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For a New Libertarian


[This talk was delivered at the 2017 Mises University.]

Greetings to everyone at the Corax 2017 conference, and greetings also to the audience here at our annual Mises University. As you can see both events are happening simultaneously, so I couldn't be with you in person this evening. But I very much appreciate being invited by Sofia and Martin to speak, and I would indeed have joined you in Malta any other week. And I admire Sofia and Martin for having the courage to leave Sweden and start this new venture in Malta, which by their account is not only warmer but also far more reasonable!

What I'd like to talk about today is libertarians, more than libertarianism itself. And I'll ask you to consider whether libertarians have lost their way.

The title "For a New Libertarian" is I hope an obvious play on the title of Murray Rothbard's famous book For a New Liberty. It's an underrated book, less well-known perhaps than The Ethics of Liberty. Lots of authors have the ego to call their books "a manifesto," but few books actually live up to such an bold subtitle. This book does.

I love Murray's line: "libertarianism, then, is a philosophy seeking a policy." I wonder if he'd change that line today, if he could see where the "public policy" branch of libertarianism has become. Or maybe he should have written "libertarianism is a philosophy seeking better libertarians."

I also chose the title to make the important point that we don't need a "new libertarianism" or anything so grand. Thanks to the great thinkers who came before us, and still among us, we don't have to do the hard work — which is good news, because not many of us are smart enough to come up with new theory! We can all very happily serve as second-hand dealers in ideas.

Sometimes libertarians do fall into a trap of needing something new, what we might call a modernity trap. It has become trendy to imagine that technology creates a new paradigm, a new "third way" that will make government obsolete without the need for an intellectual shift. The digital age is so flat, so democratic, and so decentralized that it will prove impossible for inherently hierarchical states to control us. The free flow of information will make inevitable the free flow of goods and services, while unmasking tyrannies that can no longer keep the truth from their citizens.

While I certainly hope this is true, I'm not so sure. It seems to me that states are shifting from national to supra-national, that globalism in effect means more centralized control by an emerging cartel of allied states like the EU and NGOs — not to mention calls for a convergence of central banks under a global organization like the IMF. We should be suspicious of the determinist notion that there is an inevitable arc to human history.

And while we all benefit from the marvels of technological progress, and we especially welcome technology that makes it harder for the state to govern us — for example bitcoin or Uber or encryption — we should remember that advances in technology also make it easier for governments to spy on, control, and even kill the people under their control.

So I suspect that while humans continue to exist, their stubborn tendency to form governments will remain a problem. The choice between organizing human affairs by economic means or political means was not undone by the printing press, or the industrial revolution, or electricity, or any number of enormous technological advancements. So we can't assume liberation via the digital revolution.

No, Rothbard's conception of liberty has held up quite well over nearly half a century. Humans are sovereign over their mind and body, meaning you own yourself. From this flows the necessary corollary of property rights, meaning individuals have a valid claim to the byproducts of their minds and bodies–axiomatically we know that humans have to act to survive. And from self-ownership and property rights we arrive at a theory of when force is permissible, namely in self-defense. And these ideas of self-ownership, property rights, and non-aggression ought to apply to everyone, even when a group bands together and call themselves "government." Since governments by definition use force (or threaten force) in many ways that are not definable as self-defense, they are invalid under the Rothbardian paradigm.

It's a beautiful, simple, and logical theory. And of course at least a degree of all three elements — individual liberty, property rights, and some conception of law protecting both — are necessary and present for real human progress. I know, I know, slaves built the pyramids, although Egyptologists tell us otherwise, and Soviet scientists weren't free and they still built nuclear bombs — probably to avoid a trip to Siberia. But the larger point we know is true: liberty and human progress are inextricably linked.

So we have this fantastic, airtight Rothbardian theory of liberty. But it's not enough. And Murray was adamant about this. He was the first to stress the importance of people and activism, not just ideas and education. But what kind of people, and what kind of activism? That was the question in Murray's time, and it's still the question today.

I. Recognize that Liberty Comports with Human Nature.

If there is one overriding point we should remember it is that liberty is natural and organic and comports with human action. It doesn't require a "new man." Yet libertarians have a bad tendency to fall into utopianism, into portraying liberty as something new age and evolved. In this sense they can sound a lot like progressives: liberty will work when human finally shed their stubborn old ideas about family and tribe, become purely rational freethinkers (always the opposite), reject the mythology of religion and faith, and give up their outdated ethnic or nationalist or cultural alliances for the new hyper-individualist creed. We need people to drop their old-fashioned sexual hangups and bourgeois values, except for materialism. Because above all the archetypical libertarian is presented as an almost soulless economic actor, someone who will drop everything and move to Singapore tomorrow to make $20,000 more in the gig economy.

Well it turns out that's not how humans really are. They're fragile and fallible and hierarchical and irrational and suspicious and herd-like least as much as they are a bunch of heroic Hank Reardens. In fact Rothbard talks about just this in his section on libertarian strategy at the end of For a New Liberty. He reminds us that it's progressive utopians who think man has no nature and is "infinitely malleable." They think man can be perfected, made into the ideal servant of the New Order.

But libertarians believe in free will, he points out. People mold themselves. And therefore it's folly to expect some drastic change to fit our preferred structure. We hope people will act morally, we believe liberty provides the right incentives for moral improvement. But we don't rely on this to make liberty work. In fact only libertarianism accepts humans as they are, right here right now. It is in this sense that Rothbard sees liberty as "eminently realistic," the "only theory that is really consistent with the nature of man and the world."

So let's understand — and sell — liberty as a deeply pragmatic approach to organizing society, one that solves problems and conflicts by muddling through with the best available private, voluntary solutions. Let's reject the grand visions and utopias for what will always be a messy and imperfect world. Better, not perfect, ought to be our motto.

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