11 April 2016

The dangers of a ‘libertarian moment’

A modest example of drug legalisation in action

In my last post I warned – somewhat over-vaguely – of the anti- and alter-liberalisms that could end up taking the place of the neoliberalism which has eaten itself well into its moral and political seed corn. Of course, the neoliberal consensus is not to the satisfaction either of the libertarians, who are seeing in the collapse of the reigning technocratic-globalist order the opportunity for a ‘libertarian moment’ – a moment in which the reigning dissatisfaction with the competency of the state is giving way to an anti-state mood, and an increasing openness to an alter-liberalism of the most brutally-dogmatic variety. It’s easy enough to understand the temptation, particularly for those of us who have been critical of the way the American state has handled a number of different issues. After all, if the American state has proven itself untrustworthy with how it gives foreign aid, with how it deploys our military, with how it handles social services, with how it educates our children and with how it secures our borders, then how can we trust it to do anything right?

This temptation is one to be resisted. For those of us who take such things seriously, and for those who recognise the above line of questioning as a form of anarchism, we can point to the Basis of the Social Concept (which was written, remember, by the Russian clergy in 2000, when the Russian state was still truly dysfunctional on practically every conceivable level) which says that ‘anarchy is the absence of proper order in a state and society, while calls to it and attempts to introduce it run contrary to the Christian outlook’ (III.2). However, there are a number of people both inside and outside the Church who are attracted to anti-state ideologies for the simple reason that the American state has time and again, both on the above-mentioned issues and on a number of others, proven itself to be untrustworthy. It is worthwhile exploring some of the thinking that goes into the temptation to anarchism.

For one thing, many of the people who are heralding the new ‘libertarian moment’ are not, in fact, objecting to the actual substance of the neoliberalism being promoted worldwide. Indeed, many of them, such as David Boaz at the Cato Institute, wholeheartedly embrace neoliberal ideology is a good thing and welcome the ‘trends in the world… toward human rights, women’s rights, gay rights, democratic governance, and freer markets’. Of course, one can point out to libertarians that much of this trend toward liberal values has been a function of aggressive and more-than-occasionally-violent enforcement by the state (whether the British Empire historically, by the dictatorships of Jiang, and Pinochet, or more recently by direct and indirect American intervention). And on the historical facts alone, consistent libertarians may be more likely than not to agree with this interpretation – they aren’t, after all, among the greatest fans of intervention. But this reading of the history itself calls into question their invincible faith, that the trend toward greater acceptance of their ideas is in fact a function of the desirability (the ‘market appeal’, if you will) of those ideas themselves. I’ve gotten into arguments before with libertarians who readily agreed with me that the Opium Wars were a Very Bad Thing, but then went on to claim that free trade – including free trade in opium – was in fact an unmitigated good that shouldn’t have required the enforcement of the British state. (Never mind that the Chinese government and a sizeable proportion of the Chinese people of the time didn’t actually want a free market in British-pushed narcotics.)

But that’s the very crux of the matter. Libertarian ideas cannot function in any social context, in ways that ordinary people would find morally or æsthetically or physically tolerable, without building incredibly powerful technocratic and depoliticised states to enforce them. A society in which drugs and all forms of consensual sex are completely legal and sanctioned, in which corporate behaviour is completely unregulated, and in which individual movement and market behaviour are as free of restriction as possible, will inevitably demand that government use its executive powers to shield it as much as possible from the predictable consequences.

To turn only to the most obvious example, we can already see the results of how the low-wage, non-union model preferred by libertarians lead to a necessary backfill in government-provided welfare services. When workers are not being compensated adequately for their time, if they are not to starve, someone else must foot the bill, and that ‘someone else’ is usually the Department of Agriculture.

Likewise, the standard libertarian answers to the rational observation that legalised prostitution correlates with higher observable human trafficking rates, are either to deny that there is a problem in the first place, or to claim that legalised prostitution has to be mainstreamed before it can out-compete into oblivion the black market in sex trafficking victims. The second answer, carried to its logical conclusion, balloons at least the sectors of government responsible for registration, protection and health-care provision for prostitutes and their clients. (The same objection applies for the legalisation of hard drugs.)

Historically, governments were indeed smaller. But that was largely on account of the fact that they could rely on institutions like the Church and the natural family, and on the tightly-interwoven mesh of unwritten privileges and mutual obligations that upheld these institutions, to serve the welfare of the people in society. And it was taken for granted that, as Solovyov would later put it, the purpose of the state in all things was ‘collectively-organised pity’ for the weak and vulnerable. Libertarians appear to think – as a matter of ideological wishful-thinking and in the absence of precedent – that one can have a functional society of the sort people would prefer to live in, without either the cultural safety net of traditional social roles and obligations, or the legal safety net of an economically-interventionist state. I can understand the appeal to such an ideology in a time when the legitimacy of the state itself is being called into question, but libertarianism is still very much a utopian fantasy, and a profoundly dangerous one.


  1. A very thoughtful post. I'm not very keen on libertarianism.

  2. I like this article a lot. However, the 800 pound gorilla in the room is the fact that these super States are controlled by a small group of Zionist Jews who see the common man as Canon fodder. I agree that the anarchism of this generation of missing the mark regarding a healthy understanding of government. However, we really need to overthrow the power structure which is in place.