The Death of Classical Liberalism in America

Read Scott Horton's new book Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan

And the Rebirth of Libertarian Anarchism

“Thus, peaceful human cooperation, the prerequisite of prosperity and civilization, cannot exist without a social apparatus of coercion and compulsion, i.e., without a government. The evils of violence, robbery, and murder can be prevented only by an institution that itself, whenever needed, resorts to the very methods of acting for the prevention of which it is established.”
[emphasis added]

– Ludwig von Mises, The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science, [1962]

I am tired of arguing about the legacies of long dead economists. That is not to say their contributions are unnoteworthy. Far from it, in fact.

The Past

Over the past few centuries, the works of scholars like Menger, Böhm-Bawerk, Cobden, and Bastiat have contributed greatly to the richness of economic thought, the liberalization of trade, and the advancement of the market economy.

Most likely, your closest friends, and perhaps even some of your beloved family members, could not care less to hear diatribes about Austrian business cycle theory and decades-long squabbles between libertarian think tanks.

Fair enough.

Of course, many of these topics are of interest to those of us immersed in the subject to varying degrees, but we are not a majority in America. Not by a longshot.

Normal people, however, do not care to ruminate over the legacies of Drs. Rothbard and Friedman, nor do they wish to be harangued about the technicalities of fractional reserve banking and the various causes leading to the Great Depression.

If liberty is to be lived, not dictated, nor regimented with a program of central planning and coercion, then understanding your audience when communicating your ideas is the very key to their advancement, and we still have a long road to travel. American politics in the twenty-first century is just as asinine as ever, but today the stakes are possibly higher.

The Present

After all, today we toil under what Thomas Jefferson referred to as his glorious idea of an Empire of Liberty; the government that Dr. Robert Higgs has contended for decades operates a system of “participatory fascism,” that is, the modern American global police state.

“Americans do not like to admit that they live in a system that is most accurately characterized as participatory fascism. They insist that fascism requires death camps, goose-stepping brown shirts, comical yet murderous leaders in funny hats, and others hallmarks of the fascism that operated in Germany and Italy between the world wars. But fascism takes many specific forms. If you wish to see the form that it has increasingly taken in the economically advanced countries during the past century, just look around you,” elaborated Dr. Higgs.

As libertarians, our understanding is that freedom and choice are at the core of human action. A contemporary resurgence of this thinking was due in part to the libertarian sympathies of Mises and Hayek, among others, especially in the years following World War II.

But as the years drag on, those connections grow more tenuous with every drone strike, every foreign occupation, and every justification given by our libertarian elders to accept the empire erected and maintained by the United States Government, while they suggest we tinker on the edges of this policy or that policy, and support the rule of law.

The rule of law is a myth, as Dr. John Hasnas wrote more than two decades ago, and in any case, government dictates do not bring order to society, they unleash chaos and unintended consequences.

Government is disorder, not the savior of humanity, and the State is the artificial construct which seeks to beat its subjects into submission. Enough is enough.

The relationship between the power of the individual versus that of the State has always been the central pertinent question for us, as it must.

Consider the opening quote I provided from Mises himself, and let’s continue on:

“There emerges a distinction between illegal employment of violence and the legitimate recourse to it. In cognizance of this fact some people have called government an evil, although admitting that it is a necessary evil. However, what is required to attain an end sought and considered as beneficial is not an evil in the moral connotation of this term, but a means, the price to be paid for it. Yet the fact remains that actions that are deemed highly objectionable and criminal when perpetrated by ‘unauthorized’ individuals are approved when committed by the ‘authorities.’

Government as such is not only not an evil, but the most necessary and beneficial institution, as without it no lasting social cooperation and no civilization could be developed and preserved.” [emphasis added]

Dr. Higgs once remarked, “Classical liberalism is like setting a fire in the kitchen, the bathroom, and the bedroom of your house and trusting that separation of powers will keep the house from burning down.”

Years prior in his essay, “Classical Liberalism’s Impossible Dream,” Higgs fleshed out this idea further and concluded:

“In sum, the classical liberal who, in the face of these realities, clings to the myth of Lockean limited government would seem to be a person irrationally devoted to sheer wishful thinking. Dreams have their place in human life, no doubt, but the dream of a government (as we know it) that confines itself to its Lockean functions and stays so confined is a dream that never was and never can be realized. At some point, people must open their eyes to this emperor’s nakedness—and, indeed, to the emperor’s viciousness, brutality, and utter, systematic injustice. Otherwise, classical liberals do little more than provide objects of amusement for the cynical men and women who control the government and employ its powers in the service of their own aggrandizement and aggressive caprice.”

Therefore, I do not wish to endure arguments over the legacies of dead economists any longer, especially those who provide the intellectual foundation for the American Empire to justify its belligerence at home and abroad, rather than undermine its very existence.

That is not to say that these scholars are lacking merit in many other forms, nor is it meant to ignore their contributions to the further development of markets and the diminishment of the State in particular aspects. But as Mises reminds us in his 1956 essay, Liberty and Property:

“[Government] is the opposite of liberty. It is beating, imprisoning, hanging. Whatever a government does it is ultimately supported by the actions of armed constables.”

The Future

If libertarianism is to remain relevant for years to come, its advocates must be better communicators on behalf of individual liberty, and true defenders of that principle, as well as enemies of the State.

As the great twentieth-century anarchist Albert Jay Nock suggested, the only way “to improve society is to present society with one improved unit.” As individualists, this should ring true not only to us, but to our friends, family, and neighbors who also yearn for their liberty, even if they don’t fully grasp it yet.

Responding to present concerns of regular folks by quoting Mises and Bastiat isn’t supportive, and could actually detract from our worthy cause, rather than advance it.

Suppose a family in Yemen is incinerated by USG Hellfire missiles. Simply offering up George Washington quotes and Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom isn’t helpful; it’s inept at best, callous at worst, and completely ignorant when remembering our history.

Libertarianism now depends upon its anarchist roots for survival and to promote peace, prosperity, and liberty, rather than the classical liberal façade masking the American Empire’s global machinations.

Karl Hess beautifully concluded his essay Anarchism without Hyphens with a wonderful expression of the libertarian ethos that can never be repeated too often:

“Liberty, finally, is not a box into which people are forced. Liberty is a space in which people may live. It does not tell you how they will live. It says, eternally, only that we can.”

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Read Scott Horton's new book Fool's Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan