With neoreaction being settled as basically libertarianism (which is what I have been saying it is for a long time now,) or more precisely “old whig” liberalism (ctrl –F “whig”), maybe it is time to revisit a Moldbug classic: ‘Why I am not a libertarian.’ This post has a lot to recommend it, so it is worth reading in full, but a couple of choice quotes might suffice in a pinch:
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
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 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 violatesHume’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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 sovereignproperty.
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 theirstability. To a formalist, a system in which no involuntary property transfers occur is always ideal – at both the primary and secondary levels.
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 anantipropertarian 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.
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.
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.
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 wasDetroit.
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 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.
Comparing even this early post to the current state of Neoreaction can only lead to the impression that Conquest’s 2nd law (which should be amended to “any organisation not expressly reactionary” really) has had its way multiple times with that school of thought. It is currently expressly left wing by any historical standard. Anti-authoritarian left wing, but left wing nonetheless. It is a repository of advocates of limited government, judgement free algorithmic governance (which includes sub sets of rule of law advocates and code as law advocates,) democrats and anti-government libertarians. It is only a matter of time until some feminists show up to apply gender queer theory to it.