On September 25, Social Matter published an article by Henry Olson titled “The Death and Tragic Rebirth of Libertarianism”. While this article raises several important issues for libertarians and gets some points correct, it also has major theoretical problems. Whereas Olson’s misunderstandings are more commonly distributed and believed than correct libertarian theory, and this is a primary reason for many rejections of libertarianism, let us explore them and offer corrections while also noting where his essay is accurate.

Abstract

Olson begins,

“Whatever their partisans claim, political ideologies rarely succeed in describing some timeless truth about the world. More often, their existence is entirely contingent on the events around them. They serve as gathering points for similar personality types to consider the important issues of their day. When the issues change, most partisans move somewhere else, and the ideology goes stale.”

This is mostly correct, though libertarianism (in the Hoppean sense) does succeed in providing a rational proof that self-ownership, non-aggression, and respect for private property form the basis for how people should act, even if it is not how they do act. Though a political ideology can become stale when partisans leave, it can also lead to renewal as those who would use (and abuse) the ideology for their own purposes go elsewhere and take their corruptions with them.

Olson views the rise of political libertarianism through Ron Paul and its recession away from Rand Paul in favor of Donald Trump and the alt-right as an example of this staleness. He describes the passing of the “libertarian moment” in favor of Trumpism and the alt-right as “the sadness of a vanished childhood, where we realized that the dreams we once believed so deeply were only dreams”. But as we will see, this view rests upon a foundation of misunderstanding, as does the mainstream corporatist libertarian position that Olson criticizes.

Libertarian Theory

Olson attempts to provide the reader with a brief overview of libertarian theory, but offers a deeply flawed version of it. He writes,

“The central tenet of libertarianism was always simple. It was based around the so-called ‘non-aggression principle’ (or NAP), which held that anyone may do whatever he pleases with his own property so long as he respects other people’s rights to do the same with theirs. Since the boundaries on what it means to encroach on someone else’s property rights are not always clear, the NAP was typically understood as a prohibition on the initiation of force.”

While it is odd to read of even a former libertarian referring to the “so-called NAP,” the issue here is that self-ownership is the central tenet while NAP and private property are corollaries thereof. Though the definition of “encroachment” is not always clear in the abstract, it usually is clear in practice because people negotiate agreements in order to avoid unnecessary conflicts. The exceptions to this tend to be caused by state interference that inhibits the ability of private actors to negotiate such matters between themselves. Olson’s footnote about zoning laws, which suggests that libertarians have no answer to the objection that zoning laws “make communities nicer for nearly everyone and do not significantly harm the few cranks and outliers they inconvenience” suggests an unfamiliarity with libertarian theory. Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s theories on covenant communities resolve such problems, as does the work of many other libertarians on the subject of contracts. If one wishes to prevent “transforming the Vermont village green into a strip mall,” for instance, the charter of a covenant community may provide that this space is never to be developed. The residents of the area may also band together to make socioeconomic life so difficult for anyone who would develop a particular plot that no one would want to take the risk. “Using force to preserve something that nearly everyone appreciates” is not “defined as immoral from the outset”; it simply requires that the proper private legal structures be put into place and that the proper forces be arranged toward that purpose.

Olson raises the canards of Murray Rothbard’s case for letting children starve, Walter Block’s less palatable chapters in Defending the Undefendable, and the apparent love affair that the Mises Institute has with Ebenezer Scrooge. For the former two, it must be said that even the greatest thinkers can be dreadfully wrong on occasion. No philosopher should be followed exactly on reputation alone, but neither should the rest of their canon be rejected without further cause. Defending Scrooge, however, makes far more sense, especially from a Social Darwinist perspective, which a person moving from libertarianism to neoreaction could reasonably possess and retain. Even so, Olson praises libertarianism for giving “the right answers to the most pressing practical issues of the late 2000s,” even if its adherents occasionally wished for a past that never was (also common among reactionaries of all types). However, his history is slightly off. The Austrian School began in 1871 with Carl Menger’s Principles of Economics; those working in the early 20th century (e.g. Ludwig von Mises) were the second generation of Austrian economists.

Read the entire article at ZerothPosition.com

References:

  1. Hoppe, Hans-Hermann (2001). Democracy: The God That Failed. Transaction Publishers. p. 87.