The Historical Inevitability of Libertarianism

by | Jul 10, 2017

The Historical Inevitability of Libertarianism

by | Jul 10, 2017

Marxism infamously puts forward a theory of history in which its utopian vision for human society is upheld as an eschatological certainty. According to Marx, irresistible political and economic forces will compel mankind towards a future of full equality and unimaginable abundance. Despite the wishful thinking behind this vision (which also included an anticipation of unspeakable revolutionary violence preceding utopia), it hasn’t come to pass. I would argue that Marx’s ideas are magical thought innovations on nascent Classical Liberal ideas that sadly didn’t survive the rise of Marxism’s popularity. In Classical Liberalism, and in Marx, I think there’s a germ of truth. I believe one can argue that irresistible economic and political trends imply an inevitable libertarian future.

In contrast to Marx’s expectation proletarian utopia within Marxist theory, the libertarian future shouldn’t be considered unavoidable. Humanity can backtrack, it can get stuck, and it can also destroy itself. But, so long as humanity maintains some sort of economic progress over time, that progress will compel the adoption of libertarian norms. Thus, my view of the inevitability of Libertarianism isn’t grounded in magical thinking, but rather an analysis of conditions. The practical importance of this analysis is that it offers a path towards Libertarianism. Before its advent, was the use of gunpowder inevitable to the future of warfare? Yes, but it still had to be invented and put to practice. Discussing why Libertarianism might be irresistible is part of the process of it coming into being. We, the libertarian thinkers, are acting in the role of intellectual entrepreneurs. We’re identifying unmet demand. Any adoption of Libertarianism requires the presence of underlying demand, and then afterwards the development of theory to satisfy it.

Libertarians have struggled to find political relevance. Shining moments have been undermined by tragedies. The Koch Bros. money stealing away Cato. Donald Trump taking the thunder out of Ron Paul’s populism. What really taxes the libertarian program is the lack of relevance libertarian ideas have towards the current political paradigm. People count on the government for so many things, from healthcare to food inspection. But the problem is deeper than that. The government controls basic needs, as well as base resources. The state of the following industries: agriculture, energy, banking and finance, healthcare, public security, pharmaceuticals, transportation (not to mention defense, etc.) is contemptable. Each of these big industries is regulated more heavily than in some fascist or socialist societies in history. Massive corporations – cartels really – are deeply connected to these regulations and the process of creating them. There’s no disentangling this. Restructuring the economy along free market lines would rend the social fabric of America. But, you’re free to open a cupcake shop, or sell knick knacks on eBay – that’s our “free market”. I don’t see how the “Libertarian” party could possibly fix this, not especially by lowering a few taxes.

I see Libertarianism’s glory in the future, and I think it’s an ideology of the future. A very quick example of this is in private roads. Now that we have electronic tag recognition, the question of enforcing access to private roads is answered much more easily than it would have been 200 years ago. Now, that’s not proof of the principle, but it demonstrates the idea that economic development and greater freedom go hand in hand – a core idea I will develop over the course of this article. What I mean to say by referencing a future Libertarianism is to suggest a different approach to activism. What libertarians should adopt is a political conservatism. That is, we should expect to use existing systems to make things better, and also try to push for change that will inevitably be gradual, but which is effected as economic development increases. One example of putting this into practice would be advocacy of the “special economic zone” idea. It’s not perfect, and has already hit some roadblocks. But, it saved China from hard Maoism. I still want to see a special economic zone in Detroit – perhaps one of Rand Paul’s most exciting practical ideas.

Even so, the role of libertarian thinkers needs to include being keepers of the vision. We need to refine our understanding of the progress of history, to understand where and when these gradual changes can lead to a freer future (beyond advocating more tax cuts). That’s what I’ll proceed to try and do.

How is it that I say that Libertarianism is inevitable? By application of the principles of Praxeology to the realm of conflict and politics. What follows is a thought experiment concerning our friends Robinson Crusoe and Friday. This time we’ll consider the political implications of life on the island, by analyzing what is axiomatically true about human action.

Imagine Crusoe alone on the island, busy integrating resources into his economic life. How would Crusoe categorize these resources politically? There are three options. First, there are all the integrated resources that form a part of Crusoe’s economic life. This includes materials appropriated for tools, stores of food, and the like. It also includes tangential resources, such as trees that Crusoe visits to pick coconuts, or stones that Crusoe sometimes visits to rest on during his travels. Finally, it incorporates resources that are superabundant, such as the air Crusoe breaths. Second, there is a category of resources which Crusoe chooses not to integrate into his economic life. An example would be a coconut grove that is on the other side of the island from Crusoe, that he doesn’t need of have time to pick from. Third, the resources that Crusoe will never be able to use. These would be anything off of Crusoe’s island that he obviously can’t access in his lifetime.

The purpose of categorizing natural resources this way is to establish a politics of one. Politics necessary follows from society. But, in order to derive a system of politics, we have to know what it is that society is modifying. When you add more people to a situation that first had one person, what have you changed? That’s what politics has to address.

Now, Friday has landed on Crusoe’s island. There is a new category of resources. These are resources subject to human conflict. What is human conflict? Consider how Crusoe would respond to an animal on the island. Perhaps there are wild boars which routinely get into Crusoe’s corn stores. Crusoe can treat these creatures as he would any other resource. His economic life would involve adjusting to the resource environment in which he finds himself. This means acknowledging that storing food means having to secure that food with traps and firmer protections against wild life. After making this adjustment, Crusoe’s food would be safe. In this sense, animals don’t add any special political category to Crusoe’s three. But Friday would.

Friday, like Crusoe, is a human actor. If Friday raids Crusoe’s stores, Crusoe might build traps and secure the stores with firmer structures. But then, Friday might use fire to burn them down. Crusoe now has to build his stores with stone, greatly increasing the amount of labor he has to put into the effort of adjusting to the resource environment. Friday might decide that he should train in the use of a spear and a martial art, to attack, torture and intimidate Crusoe into simply handing over his stores. Crusoe would clean off his flintlock rifle.

The problem with human actors is that when one adjusts to the changes imposed by another actor, that other actor can then adjust in turn. When Crusoe’s political category one – resources he integrates or wants to integrate into his economic life – overlaps with Friday’s, competition results. Competition between actors means escalation and conflict.

One can now see how resource competition can impose disproportionate and wasteful costs on resource use. Crusoe simply would not need to build his grain store out of stone, were it not for Friday’s envy. Natural economic conditions don’t impose this opportunity cost on Crusoe, the ability of Friday to adjust to Crusoe’s actions and vice versa as an escalation of conflict imposes this cost.

At this point, both parties could choose to forgo conflict. Perhaps the island has a few dozen people on it. The costs imposed by conflict might be regarded as too high for all involved. They might get together and form a compact agreement concerning some basic legal and property norms to save costs as it pertains to conflict. If they did so, they might acknowledge that simply appointing leaders to judge disputes won’t work. The leaders might play favorites, and some people might be alienated by decisions. They’d need an objective standard to resolve disputes. This is where they might develop or agree to a form of Hans-Herman Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethics. Certainly, a community covenant to uphold libertarian legal norms would not be out of the realm of possibilities. It might even be a good and economically fruitful idea. But, that doesn’t make it inevitable.

The fundamental problem with this leap by which a community assents to ethical norms is that it’s entirely up to the people involved whether they desire them or not, and it assumes there aren’t workable alternatives. While I think there is a certain “middle class” pressure to the spontaneous compact genesis of libertarian legal norms (petty bourgeoise standing up for each other, and together being economically critical to society at large), there are other pressures that compete with this (such as the alliance between oligarchs, charlatan prophets, and the masses). Instead of assuming Crusoe’s island would spontaneously adopt libertarian norms, let’s conduct an analysis of the political economy involved.

Imagine that neither Crusoe nor Friday have put any thought to politics. The world to them is still the politics of one. As such, they take what they want. And, let’s assume that it’s a big island. For the most part, their category one doesn’t overlap much. What happens when they come into conflict? As I’ve been unfair to Friday so far, I’ll paint Crusoe as the bad guy here. Imagine Friday finds a nice stick in the woods that would serve as the perfect fishing spear. Crusoe sees Friday carrying it home and wants it for his own use. Since he’s still operating with the politics of one, the item is simply something to obtain. Crusoe decides to take it. Friday, still holding it, resists as Crusoe tries to pry it from him. For sake of economic analysis, let’s assume that all else is equal: Crusoe and Friday have no intention of escalating the conflict, of trying to harm or injure each other, and after this conflict is finished will go back to mostly ignoring each other.

Crusoe and Friday’s wrestling over this spear becomes an auction. Neither has the strength to pry it fully from the other. The winner will be the one who persists the longest. The pair decides to sit down and wait, each with two hands on the spear. The day passes, Friday had been planning to fish, Crusoe was going to work on his shelter. This conflict is imposing an opportunity cost on both parties. However, the value of the spear is immense. Either would save time gathering fish with a spear (as opposed to using a crude fishing line). As they sit, they think. How much time would be saved by having the spear? How much time would it take to search the woods for a second spear? How much value is being wasted sitting here versus getting other things done? Crusoe decides the effort is only worth 5 hours to him, and he hopes Friday will give up before then. But, the effort is worth 8 hours to Friday. He loves fish more than anything else, and hates coconuts more than Crusoe does. After 5 hours, Crusoe stands, shakes Friday’s hand, and leaves. An auction just occured.

Conflict can be subjected to economic analysis.

A more complex analysis of conflict involves the introduction of small groups of people interacting within a larger society. The basic conflict actor we can name the “military entrepreneur”. This entrepreneur, at this level, would equate to a tribal chief, a mafia don, a mercenary captain, and so forth. That is, they lead a small band of thugs.

The military entrepreneur measures his military assets in terms of what I’ll call “units of military power”. For the purposes of this analysis, one unit of military power would equate to the basic fighting capabilities of an average sized, average strength male with a basic weapon (a wooden club, or pistol, for example). The military entrepreneur performs cost calculations.

A military entrepreneur must compare costs to benefits. The revenue produced by military power is measured in the form of resources which inhabit that fourth category as mentioned with Crusoe’s island. These are resources over which competition and conflict exist. These are resources which cannot be claimed, because multiple parties claim them. They can only be integrated into one party’s economic life, but multiple parties are fighting to have access to them. As for costs, this is measured in terms of units of military power.

Imagine a tribal chief. He lives in a green, pastured land with forests and edible plants and berries growing everywhere. There are also many other tribes living here. There are many places where tribes compete to harvest resources. The chief is a military entrepreneur. He wants to secure resources for his tribe: he wants to move them from the category of conflict, into the category of possession for use. This means he has to “purchase” them from the other tribes which want to have access to them.

The chief’s costs are related to the maintenance of warriors. One warrior is one less member of the tribe helping build, or gather, or helping out in some other way. Warriors must train full time, so the maintenance of one warrior imposes an opportunity cost on the chief. The chief – as does any entrepreneur – must balance cost and benefit. He must optimize access to resources in a competition filled environment, while not spending more than the benefit of that access.

Each chief of each tribe will make this calculation. For the most part, war won’t be necessary. A tribe which clearly has more warriors – more “units of military power” – will be able to secure more resources. But, they might not be able to afford to secure all of them. The precise relationship of resource access to units of military power is determined by an auction: a battle. Thus, war is not needed most of the time, but it is absolutely needed periodically. This is the basic pattern of the economy of conflict.

The next element to consider is what happens with the other members of the tribe. Of course, a chief can afford to “spend” the lives of his warriors. But this is hardly a bargain for them. Moreover, wouldn’t the tribe’s members have competitive interests over resources? First of all, the warriors can be considered employees, and their relationship can be thought of as a labor contract of sorts. As for the tribe members, it’s important to note that the chief is also at war against them. The chief is also the judge, the godfather, who settles their disputes and ultimately determines their individual resource access. The basic structure of an entrepreneur who brings violence resources to bear to purchase resource access through conflict applies to the members of the “firm” as well as its competition. With this is mind, the tribe members – even perhaps the warriors – are not necessarily employees of the firm, but rather clients of it. They are under duress, oppressed by the chief’s power as much as his enemies. It might be a situation they prefer, and to a degree they might have some sort of contractual relationship to the chief, but to a degree they don’t.

The central question resolved by the military entrepreneur is that of dispute resolution. The category of resources over which conflict exists is an economic category managed by military entrepreneurs. He must fulfill this role for both clients and competitors. Without getting the cart ahead of the horse too much, this is in contrast to law which is another means of resolving disputes. Some mechanism must exist to resolve disputes that is integrated completely with the rest of economic theory.

As the conflict economy develops, it evolves. The medieval feudal period is a good example of the apotheosis of the military entrepreneur system. As I mentioned with Crusoe and Friday, conflict between actors provokes wasteful escalation. The tribal chiefs wouldn’t be using wooden clubs forever. Feudal lords exercised power by use of highly specialized and expensive knights. These horsemen trained their whole lives, wore expensive armors, were attended by dozens just to be ready for battle. They relied on the wealth of hundreds if not thousands of peasants to pay for this level of military technology.

The medieval European lords used their military power to purchase access to resources. The basic resource was the right to tax peasants. Conquering another lord meant that his peasant’s paid their tax to the new lord. Peasant grown grain was traded for rare materials or specialized good. Sometimes valuable mines, with salt or precious metals, were subject to strategic conquest.

In addition to feudal competition, lords also had to manage and compete with their peasants. They raised or lowered taxes based on the ability or willingness of peasants to revolt. This was part of the cost-benefits analysis. Higher taxes meant more resources for military use, but it also meant that peasants might revolt. Although a single human knight represented more “units of military power” than a single human peasant, thousands of peasants might overpower a hundred knights.

The lord had to use his power to resolve resource disputes with other lords, but also against his peasants. Importantly, the lord had to resolve disputes between peasants. In England, Anglo-Saxon tradition had retained a tribal “compact” ethics regarding personal property rights, and common law existed alongside the King’s courts to varying degrees throughout English history. However, in other places the peasants existed as mere serfs, completely subject to their lord’s whims. Russia represents a particularly brutal example of this system, but it was widespread throughout the medieval period.

Medieval lords lacked the “central planner’s” knowledge to resolve each and every dispute of their subjects. This is more than a matter of having time to meet with each and every peasant whose neighbor stole their sheep. Each dispute, and each category of dispute (such as livestock theft), needs to be matched an appropriate allocation of “units of military power” to resolve it. I’m specifically leaving out the presence of law up to this point. Assuming there’s no law, it’s just the King’s judgment settling each individual issue. The King as a conflict entrepreneur, like the central planner, does not know how to divvy up resources such that all conflict is efficiently managed in the kingdom. He’ll see revolts he can’t suppress, or invasions he can defend against. He’ll devote too many troops to defend strategically insignificant points, and not enough to economically valuable points. He needs some other means of settling disputes. The problem with subjective dispute resolution is that it fails due to the problem of knowledge. If each and every dispute needs to be settled by the military entrepreneur, then he has to have omniscience about the costs and counter costs of all the “military power” of all actors in his domain.

Subjective dispute resolution contrasts with objective dispute resolution. What subjective dispute resolution relies on is the economic calculation of the military entrepreneur (not necessarily whom he likes or doesn’t like). He’s trying to optimize his costs vs. benefits, but the nature of conflict presents him with a fundamental contradiction. Conflict involves escalation, which is mitigated by monopoly. The feudal knight represents a saturation of military power units in the economy. The military entrepreneur cannot rely on market functions the same way a commercial entrepreneur can. The feudal domain has too much vertical integration. Each lord will maximize his vertical integration. Conflict’s nature necessitates the vertical integration, but the vertical integration presents the “firm” with an economic calculation problem. This is in part because the “employees” are also clients, and also competitors with the firm. In economic terms, there’s no fixed cost calculation for fixed costs. New tactics means the base costs for one knight keep rising regardless of other market factors. The consequence is an extreme demand for a substitute good to military power that handles dispute resolution.

The substitute good for subjective dispute resolution is objective dispute resolution, or law. The medieval lords of Europe turned to Roman law obtained from Byzantium to help govern their domains. What I see here is the phenomenon of demand seeking out supply. The phenomenon was brought to a head in the late Renaissance.

Writers such as Gary North and Deirdre McCloskey have speculated as to why “capitalist” ethical norms were adopted in Western society a few hundred years ago, but nowhere else. They both identify the early Protestant movement and its ethics, particularly as seen in the Netherlands, as the beginning of the capitalist ethic. They identify an ethic: an acceptance of the propriety of holding wealth, which had previously been taboo at best. North highlights the Protestant work ethic as part of the cause. I’d like to propose a novel interpretation for why this happened.

The late medieval/early renaissance period saw a saturation of military power in the economy. I would consider the period to represent an era of highly advanced economies. While many identify economic advancements that occurred in the medieval and especially renaissance periods, there’s a tendency to discount the level of economic development during that time. I think, if you count military advances, then medieval Europe could be considered highly advanced. These advanced economies, with their trade networks, early science and industry, well-structured political orders, robust religious and social dialogue, and so forth, had a certain amount of “liquid wealth”. However, since the feudal period had relied so much on conflict to manage dispute resolution, and since military resources were saturated, there was a very high need for a “substitute good” to handle dispute resolution.

I propose that these capitalist norms, legal and ethical, represented a meeting of demand when it came to providing a means of dispute resolution between parties large and small across the spectrum of European society, through which this liquid wealth could flow. As a consequence, there was enormous profit potential concerning these norms. These profits weren’t reaped by specific firms, but rather were social profits. So, the Protestant work ethic as an idea and movement profited from these conditions, and therefore spread tremendously.

European society didn’t cease in its tradition of military entrepreneurship. Rather, the military resources remained saturated and locked up in securing the most important base resources. Capitalism mostly applied to smaller markets. In the middle, oligarchies emerged that represented entrepreneurs that dealt in both capital and violence. The early expression of this was mercantilism, but it continues today in the central banking principle. This is because capitalism wasn’t a discovery which changed things by virtue of its development. Rather, base economic conditions created a demand for capitalism, which in turn became very socially valuable after its development as it met that demand.

Despite the continued presence of military power in the world after the emergence of capitalism, the nature of military power has changed. Imperialism became a natural application of capitalist fueled military nation-states’ power. But, imperialism also developed its colonies. The development which occurred among imperial subjects prepared them to be able to afford to reject imperialism in the 20th century. This is the formula which will someday end the efficacy of military power altogether.

The saturation of military power will continue as technology develops. Competing powers will have to devote so many resources to maintaining their stealth bombers, laser satellites, nuclear hypersonic cruise missiles, cyberwarfare centers, and so forth that at some point the cost will become naturally too high. The purpose of military power is to purchase access to resources. Today, great power competition between the US/West and Russia/East has led to war in Syria. The object of the conflict seems to be natural gas. But there’s a twist. The powers aren’t competing for access to natural gas, they’re competing to be able to provide natural gas. Already, it’s just cheaper to buy resources from your enemy, or anyone else, then it is to try and secure exclusive access. This is, in part, because resources are maintained by corporations, with complex connections to national governments, each other, different oligarchs, financial systems, and capitalist legal and fiduciary responsibilities. The system of modern resource exploitation is too complicated for some national government to be able to afford to go all over the world occupying resource sites with their militaries on any kind of permanent basis – that is, this doesn’t occur in the majority of cases. The marginal costs of additional military power to obtain marginal units of resource access are exponentially increasing.

The costs of military power are too high. A traditional war between the US and Russia would involve weapons so destructive that no economic gain can possibly justify the trillions and trillions of dollars of global losses which would be incurred by nuclear war. The benefits of military power are too low. It’s getting easier and cheaper to just buy resources on the market. The justifications for military force are growing sickeningly tautological. “Why do we need to be able to win battles?” “In case the need arises to win battles.” But if there’s no base economic motivation for battle – if there’s no profits to be gained through military entrepreneurship – then there’s no real reason to fight.

In theory, over time, nation-states will start to realize that even marginal cost savings that come from reducing military expenditures will greatly out benefit the costs of maintaining a military. In this sense, peace is an economic inevitability. But we have to avoid blowing ourselves up in order to get there.

This principle needs to be applied to what is traditionally called “domestic politics”. The puzzle of modern life hasn’t been solved yet. Socialist and left-wing thinkers have offered many fairly compelling critiques of modern capitalism. They blame the ethics of ego, private property, and profits for the problems, only rarely mentioning oligarchy. Nonetheless, the political outcomes in ostensibly free market societies such as America have not been of equal benefit to everybody. While I don’t subscribe to socialist economic critiques, and wholly applaud the “rising tide” that has mostly occurred during the reign of capitalism, I think it’s fair to argue that the ruling oligarchy in America has systematically persecuted and shut down viable alternatives to the political mainstream.

Here’s an example: a socialist-lite commune. Imagine a community where all property is covenanted into communal ownership. However, this ownership is governed by a compact agreement. The community governance system cannot simply seize property, but rather is subject to limits over its ability to appropriate community resources. Imagine that it’s as if people consent to a community with progressive taxation, or special trade arrangements, or whatever they please. This isn’t out of the question when you consider turn-of-the-century Midwestern German rural communities, for example. And, to a large degree, this sort of system was put into place nationally in America anyway. The difference is that the system that is in place is one that is oligarch approved, not subject to local control, and independent efforts are also branded illegal for a variety of reasons.

Society is complex, and people have different needs and desires, included social desires. People have different levels of education, and different levels of intelligence. In my opinion, some human instincts, held in different degrees by different people, have already integrated the economics of conflict into basic social impulses. Many people want to form tribes, they seek confident leaders, they believe in “helping each other out”. I have described why this would happen economically, but is it any surprise that many hundreds of thousands of years of evolution in a tribal setting would embed a natural predisposition to these patterns into human instinct?

While I am agreeing with a fairly anti-libertarian principle, when it comes to human social patterns, I do so without rejecting libertarian principles. Individuals can be free to choose their own destiny, while simultaneously choosing to give up freedoms to be able to associate into groups. The problem lies with how to make this work while preserving access to freedom.

This train of thought might be familiar to libertarians, and seem easy to answer, but I’m trying to incorporate the realities of conflict economics into the analysis. If capitalism chips away at the need for large military entrepreneurs to use violence, great. But what if these large corporatized forms of capitalism, which solve the one problem, interfere with people who are trying to form alternative economic communities?

I would contend that outside of very economically vibrant communities, with workers possessing naturally strong work ethics, with at least a decent level of intelligence (not outside the realm of possibility for a whole society someday, or even historically), that people will want to form alternate arrangements to individualistic wealth accumulation. Consider also that the American model of life is not purely capitalistic. We traditionally associate as nuclear families, where at least for women for many centuries there was a need to be joined economically at the hip with their husband. Now that Western society has granted women economic freedom, there are many questions concerning the future of the family. Not everyone is naturally drawn to the traditional nuclear family model. 50% of marriages end in divorce, and birth rates are very low. There’s room here for alternatives. I can think of a few, but I’ll refrain from naming them here to put a cap on the utter speculation.

Nevertheless, we are living in a New Deal world. More than a majority of people in Western society depend on, lacking will, let alone imagination, let alone means to find alternative non-state granted access to healthcare or other essential needs. Most of these people will want to belong to social systems where they don’t have to personally manage an economic life. Having to know the details of your home mortgage, insurance policy, while simultaneously keeping up with a demanding full-time job to fund those things is difficult for many people. A lot of people just want to do their duty to the community (assuming that’s showing up for work most of the time, except when its socially acceptable not to), and then get what they feel they’re fairly owed. I hate to say it, but in my youth I stridently rejected that sort of abdication of human responsibility. But, I’ve learned that while I’m no genius, I’m in a pretty rarified stratum of the intelligence spectrum. Most people I’ve met not only don’t agree with me, they lack the means to understand how an atomistic free society would function. These are the people with whom I seek society, I need them to be part of the broader division of labor. I’m not a Nietzschean, my will doesn’t suffice to wipe away their insufficiency. I have to live with them, but that doesn’t mean I can’t seek freedom or hope for a future free society. And, I’d gladly go escape to Galt’s Gulch if such a thing existed (and if my tone here offends, keep in mind that I’m considering the broader right-wing economics audience).

In domestic politics, competition between financial oligarchs for control over Leviathan, juxtaposed against a participatory (“democratic”) politics of a population bedeviled by irrational social instincts, forms our basic structure of dispute resolution. Objective legal norms fill the system’s middle, allowing fluidity and wealth generation in the middle. This, combined with the participatory nature of the politics leads to powerful governments that don’t have to spend as much on domestic dispute resolution, and have tremendous resources to bring to bear for war. Meanwhile, the oligarchs stand between the capitalist system and the conflict economy. They fund the military, provide capital for the markets, but also get funding from taxation out of the market economy and interest on debt. They use their capital to buy out access to resources, and use the military as leverage against competitors. Their capital funds mass media, and manages smaller players in the market economy to ensure the stability of the nation-state Leviathan over the long run. Once military means to secure resources becomes untenable, it will change this formula.

The substitute for raw military force, when it comes to spending violence units on resource access, is intrigue. Intrigue, the use of espionage, sabotage, theft, and assassination, beats the formula that restricts use of military assets because it is more cost effective. That said, it also is limited in the results it can produce. Intrigue can put out fires – such as the FBI’s COINTELPRO sabotage of different left-wing groups in the 1960s and 1970s (or similar efforts all over the world, look up Japanese labor protests from the era – mind blowing considering their normally stoic nature). They can buy out political movements, just look at the Koch bros. influence in libertarian politics. Look at how Gary Johnson’s campaign was buying out John McAfee’s campaign manager, and how Bill Weld got his VP endorsement at the last minute. These shenanigans are par for the course in an oligarchic ruled world.

When you’re not put in jail for using a different currency, or setting up an alternative economic community, and so forth, then you’re living in a libertarian world where the oligarchs have lost power as anything else than very successful market players. So how do we get there?

Intrigue is decidedly limited compared to raw military force. COINTELPRO works against marginal groups, but not against sizeable minorities. As the economy develops, there’s less room for intrigue. Consider corporate espionage. If it’s common, it’s costly. If it’s common, everyone’s doing it. If you can provide a service that manages the costs for people, you’ll make a profit. Private investigation counter-espionage firms would inevitably emerge. Where corporate spying works is when you have large oligarchs – say in America, which has an NSA – who are picking on puny start-ups – say in post-war Germany or Japan. There’s a military context here. In a developed market at peace, market forces will crowd out unfair corporate espionage (not that it or crime in general would ever go away completely).

In a similar vein, the chief tool of the oligarchs: capital leverage, doesn’t work when there’s competition over money. They control the money, so they control the resources, so they control the money. The military plays a role in that.

Imagine that the US succeeds in conquering the Earth, that is, subduing Russia and China and installing regimes controlled by clients of the American oligarchs. Good for them. Now what? Do the oligarchs all just get along? Do they have disputes? How will they resolve those disputes? Can they, collectively, manage world resources without hiccups? It’s the economic knowledge problem all over again.

We can see today the economic malaise inherent to the “neoliberal” economic model. The Western oligarchs are trying to manage their control over evolving markets, but in the process they’re suppressing needed structural change. This is crushing their model, forcing them to consider risky use of military power against rivals such as Russia – or so it seems.

This is all to say that there are limits to intrigue. If you can afford the military might, you can smash market outcomes. Intrigue is subject to market forces, and can only manipulate them at the margins.

If there was world peace, the oligarchs would have to accept a loss of control over resources and capital. Otherwise the market system would start collapsing. Again, due to the economic calculation problem. The oligarch class would grow, and be too big to govern centrally. This weakened and dispersed “wealth class” would be even more subject to market forces.

In the end, there would only be market forces. And these forces would crush anything other than objective legal norms. Why? Consent. If you don’t like a political arrangement, the market provides affordable access to a different one. And who will be able to stop it? Only the most universal and objective norms can survive across the market.

The central principle of objective legal norms is the prohibition on conflict. This is, in fact, why they are a substitute means of dispute resolution to military conflict itself. They reject the legitimacy of conflict, if you want to look at it that way.

This is how you get the homesteading principle and property rights. A person who appropriates land which no one owns is not creating conflict. A person who attempts to seize land already occupied is creating conflict. Justice, if our standard is conflict prevention, belongs to the first man. Contract is voluntary, and conflict free. This is why the libertarian property norm is objective: because it is grounded in a principle that is indifferent to persons. It’s derived from a principle.

This always begs the question, even from “consequentialist” libertarians. Why is conflict prevention a priori universal? Why does that stand as a universal norm? Hoppe justifies this on theoretical grounds, which is useful when arguing against people who are using ethical theory to attack property rights. But what about people who just want to steal stuff?

The answer is that they absolutely don’t have to accept libertarian ethics. My point is that market forces in advanced economies will compel the adoption of libertarian norms.

And so, Libertarianism is inevitable. It’s not automatic, however. We have to wait until the demand exists. We also have to do the labor of discovering the details of the norms and legal procedures and services that meet that demand. Nevertheless, this is history’s direction.

Humankind can blow itself up first. The oligarchs can strike back. The role foundations run by the money of families like the Rockefellers have had in public education, and the industrial policies of the last 30 years, in addition to certain immigration policies seem to indicate an effort to “deindustrialize” and devolve the Western world. This would make sense, if true. The oligarchs see the failure of their model and their rule in economic advancement. So, they seek strategically to reverse it. Good luck.

While we may never get to a Libertarian future, if we do we should put our efforts into some means and not others. I can’t fault those making valiant attempts at agorist or voluntarist communes, or even those fighting with cryptocurrencies. All the modes of activism (except maybe the horrible LP) are admirable, and who knows, maybe at the margins a difference will be made and a seed planted? However, I believe that a conservative approach will be the most effective.

The value of conservatism is that I believe that history favors our side. We don’t need to tear out the foundation to get our way. We just need to keep things stable enough for long enough. But, we can engage in intellectual activism in the meantime. There’s no question that liberal ideas have blossomed since Rothbard’s little revolution. And since Ron Paul, Rothbard’s ideas are spreading worldwide like never before. It’s not quite a new age of Classical Liberalism, but it might be better than things have ever been.

The problem with intellectual activism, however, lies with its limits. Ideas spread because they meet demand. People who need social and political changes to accommodate economic evolution look for new ideas to facilitate that change. I don’t believe Libertarianism is ready for the mainstream. There is a great Mises Institute in Brazil, but Brazil is not going to abolish the state any time soon. That’s not a “policy solution” for them. Not that I favor government policies. However, I’m an oddball. I find libertarian ideas interesting because I’m a nerd. Most people find ideas interesting because they think believing in them will change their lives for the better in the short-medium time frame.

All this means is that libertarians need to be clever, and less worried about political popularity.

I mentioned an example of a good conservative libertarian policies. A good ZEDE in Latin America (special economic zone in Spanish), or tax-free city in the US, might do wonders. If they aren’t happening, it’s because the oligarchs have sabotaged them, or else the general economic sabotage afflicting the world economy isn’t facilitating them. What libertarians can do is get behind the idea, and in a way that sells it to the oligarchs and paradigm of the day. Honestly, many of Rand Paul’s policies do this, maybe we need to think harder about his approach. He’s awful on war, but maybe running for President was the wrong thing. In fact, this idea whereby Rand Paul would secretly pretend to be conservative and then become President and enact libertarian policies is probably the stupidest idea we’ve ever had.

There’s room for a Rand Paul approach to politics, outside of his presidential run. Special economic zone cities, market reforms to education or healthcare, changing accreditation rules at the DoEdu rather than failing to abolish it, loosening rules pertaining to cryptocurrency, tightening restrictions on war powers, protecting privacy. There are many substantive policies that libertarians could support on the basis that they help use “get there someday”. This is as opposed to policies that “get us there tomorrow” like abolishing multiple departments, or having huge tax cuts, or clean Obamacare repeals. Perhaps we can’t get there tomorrow.

We don’t have to be politicos. We can admit that these policies aren’t libertarian in the slightest. If we admit that Libertarianism is something that will happen naturally when the time comes, we don’t have to fret over principles. We’re not trying to pass libertarian policies. We’re trying to help the world get there. This actually leaves room for principles, on a more practical level. For example, a true libertarian would want to abolish the DoD. An honest libertarian could admit that it won’t happen, and that they won’t try – but, my god are we funding America’s enemy Al Qaeda in Syria? Let’s stop that!

This applies to domestic policy as well. The government has obliterated any meaningful market in healthcare. And people need healthcare. It would be nice to have a market in healthcare, but how do we get there? Maybe, if we move towards market healthcare and lower prices – I mean real market reforms, not phoney GOP rhetoric – could we accept a few subsidies and taxes for some poor people? Because we’re not going to go full free market overnight, and we might even have single payer foisted on us.

As I said, the goal isn’t to give up on principles, but rather admit that the context has nothing to do with principles. It’s not philosophical pragmatism, but social pragmatism. Why can’t a politician like Rand Paul run for President and – without rejecting the DoD – express all the problems he has with it? A presidential run should be about educating the public in a frame they understand – not winning, and not preaching pure libertarian ideas to them. And we don’t have to lie. Can’t someone say they have serious problems with the “military industrial complex” but admit that it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Tulsi Gabbard seems to fit into this niche, and she’s a fine model of this sort of political approach – even if she’s not a libertarian.

In any event, this isn’t a recommendation so much as it’s a thought experiment. Because I feel Libertarianism is historically inevitably, I believe that a pragmatic conservative approach to politics from a libertarian paradigm is the most effective activism we could do. I don’t mean be a GOP lite lip-service to markets sort of person. This approach could involve major concessions to loopy leftist ideas. Not because of strategy, and not because of a need to be popular, but because it might push the needle in the right direction. For example: a major Medicaid expansion to cover Obamacare’s victims while simultaneously instituting major market reforms that lower costs and smash the healthcare cartel. Why can’t a libertarian say: “I don’t support subsidies for health to this degree, but I do support market reforms, and in fact I support them so much that I’m willing to concede this other principle that I’m admitting I do care about.”

By presenting a theory of conflict, I’m trying to demonstrate where libertarian ideas fit into the big picture. Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethics are an effective counter-argument against socialists using moral philosophy to argue positively for socialism. But I don’t see how Hoppe’s ideas argue positively for Libertarianism. I mean, I’m personally convinced by him. But I also like the idea of being ethical. And, as for the idea that “you can’t argue against ethics” – well, you know what I mean – the state does it every day! And major intellectuals eat it up regardless. That’s because ethics and morality is very nuanced, and people are very self-interested. The confluence of nuance and self-interest is the equilibrium of the market, which includes the economics of conflict. The state exists for a reason. But I believe we can transcend it (I’m not at all rejecting Hoppe, to be clear).

I’ll conclude with a historical anecdote that illustrates my recommended approach to politics.

Benedict Arnold was America’s greatest patriot and the greatest hero of the Revolutionary War. Until he turned coat, and became America’s most infamous traitor: our national Judas. Little attention is paid to his self-stated reason for treason. Instead, Arnold’s character is attacked. I don’t doubt that the man had a flawed character, and despite his rationale for his actions I find his taking up of arms against countrymen to be impossible to defend. However, his argument that the side of the Crown was preferable to the side of the Continental Congress – by 1778 – might have some merit. Arnold essentially believed that the original cause of the colonists was to defend their rights against acts of tyranny. He took up arms in that cause. By 1778, Arnold came to believe that the government which was setting itself up to take King George’s place had the intention of taking over all of the King’s prerogatives, and establishing a tyranny at home – infinitely worse than a distant tyrant who had to pay a much greater cost to enforce his will. Does Arnold’s argument have merit?

Certainly, the government formed by the American oligarchs has become a nightmare. However, even at the very beginning, this government broke promises, sought power, attempted tyranny, crushed the popular will with violence, and so on and so forth. In some ways, it was better than the crown – with initial deference to “states’ rights” (though this government was intended for a time to defend slavery, that is, use federal troops to theoretically suppress salve insurrections, that is, defend a state’s right to engage in tyranny). The Constitution also enumerated rights which, although present in English custom, were not formally written into constitutional law.

The colonists had legitimate grievances with the crown, and were justified in believing they had rights to defend from the crown. But Arnold himself totally concedes this. What he argues is that the war effort had earned sufficient concessions for those grievances, and that continued hostilities to include alliances with foreign tyrannical kings was no less than proof of the oligarchic ambitions of the revolutionary political elites. What were these concessions, which I was never been taught about in school?

After Benedict Arnold’s heroic battlefield victory at Saratoga, the British faced a major setback. The King of France was getting ready to recognize American independence, and Britain didn’t want the colonies allied with him. They acceded to the colonies’ original peace terms and sent a delegation called the Carlisle peace commission. (

The commission offered a full repeal of the hated taxes, but also a formal self-rule with the colonies in a dominion status. Some historians believe that such an offer, if made in 1775, would have prevented the war altogether. It was the failure of these concessions to make peace, and the Continental Congress’s decision to ally with France and continue the war that caused Arnold to switch sides.

Consider what would have happened if the terms had been accepted. Would being like Canada be so bad? Would American colonials, committed as they were to the principles of free speech and so forth in their local societies not implement protections for those liberties in their provincial constitutions? Would such a society, committed to liberty, unmolested by their political parent, not continue to develop and grow in that commitment – minus a local oligarchy.

Sure, American boys would probably be signing up to fight in Bengal. But, London would be fighting in the Caribbean. London would be burning down Philippine and Hawaiian villages. London would be nuking Japan. The quiet middle of North America, detached from the full measure of imperial ambitions, would be left to grow in liberty. A safe place for the distraught, the tired and poor of Europe. And God help the King if he pushed to take away American liberties – given that their sense of entitlement to them would only grow over time. Would it have been so bad?

There’s a big mistake in American society: we assume that our liberty comes from the government. That the Constitution and the Flag and her soldiers give us liberty. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Almost all of the “rights” set out in the Bill of Rights come from British Civilization. Only freedom of religion was a uniquely American idea. Even so, after the first amendment was passed to protect American religions from Congress, there were yet states with established churches in the Union. Virginia could have instituted religious liberty as a British dominion. The ideals of liberty come from American society and American civilization, not from American institutions of government.

A system of self-rule under the British Empire would not have interfered with local American communities in their pursuit of liberty. To the contrary, it was the financial oligarchs of the North and the slave aristocrats of the South who, in their possession of a domestic empire, killed freedom in America. Jefferson envisioned a distinct Mississippi confederacy, and yet he helped the Eastern Seaboard empire purchase the entire Midwest as a territory (partly because of competition for territory with the British Crown). There was no way the American oligarchs and aristocrats would let those Western lands be free from their ability to exploit them. The British King, with his vast domains, would likely have had less interest in establishing a Western territory so that it could be exploited by New York and Richmond. The Western British realms would have had the same rights and privileges as the East Coast – as well as equal political standing. In theory.

Benedict Arnold, despite his flaws, was a brilliant entrepreneurial thinker. He was able to see that American liberty rested with the ideals of American society. It seems he believed that this society would be able to thrive just as well under London oligarchs – perhaps better given their concessions – as American oligarchs. Neither group of oppressors created liberty, and liberty would be defended by whichever path left American society space to pursue liberty on its own. In this sense, it’s hard to argue that revolutionary politics created American liberty, nor that American liberty depends on strong American government.

Would America have been better off if Arnold’s plan had won the day? It’s a purely hypothetical idea, but it highlights the principle that revolutionary politics isn’t always effective at achieving revolutionary aims. There’s a role for conservatism, especially if history has a slow but inevitable course in the right direction.

Zack Sorenson

Zack Sorenson

Zachary Sorenson was a captain in the United States Air Force before quitting because of a principled opposition to war. He received a MBA from Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan as class valedictorian. He also has a BA in Economics and a BS in Computer Science.

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