CJay Engel

October 23, 2019

The Problem of the Libertarian Label

One of the defining difficulties of the term libertarianism today is, in fact, similar to the problems that developed during the traditionalist-libertarian fights of the 1950s and 1960s. If the reader will recall, it was then and there that Murray Rothbard and Russell Kirk had a dispute about the nature of libertarianism, the former arguing that strictly speaking, the libertarian could also hold to a conservative view of sociological affairs, as his libertarianism was strictly a rationalistic legal-political theory. Kirk could not come to terms with this; for him, libertarianism was a broad view of human affairs in which the individual saw himself as yearning to be free from social constraints– the state was only a particular type of restraint.

While Kirk and Rothbard, jointly seeing the dangers of social leftist Progressivism in the late 1980s and early 1990s, became closer to each other personally, I think the root of the problem still exists in our time. Libertarianism as a label has indeed meant different things in different contexts. For someone familiar with European history, the French liberation movements, the battles that took place in the rise of the post-Marxist New Left, the term “libertarian” indeed has a much broader usage than the Rothbardian School would have it. In an objective and broad view of the history of thought, it is unfair for Rothbardian libertarians, such as myself, to expect traditionalists to immediately understand the thinness of the term’s employment.

That said, those that think of “libertarianism” as a broad program of moving beyond past social sins such as racism, national bigotries, assumptions of cultural superiority, religion, familial expectations, and so on, is indeed the majority position throughout the nominal US-based libertarian world. In response to this, it is common among friends and supporters of the Mises Institute (for instance) to decry the “corruption of libertarianism” with the influence of the Beltway libertarians, Reason Magazine, and so on. But to be fair, this is not a new development. There has always been two strands of libertarianism precisely because there are multiple uses of this single word. In that sense, to combine these two camps into one “movement” is not only harmful, it is falsifying the reality.

Ron Paul’s movement was strictly a political one; it strictly referred to the political moment of the collapse of the housing bubble and the failures of Bush’s new War on Terror. But beyond the political, there is so much more to be said about human nature, society, history, morals, social institutions, the development of history, and so on. In this sense, philosophical libertarianism does indeed tend to be leftist. And it is here that most Rothbardian libertarians, whose libertarianism is strictly relegated to a theory of coercion, have more diversity on their opinion of “social libertarianism.” Many of them do not share the aspirations of the typical libertarian.

Roger Scruton describes this typical libertarianism thusly:

Two attributes of the new order justify the pursuit of it: liberation and ‘social justice’. These correspond roughly to the liberty and equality advocated at the French Revolution, but only roughly. The liberation advocated by left-wing movements today does not mean simply freedom from political oppression or the right to go about one’s business undisturbed. It means emancipation from the ‘structures’: from the institutions, customs and conventions that shaped the ‘bourgeois’ order, and which established a shared system of norms and values at the heart of Western society.
Even those left-wingers who eschew the libertarianism of the 1960s regard liberty as a form of release from social constraints. Much of their literature is devoted to deconstructing such institutions as the family, the school, the law and the nation state through which the inheritance of Western civilization has been passed down to us. This literature, seen at its most fertile in the writings of Foucault, represents as ‘structures of domination’ what others see merely as the instruments of civil order. Liberation of the victim is a restless cause, since new victims always appear over the horizon as the last ones escape into the void. The liberation of women from male oppression, of animals from human abuse, of homosexuals and transsexuals from ‘homophobia’, even of Muslims from ‘Islamophobia’ – all these have been absorbed into the more recent leftist agendas, to be enshrined in laws and committees overseen by a censorious officialdom.
Gradually the old norms of social order have been marginalized, or even penalized as violations of ‘human rights’. Likewise the goal of ‘social justice’ is no longer equality before the law, or the equal claim to the rights of citizenship, as these were advocated at the Enlightenment. The goal is a comprehensive rearrangement of society, so that privileges, hierarchies, and even the unequal distribution of goods are either overcome or challenged. The more radical egalitarianism of the nineteenth-century Marxists and anarchists, who sought for the abolition of private property, perhaps no longer has widespread appeal.
But behind the goal of ‘social justice’ there marches another and more dogged egalitarian mentality, which believes that inequality in whatever sphere – property, leisure, legal privilege, social rank, educational opportunities, or whatever else we might wish for ourselves and our children – is unjust until proven otherwise. In every sphere in which the social position of individuals might be compared, equality is the default position.

One can certainly make fun of the “corruption of libertarianism” among Reason, Libertarian Party, and Cato-circle outlets, but the fact of the matter is that libertarianism in sociological reference does not have the same boundaries given to the label by the Rothbardians. Thus, some libertarians will respond to Scruton’s comments by saying, “well, as long as these trends are not enforced by the state, they are generally good things.” This is precisely the spirit that Jeff Deist referred to as "Zeitgeist libertarianism." That is, they do endorse leftist ends and oppose unfashionable and "backward" ways of viewing the world, they just want to achieve these ends by voluntary means.

This is why the Libertarian Party spends so much time appealing to the leftist interpretation of the world: this is part of their broader social program. Tom Woods constantly points out that the appeal mainstream libertarians make toward leftists in order to grow libertarianism is a waste of time because the leftists only want the leftism, not the libertarianism. While that may certainly be true, it is also true that these mainstream libertarianism do not see leftism as a means, as a rallying cry in pursuit of limited government.

On the contrary, the typical libertarian shares in the mental milieu of the age. Any outlook on the world pre-1990 is backward, bigoted, and dangerous. Leftism has conquered all.

About the author

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

more from the blog