Smart and Stupid Libertarians

By John "Birdman" Bryant


There are two kinds of libertarians. The first kind don't have any recognized designation, so for lack of better terminology and to reflect my own personal prejudices, I call them smart libertarians. Their philosophy may be summarized by saying that, when it comes to government, 'small is beautiful', to steal the title of Fritz Schumacher's famous book. Another way to characterize the smart libertarian is to say that, in the words of JBR Yant, the government should stay out of our bedrooms, our medicine cabinets and our pocketbooks. The underlying insight of smart libertarians is Lord Acton's famous dictum, "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

But if smart libertarians are for small government, they are certainly not for no government, because 'no government' is anarchy, and anarchy is simply a power vacuum which -- like any other vacuum -- Nature abhors, and will quickly fill with an authoritarian government in order to stop the chaos which invariably ensues in the absence of government. Furthermore, they recognize that freedom is about balancing the interests of individuals against one another and against the requirements of government, and they likewise recognize that, while majority rule has its defects, it is nonetheless morally legitimate.

In contrast to smart libertarians are those whom I call stupid  libertarians, altho there are probably other designations they would more likely approve of, such as anarchists, anarcho-capitalists, or natural law libertarians. The reason for my designation is that these folks believe a number of quite stupid propositions, including the following:

* There is something called 'natural law', from which proceeds something called 'natural rights'.

* The premier 'natural right' is that of self-ownership, which reduces to the proposition that no one can 'force' another to do anything against his will. More particularly, any use of 'force' against others, except to counter another's hostile use of 'force', is wrong.

* Government is inherently evil -- it is a conspiracy to rob the people and keep them enslaved; and nirvana would shortly arrive if government were done away with entirely, or at least mostly. In particular, even if government is based on republican or democratic principles, ie, majority rule, it is still illegitimate because it violates the 'natural right' of self-ownership and the non-use of 'force'.

* No one has any obligation to any group except that which he contracts for. In particular, no one has any obligation to his family, country or race.

* Groups are nothing but collections of individuals.

While it is not difficult to see the stupidity of the above propositions, just in case any stupid libertarians are reading this essay, I will explain.

* There is no such thing as 'natural law' or 'natural rights'. These are mythological concepts intended to justify the proposition of 'self- ownership'.

* The concept of 'self-ownership' is just another myth intended to justify the Great Principle of Stupid Libertarianism, viz, the belief in the wrongness of using 'force' against others unless they first use 'force' against you. (Actually, the primary function of the Great Principle is to have something respectable-sounding to justify hatred of the real libertarian hobgoblin, government.) The Great Principle is also used to promote the notion that individuals are 'naturally free', whereas in reality, freedom is a concept which is meaningful only in the context of groups, and that a better and more realistic portrayal of freedom is to call it a balancing of the interests of the individual against those of other individuals and groups, especially the government, with a strong bias toward the individual and against government.

* The concept of 'force' is incoherent, and hence the attempt to forbid the use of 'force' unless it is first used against you is also incoherent. For example, one can use lies, illusions or other stratagems to 'force' someone to do something he would otherwise never do; and while such an act would not be judged as 'using force' by stupid libertarians, it is nonetheless unethical. But even in the sense of 'force' as physical force, stupid libertarians are still wrong in forbidding first use: if you know someone is planning to kill you, but they haven't yet struck a blow, you are perfectly justified in using force to keep your enemy from carrying out his plans.

* Government is not 'inherently evil'; rather it is a natural state among groups of men; and indeed the existence of government has a far greater claim to being justified by 'natural law' than does anything stupid libertarians claim. More to the point, while it may be correctly said that government is a 'protection racket', the fact remains that the protection offered by this 'racket' is real, and in fact is motivated not merely by the attempt to keep others from running their own protection rackets, but to keep society operating efficiently so that 'protection fees' (ie, taxes) can be maximized. Indeed, government itself may be said to be the product of a 'free market', in which people contract to give up certain liberties and money in exchange for security; and while government is often abusive, this does not mean that anyone in his right mind would prefer anarchy. Anarchy, indeed, is an unstable state which, as noted earlier, quickly leads to authoritarian government -- an excellent reason for being, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, "more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable" than trying to right such evils by engaging in revolution.

* The obligations which people have toward their family, friends, race, country and the like are not set down in contractual format, but are nonetheless real; and it is the recognition of these obligations by individuals -- at least at the intuitive level -- which is often the wellspring of heroism, self-sacrifice and other community-positive activities. Such obligations are incurred by us due to the self- sacrificing efforts of others which have made our world a better place: from the humble efforts of our parents in raising their snot-nosed and ill- behaved brats to the magnificent efforts of our Founders who pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to bring us liberty. And while stupid libertarians may poo-pooh such obligations as non-contractual, or else dismiss them as ego trips or disguises for personal agendas, it remains a fact that groups are essential for the individual to survive, and that evolution has favored unselfish behavior -- the kind at which stupid libertarians turn up their noses -- precisely for the reason that such behavior promotes survival for the group, and thus ultimately for the individual, albeit indirectly. In fact, groups are necessary for liberty to survive; for liberty is the product of a long social evolution stretching back to at least the Magna Carta of 1215; and without the group which carries these traditions -- namely, the white race, and especially Anglo-American whites -- liberty would disappear right along with all the libertarian 'individualists' who don't give a damn about groups.

* The notion that groups are 'nothing but' collections of individuals is a type of error which I have identified elsewhere the argumentum ad nihil  nisi praeter, or, more simply, the 'nothing but' error. It is the error seen in the statement that Chateaubriand is 'nothing but' beef and vegetables; that women are 'nothing but' flesh and bone; or that computers are 'nothing but' metal and plastic. More particularly, those who say that groups are 'nothing but' individuals are reductionists who seem incapable of recognizing that the whole is very often far more than the sum of its parts, and that parts in combination often have what philosophers call 'emergent properties', ie, properties which appear when the parts are combined, but are absent in the individual parts taken separately.

In closing it should be noted that the great force propelling the growth of libertarianism is a shared hatred of government; and in view of the record of governments as the greatest killing machines of all time, this hatred is well-justified. But stupid libertarians not only carry this hatred to a stupid extreme; they also append to their philosophy a lot of other stupidities which are typical of the over-cerebral types which libertarians frequently are. We can only wonder how many potential recruits libertarians have lost to their movement because of stupid libertarians' insistence on their stupid dogmas, and how many clear minds they have discombobulated with those they have managed to recruit.

Maybe it is time for libertarians to get smart.

Endnote: This essay was inspired by Wendy McElroy's essay "Neither Bullets Nor Ballots: Demystifying the State" which was published in the currently most distinguished magazine of Stupid Libertarianism, The Voluntaryist. This is not to say, however, that I think Ms McElroy is stupid, for she has, on occasion, written some fine essays. Nor is it to excoriate her for having once been a subscriber to the Birdman's Weekly Letter, and then, after a few issues, blocking my mail to her. But it is to say that she ought to do something about a certain type of very serious stupidity related to her libertarianism. She has been invited to respond on these pages, but somehow we rather think she won't.



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