What Libertarianism Is Not

A short list, and not intended to be exhaustive. Read to the end for a special announcement.

  • A Gold Standard – I could have put one of the others first, but this is the one that gets mixed up with libertarianism the most often, presumably as a result of FDR’s seizure of gold in 1933. All libertarianism requires is free banking, and how the competing currencies are backed is the banks’ problem. I suppose some would attempt a commodity standard, and a few might even try to do it with gold, absurd as that is in an age of e-currencies. Attempting to predefine it for the entire financial industry ahead of time is … not wise.
  • Pacifism – This is really my one-word epithet for the mentality that blames the US for most of the world’s problems, and asserts that every conflict we find ourselves in is ultimately an unforced error on our part. Most of it can be traced to Stalinist and Maoist propaganda of the early Cold War period, not a great thing to base one’s libertarianism on. “It takes but one foe to breed a war, not two.” – JRR Tolkien
  • Anarchism – I would prefer to think that an entirely stateless civil society is possible. But I do not know, and neither does anyone else. Insisting on it as a precondition of libertarianism pretends to knowledge that we do not have.
  • Minarchism – The logical complement of the above, left as an exercise for the reader.
  • Sectarianism – Speaking from my own background, all political advice in the New Testament adds up to “stay out of trouble.” Attempts to ineluctably tie libertarianism to other belief systems, including ostensible non-belief systems, are no better. To be sure, I think a Biblical value system at least implies a concern for human freedom and tends to nudge a population adhering to it in the direction of greater liberty. But this is not the same as asserting that it is directly prescriptive.
  • Conspiracy Theorizing – Leave the Birtherism and Trutherism to others. And if something like that is the reason you self-identify as libertarian, the question is obvious: would you still be fighting for freedom if you learned your theory wasn’t true?
  • Scapegoating – The general case of conspiracy theorizing, indulged in by many more people. The current classic example is the OWSers’ “1%.” Nice that they only want to expropriate or murder 3 million Americans, I suppose, not that anybody who’s been paying attention should think they would stop there. But far too many supposed libertarians are prone to ranting about “banksters,” et al, in language that, to borrow a phrase, sounded better in the original German. Or perhaps Russian.

OK, The Announcement: I am about to be in South Florida for about 18 hours, from midday Saturday to early Sunday. Contact Jonathan for info on a possible meetup, which as I write this is an idea without a plan; I will be calling him after deplaning at FLL.

17 thoughts on “What Libertarianism Is Not”

  1. Ranting and railing against “bansters” often descends into ethnic attacks and that is indeed, unwise and reminds one of Stalin and Hitler. Nevertheless, the banker’s cartel is a conspiracy fact, not just a theory. Governments and banks have conspired to defraud the taxpayer/consumer.

  2. That may not be libertarianism in theory, but in practice, try finding a libertarian who doesn’t exhibit at least one or two of these.

  3. The only one that would apply to me is probably minarchism. The theory is that a smaller government is less likely to impinge upon the freedoms of its citizens. Or put another way, a large government can’t help but try to control its subjects, err, people.

  4. Replying to Anonymous: Being an economic libertarian means that you support free markets — not necessarly any particular business, or business model. I will admit to having learned a bit of a lesson with the Obama experience. Like a lot of conservatives, I used to regard American big business as mostly a force for good, and I have been a bit shocked at how much of it was willing to play the facism gamee with the Obama adminstration. My attitude has changed a bit, and I now regard Wall Street as more of a primidoral force, like fire: whether it is good or bad depends on what use you put it to. When a business attempts to manipulate its government access to suppress the free market, then it no longer deserves libertarian respect.

  5. “I used to regard American big business as mostly a force for good”

    It is a neutral force in that it looks for advantage. Everybody else does, too but big business has the size to sway the politician. Few are as clever at coopting the big businessman as Hitler was. Thank God. Still, there is a reason why most politicians end their careers much richer than they began. Lyndon Johnson was a prime example and began the modern practice of industrial strength theft.

    Allan Drury wrote a novel about Washington called “Capable of Honor.” I doubt he would use that title now. Getting big business and big banks back to reasonable size will be extremely difficult but we may have to do so.to survive in a free country.

  6. MK…”still, there is a reason why most politicians end their careers much richer than they began.”

    Bill Clinton has “earned” $89 million from paid speeches since leaving office, $13.4 million in the last year alone.

  7. I used to consider myself a small l libertarian years ago, but I don’t even bother any more. The formal Libertarian Party was captured by unrelenting idealogues a long time ago, and much of that sterile rigidity has seeped doen into the overall movement.

    I respect the tea party movement for its narrow focus, and hope it can avoid being co-opted by outside forces attempting to ride on its train while bringing in all the other extraneous issues that so enamor pols of all assorted flavors.

    When asked now, I just shrug and reply that I’m a radical individualist, and let the questioner figure out what that means if they’re interested.

    Needless to say, I don’t bother with political discussions very much, especially with those committed types who can turn any conversation into a lecture about their pet issue or candidate. It’s so pointless and boring.

    If they tell me they’re from the Libertarian Party, I can’t get away fast enough.

  8. A suggested addition to your list:

    Libertarianism is not about open borders, under any circumstances, come what may.

    Milton Friedman understood this obvious point, better than anybody: “It’s just obvious you can’t have free immigration and a welfare state.”

    Unfortunately, these days, we’re beset by so-called “libertarians” who insist on open borders, regardless of welfare policy.

    I’d like to think that they’re just not thinking very hard.

  9. The relationship between banks and governments in the modern world needs to be understood on a more nuanced basis than rambunctious financiers vs public spirited regulators.

    The financial system of the modern world was created by governments as a vital instrument of total war. The system of central banks and private banks dealing in fiat currency is a historical creation intimately connected with the history of war in the modern world.

    The mother of all central banks was the Bank of Amsterdam which helped the United Provinces to finance its war of independence (mostly as a part of the 30 Years War). The idea was brought to England with William III and financed England’s rise from peripheral player to dominant power of the world over the next century and a quarter.

    In the US, many democrats distrusted central banks as instruments of centralized state power. However, the financial exigencies of the Civil War required a response. The national bank system was that response.

    The national bank system was crowned with the Federal Reserve system on the eve of the World Wars. Roosevelt’s changes to the banking system were relatively minor, except for turning the dollar into a pseudo fiat currency by stealing the people’s gold and gold clauses, and declaring them to be contraband.

    The Bretton Woods system, designed in large part by J.M. Keynes, got us through the first half of the cold war. Richard Nixon abandoned the Bretton Woods system when it proved to be too confining to allow him to pursue his agendas.

    The current system of central banks which issue fiat currency and tend to fleets of private banks may owe its origins to history, but it is not an accident. It exists in order to allow states to conduct wars and their other functions, legitimate or not, such as entitlements.

    It is also not possible for us to expect that the system will disappear, even if the US is taken over by libertarians in the near future. A libertarian government would find itself maintaining a military establishment and conducting foreign policy. The minimum cost of that would be about 4% of GDP. Amortizing the existing debt of the US would cost about 5% ($1 @ 3% over 30 years is 5.1 cents). Even if all of the unnecessary departments of the Federal government were closed, the rest of the government would still run about 1%. Financing fiscal flows of that size, and maintaining the necessities of war, in case it happens, would still require a central bank and banking system.

  10. @Robert: Great points and a cogent comment. Just to pick a nit,”($1 @ 3% over 30 years is 5.1 cents)” is obviously incorrect. The cost is more like $1.40 for every dollar of debt at 3% per year, unless I am misunderstanding what you are saying.

    To the point of the post, so everything that Libertarianism actually is, is contrary to the ideology of its most famous advocate? I’m glad that lunatic has crawled back under his rock.

  11. “I suppose some would attempt a commodity standard, and a few might even try to do it with gold, absurd as that is in an age of e-currencies”

    There is nothing absurd about basing a currency on specie, even in the modern world.

    The real question is who can you trust to establish the value of a currency. Do you trust Ben Bernanke and Congress? Farther than you can pick them all up at once and throw them?

    Gold has the inestimable value of being a recognized value since the beginning of history. Its supply is fairly inelastic, and it doesn’t rot.

    How would we use it 21st century America. Simply, gold would never leave bank vaults. Since it is heavy and hard to move, banks would leave their gold on deposit at central banks so they could settle inter bank transactions, such as daily check settlements, by electronic transfers through that system.

    Paper currency, notes payable in specie, could exist, just as they did before Roosevelt’s great crime. But, most transactions at every level would be conducted as they are today, by electronic transfer of bank credits though the Federal Reserve System. Transactions that settle in cash these days are few in number and shrinking in volume. And large dollar transactions, such as corporate financings and acquisitions, have settled by inter bank wire transfers for a least 30 years.

    We are closer to being able to do this than you might think. The Federal Reserve System carries 8000 metric tons of gold on its balance sheet at $42.22 per ounce for a total of $11 billion. But, at the current market price of $1580+/-, it would be worth $400 billion. That amount would be adequate to capitalize the balance sheet of the Fed, if it were not so grotesquely bloated at $2.9 trillion, by Bernanke’s attempt, probably vain, at propping up the Obama regime.

  12. Skh.pcola: I apologize if I was unclear. 5.1 cents is the amount of a fully amortizing level annual payment on a loan of $1 over 30 years at 3% interest. Over 30 years the total payments would be $1.53.

    I should also add to my second comment that the gold on the Fed’s balance sheet has probably kept the market for the dollar from running away over the past 4 years.

  13. The term I might apply to myself is minarchist. I used to be interested in anarcho-capitalism but for various reasons I don’t have time to go into, I gave it up as unworkable. That said, I have great respect for some of them, such as David Friedman (Milton’s son).

    I agree with many of the other points, including the one about gold. The line about pacifism is important: a lot of libertarians at times seem to be isolationists, which is incongruous if you believe in things like free trade, free movement of peoples, and so on. A better term is “anti-interventionist”. Libertarians should be wary of borrowing trouble, of getting involved in the affairs of other countries without overwhelming evidence, given the risks.

    Another point is that being a libertarian does not mean approving of certain supposedly libertarian figures, such as Ron Paul, or some of the folk around the Ludwig von Mises Institute (“paleo-libertarians”).

Comments are closed.