Saturday, August 24, 2019

Working to Fill a Void

The summer issue of the Austro Libertarian magazine is now available.  I find the articles and essays in this magazine quite valuable, filling an important niche between the short, topical essays available at a variety of libertarian and Austrian sites and the longer, academic articles found in various libertarian and Austrian economic journals.  Further, the editors are fully understanding of the necessity to speak to the relevance of history and cultural tradition in the quest for liberty – in other words, my cup of tea!

The opening editorial offers a worthwhile examination of the purpose of the magazine within the larger framework of moving toward a society better grounded in liberty.  There certainly is a void here when it comes to what is described as the broad libertarian movement, as outside of the Mises Institute and Lew Rockwell, there are few, if any, meaningful libertarian institutions that will explore this space that incorporates culture and history into a proper understanding of liberty.

…there is an emerging realization that [libertarians] must not ignore more epochal concerns. Such concerns must not be relegated narrowly to the state, but as well to the development of the history, culture, and worldview of our time.

It is quite an interesting statement.  In my earliest meaningful steps toward understanding libertarianism and liberty, I would wonder why Murray Rothbard would involve himself so much in history, culture, and tradition – exploring these topics yet never demanding that the non-aggression principle take on the burden of carrying the weight of these topics. 

If our enemy is the state, what do any of these have to do with liberty?  My gut told me that there was some connection, but it took my own exploration to see it.  Rothbard saw this decades ago, but to many libertarians, his lessons have been lost.

A contrast is offered of what is described as a destructive tendency in libertarian circles.  On the one hand, what is generally referred to as thick libertarianism, incorporating into libertarianism the “overall struggle of Western man to be free of all psychological, moral, cultural, and familial pressure.” 

On the other hand, “the disinterest in meta-human affairs. …this tendency presents itself in those libertarians who make libertarianism the only thing worth discussing and propagating.”  The editors properly describe this second group:

They have not theoretically traded a “thin libertarianism” for an “atomistic libertarianism,” but they have indeed done so practically.

What I see in this “destructive tendency” in libertarian circles is, through the first group, the destruction of libertarianism as a meaningful or useful concept.  There is no meaning to a life sanitized of all such pressures; there is no usefulness in a philosophy that ignores all such pressures.

As destructive as this first group is to libertarianism and liberty, I find at least equally destructive the second group: instead of liberty, libertarianism is seen as the end; libertarianism can successfully support liberty regardless of the health and content of the cultural foundation underneath it.  These are fallacious – even dangerous – ideas, ideas that will lead to tyranny.

It is clear that those in the first group burden libertarianism to such an extent as to make it a useless concept; those in the second group do not understand the inherently necessary connection of culture and tradition to liberty – as libertarianism is not sufficient toward this end.

As an aside, the editors offer that despite this divergence amongst libertarians, they still find the phrase “libertarian movement” serving a purpose.  Perhaps in this issue (as I have not yet read it all) or in some future issue, the editors can expand on this point.  I have struggled with the idea of a libertarian movement (here and here), albeit never wavering on the value of libertarianism and the non-aggression principle as the proper standard for identifying acts of aggression.

Returning to the editorial, the editors see libertarianism as one puzzle piece in a more holistic and integrated framework “once referred to as ‘the humanities.’”  As such, dealing with the problems of this age of statism requires something more than a perfected political theory.  For this, the authors offer four thoughts about this libertarian movement and the magazine’s place in it:

First is the need for a Grand Narrative.  To demonstrate that such a narrative is lacking in the broader libertarian community, Rothbard noted of what he called the typical libertarian:

This typical libertarian, he wrote, “is fairly bright, and fairly well-steeped in libertarian theory. But he knows nothing and cares less about history, culture, the context of reality or world affairs.”

Hans Hoppe recently took an important step in this regard, offering The Libertarian Quest for a Grand Historical Narrative, in which he suggested that the greatest challenge for libertarians is to develop a proper alternative to the Whig theory of history: continual and unstoppable progress; that we live in the best of times and things only will get better.

Second is the concept of revolution and change: most people don’t live in the world of idealist thinkers – libertarian or otherwise.  Whatever the established order, revolutionary change almost always brings with it unimaginable death and destruction.  This should not be a surprise – after all, the established order has been overthrown – the key word being “order.”  To expect that a population will instantaneously conform to whatever new order the revolutionaries desire is a farcical idea.  Hence, chaos.

Third, political universalism: this idea of a top-down libertarianism, a one-size-fits all solution to ever expanding population – even to include all of humanity – “Betraying all consideration of historical and cultural elements…”  Of course, this flies in the face of any realistic understanding of divergent cultures, traditions and mores.

Against all this, we continue to promote and champion decentralization; not only politically, but socially and mentally as well.

Fourth, a refuge for ideas:

In our time, capitalism is seen as the enemy of all humanity, decentralization as a reflection of man’s inherent tribalistic bigotries, and a principled commitment to private property as an antiquated scourge on socially meaningful living.

Where does one turn if one doesn’t see the world in this way?  Ultimately, it is here where the editors find the work of the magazine, by speaking to…

…libertarians who, like us, recognize that there is an entire world of literary criticism, historical narrative, sociological analysis, and social philosophy in the greater Western tradition.

And recognizing – as Rothbard did – that all such disciplines are necessary if one’s search is for liberty, and not merely the purification of libertarianism.


Many libertarians today offer that freedom from all cultural and traditional norms is required for libertarianism to be fulfilled; many others find no reason to consider cultural and traditional norms at all – being outside of the thin definition of libertarianism.  Inherently, the second group leaves the playing filed open to the first.

Where does this leave those libertarians who find value – even necessity – in incorporating Western cultural and traditional norms into their worldview if liberty is the objective?  Where does it leave those who understand that it was only in the Western cultural tradition that the concepts that are foundational to liberty took root?

It is in this space where the magazine will play.

Correction / clarification: I have received an email from the editors of the magazine; I have clearly misunderstood their intent regarding the idea of an ongoing “libertarian movement.”  The note, as follows:

Thanks for the great review! The only thing is that the tone of our statement of libertarian movement was actually in the other direction. We wanted to express doubt that this phrase was actually meaningful anymore at all.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the Hoppe-article. I read it with great pleasure. That is until the Pinker part, which I did not not manage to finish.