The Classic Liberals and their mistake

In his book “For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto” Murray N. Rothbard gives us a little history of the Classical Liberals of the 17th and 18th century. He wrote the following:

The libertarian creed emerged from the “classical liberal” movements of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the Western world, specifically, from the English Revolution of the seventeenth century. This radical libertarian movement, even though only partially successful in its birthplace, Great Britain, was still able to usher in the Industrial Revolution there by freeing industry and production from the strangling restrictions of State control and urban government-supported guilds. For the classical liberal movement was, throughout the Western world, a mighty libertarian “revolution” against what we might call the Old Order — the ancien régime — which had dominated its subjects for centuries. This regime had, in the early modern period beginning in the sixteenth century, imposed an absolute central State and a king ruling by divine right on top of an older, restrictive web of feudal land monopolies and urban guild controls and restrictions. The result was a Europe stagnating under a crippling web of controls, taxes, and monopoly privileges to produce and sell conferred by central (and local) governments upon their favorite producers. This alliance of the new bureaucratic, war-making central State with privileged merchants — an alliance to be called “mercantilism” by later historians — and with a class of ruling feudal landlords constituted the Old Order against which the new movement of classical liberals and radicals arose and rebelled in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The Classical Liberals sought to overturn the Old Order and level the playing field for all people to the extent that they could, which meant that the State was to be kept extremely small and its tax revenues were to be kept as small as possible. The classical liberals saw that taxes enabled the State and gave it power over the people and they knew that power corrupts.

I once saw a list of beliefs of those of us who urge voluntary cooperation. This list is also a fairly good description of what the Classical Liberals were urging in the 17th and 18th century.

  1. Private ownership of property; not only of personal possessions but also of land, homes, natural resources, tools, and capital goods;
  2. Contracts and voluntary exchange of goods and services, by individuals or groups, on the expectation of mutual benefit;
  3. Totally free competition among all buyers and sellers — in price, quality, and all other aspects of exchange — without ex ante restraints or burdensome barriers to entry;
  4. Entrepreneurial discovery, undertaken not only to compete in existing markets but also in order to discover and develop new opportunities for economic or social benefit; and
  5. Spontaneous order, recognized as a significant and positive coordinating force — in which decentralized negotiations, exchanges, and entrepreneurship converge to produce large-scale coordination without, or beyond the capacity of, any deliberate plans or explicit common blueprints for social or economic development.

The above list is essentially the Classical Liberal vision of laissez-faire capitalism and it is essentially the librarian view as well. The problem is that the list allows for the State in the view of a Classical Liberal. This is the idea of a “night watchman” state where the government is constrained to a few well defined and necessary duties. The government of the US started out just that way under the Articles of Confederation but look at how short a time it took to see power accumulate at the center. After just nine years of the Articles of Confederation we saw the enactment of the present Constitution and then centralized power really took off. From a “night watchman” start, we now have a central government with seemingly unlimited power to do as it pleases. Many recognize that we live in a police state now.


I have seen many people try to put a date on where America really went wrong. A favorite is the war between the states which meant that no state could secede from the union and “vote with its feet” any longer. Others say that it was WWI and the emergence of Empire by the US. Still others blame the reaction to the great depression by Franklin D. Roosevelt. I reject all the various guesses as to where we went wrong. I think that the new nation went wrong by forming a government in the first place. There was no way to write down some rules on a piece of paper that would constrain power-seeking men over time. Sooner or later the new government would grow teeth and bite the people. History is a testament to my view.

After centuries of experience most people continue to believe that “all good things flow from the compassionate nature of government.” Has the record of the actions of governments in the 20th century not shown us the true nature of the beast?

I am convinced that the Classic Liberals have been on the right path, but they need to recognize that the state is far too dangerous to ever make use of. We need to let people interact via mutual free-will consent. People will need protection since men are not Angels, and so private companies will arise to offer that protection to their customers. The free market can provide anything that the state claims to provide — and without pointing a gun at your head to make you buy it.

Libertarianism pure and simple

As anyone who reads this blog much knows that, for me, there is one correct libertarianism and that is Rothbardian style radical libertarianism. Libertarianism must be firmly predicated on the non aggression principle (NAP) or it is simply not libertarianism. By “firmly predicated” we mean that we honor the non aggression principle at all times and follow it to its logical conclusion in any problem analyzed. In other words, the law (libertarian law) should prohibit the initiation of force or fraud against innocent people and their property. And that, my friends, is the whole of the situation. Other than the implications of the basic axiom, there is no more to libertarianism.

There are conservatives and modern “liberals” alike who want to hijack the good name of libertarianism and call themselves “libertarian” or at least “libertarian leaning”.  Just because we might be allies in opposition to racism, sexism, homophobia, prejudice, bigotry, brutality, war, torture and all the rest, does not mean that anyone is a libertarian unless they base all of their political philosophy on the non aggression principle.

Some right wingers falsely calling themselves “libertarian” urge acceptance of conservatism. We most definitely are not conservatives. We are most definitely not “liberals” as the word is used in modern America. Those collectivist, thieving, government loving cretins are nowhere close to honoring the non aggression principle. On the other hand, our most close allies are the “Classical Liberals” who sometimes advocate a very small “night-watchman” government. Though totally misguided in the need for any government at all, the Classical Liberals are very close to us in honoring the non aggression principle.

Libertarians are methodological and political individualists and we believe that only individuals think, value, act, and choose. We believe that each individual has the right to own his own body, free of coercive interference. This is just another way of saying the non-aggression principle which asserts that it is inherently illegitimate to initiate the use of physical force against any person or property, the threat of the use of force, or fraud upon persons or their property. The non aggression principle does not, however, preclude violent self-defense. We are not pacifists.

When I started this blog, it was my intention to post each week on a small aspect of the topic of freedom and where the world is going now. I always intended to keep each post short and easy to read. My 2015 new year’s resolution is to return to that style of posting. So, I’ll not be tackling the scores of implications of the non aggression principle in this post, but rather, only one. I’ll mention only one aspect of the state and its violation of the non aggression principle (NAP) today.

What better topic than the “taxes” stolen from the populous by the gang of thieves writ large?

“Taxation is theft, purely and simply even though it is theft on a grand and colossal scale which no acknowledged criminals could hope to match. It is a compulsory seizure of the property of the State’s inhabitants, or subjects.” ~ Murry N. Rothbard

It is most curious and maddening that people tend to regard the state as a quasi-divine, selfless, parental organization. People tend to think that the murderous, thieving, brutal torturers of the government are somehow their protectors. It is for this reason that so many can’t see that pointing a gun at my head and demanding I pay tribute to the state is raw, brutal theft. Taxes are not paid voluntarily and that should tell us right there that the state violates the non aggression principle by taking money from the public by force.

I sometimes see good meaning people advocate a “fair tax”. The problem is there is no “fair tax” and there can never be one. Taxation is robbery. How can robbery be “fair”? Entire books have been written of the wide ranging effects of tax policy and that many unintended results are hidden from view as in the lost opportunity costs. Today, I will ignore all that and just point out the taxation is aggression against us and no libertarian could ever support taxation in any form.