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Political Theory

On Traditionalism and the Collapse of Libertarianism

CJay Engel
December 24, 2019
The final stage of my journey to the traditionalist right and a reconstruction out of the technical definition of libertarianism.
Political Theory

On Traditionalism and the Collapse of Libertarianism


CJay Engel

December 24, 2019

The final stage of my journey to the traditionalist right and a reconstruction out of the technical definition of libertarianism.

This article is about a certain reconstruction of the political philosophy of libertarianism such that the conclusion reached is the antithesis of what is often considered to be the meaning and purpose of libertarianism itself.

It is an ilucidation and interpretation of a certain essay that is controversial in libertarian circles, in which the author clarifies the meaning and implications of his understanding of libertarianism such that he reveals himself to be a sociological conservative to such traditionalist lengths that he out-conservatives the conservative tradition in America.

The essay in question comes to us in the form of chapter ten of Democracy: The God that Failed, and its author, of course, is Hans-Hermann Hoppe. The reason I argue that he out-conservatives the conservatives is that he embraces what can only be described as a pre-modern social order; his specific criticism of the conservative movement (even the paleoconservatives), is that it is confused by the presence and focus of democracy, defined as the publicly owned state. Indeed, his essay contains the repudiation of the various doctrines and assumptions of socio-political order as they have come to be expressed in the modern age. In this way, like the elegant and charmingly cantankerous Richard Weaver, Hoppe looks to a pre-modern social structure as a guide. He is, therefore, pre-Burkean, pre-Hobbesian, pre-Machiavellian; he is a traditionalist feudalist extraordinaire, and he explicitly reaches his conclusions along the lines of his interpretation of libertarianism.

I want to use this essay to discuss my own intellectual crisis that has called into question my willingness to label myself a libertarian, and present a challenge to those libertarians who are perplexed by the collapse of libertarianism as a modern movement in the age of Donald Trump. Now that I have reset my vision of the world, there are many traditional conservatives from which I could draw to make my point; but since I've spent the last decade in the libertarian literature, it seems fair to use a piece of it to explain the problem as I conceive it.

Libertarianism as a movement is being split in several ways. The reason for this is simple: people do not come together, and stick together, out of commitment to the Non-Aggression Principle; or any other conceptual series of propositions about a just and consistent social construction. People come together, and stick together, out of commitment to a shared way of life, values, identity, and memory.

Only on these lines will coalitions carry into the future; the social disintegration of our time can be overcome only by a shared attachment to empirical commitments. Society is not built on epistemology. Like several others that write at this site, I do not, temperamentally or characteristically, belong with libertarians. And while the first realization of this had to do with my continued frustration with the libertarian personality, and the refreshment I found in the traditional conservative literature, it came to climaxing fruition in the way I now understand the nature of society and social order.

To begin, this chapter in Hoppe is the one where he mentions the covenant communities that can expel, physically, those who disturb the peace. At once, this makes the chapter controversial and therefore as passionately defended as it is passionately rejected. It also means that it is talked about and hoisted onto proverbial flags far more often than it is actually read, in whole. But reading it, carefully, and with the knowledge of the vast array of sources he cites, brings one to realize the profundity of his conclusions.

How a Libertarian Society is Typically Conceived

Those familiar with my writing interests understand I have taken up a specific interest in opposing left-libertarians and culturally nihilist libertarians and have often defended the mixture of libertarian political theory with culturally conservative lifestyle. This present discussion, this summary of the libertarian model, however, is focused on summarizing all of these camps. It refers to anyone who considers himself a libertarian, even those who identify as “Hoppean libertarians.”

In light of my reference to the scope here, most all these libertarians by reflex conceive of a world where individuals, together with their owned property, can do whatever they desire provided they do not initiate aggression against the body or property of another human being. This includes threats of aggression, and breach of contract, and other things that don’t need to be elaborated at the moment. People have “rights” in the negative; since people are not allowed to initiate violence, it follows that these people have the right of their property not to be violated. This is standard and conventional libertarianism.

But this simple summary accounts for a modernist understanding of the nature of society and social arrangements. This summary of the relations between men (and by implication, man and state) presupposes a world of independent blocks of individual ownership all arranged “on adjacent but separately owned pieces of land.” This model of society, in which the libertarian conclusions are obvious, is then discussed by libertarians of varying cultural preferences in terms of whether it is better for the individuals to be virtuous, or whether personal morals even matter all that much, as long as one respects this "Non-Aggression Principle" (NAP).

Even many defenders of Rothbard and Hoppe’s personal cultural conservatism, who have perhaps read this essay too quickly, think on the assumption of this model, and are quick to defend the importance of being behaviorally virtuous and ethical. Would that every person behave virtuously!, they understandably argue, for then society would not only be free, but it would also be stable and sustainable.

We will call the cultural conservative libertarians who operate on this model “values conservatives:” they promote the idea that each individual should behave with “conservative” moral values in mind but, given the above model, such values cannot be coercively enforced. The onus is on the individual, the basic unit of society. As such, the typical libertarian is what we might call a “sociological individualist.” Libertarianism is thin, but therefore libertarianism is not enough. It needs to be complemented, not in a way that thickens it, but in a way that complements. This was the model of Frank Meyer’s fusionism.

But it is not, I am to argue, the true and deeper implication of Hoppe’s traditionalist (pre-modern) social order. For those somewhat familiar with this chapter, the concept of a so-called “covenant community” comes next. Yet even here, I do not think most readers of Hoppe understand the potential implications. The typical interpretation of this “covenant community” hypothesis is that, to protect the conception and pursuits of a healthy order, men can come together with their property and mutually agree (consent) to adhere to certain lifestyles and written rules. If anyone breaks the rule, he can suffer the consequences or, in line with the covenant, experience the humiliation of banishment and exile from said community.

Fine, says the typical modernist libertarian (even the values conservatives). Weird, but fine.

But wait. There’s more.

The Origins of Social Order

The origin of these communities, argues Hoppe, were not some creative version of a social contract theory where consenting property owners came together and signed a charter, which dissolves upon their death or exit. This is the typical interpretation of Hoppe’s covenant community. Rather, their origin laid in those who came to a protector, the owner of a territory, who would approve of them for settling on his lands. The proprietor would sell them portions of the land and yet withhold certain rights. He sold the rights to a piece of land, except for the rights to do certain things in what might be considered public space; not publicly owned, but publicly interactable. The ownership was conditional and not absolute.

But let’s take a step back even further: “Originally, such covenants were based on kinship relations, with the role of the proprietor performed by the head of a family or clan.” Man is born into the world not in a state of nature, naked in the absence of any construct, but rather in the context of a structure of rules and regulations, rights and duties, in a house and land that did not belong to him. These families, then, either entered the jurisdiction of a proprietor, or else cultivated their land such that they were able to be the proprietor themselves for other entering families.

Such was the birth not only of communities, but villages and towns in Western civilization. Hoppe observes about these towns under a natural social-order model:

"If only towns and villages could and would do what they did as a matter of course until well into the nineteenth century in Europe and the United States. 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.

We conceive towns today as being publicly owned and state managed, but this was not the case in their medieval conception.

Hoppe quotes Spencer MacCallum’s Art of Community:

“The proprietor builds value in the inventory of community land chiefly by satisfying three functional requirements of a community which he alone as an owner can adequately fulfill: selection of members, land planning, and leadership… The first two functions, membership selection and land planning, are accomplished by him automatically in the course of determining to whom, and for what purpose, to let the use of land.
The third function, leadership, is his natural responsibility and also his special opportunity, since his interest alone is the success of the whole community rather than that of any special interest within it. Assigning land automatically establishes the kinds of tenants and their spatial juxtaposition to one another and, hence, the economic structure of the community…. Leadership also includes arbitration of differences among tenants, as well as guidance and participation in joint efforts.”

The thrust of this model is that social arrangements were conditional by their very nature and therefore nothing like the modernist anarcho-capitalist model above, but also not “violating” anyone else’s rights by virtue of the social order’s restrictions. Importantly, the community area, or social order, given legal legitimacy by its charter, transcends the life of its original members. The idea that every generation would need to come together and renew the charter, much like Jefferson and some of the revolutionaries (influenced by the French tradition of liberty) argued that the political order would need to be renewed from time to time, is nonsense in this context. The Hoppe-described social order outlasts any given generation; a healthy social order is subject to change, to adjustment, and accounts for the needed mechanisms by which to make said changes; but nevertheless, order precedes the liberties extended and restrictions imposed.

The history of Western Europe, argues Hoppe elsewhere, was largely founded on this type of model. First as families, kinships, and then larger clans. At each successive stage, there were times of merging and union and association based along common objectives. Out of this model came forth preeminent judges and then kings to monopolize the role of decision making; but nevertheless, there was, since the dawn of Western Civilization a continuity principle that bound the living and the dead, to use Burkean phraseology, and yet which concept was distinct from the enlightenment’s “out of the state of nature” and into a consensual “social contract.”

Man’s natural right to property in an absolute sense can only be conceived in the context of what Hoppe, following Rothbard and Locke, calls “original appropriation.” But integrating one’s property into the structure of the social order requires an integration, as well, with the previously established rules and restrictions. Or, as Burke indicated against the Lockean-Rousseau doctrine, he had never come across a man living in a state of nature; only men who were born into the context of a social order. It is not obvious why one would have an overarching right to suspend all order for the sake of absolute right. No demand of the contextless non-aggression principle can overcome this.

The transition from a privately owned social order to a publicly owned state, administered by managers, elected or not, was the dawn of modernity and the beginnings of sociological individualism and therefore the modernist conception of libertarianism. Martin van Creveld, in his magnificent history of the rise and predicted decline of the state, argues that the “inventor” of the state was Thomas Hobbes, in the seventeenth century. It was Hobbes who argued away from the sovereign king as the owner of his realm. He rather argued toward the idea that the state is itself an entity of legitimate authority that stood as a thing which represented the will of the people, and which the sovereign managed for the sake of these people. With Hobbes, modern political theory, and the era of the publicly owned state, was born. (van Creveld, page 179).

The democratic age, as Hoppe is known well for explaining, marked the transition from the governor (whether aristocratic or monarchical) as a proprietor of the realm to the governor as a temporary manager of the publicly owned state.

The implications of this Hobbesian arrangement brought forth, shortly thereafter, the philosophy of John Locke and idea of man coming from the state of nature and with full ownership of his property and therefore with a series of rights that precedes social order. The great tragedy of democracy was to make libertarianism necessary. Before democracy, one had a complex of duties and rights that not only preceded your life, but also contained the mechanisms of proper development, adaption, and change. The ugly and sinister offshoot of the modernist development came in the form of the French Revolution, though of course these developments do not necessitate the violent terrors of this tragic period of European history.

The possibility of the typical libertarian construction, found well-expressed in the work of pre-1980s Rothbard and especially concisely articulated in people like Walter Block (and his "plumb line libertarianism"), presupposes the end of the medieval political thinking and the rise of a modern framework of sociological analysis (sociological individualism). To be a traditionalist, then, is at once to overcome the libertarian problem of coercion, and achieve a conservatism that is the fulfillment of the instincts of traditional conservatives from Richard Weaver to Russell Kirk to Edmund Burke; it constitutes a rethinking of the nature of social order.

The Democratic Age and Libertarianism's Relevance

And yet, we live in the age of the publicly owned state. Is the NAP, therefore, inevitable despite the modern statist tragedy? We must answer in the negative, given the fact that even in our time man does not enter social order from the state of nature. Under the democratic social order, the limits of “rights” and the obligation to adhere to the rules of the realm do not disappear; they rather become masked and confused, often distorted and authoritarian. The natural social order is set behind the veil of democracy, which has conquered it.

Only the recovery of a private order could realize the just relationship between right and behavioral restriction. But since we do not yet live in that world, and perhaps will never again, it does not also follow that we don’t rely on community rules and restraints on the activities of society’s members. Social order requires it. The existence of social order as an entity separate from the individual has not been eradicated. Or, as Hoppe writes:

“The ideal of the left- or “modal”- libertarians, as Murray referred to them, of “live and let live as long as you don’t aggress against anyone else,” that sounds so appealing to adolescents in rebellion against parental authority and any social convention and control, may be sufficient for people living far apart and dealing and trading with each other only indirectly and from afar.
But it is decidedly insufficient when it comes to people living in close proximity to each other, as neighbors and cohabitants of the same community. The peaceful cohabitation of neighbors and of people in regular direct contact with each other on some territory requires also a commonality of culture: of language, religion, custom, and convention.  
There can be peaceful co-existence of different cultures on distant, physically separated territories, but multiculturalism, cultural heterogeneity, cannot exist in one and the same place and territory without leading to diminishing social trust, increased conflict, and ultimately the destruction of anything resembling a libertarian social order.”

That is to say, just because the democratic society in our time was able to overtake the natural order, with its complex of rights and duties and rules of the realm, does not mean we must reject the very notion of such rules of the realm. This brings us face to face with the Non-Aggression Principle which, since we live in the age of popular sovereignty, is purported by libertarians to now be the singularly important absolute. The argument is that since we don’t live in a pre-modern social framework, we are therefore bound by the logic of justice itself to make the NAP our new rule.

And yet, as Hoppe has argued at length in the context of the immigration issue, the modern framework constitutes a tragedy of the commons where there is no obviously and absolutely just arrangement. For the era of popular sovereignty has masked the problem, not overcome it. The social order, being “owned” by the public, demands the public to fight for its future. Democracy, while an absurdity and a confusion of justice and a creation of fogginess as to the legitimacy of decision making, does not necessitate the abandonment of the concept of the good of the social order. Rather, it exacerbates conflict and politicizes the restrictions on rights and throws us all into the great struggle.

The abandonment of the private order was the genesis of a new era of socio-political tragedy, but it was not the collapse of the legitimacy to participate. Decentralization and privatization can recover the clarity of justice, but men must deal with the realities and demands of the cascading nature of priorities in light of our imperfect socio-political framework. Unless one is born in exceptional circumstances outside the jurisdiction of any social order, all men are born into a ordered complex of rights and restrictions and duties. We must deal with the world as it is and struggle against the tides of the present with the tools that we find ourselves holding.

Since there is little continuity from a common past as to the proper rules of the realm, we must exercise a great deal of prudence, care, reason, morality, caution, and patience in the ongoing development toward a healthy society. It is not an exercise of principled justice to apply a single rule, against all other considerations and demands of wisdom, in a way that contradicts how a natural and pre-democratic social order would meet the challenges for a particular society. Importantly, prudence, realistic understanding of the regional differences in the west, and the nature of the American federal system all indicate that these rules can be developed within a context as local as possible. This is what Jeff Deist argued when he stated that we should let France have their own gun laws, Texas-style commitment to gun ownership doesn't suit them. Similarly, let counties in American states draft their own drug legalization; not everyone is committed to the right of drug-users to fill the community.

The great question, then, is whether this decentralist-traditionalism can even be called libertarian at all. If libertarianism is a product of the rise of sociological individualism and modern social theory, man against the prospects of coercion from exterior bodies, then this reconstruction of libertarianism is an historical deviation from the entire train of development as outlined in many places by pre-1980s Rothbard (Rothbard before his so-called “paleo years”). If Rothbard was correct that the origins of libertarianism are in John Locke and the enlightenment, and if we overcome the problem by preceding the Hobbesian tragedy, is libertarianism as a label fair?

Can Hoppe be said to have abandoned libertarianism by overcoming the problem in the way he has? As he has been writing in this area far longer than I have been alive, and as he has labelled himself a libertarian the whole time, I would not dare to challenge his description of himself, though I do find it fair to argue that he reconstructed libertarianism by finding solution to the problem of coercion in a pre-modern social order.

In my own thinking, I find the conclusion overwhelming that traditionalist conservative is a more accurate, and fair (and given the state of the libertarian movement, appealing), label than libertarian. To more holistically demonstrate this, consider these four differences between the traditionalist (sociological conservative) position and the “libertarian + values conservative” position.

  1. For the traditionalist, the basic social unit is the family, for all individuals are first born into a family order (or if they are not, they are born into some other restrictive order, whether public or private, perhaps an orphanage, perhaps a community center, perhaps a charitable church—but nevertheless, the family unit is most basic and natural.). This family order associates with other families to make a community, which associates with other communities to make a town, a county, a state, a nation, etc. There is a cascading series of umbrella-like mediating spheres of power. Thus, the individual is by necessity born into a construct of rules and restrictions. The origin of the political-juridical concept of "self-determination" was about lower spheres of order, not the individual against the world.

    The basic unit of the social order for the modernist is the sovereign individual. The implication is that any complex of bounds into which he was born bind him without his consent.
  2. For the traditionalist, the rights within the social order, while they should certainly reflect transcendent and eternal principles, can only be realized when they are recognized and applied within the context of an actual social order. In Burke’s language, “chartered rights” are more certain and enforceable and trustworthy than “natural rights.”

    For the modernist, rights are something that are conceived outside the context of social order, and then applied to the social order such that no restrictions on these rights are just. In this way, the modernist libertarian is a universalist, which explains why he is so often against national borders, for the Fourteenth Amendment in America (as Judge Napolitano’s case), and critical of those who defend Southern regionalism: his more local order is an impediment of his freedom, rather than a protection against greater, more centralized threats.

    Interestingly, when Burke, perhaps the most important conservative figure in the post-enlightenment era, railed against the “false rights” of the French Revolutionaries (including Thomas Paine, who considered various forms of welfare as “natural rights,) he juxtaposed these rights from “real rights,” a major example of which was, essentially, property rights. And indeed, Richard Weaver termed property as “the last metaphysical right.” Nevertheless, the traditionalist considers the social order, as conceived above, to have legitimacy in the development of certain particular restrictions of the public use of property, from time to time, depending on context, need, and trade-offs. The relationship between eternal principles and ethical demands, and the idea of "rights," is something that must be elaborated in the future.
  3. For the traditionalist, the social order itself, including its laws, procedures, juridical definitions, enforcement mechanisms, customs, and so forth transcend the life of the individual and individuals are therefore, with certain and extraordinary exception, bound to it. This is why, in the difficult decision to separate from Britain, the American colonies appealed to their own English laws that were being violated by the King. Edmund Burke himself explicitly argued that the colonies had English law on their side. He argued precisely the opposite in the French Revolution (to the frustration of Thomas Paine) and was aghast when the French appealed to abstraction, not their traditions, in their revolt against the standing order.

    For the modernist, the individuals always take primacy over the social order and therefore have an ever-present right to revolt, either alone or together with other rebels.
  4. For the traditionalist, since there is a social order that exists independent of the individual himself, it is legitimate for certain rules of the realm to be instilled. For the modern libertarian, this is always a violation of rights, unless voluntary consented to. Thus, the modern libertarian cannot use coercion to address the following:

    a) Should the public display of nudity be permissible, in, say, a billboard, or can a community, even against the will of the billboard owner, create a rule banning this?

    b)Should the public sale of heroin to ten year olds be permissible, or can a community, even against the will of the store owner, create a rule banning this?

    c) Should a parent be legally able to spank his child and if so, where is line that turns this into abuse such that the parent loses their right to raise the child?

    d) If there is a mass immigration of a set of people who would not at all fit in with a given community and would, in their migration to the community, disturb the peace such that the social continuity is at stake, should the civil authority within the community be able to take action. That is, if a house owner in an Amish community invited dozens of urban types to his own, does that community have a right to overrule the desire of the individual homeowner?

The proper libertarian answer to these difficulties is either social madness or, more commonly, the opinion that the individual communities can decide and we should radically decentralize to minimize the effect of a rule that may not be agreeable to communities with other interests.

But this! this is the abandonment of the NAP principle and the reason why I accept the imperfect nature of the world and call myself a traditionalist conservative: decentralize as much as possible, but recognize that absolutes in political difficulties is a recipe for social disaster. Since the modern sociological libertarian framework rests on the absoluteness of the individual’s property rights, and denies the existence of a real “social order” that exists independent of the individuals who make it up, it is a contradiction in terms for them to solve these issues as a traditionalist would: by appealing to the integrity of the social order/realm/public good itself.

That’s traditionalist conservatism, not libertarianism, to the extent that libertarianism does not allow exception to the private property rule. It is conservatism because the onus of decision making is on local boundaries of social order, on communities, not individuals. Complex social problems belong to the realm, though this realm be local, not the individual. And each locality can solve their own problems uniquely; not all uniformly. This is traditionalist conservatism.

The collapse of libertarianism, therefore, really came about in my mind due to Hoppe’s reconstruction of the problem and nature of social order. Libertarianism is a tragedy whose existence depends on the rise of sociological individualism and a publicly owned society. Modern man does not need more arguments for atomistic release, he needs community protection against the ravages of centralizing democratic statism. Therefore libertarianism is not powerful on its own to oppose the modern framework that created it. And as we live in this imperfect and tragic world, we must deal with it accordingly, realistically, or, in the words of Russell Kirk, with prudence. Absolutist social idealism in the context of our time and social order is the initiative of upheaval and, as a result, decadence.


I’ll end on two notes:

First, whether someone wants to continue calling himself a libertarian and yet who finds the explicitly universalist implications of modern libertarianism troubling, is not my concern. My goal is not to issue a challenge to radical decentralists to make them abandon the word. I am merely explaining why, in light of all that was said, it makes more sense for me to embrace traditionalism over libertarianism as a descriptive label. One does not have to reflect too deeply to understand the extent to which my sociological framework is at odds not only with the Rothbardian School up until his paleo years, but the entirety of the libertarian world in almost every faction and circle. How is it meaningful to label myself a libertarian when I do not find myself on the modern libertarian side of the table in the above four points? Call this a personal conviction.

Second, conservatism in America is in sore shape. I realize that in finding much meaning in certain “paleo” or rightist or traditionalist literature, I then open myself up to misunderstanding on the other side. I’m not even talking about the neo-conservatives who held power during the Bush years, those universalist leftists who infiltrated the official conservative movement. I am talking about the age of Charlie Kirk and Ben Shapiro, and the rising generation of socially progressive “conservatives” who are just as loony as any other mainstream movement. My impulse, therefore, is to press harder on the labels that bring to mind tradition, orthodox Christianity, and reactionary/paleo conservatism (so as, in the words of Mel Bradford, to not give the impression that I want to conserve what presently is, “perpetuate the absurd.”).

In conclusion, this shift away from the NAP as the absolute dogma of political order indicates to me that I have joined the ranks of those who approach socio-political problems in the spirit of Edmund Burke. Even before this shift, there was much to learn in the social commentary of Paul Gottfried, Robert Nisbet, Richard Weaver, and Russell Kirk. Fans of Lew Rockwell are already fans of Pat Buchanan, Sam Francis, Thomas Fleming, and Brion McClanahan. Perhaps I am more limited government, more decentralist, than some of them but now I do not find the chief difference between myself and them as the “rejection of coercion.” The problems of social order are deeper than this singular principle can address, especially if it is the final judge of all other social concerns.

And to the extent that the reader finds value and profundity and like-minded cause in these various conservative thinkers, so you might still find value in the years of writing that lie ahead for me.

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