Where is Austro Libertarian?

Political Theory

On Coercion and Liberty Modern and Medieval

CJay Engel
January 12, 2020
There are additional implications of the rise of Hoppean covenant community-style thinking; one of which addresses the core of what is perceived as libertarianism: the non-aggression principle.
Political Theory

On Coercion and Liberty Modern and Medieval


CJay Engel

January 12, 2020

There are additional implications of the rise of Hoppean covenant community-style thinking; one of which addresses the core of what is perceived as libertarianism: the non-aggression principle.

This essay might be seen as a part two of the previous essay: On Traditionalism and the Collapse of Libertarianism. It is meant to fill in some gaps and address some of the many questions that were posed to me following its surprisingly positive reception.

In that essay, I made a distinction between “modernist libertarianism” and the implications of the reconstruction provided by Hans-Hermann Hoppe; this reconstruction, as I stated, he still labels libertarianism. But what this reconstruction does is that it applies the logic of property ownership to a social order that is pre-modern. And since, historically, the employment of the word libertarian, especially in the twentieth century, rested on a post-Lockean (modern) analysis of society, I wondered whether it would be fair to term this developing reconstruction libertarianism. But labels are labels and I'm a fan of these developments regardless (but have you seen the modern libertarian movement).

If one is indeed to keep this label, we might distinguish between modernist libertarianism and pre-modern libertarianism. I am not the first to make this distinction. Richard Storey, writing for Mises UK has termed it medieval libertarianism and has used it to describe the thought of Hoppe, and Hoppe’s friend and fellow-PFS speaker Frank Van Dun.

What I am arguing is that there is a certain development happening in the theorists associated with PFS that are completely restructuring libertarianism beyond how it was presented and formulated even in Rothbard's last years. I am arguing that there is a reorientation taking place about the nature of libertarianism and its role in sociological analysis. I believe that they are therefore necessarily distinguishing their understanding of "libertarianism" from its early Rothbardian construction which was built upon the collapse of the Old Order. They have moved beyond it, and Rothbard only hinted on these themes toward the end of his life, especially in his Deconstructing the Nation State. I’ll get back to the medieval libertarians momentarily.

If this reconstruction of libertarianism relies on an understanding of the complex structure of society that is not publicly owned, and did not have a modern state (which, as previously mentioned, might be said to have began with the thought of Thomas Hobbes, a thesis supported by Martin van Creveld), then what is happening is this version of libertarianism is to be integrated into a pre-modern social structure. And if it is integrated into a pre-modern structure, it is fair to call this understanding of social order “traditionalist.” But perhaps that comes with its own semantic difficulties. I am not a labelling genius.

Now, if one takes up the Hoppe-traditional understanding of the development of society and puts aside the modern Hobbesian-Lockean-Rousseau idea of every man “arising from the state of nature,” what happens is that the “covenanted community” grows under the structure of its private ownership. Its private ownership is characterized by a mix of private households with a privately owned “community” or “realm” or “commonwealth” or, for our purposes a “social order.” This social order is not merely the collection of individual households, but is itself a privately owned order independent of the property owners inside it. This is Hoppe 101. It is the model on which first aristocracies and then monarchies functioned. The point is, it exists independent of the private land within it, and is not publicly owned.

If you haven’t read my previous essay, you might consider it. It refers to Hoppe’s monograph “From Aristocracy to Monarchy to Democracy: A Tale of Moral and Economic Folly and Decay.”

What Role Does "Coercion" Play?

Paleo-libertarians often refer to the idea of a “private property order.” More generally, this could be referred to as a “privately owned society.” In a privately owned society, “rights” are worked out differently than in a publicly owned one. In a Hoppean covenant community, for instance, there might be a rule that you cannot sell heroin to ten-year-olds, or at all. If one ignores this rule, the consequence might be a fine; yes, with coercion backing this rule. But most libertarians would admit that, in a covenanted society, privately owned in a balance between proprietor and resident, this is legitimate.

Thus, here is a great and profound punchline: the core political problem is not one of “coercion” per se, it is instead one of “authority.” Who decides? Most libertarians conceive of libertarianism being the proposition: "coercion is immoral, except in self-defense." But this is not quite right, or at least it's not the essential nature of libertarianism. The political theory that puts the focus on coercion and non-coercion ultimately rests on the assumption that individual consent is the basis of social order (which itself presupposes the “state of nature” model of analysis). To understand this, you must understand the logic of the origin of the social order expressed in the previous article. This is why the modernist libertarian must be dogmatic that liberty proceeds order.

But if the doctrine of individual consent is called into question as the foundation, that is, if there is a legitimately owned social order privately held by proprietors (not “the public”), then liberty flows from authority, that is, from the logic of property ownership applied to the social order. By implication, liberty, especially as it came to be in actual Western history, succeeds (flows from) order rather than precedes it.

And if order precedes liberty, then individual-consent theory collapses, and so does the pinpoint focus on non-coercion as the absolute dogma of political theory. The political problem, then, is the nature and root and extension of authority, not coercion. Who has the right to coerce, is the crux; not “coercion is always immoral.” This is true even in peeling back the typical modernist libertarian model. Coercion is always defined by the logic of property ownership.

Modernist libertarianism’s particular use of the Non-Aggression Principle, therefore, presumes that there is no “social order” that exists independent of the property owners and in which the property owners employ their property. That is to say, there are two models of libertarianism: one presumes the man “arises from the state of nature” model (modernist libertarianism) and the other is integrated into a social order that precedes liberty (medieval libertarianism), which is of course an important feature.

The modern socio-political model is literally built on the idea of a publicly owned state, consented to by its citizens. This was the model that classical liberalism depended on, starting with Thomas Hobbes. Modernist political theories deny the existence or importance of a privately-owned social order within which private property owners make up the society.

Pre-modern social orders are characterized by a social order that is privately owned. And it is the insight of the conservative tradition of sociological analysis (see Nisbet, The Sociological Tradition) that a society that has no element of privately owned social order will by necessity be filled by a modern, totalitarian state. In other words, the lack of a privately owned social order will result not in “ordered anarchy” but in a total state. “Only power," stated James Burnham, in The Machiavellians, "restrains power. That restraining power is expressed in the existence and activity of oppositions. When all opposition is destroyed, there is no longer any limit to what power may do.”

In this privately owned society, historically, there was a balance between the rights of the proprietor and the rights of the residents, or subjects. This balance was worked out over time, it developed across the centuries. In England, when the king became too strong, it was a collection of aristocratic barons who challenged the king and made him sign the Magna Carta in the thirteenth century. It was this pit of power against power that struck the great debate between monarchical absolutism and constitutionalism in Britain until the time of the Glorious Revolution. Only in the seventeenth century were the theories of a publicly owned state brought to light. The rights that had been earned in England over centuries were the “chartered rights” to which Edmund Burke referred in his screed against the French Revolution.

The Important Contribution of Libertarianism

There is not one Hoppean alive today who would consider the pre-modern model, especially as it left behind the more obviously just aristocratic private property orders for the more vague and troublesome monarchies in later medieval Europe, as perfect, even ideal. Rather, there was much to be learned about the logic of a privately owned social order, especially in light of the social and military catastrophes of the twentieth century.

Thus, one of the contributions that the Rothbardian libertarian tradition is the logic and implications of the definition of private ownership, especially the application of this logic to inter-personal conflict. Before Rothbard, there were few systematic treatments of the logic of ownership and therefore, to reject the modernist socio-political structure that gave birth to libertarianism is not to imply that this logic cannot be utilized in perfecting the pre-modern model.

Thus, perhaps there is a place for the Non-Aggression Principle after all. Assuming a privately owned society in which there is a distinction between the residents and their property on one hand, and the overall “realm” on the other hand, there comes to light an important distinction between two types of law: one is related to disputes between the people and themselves, and even between people and the proprietor; the other is related to the overall rules of the residents as they conduct themselves within the context of the proprietor’s land. The first type of law, we call “private law.” The second can be called "civil law." These concepts have of course been distorted and confused as the modern socio-political structure is characterized by a publicly owned state; but nevertheless, here we have the origin of this important distinction.

But is it not this "civil law," that allows Hoppe to argue for his famed "physical removal" passage? This resumes a privately owned social order:

There would be signs regarding entrance requirements to the town, and, once in town, requirements for entering specific pieces of property (for example, no beggars, bums, or homeless, but also no homosexuals, drug users, Jews, Moslems, Germans, or Zulus), and those who did not meet these entrance requirements would be kicked out as trespassers.

It is then the private law specifically that can learn much from the contributions of the Rothbardian tradition. How do we apply the logic of ownership to disputes between property owners? It is in answering this along the lines of the logic of ownership, as outlined by the Rothbardian School, that we can salvage the Non-Aggression Principle and put it to proper use. And, without a doubt, this is why Hoppe and others who follow him keep the libertarian label, despite the fact that it has been repurposed in the context of a pre-modern social structure.

The Rise of the Medieval Libertarians

I am not the first to venture down this path. And I am not the first to come to the conclusion that one can borrow and apply Rothbardian property logic outside the modernist social order that Rothbard himself had depended on. In fact, this path was first blazed by Hoppe when he flipped Rothbard’s metanarrative of progress on its head, making the rise of democratic states a degradation, rather than a triumph for liberty.

But Hoppe has not stopped since he first pushed this thesis forward in Democracy: The God that Failed. And he has been joined by other Hoppeans, such as Frank van Dun, who has himself continued the reconstruction and applied the logic of “libertarian” property ownership directly to the pre-modern model.

In van Dun's narrative, "origin of the modern state in the West is indeed in the transformation of medieval 'rule' into modern 'political government'." He continues:

There was no historical or geographical continuity between those earlier manifestations of political-economic rule and the modern Western state. Moreover, none of those precedents were in their own times ever called “states”. The term itself is modern. It has been [mis]applied by moderns to almost every form of rule throughout history (the Greek City-State, the Medieval State, the Aztec State, etc.) whether or not the rulers even claimed to be able/to have the right to govern their subjects’ households.
Statism... did not [fully] emerge until the crisis of the 16th century. Statism is the idea that the ruler should have not only the power to rule (as supreme commander in times of war, as diplomat, and as judge in some but not necessarily all disputes among his subjects) but also the power to govern. A medieval ruler ruled his realm but did not govern anything within it except his own household or "economy."
Almost unknown today is the original medieval libertarianism, which was anarchistic not only in the sense that it was concerned with and situated in a stateless environment but also in the sense that it was intended to be anti-state (i.e. opposed to the concentration, a fortiori centralization of political power in monopolies of government, enforcement, legislation, adjudication and much else).

According to van Dun, Hans Hoppe, in recent years “has been moving away from the strictly individualist positions that there are no “public goods” and that all references to culture, traditions, etc. are no more than devious statist ploys.” That is to say, there is a social order that exists beyond the individual and this order must be paid attention to. That it is not paid attention to is itself the tragic result of the rise of the publicly owned state. In an era where there is no actual and privately held ownership of these “commons,” it makes sense that they would be exploited and bastardized.

“I don’t care about the non-existent ‘society,’” one libertarian recently told me, “I only care about myself and my family.” Such is the mentality of the modernist libertarian.

The difference between modernist and medieval libertarianism is that the former rescues the reckless abandonment of the social order and brings it under private control; the modernist libertarianism rejects an independent social order as not itself real and therefore embraces the more well-known version of libertarianism. Over at the Mises UK site, Rik Storey considers this difference between Rothbard (before his “paleo” years) and the development of Hans Hoppe:

Nevertheless, Rothbard was trapped in the same sort of modernist thinking which lends itself more to an incremental individualism rather than, say, the personalism of the Middle Ages.  In his article, ‘Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty’, Rothbard more or less equated the ‘old order’ with oriental despotism and implicitly accepted the Constitutional Republicanism of the US as a monumental milestone of liberty – a false assumption all too common among Americans.  Rather, it fell to Prof. Hans-Hermann Hoppe to specifically identify and tackle the ‘standard libertarian model of a community’, i.e. ‘neighbors living on adjacent…pieces of land owned in severalty’, as ‘too simplistic.’

For an extension of this effort, see my previous piece.

These refugees from “modernist libertarianism,” which van Dun supposes was first initiated with the rise of the immigration issue at the end of the twentieth century, embrace a social order that undermines and unravels backward all the development of thinking from Hobbes onward, preserving only the logic of property ownership. In this way, ironically, there is much more a natural coalition between medieval libertarians and conservatives like Robert Nisbet, and his communitarian model, and Richard Weaver and his own localist model, as opposed to between medieval and many (mainstream) modernist libertarians. For the medievalist libertarians are merely traditionalists with a quite advanced understanding of a consistently worked out “private law.”

Rik Storey comments on this rise of post-Rothbard libertarians as follows:

This [Hoppe's Covenant Community thesis] was an important step away from the ‘purely contractual’ relationships which comprise the individualism of the modern West and not just modern, liberal democratic states but also modern (contractarian and propertarian) libertarian thought.  And it was on this more personalistic foundation that [Jeff] Deist could say, ‘it remains true that civil society should be celebrated by libertarians at every turn. To believe otherwise is to ignore what humans actually want and actually do, which is create communities. There is a word for people who believe in nothing: not government, family, God, society, morality, or civilization. And that word is nihilist, not libertarian.’  (See here for the full speech)
I wonder whether, as well as adopting traditionalist views regarding the family, community and the natural rulership of kings and lords, many right-libertarians will likewise accept the important role of the Church in the development of Western civilization, especially in developing and preserving natural law.  Personally, I think it is inevitable.

The great question that remains, in light of all these thoughts, is what happens next? Where do we go from here? A decentralized and privately owned social order, not just private ownership without any social order at all, may be some great alternative to the age of international corporate-managerial statism. But two questions remain: 1: how do we live in the here and now, what should governments do in light of the world as it is? 2: is there a path forward, away from this world as it is?

These are the questions that must be addressed in due time. Preservation of what is good is needed in our time of state-driven leftist upheaval; but preservation itself is not enough. As Ben Lewis wrote yesterday: "What we need now is not just a spirit of opposition, however necessary that is. We needs what [Russell] Kirk called permanence: a rediscovery of the good, the true, and the beautiful."

A Response to Bionic Mosquito

As a close follow-up to this article, read my response to Bionic Mosquito's open letter to me, which came on the back of my previous article. Here is my response.

About the author

C.Jay Engel is the founder and publisher of Bastion Magazine. He has written for Mises.org, LRC, David Stockman, and related. He owns several consulting business, actively works on the magazine, and lives in Northern CA.

from the editor's blog