Why I am not a libertarian

Fear not, gentle reader. Perhaps you have been linked to this essay quite casually, purely on the basis of its catchy title, and you are expecting one of those little chatty NPRish pieces that explain quite patiently to you, as to a retarded child, that libertarians are evil and the New Deal was the best thing since sliced bread.

This is not one of those essays. UR is, in fact, an extremist blog. Here at UR, we do our damnedest to have no concern whatsoever for the political fashions of 2007. One easy way to “overcome” this bias1 is to compare one’s opinions not only to the fashions of 2007, but also of 1907. Or even 1807. Or even perhaps 1707. Or, what the heck, 7.

This ancient algorithm, once known by the cute Latin name of sub specie aeternitatis, is guaranteed to produce extremist results. If our views conformed perfectly to the fashions of 2007, they would strike the fashionable citizens of any of these other timepoints as crazed. (Of course, the same is true for 1907, or 1707, or 7.)

If you are a libertarian, you are already resigned to the fact that most fashionable people think of you as a nutcase. Today we are going to ask you to crawl a little farther out on that limb, and suggest that you replace your libertarian views with thoughts that are even more extreme.

If you are not a libertarian, and if this sub specie aeternitatis thing strikes you as somehow dubious or shady, I feel no hesitation in informing you with absolute confidence that the common concept of progress, which perhaps you are operating under, is a lie and a delusion and a snare. At least inasmuch as that term applies to the problem of human government, and not physics, oil painting, or backgammon. There is no reason to think the political designs of 2007 are any better than those of 1907, 1807, or 7. In fact, there is quite a bit of reason to think that the truth is just the opposite.

If you really do believe in progress, I’m sorry to have to inform you that your brain is full of little pockets of stringy black mycelium stuff, which will probably have to be cleaned out with the heavy brush. I do sympathize with your condition. It is one we have all suffered from. In fact, we probably all still have it. However, you have a very serious case and you will probably not be able to enjoy this here essay. Please feel free to browse elsewhere on the site.

In other words, today’s post is for people who either are, or at least have been, or at least have been tempted to become, libertarians. To be a libertarian is to at least suspect that progress isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, because it is obvious to any twelve-year-old who can read Robert A. Heinlein that the world was once much more libertarian than it is now, and that it easily could become so again. Both of these conditions demonstrate nonmonotonic political change, invalidating the delusional concept of progress.

Surely only one such disproof is required before we feel motivated to perform a thorough mental audit of all historical changes in social and political systems which come to us tagged with this fascinating if deadly label.

One concept often associated with progress is revolution. Various fashionable opinions of 2007 assign various moral valences to various instances of revolution. The word is clearly extremely general. However, if we are to rid ourselves of these fashions, one simple way to start is with a simple default: all revolutions are bad.

Your mileage may vary, but I’ve found this default oddly compelling. So, for example, I see the French Revolution as a criminal outrage of the mob, led by leaders who were either unscrupulous, deluded, or both. I see the Russian Revolution as a criminal outrage of the mob, led by leaders who were either unscrupulous, deluded, or both. Perhaps you agree with only one of these conclusions. Perhaps you agree with both. But if you had to add a third revolution to this set, which one would it be?

And this is the first reason I am not a libertarian. Libertarianism is, more or less, basically, the ideology of the American Revolution. And the American Revolution was, in my own personal opinion, more or less, basically, a criminal outrage of the mob—led by leaders who were either unscrupulous, deluded, or both.

(I will grant that if I had to pick any mob leaders in history, I would probably pick Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton, although Caesar, Cicero and either Cato would certainly earn a draft choice somewhere. However, a politician is a politician. The profession is a fundamentally criminal one. (I’m sure James Gandolfini would do a perfectly good job at it.))

If you have trouble swallowing this ubercynical picture of the American Revolution, let me recommend two books. The first is Murray Rothbard’s great four-volume Conceived in Liberty, now available online. (It is really a tragedy that the fifth volume, which would have taken us to the Constitution, was never finished.) The second is Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, which sadly is only sold in stores.2

Rothbard is surely one of the ten top philosophers of the twentieth century. Besides being more or less the founder of modern American political libertarianism, and besides being the acknowledged dean of the Austrian School of economics, he was also a world-class historian, trained under Joseph Dorfman at Columbia. Conceived in Liberty is full of primary research and original interpretations. Its portrait of George Washington as a bumbling buffoon, for example, may be challenged. But it is neither unsupported nor unmemorable.

And one thing you will see in Rothbard—though Rothbard tends to paint incidents such as Leisler’s Rebellion in a suspiciously golden light—is the importance of mob violence and paramilitary armed gangs in American political history. Not just in the Revolution, but throughout the colonial period.

My general view of CIL, achievement though it is, is that it works a little too hard to emphasize the prevalence of colonial ideas which approximate modern libertarianism, understating strands that are more clearly ancestral to socialism and other statisms. But when you combine Rothbard with Bailyn, a mainstream historian of considerable renown, the result is damning.

Ideological Origins, which appeared in 1967, won both the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes. It is absolutely impossible to infer any opinions that Bailyn may hold from this carefully crafted book, a feat I consider perverse but still must admire. Its history, however, is beyond reproach and it is generally considered seminal.

What Bailyn shows us is that the rebels in the American Revolution were motivated by an ideology that was utterly deluded, that amounted to no more than a wacky conspiracy theory. The point is not even slightly arguable. Their interpretation of British politics simply had no basis in reality.

Since this delusional interpretation was the linchpin of their argument for rebellion, and since their reliance on street violence and paramilitary formations is indisputable, they can fairly be classed as unscrupulous or deluded mob leaders—regardless of any classification in the scruples department, a historical task which often verges on the impossible. (Especially diligent readers may enjoy Frederick Scott Oliver’s Alexander Hamilton: An Essay on American Union, with its wonderful portrait of Thomas Jefferson as a scoundrel.)

I’ll let Bailyn tell the story. From his foreword:

This book has developed from a study that was first undertaken a number of years ago, when Howard Mumford Jones, then Editor-in-Chief of the John Harvard Library, invited me to prepare a collection of pamphlets of the American Revolution for publication in that series. Like all students of American history I knew well perhaps a half dozen of the most famous pamphlets of the Revolution, obviously worth republication, and I knew also of others, another half dozen or so, that would probably be worth considering. The project was attractive to me, it did not appear to be particularly burdensome, and since in addition it was related to a book I was then preparing on eighteenth-century politics, I agreed to undertake it.

The starting point of the work was the compilation of a complete bibliography of the pamphlets. This alone proved to be a considerable task, and it was in assembling this list that I discovered the magnitude of the project I had embarked on. The full bibliography of pamphlets relating to the Anglo-American struggle published in the colonies through the year 1776 contains not a dozen or so items but over four hundred; in the end I concluded that no fewer than seventy-two of them ought to be republished. But sheer numbers were not the most important measure of the magnitude of the project. The pamphlets include all sorts of writings—treatises on political theory, essays on history, political arguments, sermons, correspondence, poems—and they display all sorts of literary devices. But for all their variety they have in common one distinctive characteristic: they are, to an unusual degree, explanatory. They reveal not merely positions but the reasons why positions were taken; they reveal motive and understanding: the assumptions, beliefs and ideas—the articulated world view—that lay behind the manifest events of the time. As a result I found myself, as I read through these many documents, studying not simply a particular medium of publication but, through these documents, nothing less than the ideological origins of the American Revolution. And I found myself viewing these origins with surprise, for the “interior” view, from the vantage point of the pamphlets, was different from what I had expected. The task, consequently, took on increasing excitement, for much of the history of the American Revolution has fallen into the condition that overtakes so many of the great events of the past; it is, as Professor Trevor-Roper has written in another connection, taken for granted: “By our explanations, interpretations, assumptions we gradually make it seem automatic, natural, inevitable; we remove from it the sense of wonder, the unpredictability, and therefore the freshness it ought to have.” […] The pamphlets do reveal the influence of Enlightenment thought, and they do show the effective force of certain religious ideas, of the common law, and also of classical literature; but they reveal most significantly the close integration of these elements in a pattern of, to me at least, surprising design—surprising because of the prominence in it of still another tradition, interwoven with, yet still distinct from, these more familiar strands of thought. This distinctive influence had been transmitted most directly to the colonists by a group of early eighteenth-century radical publicists and opposition politicians in England who carried forth into the eighteenth century and applied to the politics of the age of Walpole the peculiar strain of anti-authoritarianism bred in the upheaval of the English Civil War. […] I began to see a new meaning in phrases that I, like most historians, had readily dismissed as mere rhetoric and propaganda: “slavery,” “corruption,” “conspiracy.” These inflammatory words were used so forcefully by writers of so great a variety of social statuses, political positions, and religious persuasions; they fitted so logically into the pattern of radical and opposition thought; and they reflected so clearly the realities of an age in which monarchical autocracy flourished, in which the stability and freedom of England’s “mixed” constitution was a recent and remarkable achievement, and in which the fear of conspiracy against constituted authority was built into the very structure of politics, that I began to suspect that they meant something very real to both the writers and their readers; that there were real fears, real anxieties, a sense of real danger behind these phrases, and not merely the desire to influence by rhetoric and propaganda the inert minds of an otherwise passive populace. The more I read, the less useful, it seemed to me, was the whole idea of propaganda in its modern meaning when applied to the writings of the American Revolution—a view that I hope to develop at length on another occasion. In the end I was convinced that the fear of a comprehensive conspiracy against liberty throughout the English-speaking world—a conspiracy believed to have been nourished in corruption, and of which, it was felt, oppression in America was only the most immediately visible part—lay at the heart of the Revolutionary movement.

Note how gracefully Bailyn skates over the fact that (indisputably) no such conspiracy existed. In other words, our Founding Fathers were more or less the Troofers of their day. Or, to put it differently, America obtained its independence because of a war that was started by people who were genuinely terrified of the 18th-century equivalent of black helicopters.

From a later chapter (p. 94):

It is the meaning imparted to the events after 1763 by this integrated group of attitudes and ideas that lies behind the colonists’ rebellion. In the context of these ideas, the controversial issues centering on the question of Parliament’s jurisdiction in America acquired as a group new and overwhelming significance. The colonists believed they saw emerging from the welter of events during the decade after the Stamp Act a pattern whose meaning was unmistakable. They saw in the measures taken by the British government and in the actions of officials in the colonies something which their peculiar inheritance of thought had prepared them for only too well, something they had long conceived to be a possibility in view of the known tendencies of history and of the present state of affairs in England. They saw about them, with increasing clarity, not merely mistaken, or even evil, policies violating the principles on which freedom rested, but what appeared to be evidence of nothing less than a deliberate assault launched surreptitiously by plotters against liberty both in England and in America. The danger to America, it was believed, was in fact only the small, immediately visible part of the greater whole whose ultimate manifestation would be the destruction of the English constitution, with all the rights and privileges embedded in it.

This belief transformed the meaning of the colonists’ struggle, and it added an inner accelerator to the movement of opposition. For, once assumed, it could not be easily dispelled: denial only confirmed it, since what conspirators profess is not what they believe; the ostensible is not the real; and the real is deliberately malign.

It was this—the overwhelming evidence, as they saw it, that they were faced with conspirators against liberty determined at all costs to gain ends which their words dissembled—that was signalled to the colonists after 1763, and it was this above all else that in the end propelled them into Revolution.

Suspicion that the ever-present, latent danger of an active conspiracy of power against liberty was becoming manifest within the British Empire, assuming specific form and developing in coordinated phases, rose in the consciousness of a large segment of the American people before any of the famous political events of the struggle with England took place. No adherent of a nonconformist church or sect in the eighteenth century was free from suspicion that the Church of England, an arm of the English state, was working to bring all subjects of the crown into the community of the Church; and since toleration was official and nonconformist influence in English politics formidable, it was doing so by stealth, disguising its efforts, turning to improper uses devices that had been created for benign purposes. In particular, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in English Parts, an arm of the Church created in 1701 to aid in bringing the Gospel to the pagan Indians, was said by 1763 to have “long had a formal design to root out Presbyterianism, etc., and to establishing both episcopacy and bishops.”

This suspicion, which had smoldered in the breasts of New Englanders and nonconformists throughout the colonies for half a century or more, had burst into flame repeatedly, but never so violently as in 1763, in the Mayhew-Apthorp controversy which climaxed years of growing anxiety that plans were being made secretly to establish an American episcopate. To Mayhew, as to Presbyterian and Congregational leaders throughout the colonies, there could be little doubt that the threat was real. Many of the facts were known, facts concerning maneuvers in London and in America. Anglican leaders in New York and New Jersey had met almost publicly to petition England for an American episcopate, and there could be little doubt also of the role of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in this undercover operation. For if the ostensible goal of the Society was the gospelizing of the pagan Indians and Negroes, its true goal was manifestly revealed when it established missions in places like Cambridge, Massachusetts, which had not had a resident Indian since the seventeenth century and was well equipped with “orthodox” preachers. Such missions, Mayhew wrote, have “all the appearance of entering wedges… carrying on the crusade, or spiritual siege of our churches, with the hope that they will one day submit to an episcopal sovereign.” Bishops, he wrote unblinkingly in reply to the Archbishop of Canterbury, have commonly been instruments in arbitrary reigns of “establishing a tyranny over the bodies and souls of men,” and their establishment in America would mark the end of liberty in Massachusetts and elsewhere. By 1765, when the final exchanges in this pamphlet war were published, it was commonly understood in New England and elsewhere that “the stamping and episcopizing [of] our colonies were… only different branches of the same plan of power.”

Etc, etc., etc. And this is only the beginning—the plot goes far beyond “episcopizing.” If you enjoy this sort of badinage, the book is available cheaply.3 It’s really quite a study in abnormal political psychology.

Here is a diary entry from someone who didn’t buy it:

That this was the issue, for thoughtful and informed people, on which decisions of loyalty to the government turned is nowhere so clearly and sensitively revealed as in the record Peter van Schaack left of his tormented meditations of January, 1776. A wellborn, scholarly and articulate New Yorker of 29 who prepared himself for deciding the question of his personal loyalty by undertaking in seclusion a critical examination of the works of Locke, Vattel, Montesquieu, Grotius, Beccaria, and Pufendorf, he noted first his fear of the destructive consequences of conceding Parliament’s right to bind the colonies in all cases whatsoever. That danger, he wrote, was perfectly clear. “But my difficulty arises from this,” he said:

that taking the whole of the acts complained of together, they do not, I think, manifest a system of slavery, but may fairly be imputed to human frailty and the difficulty of the subject. Most of them seem to have sprung out of particular occasions, and are unconnected with each other… In sort, I think those acts may have been passed without a preconceived plan of enslaving us, and it appears to me that the more favorable construction ought to ever to be put in the conduct of our rulers.

(I feel the same way about the Jews, myself.)

Now van Schaack was, of course, a Tory. Or as he no doubt would have preferred, Loyalist. Now, if we update the conflict between Patriots and Loyalist to 2007 and look at our present bilaterally-symmetric political system, which side is the descendant of the Patriots, and which is the descendant of the Loyalists?

It’s a trick question, of course. The Loyalists have no political descendant. There is no American alive today whose loyalty to the British Crown was passed down to him in an unbroken chain from 18th-century Loyalists. You would be about as likely to find a native speaker of Etruscan. Both Democrats and Republicans are factions of Patriot.

And yet: the Loyalists were right. At least on this one rather important question. Britain was not on a path to a weird, 1984-like future with gold braids and epaulets, crushed under the iron heel of the King, the Church of England and the Lords. Rather, the power of throne and altar and fief in Britain had been dwindling almost monotonically since Mary Tudor—a process which of course has continued to this day.

(With a ridiculous figurehead Queen and an utterly gormless Prince of Wales, a True Leveller and soi-disant Druid as Archbishop of Canterbury, and a PM who apparently (I still have a hard time believing this one) has the power to arbitrarily hire and fire peers of the realm. What could be more humiliating for the lion and the unicorn? I’m afraid they have both been getting it in the ass from Uncle Sam. And not just since September 11, either.)

The Loyalists were right. And yet they have no intellectual descendants at all, not in the US and not anywhere else. At least from the point of view of their political DNA, they were simply obliterated—not unlike the Cavaliers, to whom their resemblance is more than passing. And in what folder does almost everyone alive file this event? I’m afraid that folder is progress.

For a libertarian, especially a paleolibertarian, correcting this historically-received fallacy of moral valence should be an obviously attractive option, because it allows us to assign all three of the great revolutions of the last 250 years to the same category: that of crazed, lawless violence. But unfortunately, once we reject the American Revolution, we must also disown the label of libertarian, as simply confusing. (I will suggest a couple of replacement labels in a moment. In the meantime, please feel free to just wander around with nothing on your shirt.)

Rejecting the American Revolution is especially problematic for a libertarian, because the great libertarian writers of the twentieth century—Rothbard, Rand and Nozick—all defined libertarianism as an ethical ideal. Probably the best rigorous one-book definition of the mainstream libertarian (or “anarcho-capitalist,” a term which has always struck me as utterly dorky) perspective is Rothbard’s The Ethics of Liberty.

EOL works very hard to define the moral principles that make libertarianism philosophically ineluctable. Needless to say, these principles are none other than the Lockean natural rights of the American Revolution. The theological roots of these “rights” are obvious (Rothbard may not have been a Christian, but Locke certainly was), and any suggestion that they are in some sense philosophically universal violates Hume’s is–ought principle.

Thus, libertarian principles cannot be logically justified except an appeal to the historical traditions that have descended to all Americans as received wisdom via the Patriot branch of the evolutionary tree. A libertarian, therefore, is fundamentally a conservative.

And if you admit that the Loyalists may have been right and the Patriots may have been a bunch of asshats, conservatism takes a heavy slash to the neck from Occam’s razor. Because a so-called “conservative” who is a Patriot—or even a supporter of the “Glorious Revolution”—is someone who believes in progress up to a certain point, but no further.

While such a position may indeed prove correct, there is certainly no reason to give it the benefit of the doubt. In fact, considering the length of time for which it has held that benefit, it probably should be treated as if it were a boiling radioactive vial of Ebola.

And this is the second reason I am not a libertarian: because, by defining libertarianism as an ethical imperative, libertarians assign themselves an unsolvable problem and proceed not to solve it. As the miracle of 1787 spirals into the abyss, as the need for some sane alternative grows ever more obvious, libertarianism as a political force has proved itself only slightly more effective than the Maharishi. And that’s in the US. In Europe, the situation is even worse. Perhaps there is a reason for this.

In my opinion, the practical problem with grounding libertarianism in the ideals of the American Revolution is that Americans no longer hold those ideals, and Europeans never did. Both, today, follow a moral code which is essentially socialist. It is true that this is the natural consequence of “education” at the hands of a government which is essentially socialist. It is also irrelevant. The consequence is the reality. You cannot explain to people that they ought to believe in, say, freedom of contract as a fundamental human right, when in fact they don’t. As Hume, again, pointed out, ethical axioms are not debatable.

The response of many libertarians, especially those who for some awful, unimaginable reason seem to have congregated in the watershed of the Potomac, is often to borrow a trick from the Fabian Society, and try to steer Washington gradually and moderately in the direction of smaller and freer government.

They should know better. As we’ll see shortly, the monotonic growth pattern of the State is not a coincidence. It is one thing to surf that wave. It is another to paddle out through the breaker. When we look at the results of 25 years of Beltway libertarianism, we see hardly any substantive policy achievements. I’m sure there are some. But I can’t think of any.

And when we compare even their most aggressive visions to the set of changes that a return to the literal text of the Constitution, let alone a Rothbardian anarchy, would involve, we see the essentially decorative nature of the Beltway libertarians. I’m sure they have a lot of fun trying. But inevitable failure is no service to any cause.

I mean, why in God’s name would anyone come to the conclusion that the US political system is in some sense reformable? Talk about the triumph of hope over experience. And all the energy, and money, and time, that the Beltway libertarians put into trying to apply a single smudge of lipstick to some flap of flesh in the remote vicinity of this hog’s maw is energy, and money, and time uninvested in putting the beast to sleep. Moreover, since the official story of Washington is that it represents everyone, it fits all sizes, it contains multitudes, a few decorative pseudolibertarians may be just the right camouflage for it to weather another century’s storms.

A quick question for fans of the Cato Institute, the George Mason economists, Reason, and the like: if you could vote on a proposition to abolish the US Federal Government, would you vote yes or no? If the latter, which side are you on? If the former, have you ever thought of mentioning this opinion?

So we arrive at an impasse. We find libertarianism attractive in a general sort of way. We feel, vaguely, that there is something fishy and awful about government, at least government as it is today. However, real libertarianism has no prospect of gaining a political foothold, and watered-down pseudolibertarianism defeats the purpose.

Perhaps I have dug deep enough in this rich seam of defeat and despair. But in case I haven’t, let’s observe that the United States once had a healthy and functioning libertarian Constitution, with Ninth and Tenth Amendments that were anything but inkblots. 220 years later, we have… what we have now. Does this inspire you with great confidence in limited government as a durable and effective engineering principle? Suppose, by some miracle, libertarians elect Ron Paul, and he actually succeeds in reforming Washington and restoring the 1787 interpretation of the Constitution. And how many years would this last? Why would we expect different results on the second go?

Unlike so many of their political heirs, the American Founders were (I believe) extremely thoughtful, discerning and scrupulous men. Their paranoid misunderstandings of British politics are best ascribed to cultural rather than personal factors. The engine they designed was a good effort, and it deserves at least some respect. But it was operating wildly outside their design envelope—consider the fate of the Electoral College—by at least 1800. The situation has hardly improved since then. And we want to go back to this?

The US, like Britain, has an unwritten constitution enforced by precedent and custom. The difference is that the US also has a written Constitution, which we pretend is identical to the actual thing. But to call the historically-accreted transformation from 1787 Constitution to 2007 constitutional law nontrivial is like saying it hurts when an elephant fucks you in the ass. It would be a fascinating exercise to actually write down what the Constitution would say if it actually described the structure of the US government today.

(Perhaps some law student should try it. Because this disparity between the written law and the judicially constructed reality certainly does no service to anyone, and it strikes me as much more straightforward to recognize the latter than to return to the former. If nothing else, formalization of the present reality is an excellent starting point for any kind of reform.)

So I hope I have presented a reasonable case that, while history is never to be disregarded, the dream of a return to the ideals or laws or values of late 18th-century postcolonial America is neither logically sound, historically justified, politically achievable, nor stably efficacious. Libertarianism, at least libertarianism as we know it, does not solve the problem it purports to address. Ergo, it is political laetrile, different from all the other quack political remedies of the 20th century only in the sophistication of its appeal and the harmlessness of its efforts.

And this is the third reason I’m not a libertarian: because I’m an engineer. I find libertarian government an extremely desirable outcome. In just a second, we will look at other ways to achieve this outcome. However, as a moral imperative, or a political design, or a historical tradition, libertarianism does not strike me as an effective means to this end.

In this we can compare libertarianism to the peace movement. Both have buzzwords—liberty, peace—with incontestable positive valence. No one can be against liberty or against peace. However, what the actual “peace movement” has done is to associate this movement with a certain set of policies, which in practice translate (e.g., in the Middle East) to a fairly aggressive brand of irredentism. They claim that if this irredentist program is fully and properly applied, the result will be peace. Obviously it has not been so applied, and no peace has resulted. And I don’t believe that, after 60 years of this, my belief that the “peace process” is in fact the cause of the Arab–Israeli conflict can be considered prima facie absurd.

Similarly, libertarians want liberty. As do we all—I hope. But does the actual political program of libertarianism advance the prospect of liberty?

All schools of libertarianism, whether Rothbardian or Randian or (nearly-stillborn) Nozickian, rest on the idea of limited government. Note the intrinsic absurdity of this concept. If some government is limited by its own volition, it can abandon these limits at any time. (Historical experience suggests that the “sacred-document” trick is of extremely limited utility in preventing it from doing so.) If the government is limited by some external power, it is not a government in the usual sense of the word, and we should direct our attention to the limiting power.

It is at this point that the libertarian typically reveals his inner democrat, and suggests that the sovereign power of the People will preserve liberty. First, this hasn’t exactly worked in practice. Second, true sovereignty demands actual military superiority, which may have existed in the People of 1787 but has certainly gone missing since then. If the military of any modern country faced off against the rest of its population, each side being united, the former would win every time. And third, the State can escape this check quite easily, because it can indoctrinate its subjects to despise rebellion and love its motherly care.

So I really see no value at all in libertarianism as we now know it. Therefore, please allow me to suggest an alternative. This should not be new to UR readers, but let’s see if I can summarize it in a few paragraphs, without cheating by linking to old posts.

The essential characteristic of libertarianism is its respect for property. To a libertarian, property is an inalienable human right and an ethical absolute. Rothbard invests many chapters, such as this one and this one, on the question of when property titles or transfers are morally legitimate and binding. As Nozick points out, the standard libertarian logic on these points is frequently blurry and often completely circular.

For example, here is Rothbard on why you can’t sell yourself into slavery:

Hence, the unenforceability, in libertarian theory, of voluntary slave contracts. Suppose that Smith makes the following agreement with the Jones Corporation: Smith, for the rest of his life, will obey all orders, under whatever conditions, that the Jones Corporation wishes to lay down. Now, in libertarian theory there is nothing to prevent Smith from making this agreement, and from serving the Jones Corporation and from obeying the latter’s orders indefinitely. The problem comes when, at some later date, Smith changes his mind and decides to leave. Shall he be held to his former voluntary promise? Our contention—and one that is fortunately upheld under present law—is that Smith’s promise was not a valid (i.e., not an enforceable) contract. There is no transfer of title in Smith’s agreement, because Smith’s control over his own body and will are inalienable. Since that control cannot be alienated, the agreement was not a valid contract, and therefore should not be enforceable. Smith’s agreement was a mere promise, which it might be held he is morally obligated to keep, but which should not be legally obligatory.

I.e., you can’t sell yourself into slavery because your control over your own body and will are inalienable. I.e., you can’t alienate them, because if you could you could—sell yourself into slavery. A masterpiece of circular reasoning orbiting around a Humean ought.

If we abandon these kinds of ethical claims for property right, we are left with property as a principle of social engineering. What is it, and how can it be used?

Property is any stable structure of monopoly control. You own something if you alone control it. Your control is stable if no one else will take it away from you. This control may be assured by your own powers of violence, or it may be delegated by a higher power. If the former, it is secondary property. If the latter, it is primary or sovereign property.

The key observation about primary and secondary property is that the two are much more similar than they may seem.

If the structure of property is stable and all transfers are voluntary exchanges, there is no praxeological distinction between primary and secondary property. If it is impossible for an aggressor to profit by unilaterally adjusting property rights in her favor, it does not matter why it is impossible. The aggressor could be prevented because her aggression is physically impractical, because it will be reversed by a police authority, because it will be punished by a nuclear strike, etc., etc. The important distinction is between a system in which aggression occurs, and a system in which no aggression occurs. The means is unimportant.

The principle of formalism, which is my own private libertarian heresy, suggests that the purpose of property is to prevent violence. The formalist is completely unconcerned with the moral legitimacy of property rights. She is entirely concerned with their stability. To a formalist, a system in which no involuntary property transfers occur is always ideal—at both the primary and secondary levels.

Obviously, the distribution of property affects many people in meaningful ways. An ethical preference for more egalitarian distributions is certainly valid. However, this goal can only be achieved at the expense of violence—especially if equalization is a continuous process, rather than a one-time redistribution. Since most people who consider equalization ethical also seem to express an even stronger aversion to violence, this moral contradiction is theirs to resolve. (Perhaps they will get back to me on this.)

To a formalist, violence always has two prerequisites: tension and ambiguity. Tension exists when more than one party desires some limited good. This is basically always. So the only way to eliminate violence is to eliminate ambiguity, the condition in which multiple contending parties reach different conclusions about who will prevail in a tussle. Without ambiguity, the loser will concede and the winner will win without a fight.

Again, these principles apply at both levels of property, primary and secondary. The problem of eliminating ambiguity in secondary property is the problem of law enforcement. The problem of eliminating ambiguity in primary property is the problem of external security.

History shows us that an effective government can solve both of these problems. And an ineffective one can fail at both. For example, in the lifetime of those now living, the number of robberies in Britain has increased by over two orders of magnitude. Nonetheless, the borders between Britain and her neighbors have remained stable over this same time period. This indicates an interesting, and not uncommon, pattern of effective external security and ineffective law enforcement. Perhaps there is a reason for this? But I digress.

This model of property sheds an interesting light on libertarianism, which I believe reflects its dubious revolutionary ancestry. From the perspective of a formalist, the reason that libertarianism fails is simple. It fails because libertarianism is an antipropertarian ideology, and all antipropertarian ideologies fail.

Socialism is the classic antipropertarian ideology. Socialists believe that systems of property in which some are very rich, and others are very poor, are ethically illegitimate. So they advocate forcible redistribution to correct this injustice.

Libertarians and anarcho-capitalists, while they ascribe unquestionable spiritual validity to the existing distribution of secondary property, completely reject the existing distribution of primary property. In fact, a true anarcho-capitalist rejects even the concept of primary property, strange though this may seem. In its place, there is an almost mystical ideal of self-enforcing law that strikes me as quite unjustified by reality.

The libertarian revolutionaries of the 1770s, using the Lockean theory of “homesteading” that Rothbard inherits, believed that only those who worked land could truly own it. The British Crown and its Loyalist followers essentially believed that the Crown exercised primary or sovereign ownership over the American colonies, although complications of British history perhaps prevented them from expressing this opinion as clearly as today we might prefer. The question was put to arms and the former prevailed, creating a new distribution of property.

The US government today has no king. On the other hand, it is certainly a distinct entity, and we can regard it as a corporation, that is, a virtual person with a single identity. Under libertarian theory, this corporation is illegitimate, since it has no true property right in the land it controls, having never done any farming or tree-cutting or whatever. Any fees it charges are no more than extortion and stationary banditry.

Under formalist theory, this corporation (which here at UR, we call “Washcorp”) is a normal primary or sovereign property holder. Washcorp is thus a sovereign corporation, or sovcorp. Its primary ownership of its swath of North America, which to avoid confusion with political entities we call “Plainland,” is an absolutely normal relationship. The validity of Washcorp’s ownership of Plainland does not depend on the Constitution, the last elections, or any other magical rite, but simply on the stable and exclusive military control it exercises over the territory. As for the fees that Plainlanders pay to Washcorp, they are the normal cost of property rental.

My preference, as a resident of Plainland, is for simple, libertarian or minarchist government. I notice that Washcorp does not provide this service. My question is: why not?

Note how distant this engineering approach is from Rothbardian ethical libertarianism. We treat liberty as a goal, rather than an ideal. We ask: how can we design a system that will achieve this goal, and maintain it sustainably?

The puzzle is that Washcorp has every incentive to provide libertarian government—except, of course, for the usual libertarian ideal of low taxes. Revenue maximization is Washcorp’s bread and butter, as with most primary property owners in history. Like all corporations, Washcorp’s financial goal must be to maximize the value of its equity, i.e., its property.

Because violations of liberty, except inasmuch as they are necessary to secure Washcorp’s ownership of Plainland against its residents—hardly an onerous task with modern military technology—do not profit Washcorp, and since by definition they conflict with the desires of its residents, they reduce the demand for secondary rights to Washcorp’s property, and thus reduce its equity value. I.e., stock price.

For example, one obvious component of libertarian government is absolute freedom of medicine, or AFM. Under AFM, you (or, if you are incompetent, your guardian) have absolute control over your own body, what chemicals you put into it, what experts or so-called experts you consult to advise you on maintaining it, etc., etc., etc.

Washcorp certainly does not provide this service. The puzzle is: why not? Any prohibition is equivalent to a prohibitively high tax, so high that no one chooses to pay it. Washcorp can thus increase its revenue by reducing the tax, allowing you AFM if you pay the AFM tax. Needless to say, no such proposition is on the Washcorp policy menu.

The inescapable conclusion is that Washcorp is a very, very badly-mismanaged sovcorp. This is not at all surprising, because its management structures bear no relation to any of the very successful designs we see used in our normal, secondary corporations.

For example, Washcorp has no discernible shareholders. Instead, it appears to be run for the benefit of its employees. The 1990s in the Soviet Union provided many examples of what happens when a large company, especially one that controls a monopoly, is run by and for its employees. The result is corruption, featherbedding and patronage bloat. These phenomena will certainly be different in a sovcorp, at least in detail, but the basic syndrome is really quite recognizable.

Corporations controlled by their employees do not produce good customer service, as a general rule, because they have no capacity for unitary financial or managerial planning. If the customer is king, he is king only because his decisions are felt by the CFO, and the CFO is king. To put it differently, employees, unlike shareholders, have no local incentive to steward the equity of the entire operation. Thus they feel no compunction in abusing customers for their own personal jollies, like an Aeroflot stewardess in days of yore.

And this is how formalism leads us to neocameralism. Neocameralism is the idea that a sovereign state or primary corporation is not organizationally distinct from a secondary or private corporation. Thus we can achieve good management, and thus libertarian government, by converting sovcorps to the same management design that works well in today’s private sector—the joint-stock corporation.

One way to approach neocameralism is to see it as a refinement of royalism, an ancient system in which the sovcorp is a sort of family business. Under neocameralism, the biological quirks of royalism are eliminated and the State “goes public,” hiring the best executives regardless of their bloodline or even nationality.

Or you can just see neocameralism as part of the usual capitalist pattern in which services are optimized by aligning the interests of the service provider and the service consumer. If this works for groceries, why shouldn’t it work for government? I have a hard time in accepting the possibility that democratic constitutionalism would generate either lower prices or better produce at Safeway, although it is certainly fun to imagine the elections.

If it strikes you as farfetched to imagine the US Government as a corporation with a stock symbol, you might find it easier to start by thinking in terms of private city-states. While none of them comes anywhere near the neocameralist ideal, the city-states of Singapore, Dubai and Hong Kong certainly provide a very high quality of customer service. Note that none of them has any concept of constitutional, limited, or democratic government.

An easy thought-experiment for comparing forms of government is to imagine two competing side-by-side cities with identical geography, A and B, in which anyone can migrate from A to B or B to A by mutual consent of migrant and destination. (A common objection to neocameralism is the suggestion that a well-managed sovcorp might restrict not immigration but emigration, converting itself into a sort of large open-air prison or slave camp. I invite the reader to imagine the effect that this decision might have on property values, or to think about how profitable it has proven for North Korea—South Korea can be your B.)

We can reasonably say that A has achieved better government than B if there is a net migration flow from B to A, especially if the kind of people who are flowing from B to A are the same kind of people as whoever decides what “better” means. Now, imagine that A and B are both copies of San Francisco, but A is managed by Donald Trump or Lee Kuan Yew or Elizabeth I, whereas B is managed by the present arrangement of city, state and Federal governments. The results? While SF is a beautiful city, so was Detroit.

Note that this hypothesis is entirely testable. It is perfectly practical to create private cities. The step from special economic zones, which are often new cities (see, for example, Saudi Arabia’s forthcoming entry in the game) to sovcorps is quite short. Again, once property rights are stabilized, the difference between primary and secondary property are organizationally irrelevant. Government is management, good government is good management, and bad government is bad management.

In conclusion, let’s compare formalist neocameralism to libertarianism.

The advantage of libertarianism, from a practical political perspective, is that it has deep roots in the American value system, and it is hypothetically possible to persuade American voters to return to the values that their ancestors held in the 18th century. If they do this, they will become libertarians, vote for Ron Paul, return us to the gold standard, etc.

The disadvantage of libertarianism is (if I am right) that it is unsound as a principle of political engineering, that its historical roots are largely mythical and fantastic, and that there is no reason to think it is easy to change anyone’s value system, let alone resurrect values held by distant ancestors.

The disadvantage of neocameralism is that it is completely alien to American voters, that it has no connection at all to any American value system, that no one has even heard of it at all, that it represents a complete rejection of the sacred American principle of democracy, and that it could be described, not utterly without a grain of truth, as “corporate fascism” or some such similar epithet.

The advantage of neocameralism is (if I am right) that, unless you have a very perverse ethical system that glorifies violence, it can be justified logically in a few pages of text without reference to any Humean ought. It can be tested empirically, and arguably it already has been. In other words, neocameralism has no advantage except that it is a value-free proposition which is consistent with reality. Often, historically, this has been sufficient.

One way to illustrate neocameralism is to outline a strategy for restructuring Washcorp as an efficient, shareholder-owned operation. I am aware that I have promised an answer to this question before. However, this post is far too long already. Perhaps next week.4

[Of course, on my vacation I produced no email whatsoever. But I will rectify this, shortly. I swear.]

1. This is a reference to Overcoming Bias, originally a group blog whose authors included Eliezer Yudkowsky and Robin Hanson. Yudkowsky’s articles at Overcoming Bias were later moved to a different blog, Less Wrong.
2. This title too is now available online, albeit not quite as legally as Rothbard’s work.
3. And now, as previously noted, for free.