Libertarianism and Liberalism: What Went Wrong

by Kevin Carson

Since the general theme of this blog is an anti-authoritarian entente – or even coalition – of diverse liberal and libertarian elements, one question that comes to mind is: “What are the most objectionable features of both establishment libertarianism, and establishment liberalism, from the standpoint of achieving such a coalition?”

1. The problem with mainstream libertarianism is its almost total departure from its radical roots. Early classical liberalism was a revolutionary doctrine, which declared war on the most entrenched class interests of its day. Even the most mainstream of classical liberals (like Adam Smith, James Mill and David Ricardo) displayed considerable hostility to the landed oligarchy and the politically connected mercantilists who dominated Britain in the early nineteenth century. And the classical liberal movement included, as well, a large radical wing represented by thinkers like Thomas Hodgskin, who saw the new capitalist system as a bastard fusion of partially free markets and industrialism with the old feudal class system. For Hodgskin, the new industrial capitalists were amalgamating with the old landed aristocracy to form a new ruling class. The capitalist system that was coming into existence was not a free market, but a new class system in which capitalists controlled the state and used it to enforce special privileges for themselves, in exactly the same way that the landed interests had controlled the state for their own interests under the Old Regime.

The significance of this radicalism increases when you bear in mind that Hodgskin’s radical wing of classical liberalism overlapped heavily with the early socialist movement, back when a major part of the workers’ movement still aimed simply at abolishing the special privileges of landlords and capitalists and building a market economy based on workers’ cooperatives.

The radical wing of the classical liberal movement did not by any means disappear, even when classical liberalism as a whole shifted rightward. It survived in the American individualist anarchism of Warren, Tucker and Spooner, and in the various offshoots of Henry George (e.g. Albert Nock and Ralph Borsodi), among other places. Nevertheless, it was relegated to the margin of the larger classical liberal movement.

For the overall movement, the transition came toward the middle of the nineteenth century, when the industrial capitalists had supplanted the landed elites as the dominant class in Britain. At this point, the main body of classical liberalism shifted its emphasis from an attack on entrenched privilege of the great land-owning classes and mercantilists, to a defense of the interests of industrial capitalists.

With the political triumph of the Third Estate, the mainstream of classical political economy–the generation after Ricardo and Mill–made the switch to what Marx called “vulgar political economy,” and took up the role of hired ideological prizefighters for capitalist interests.

From a revolutionary ideology aimed at breaking down the powers of feudal and mercantilist ruling classes, mainstream libertarianism has evolved into a reflexive apology for the institutions today most nearly resembling a feudal ruling class: the giant corporations.

A useful illustration of the shift is the contrasting positions of the early and late Herbert Spencer. The early Spencer was a disciple of Thomas Hodsgkin, who attacked the artificial property rights of the landed elites and regarded the rents collected by the great landowners as a species of taxation. The later Spencer (although still a more complex thinker than these remarks might suggest) was described by Benjamin Tucker:

It seems as if he had forgotten the teachings of his earlier writings, and had become a champion of the capitalistic class. It will be noticed that in these later articles, amid his multitudinous illustrations (of which he is as prodigal as ever) of the evils of legislation, he in every instance cites some law passed, ostensibly at least, to protect labor, alleviate suffering, or promote the people’s welfare. He demonstrates beyond dispute the lamentable failure in this direction. But never once does he call attention to the far more deadly and deep-seated evils growing out of the innumerable laws creating privilege and sustaining monopoly. You must not protect the weak against the strong, he seems to say, but freely supply all the weapons needed by the strong to oppress the weak. He is greatly shocked that the rich should be directly taxed to support the poor, but that the poor should be indirectly taxed and bled to make the rich richer does not outrage his delicate sensibilities in the least. Poverty is increased by the poor laws, says Mr. Spencer. Granted; but what about the rich laws that caused and still cause the poverty to which the poor laws add? That is by far the more important question; yet Mr. Spencer tries to blink it out of sight.

In other words, as Cool Hand Luke would say, “Them pore ole bosses need all the help they can get.”

2. Establishment liberalism, on the other hand, is all too true to its roots. Its origins lie at the turn of the twentieth century.

After the Civil War, American society was transformed by giant, centralized, hierarchical organizations: the large corporation and the large government agency. To these was eventually added the large charitable foundation and the university. All these large organizations shared a common organizational style, and a common managerial culture. Progressivism, which was the direct ancestor of twentieth century liberalism, was the ideology of the professional and managerial New Middle Classes that ran these large organizations. Especially as exemplified by Herbert Croly and his associates in the New Republic circle and the National Civic Federation, Progressivism sought to organize and manage society as a whole by the same principles that governed the large organization. The managerial revolution carried out by the New Middle Class, in the large corporation, was in its essence an attempt to apply the engineer’s approach (standardizing and rationalizing tools, processes, and systems) to the organization of society as a whole. And these Weberian/Taylorist ideas of scientific management and bureaucratic rationality, first applied in the large corporation, quickly spread not only to all large organizations, but to the dominant political culture. The tendency in all aspects of life was to treat policy as a matter of expertise rather than politics: to remove as many questions as possible from the realm of public debate to the realm of administration by “properly qualified authorities.” As a New Republic editorial put it, “the business of politics has become too complex to be left to the pretentious misunderstandings of the benevolent amateur.” At the same time, the individual was transformed from the independent and self-governing yeoman of the Jeffersonian ideal, to the client of professional bureaucracies. He became a “human resource” who took orders from the Taylorist managers at work to whom he had alienated his craft skills, went hat in hand to the “helping professionals” to whom he had alienated his common sense, and expressed his “individuality” entirely in the realm of private consumption.

Conclusion. So what do we need? Libertarianism needs to move back to its radical roots. The elements of the libertarian movement that favor genuinely free markets as a matter of principle, as opposed to defending corporate interests under the guise of phony “free market” rhetoric, need to separate the sheep from the goats.

Liberalism, on the other hand, needs to move away from its managerialist roots (”The body of Leviathan and the head of a social worker,” in Joseph Stromberg’s memorable phrase) and become more genuinely left-wing. It needs to embrace direct democracy, self-management, and decentralism.

I think there is a huge, unmet demand in this country for a third alternative in politics. Right now, mainstream American politics consists of a Daddy Party and a Mommy Party. The Daddy Party, the Banana Republicans, want to turn this country into one giant dioxin-soaked corporate sweatshop, while acting as Pecker Police and making sure nobody catches a glimpse of Janet Jackson’s tit. The Mommy Party, personified by a 900-foot-tall nanny in kevlar vest and gas mask, has as its slogan “Momma don’t allow! Momma don’t allow!”

We need an alternative that appeals to everyone who finds both of the above distasteful. The third agenda would be something along the lines of the “Common Sense II” pamphlet put out by the People’s Bicentennial Commission thirty years ago, which promoted local self-government and cooperative economics. Its centerpiece would be reducing the power of both big government and big business, and devolving power to human scale political and economic organizations subject to direct democratic control. The overriding principle would be to eliminate privilege, and to eliminate all the ways that government currently stacks the deck in favor of the rich and big business, and then get out of the way as much as possible. Let workers keep the share of our product that’s currently consumed by useless eaters (landlords, usurers, bureaucrats, and licensed monopolists), and then do with it as we will.

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7 responses to “Libertarianism and Liberalism: What Went Wrong

  1. The thing I find the most distressing is Kevin’s relentless straw man caricature of any libertarian he disagrees with, which is just about every libertarian, as some kind of Big Government Corporate Stooge.

    I mean honestly. I was drawn to the movement by its radicalism. And yet in post after post, that very radicalism is derided as, astonishingly, “establishment”. Sean has said, “why do you keep arguing with Carson, Ian?” and my answer is, basically, because at the gut level I am really offended by this. Being dismissed and ridiculed and called all sorts of evil things by Left Wing, or Conservative, or other non-libertarian organs, that’s par for the course. But reading somebody claiming to be a libertarian, and thus on the “inside” with me, doing it, it really pisses me off. Particularly from somebody whose economic understanding is- by his own proud admission- nigh two centuries out of date, who then attacks anyone with a more modern grasp of economics as having been subverted by these Corporate Ogres.

    I’ll say this again; Kevin’s “true” free markets aren’t markets at all. They’re a kind of primitivist mutualism. The very word “market” means, at its most basic, the idea that I produce, you produce, and we trade and consume each other’s produce. Not we-form-a-collective-and-share-the-common-weal. That isn’t a market.

    *bangs head on desk, gives up*

  2. Come now, you’re at perfect liberty to ignore Kevin, or to answer him to your heart’s content. The Libertarian Alliance is what it says – an alliance of libertarians. No strand of this very diverse ideology is deliberately overlooked.

  3. I just wish he’d stop this false portrayal of anyone who doesn’t share his monomanical hatred of business as a supporter of State corporatism. It’s like Murray Rothbard never happened.

    But then I suppose if you don’t accept any economic theory since 1850, he didn’t.

  4. He does frequently acknowledge his debt to Rothbard & Co. On the other hand, he also seems occasionally to forget this.

  5. Straw man seems apt. What is it precisely that distinguishes Carson from say, those attached to the Mises Institute? He hates landlords and “userers”? Perusing the Mises audio archives I find countless references to the gargoyle that is state-capitalism/corporate liberalism, and aside from the occasional incongrous paean to the “free market” one never gets the impression that any of them really believe that what we’re seeing is anything like a bone fide market order. What is it that Carson knows that say, Walter Block doesn’t? They both read Rothbard, Childs, Nock, Spooner, Tucker et al. (I respect Block more and more for his plumb-line, occasionaly simplistic take on things. He smuggles the least number of personal values into all this theorizing.)

    Who are these mysterious libertarians that are secretly “defending corporate interests”? Why should libertarians “become more genuinely left-wing”? We’re heading towards total incoherence at this point.

    Compare Hoppe and Carson. Hoppe is culturally conservative and seems to expect drug use and “alternative” lifestyles to fade away when exposed to the sanctions of a freed market which rewards prudence and moderation. Carson on the other hand lets the value-free mask slip when he sneers at “the rich” who he obviously expects to disappear once a free market gets going. But doesn’t it seem obvious that the rich, like the poor, will always be with us? Both Hoppe and Carson want the elimination of privilege. Both want the law to apply to everyone equally. Both want rid of this leviathan state. But which of their visions tallies more with human nature?

  6. I do not associate Adam Smith with hostilty to private landowners – although part of “the Adam Smith problem” (as the Germans call it) is that he contradicted himself so much (over the years) so it is possible that Kevin could make his case on Smith. See Rothbard’s history of economics for Adam Smith.

    David Ricardo taught a fundementally false view of economics (and was followed in it by James Mill and John Stuart Mill) – it includes the Labour Theory of Value and other fallacies that lead from it.

    It was refuted by Richard Whately, Samual Bailey (and many others) at the time – and totally destroyed by Carl Menger and the Austrian School from the 1870s onwards.

    J.S.Mill (in his Principles of Political Economy 1848) just ignored the refutations of the Labour Theory of Value by Whately, and Bailey (and the others) and PRETENDED that everyone agreed with Ricardo and his father James Mill (he even says “the theory of value is settled” everyone-agrees-that).

    However, Kevin seems to want to dig up the Labour Theory of Value (and the rest of that interpretation of David Ricardo that the “Ricardian Socialists” produced – although David Ricardo himself might not be happy with a lot of this) and pretend it is something to do with supporting free markets – something one does not associate with the Ricardian Socialists who interpreted Ricardo’s (FUNDEMENALLY FALSE) Labour Theory of Value in a Kevin like way.

    As for the real problems of 19th century liberalism.

    Well Ian has a point.

    The influence of SOME of the Low Church Protestants were certainly not positive.

    For example in Kettering (where I am typeing this from) the Liberals became interested in state education – because of the non state schools (although far from all of them) were Anglican Schools.

    And they also became interestest in banning booze – for Nonconformist religious reasons.

    So (at least in this town) the influence of religion on Liberalism was not a good one.

    However, I would point at two other factors.

    First defeatism.

    One can see that in Walter Bagehot (a very influential liberal thinker).

    We should “concede whatever is safe to concede” to the collectivists.,

    WIth that as one’s battle cry then one might as well hang oneself.

    Nothing is “safe to concede” and it moves the whole conversation from REDUCING the size of the state to SLOWING THE INCREASE in the size of the state.

    With people like Walter Bagehot in charge – the victory of the enemy (of rabid collectivists like Kevin Carson) is inevitable, and classical liberalism is doomed.

    The other factor is J.S, Mill.

    Even if one takes away the Labour Theory of Value and the rest of the David Ricardo stuff – J.S. Mill comes up with a lot of crazy (really batshit crazy) stuff on his own (or with his wife).

    The problem oif production is solved now is the problem of distribution – not Karl Marx, but J.S. Mill.

    Reglating what someone might buy is a violation of freedom, but regulating what someone might sell is not a vilation of freedom (??????)

    Free trade is not a moral matter – the principle of liberty is not about this (??????)

    Then there is the stuff on cooperatives.

    Then the “everyone agrees that….” (local government should take over X, Y, Z,).

    And on and on.

    It is really terrible stuff – terrible.

    Yet J..S, Mill was one of the most influential writers in 19th century Britiish liberalism. And “Principles of Polticial Economy” is bad – and “On Liberty” sounds wonderful – till one looks in detail (then it is a twisted mess – even the “harm principle” is no good, because it is NOT the traditional common law nonaggression principle, it includes all sorts of sillyness like not openly shunning people because one disapproves of them – like you and that other man’s wife you walk about with hey John boy? upset because people keep turning their backs on you? hard cheese because that is NOT a violation of tghe nonaggression principle).,

    So people are not allowed to “parade their dislike” – but they are allowed to (do stuff that does violate the nonaggression principle). I could not care less about John and Harriet – ACCEPT that he allows this stuff to influence his political thinking.

    If I had to name two people who undermined British liberalism they would be…..

    Walter bank-bailout and concede-whatever-it-safe-to-concede Bagehot, and John Stuart “everyone-agrees”-with-the-labour-theory-of-value-and-that-government-should-control-X-Y-Z Mill.

  7. British Liberalism was overwhelmed by State Socialism because it was plausibly represented as defending privilege and vested interests.