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.

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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.

Radical Libertarians — What do we want?

A friend asked me the other day, “what in the hell do you people really want?” I promised a short answer and today I feel like providing it. Note; the emphasis is on a short answer. So many great thinkers have gone on at length about how real world libertarianism might work and there are complete books on every aspect of the issue: I only want to tell you what I think we radical libertarians want, not go into a long proof of how it would all work.

First, we ask that we not be the innocent victim of aggression. This is summed up in that old saying, “live and let live”. As long as I am not attacking you or your property then you should not be attacking me in any way. I don’t steal your stuff so why do you send armed men to take my stuff and abuse me if I decide to smoke a weed or drink big sugary soft drinks? (disclaimer: I don’t do any drugs — legal or not) Why does everyone think my city government has the right to demand I pay tribute (get a city permit) before I can put a new door on my house? Hell, I did not need the damn door until the city cops failed me and someone broke my old one. So I had to pay the thief, the city, and the door supply house! A damn ring of thieves.

I don’t want the state or its minions meddling in my life. I read recently that Tennessee will be investigating women to see if they took any illegal drugs during their pregnancy and may well take the child if they think there was any drug use. However, taking doctor proscribed dangerous drugs would be just fine apparently. I know from my years of experience that parents are often not ideal and some kids have a bad home life — but does the state own the children? I say the state does not.

“All we ask is to be left alone by those who would control or meddle; to live our lives as we see fit, harming no innocent person as we do. We will deal with any aggressors we encounter ourselves without asking to be “rescued” by other aggressors in silly suits. It is the only civilized way to live.” ~ Kent MacManiga

But the state sure does think they own the children. Take the horrifying story of a family who had their children kidnapped by the government after they took one child to the ER on the orders of their family doctor over a cut on his tongue. The state was not satisfied to steal just one kid; they took them all. A maddening tale of abuse by the state.

Another of the uncountable aspects of “meddling” by the state is that the state has made it illegal for many people to find work. By enacting various laws governing minimum wages, minimum age, and multitudes of requited employer paid expenses we have made millions of young men unemployable. I started with my first job at ninety cents an hour and I probably was not worth even that low wage. I worked in a processing plant and learned a lot about responsibility — much more than school ever taught me. In a way, I should have paid them the ninety cents an hour. I am lucky they did not think of it!

All the young men sitting around unable to get work due to the laws and regulations of the state are angry. They are on the “pipeline to prison” and they can be very dangerous to “normal” citizens. In a radical libertarian world they would be able to find work and earn money — and learn from the experience.

There is no case that can be made for the state (always in the guise of “society”) meddling in my choice of what drugs I choose to use or anything else I choose to do that is not an aggression against others. There is no case to be made that money should be stolen from one party and given to another party at the point of a gun; no matter if that theft is done by a private individual or by employees of the criminal gang writ large that we call the state.

I can hear my friend now: “get to the point Stoval; what the hell do you want?” I want a society where no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else. I want a world were the initiation of the use or threat of physical violence against the person or property of anyone else is not legal. Aggression is synonymous with the state so I want no state. I want free people to cooperate by mutual voluntary agreement without the use of force or fraud being involved.

Do we need a state to be protected from “bad guys”? No. Let the private sector produce “protection agencies” and insurance agencies to protect people. Besides, people could protect themselves a hell of a lot better if the state did not make owning guns illegal in most instances. And armed populous along with a laissez-faire economy would go a long way to making for a polite society.

The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out… without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane, intolerable. ~ H. L. Mencken

I guess in the end, I just want people to be free.

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Authentic Liberalism

So what is “liberalism” to the average American? I bet most people would say a “liberal” is a Democratic Party voter who favors gun control, abortion, wealth redistribution, compulsory public education, government control of almost everything in life, gay rights, belief that human economic activity endangers life on the planet, and so on with a large laundry list of “causes”. Most people would also say that an American “liberal” is the opposite of an American “conservative”. “Liberals” in the U.S. also love to call themselves “progressive”.

Outside of the U.S. there is a different view of what it means to be a “liberal”.  Outside America “liberalism” is quite distinct from the modern American definition. Liberalism overseas is in the tradition of Adam Smith, John Locke, and Frédéric Bastiat. Ralph Raico once wrote a wonderful description of the classical liberal tradition which is still close to just “liberalism” is some countries but the very opposite of “liberalism” in the U.S.

Classical Liberalism, or “liberalism” outside the U.S., is the political creed of those who favor liberty over the state, practice peace rather than war, and believe that the laissez-faire market, property rights and voluntary cooperation is the foundation of a just society. They see nothing wrong with wealth accumulation as long as it was accumulated  by the peaceful and productive means of voluntary free exchange and not the political means of plunder and government privilege.

Well informed readers will recognize that Classical Liberalism is the forerunner of the modern libertarian movement. There are a few modern Americans who self-identify as “liberals” who still claim the legacy of Classical Liberalism for themselves in spite of the fact that classical liberalism is the direct opposite of the state-worshiping “liberalism” of modern America. The classical liberals believe in individual liberty, distrust government, and believe in decentralization and the self-organizing effectiveness of society. In short, my friends, the very opposite of today’s Democratic Party Liberals who favor tax and spend with total control of our lives by the central government.

I once wrote “I want the term “liberal” back!” and I still do. After all, modern American Liberalism is totally inconsistent with the traditions of classical liberalism and modern libertarianism. The modern “liberal-left” talks about humanitarianism and putting people above profits but they favor the iron fist of government domination over the voluntary cooperation of free individuals. People just don’t do what the modern liberal totalitarians think they should do!  Now these statists will usually try to obscure the fact fact they favor total government control by claiming that they do not favor state violence and besides that we all are ruled by government with our consent.  (I never gave my “consent”, did you?)

The state is God to the American liberal-progressive mindset while the libertarian (classical liberal) is not looking for a Utopia on earth but just the maximization of freedom, progress, happiness, and material well being through voluntary cooperation.

The American left-liberal joins the American conservative in being soft on the police state and the imperial war machine. Oh, each side will often decry the other’s wars but nothing changes as one side gets power and the other loses. A change in administration in D.C. often does nothing to end foreign wars but rather we often see a renewed fierceness in foreign aggressions with a change in administration. And both the “liberals” and the “conservatives” love the militarized police since the police is to the state as the edge is to the knife.

The classical liberal tradition needs to re-claim the term “liberal” if we can, but more important than terms is the fact we need to recapture the philosophy of the classical liberals. That would be a wonderful first step towards ending the present police state and world empire that is the U.S. After that, perhaps we can move on to overcoming any State rule at all.

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The constitutionalism of Ron Paul

By the “constitutionalism of Ron Paul” I mean his many calls for returning to the original interpretation of the constitution as well as following it rather than ignoring it. He spent a lifetime in politics calling for the US to follow the constitution as well as his two runs for the GOP nomination for president. It seems to me that Ron Paul was always after an even greater goal than the US government following the original interpretation of the constitution. I think he was after a libertarian society and the quickest way to get there would be by first following the constitution and making the vast cuts in government that following the constitution would require. The quickest way to get to a libertarian society would be by making as much of government as possible optional or voluntary.

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We need to forge a wide social agreement on the concept of voluntary self-government and tolerance and this means making secession at the personal level more and more of a reality. We live in a police state and empire at the present time and the brutality of the state grows with each passing day. Surely we can all agree that moving towards the laissez-faire economy and the non-intervention of government in our lives that was the hallmark of the first decades of this country would be a great movement towards real and total liberty. Even if it is difficult to see how cutting government down to size and making it follow the constitution might be accomplished, we can certainly agree that it is important as one of our goals in the liberty movement. This goal contrasts starkly with any more spreading of the government’s brutality, involuntaryism, coercion and cronyism. The power and reach of the US government has spread into more and more areas of life, here and across the world and it is time to put an end to the growth and start to reduce the long arm of the state.

Economics is simple really. Nearly the full extent of it can be taught in a small book, as has been done before. Look at Henry Hazlitt’s ‘Economics in One Lesson’ which is practically the full extent that any individual citizen needs to know about economics and you will see that the laissez-faire policies of the early republic were far superior to the fascist style interventionism of the present day.

Austrian economics has taught us that if we want to live a more comfortable life in a more comfortable world then we must live by the golden rule, or the non-aggression principle as we libertarians like to call it. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you —- or don’t aggress against anyone else unless they first aggress against you. This golden rule (or the N.A.P.) is not handed down by a supreme being, but it is the path to making the society approach a state of Nirvana none the less. The Taoists and their path (the Tao) told us a long time ago that intervention by “the ruler” was always bad and that we should let the people do things for themselves.

The fastest and easiest way to convince people that less government is more happiness by the masses is to reduce the size and scope of the government and let them see the incremental improvements. But there will be many road blocks along our journey to liberty. After all, the political class is not really running things. The political class is only the veneer of the state and not really the state itself. The state is the permanent bureaucratic structures and it is those institutions that make up the real ruling apparatus of the state. Look at the CIA for just one example.

No society can achieve any kind of justice based on the concept that some people have a “right” to have the state loot other people for their benefit. We see this today in the welfare state which has destroyed countless families and destroyed the morality of generations. Don’t forget that large, well connected corporations receive much from the state as well. We don’t call it “crony-capitalism” for nothing. We have created a power struggle that is endless, pointless, futile, and destructive. Only a return to the relatively non-interventionist government of the early days would be a good start towards a total freedom from the state. (that is, if you abhor the violence of armed revolution)

In truth there is no need for a “Constitution” to maintain peace and civility in a society. What is needed is a deep belief in the people that the initiation of physical aggression, intimidation, theft, fraud, and trespass are all morally reprehensible. That and the realization that assigning a monopoly power to an institution – government – is only going to yield in the end the utter brutality and cronyism we see around us today. When the people are compelled by a monopoly which interprets “the law” and uses violence to enforce its will upon the population, then it violates the individual’s right to choose which services one wants to use. We should have a right to choose which protective service we want to use for in a free, civilized society. No one should be above the law, and no one has any legitimate authority over anyone else without voluntary consent.

Ron Paul used a return to the constitution to try to teach the masses that government intervention is always the wrong way to go. Let us hope his message keeps on reverberating with the masses until they withdraw their consent to be governed by the evil monopoly we call the state.

American mercantilism?

We often hear the ignorant refer to the present American economic system as free market capitalism or mostly just “capitalism” where they mean free markets, and yet the American system has been heavily controlled, regulated, and interfered with by government for over a century with no free markets to be seen anywhere. Some say that the political control of the economy started from the very beginning of the Republic and the citizen’s right to do as he pleases as long as he harms no one else was violated with increasing frequency as time went by.

It matters little if you call the American system fascism, corporatism, crony-capitalism, “the third way”, a mixed economy, socialism, or even the more archaic term “mercantilism”. There is a spectrum that runs from laissez-faire free-markets (with no government intervention at all) to the fully government controlled economies of a North Korea or the old USSR. History and the Austrian School of Economics have shown over and over that any government intervention always makes the situation worse and normally makes it much worse for the poorest people. After all, as Groucho Marx observed “Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.”

Murray N. Rothbard wrote about mercantilism in Conceived in Liberty (1975), volume 1, chapter 32: “Mercantilism, Merchants, and Class Conflict.” He observed:

The economic policy dominant in the Europe of the 17th and 18th centuries, and christened “mercantilism” by later writers, at bottom assumed that detailed intervention in economic affairs was a proper function of government. Government was to control, regulate, subsidize, and penalize commerce and production. What the content of these regulations should be depended on what groups managed to control the state apparatus. Such control is particularly rewarding when much is at stake, and a great deal is at stake when government is “strong” and interventionist. In contrast, when government powers are minimal, the question of who runs the state becomes relatively trivial. But when government is strong and the power struggle keen, groups in control of the state can and do constantly shift, coalesce, or fall out over the spoils. While the ouster of one tyrannical ruling group might mean the virtual end of tyranny, it often means simply its replacement by another ruling group employing other forms of despotism.

In the 17th century the regulating groups were, broadly, feudal landlords and privileged merchants, with a royal bureaucracy pursuing as a superfeudal overlord the interest of the Crown. An established church meant royal appointment and control of the churches as well. The peasantry and the urban laborers and artisans were never able to control the state apparatus, and were therefore at the bottom of the state-organized pyramid and exploited by the ruling groups. Other religious groups were, of course, separated from or opposed to the ruling state. And religious groups in control of the state, or sharing in that control, might well pursue not only strictly economic “interest” but also ideological or spiritual ones, as in the case of the Puritans’ imposing a compulsory code of behavior on all of society.

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If those people who say that the USA has a system of modern fascism are correct then “fascism” does not differ all that much from the above described mercantilism. I suppose that is to be expected since the father of fascism, Benito Mussolini, modeled his system along the lines of strict government control just as the mercantilists of Britain did years before him.

It is obvious that the state controls the economic activities of all entities with laws, regulations, and the like, but what is not so obvious is that the modern US government even controls the entry of individuals into various occupations and professions. Not only can you not become a Doctor without the state’s permission, you may not even cut someone’s hair without the proper licenser. Try to become a cab driver without the approval of the state and see what happens to you. Like under “mercantilism”, the present government seeks to control, regulate, subsidize, and penalize commerce and production in all areas of American life. What has changed? The regulating groups have changed. The church is no longer part of the mix and the special interest groups seeking political power and handouts are different; but nothing has changed in reality.

As long as we allow the federal government to control the economic activities of the people then we can expect lower standards of living than we would have otherwise, especially for the poor. With modern mercantiliism can not expect liberty or freedom but rather we can expect dependency, slavery, and serfdom. We will be endlessly subjected to arbitrary and punitive rules and regulations. The state and all its minions seek to dominate you in all areas of your life and it finds dominating you in your economic activities is the easiest way to enslave you.

The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself and to discover the true nature of government. Think of men like Edward Snowden who found out what the government’s NSA was doing and told the world about what he found. He told the world without any regard to the prevailing superstition that there were terrorists under every bed. If we ignore the propaganda, superstitions, taboos and utter heifer dust that we were taught in the government schools, we would discover that we must come to the conclusion that the government we live under is dishonest, insane, and intolerable. Like H. L. Mencken, I believe that all government is evil and that trying to improve it is mostly a waste of time and is often counter productive.

The only way to maximize prosperity and peace is to stop practicing the American mercantilist system and to move to laissez-faire free markets, and the only way to have no government intervention in the market is to have no government at all. The Irish did that for perhaps 9,000 years.

Like many people this time of year, I wish for peace among men throughout the world. I know that the only way to have peace, prosperity, freedom, and happiness is for mankind to throw off the evil of the state that enslaves us. In the coming year we should all endeavor in anyway that we can to end the state and live in a voluntary world. We must teach people to withdraw their consent to be governed just at the people did in the old USSR. The good of all mankind does not depend on you recycling your trash, conserving gasoline, or having the grocery store put your purchase in re-usable bags. The good of mankind depends on you helping to overthrow the great evil that is the state. Do your part whenever you can.