifests an element of Platonism. (Norm Olsen's comments show the same thing.) According to the line of thought suggested by Randall and Olsen, there is "pure" libertarianism, which is noble but impractical, and then there is practical libertarianism. The choices, then, are to stick to principles but lose the political battle, or compromise, hedge, and be "practical." This line of thinking is Platonic in that it posits an unreachable ideal, juxtaposed with the messy real world. However, consistently acting on sound principles is necessary to achieve practical results. (Ayn Rand has more to say about this in The Virtue of Selfishness.) For Randall, the criterion that establishes "integrity of the LPCO" is loyalty to the group, and one's voter registration is therefore more important than one's ideas.
Focus on Nonessentials
The national LP offers another example that illustrates Schwartz's arguments. Last month I received a fund-raising letter from Joe Seehusen, Executive Director of the party. The entire focus of the letter is "pork barrel" spending. The motto of the letter is, "Cut the Pork, or We'll Kick You Out!" (The threat is directed toward Republicans.)
Seehusen writes, "In the most recent budget passed by Congress, we have identified an eye-popping 11,768 separate pork-barrel projects. And this wasteful spending cost taxpayers like you and me a whopping $15.8 billion!" However, $15.8 billion, while a serious chunk of money, is a trivial fraction of the total national budget. In a fund-raising letter to Libertarians, Seehusen thought the best way to raise money would be to mention minuscule projects and threaten Republicans.
I am not arguing against the criticism of pork-barrel spending. It's important to point out especially wasteful spending, and it would be great to cut it. However, that's certainly not a central issue for a party supposedly dedicated to eliminating the entire welfare state.
In addition, while a few Libertarians have arguably "cost" Republicans their races, Seehusen exaggerates this point. Such cases are few and far between, and often other factors are more important.
Seehusen writes, "[U]nless every one of those 11,768 pork projects are removed from the budget, we'll work to defeat as many big-spending Republicans in Congress as possible!" Because Democrats are so much better.
Actually, there is a case to be made that costing Republicans seats would teach Republicans to take better positions in the future. But that's a tenuous case, just as it's debatable whether Libertarians can frequently cost Republicans races. Regardless, Seehusen's letter seems to surrender the substantive issues.
LP News features the "First Word" on its back cover, right under the mailing address. This is typically a quote from the media. The "First Word" for May, 2005, a selection from the Wall Street Journal, reads, "The Libertarians' atheism, together with the hedonism-as-a-virtue outlook they share with Democrats, allows them to laugh with the left at the 'Puritanism' of the right."
This quote is not used merely to illustrate how Libertarians are treated in the media; instead, the purpose of the quote seems to be to brag about that treatment. Yet the quote further entrenches the stereotype of libertarians as hedonists who, for that reason, want legal prostitution and drugs.
I also argue that prostitution and drugs should be legalized, but my case is not based on hedonism. Nor do I recognize hedonism and Puritanism as legitimate alternatives. It is largely because the Libertarian Party is perceived as hedonistic that it is rejected by most of the population. Yet, because libertarianism jettisons ethics (or, what amounts to the same thing, tries to incorporate all ethics), the hedonist label sticks. And the LP lacks the intellectual power to peel away that label.
(Just a few inches above the "First Word," the paper publishes a photo of Ayn Rand, which helps support Schwartz's claim that the libertarian movement is parasitical on Rand.)
Hatred of the State
LewRockwell.com recently published an old essay by Murray Rothbard, who writes,
"There runs through For a New Liberty (and most of the rest of my work as well) a deep and pervasive hatred of the State and all of its works, based on the conviction that the State is the enemy of mankind... The abolitionist is a 'button pusher' who would blister his thumb pushing a button that would abolish the State immediately, if such a button existed. But the abolitionist also knows that alas, such a button does not exist, and that he will take a bit of the loaf if necessary... To the radical libertarian, we must take any and every opportunity to chop away at the State, whether it's to reduce or abolish a tax, a budget appropriation, or a regulatory power. And the radical libertarian is insatiable in this appetite until the State has been abolished, or -- for minarchists -- dwindled down to a tiny, laissez-faire role."
I think it's fair to say that this comment by Rothbard illustrates the reactionary nature of libertarianism. However, the state also does things like hunt down murderers and put them in jail. Is that one of the works of the state that merits "pervasive hatred?" If the state were eliminated, what would prevent society from falling into anarchy of the brutal warlord variety? Such questions can be dismissed quickly only through rationalism: an idealized theory of anarchy that assumes ethical enforcement agencies would take the place of the state. I do not wish to go through the entire debate over anarchy here (though I may do so in the future), but Rothbard's arguments are inadequate. They seem plausible only from the standpoint of reactionism or rationalism.
And note Rothbard's strange concession to "minarchists." If the state deserves "pervasive hatred," how can there be room for advocates of mini-states?
The author, Michael Tennant, argues, "[I]n a state of true anarchy, numerous apolitical authorities may exist; and, in fact, in the absence of a political authority, these apolitical authorities will naturally assume responsibility for maintaining order and administering justice in a society." Unfortunately, Tennant does not clarify the difference between a political and apolitical authority.
Tennant argues, "[W]hen God led Israel out of slavery in Egypt , he established Moses as their leader. Moses, acting on the advice of his father-in-law, then established a decentralized structure in which he acted as the final authority in difficult cases but otherwise left the day-to-day administration of justice to his subordinates (Ex. 18:13-27). This was a form of government, but it was not an independent institution which claims a monopoly on violence and subsists by forcibly taking property from the people it is supposedly serving."
Oh, really? Here are some other quotes from the same book of the Bible that Tennant references (Oxford's revised standard throughout). Exodus 21:17 states, "Whoever curses his father or mother shall be put to death." Exodus 21:20-1 states, "When a man strikes his slave, male or female, with a rod and the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, he is not to be punished; for the slave is his money." Exodus 22:18 states, "You shall not permit a sorceress to live." Perhaps that's not a "monopoly on violence," but it is violence nevertheless.
Tennant further argues, "Samuel even called down thunder and rain upon Israel's wheat harvest to demonstrate his and God's displeasure at their request for a human government (I Sam. 12:17 ). God clearly did not want his own people to be ruled by a coercive institution but by the non-coercive, natural, organic structures that he had already established."
Yet here's how I Samuel describes these "natural, organic structures" (8:1-3): "When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel... Yet his sons did not walk in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice."
Tennant's arguments are ridiculous on their face. It is true that his arguments are not typical of libertarians. But are more typical libertarian claims any better?
The May, 2005, edition of Liberty magazine contains an article by John Coleman titled, "Marxism of the Right?" Coleman argues that libertarianism is an "anti-ideology." He's right about that, but he's wrong in his analysis of it.
Coleman argues, "[I]f ideologies are holistic conceptions of humanity and nature, then libertarianism is the opposite. Recognizing the contradictions and individualistic longings within people, it attempts to create a political system in which one moral framework may win over another through persuasion rather than force. It recognizes that real differences in morality do exist, and that they are vitally important, to the point that they sometimes lead to violence and coercion; and it emphasizes a system that respects these differences in the hope that conflicts may be resolved nonviolently... If you want further proof of its decentralized and wholly unideological formulation, try to find two people who define their libertarianism in the same way. They don't exist... Libertarianism is not an ideology because libertarians are content to make government smaller piece by piece. Those who love liberty do not have to agree on every issue of government or morality."
Coleman refers to people who "love liberty," but what of those who don't? What about Islamic terrorists? Should we "respect these differences" between us and Islamic militants who want to murder us? How are we supposed to resolve such conflicts nonviolently?
Coleman claims there are "contradictions and individualistic longings within people." Isn't that a "holistic conception of humanity," and thus an ideology? Clearly it is, but Coleman's fuzzy notion of "ideology" obscures the matter. Of course, a commitment to "persuasion rather than force" is also ideologically driven.
Coleman claims that different moralities can lead to violence. Yet isn't it the case that some ideologies are inherently peaceful, while other ideologies are inherently violent? If so, then isn't it also the case that the key issue is not that moralities conflict, but that some moral views are superior to others? And can't that be determined only by ideology?
Coleman suggests that people who do not "agree on every issue" are, for that reason, non-ideological. But one reason people disagree is that they have different ideologies. And people who share a basic ideology can disagree over empirical matters and applications to specific cases.
Coleman claims, "Libertarianism is not an ideology because libertarians are content to make government smaller piece by piece." Yet even to determine what constitutes a "smaller" government requires some ideological commitment. If the point is that the lack of ideology is a virtue, then wouldn't people who want to make government bigger piece by piece also be non-ideological, and therefore virtuous? Why, then, should people choose libertarianism?
Coleman is correct that libertarianism can mean all things to all people. It is explicitly anti-ideological, which means (as Schwartz points out) that it must smuggle in ideology implicitly. The problem is that the (futile) effort to be anti-ideological leads to the acceptance of a chaotic sludge of ideological waste. That explains why libertarianism encompasses people with such radically divergent -- and contradictory -- beliefs. From within the libertarian framework, there is no coherent definition of libertarianism. Which is a fairly compelling reason not to remain trapped in that framework.
I know lots of people who call themselves libertarians who are not sucked in by the worst elements of libertarianism. Some of these people do very good work in areas such as economics and policy. I plan to remain friends with such people and (in the case of scholars) read and cite their work. I also plan to criticize them when they enable the sorts of problems described above.
I am not a libertarian. For I do not want to be lumped together with the pragmatists, reactionaries, tribalists, nihilists, hedonists, rationalists, subjectivists, idealists (of the Platonic variety), propagandists, utopians, and kooks of the libertarian movement.
I am an advocate of individual rights and free markets.