Culture, Decentralization, and the Libertarian Movement

In a recent article discussing the differences and nuances between two schools of “libertarian” (broadly conceived) thought, I pointed out that the camp to which I don’t belong (which includes Reason, Cato, SFL, and the Libertarian Party –and other “beltway libertarian” groups) was far less focused on principle and more on “keeping government competent,” which I complained was ambiguous and purposefully imprecise. I also mentioned in passing that there were some interesting, perhaps not so coincidental, cultural distinctions between the beltway libertarians and the Rothbardians.

The former seem obsessed with proving themselves as enthusiasts of cultural liberalism, political correctness, and social leftism. They go out of the way to announce just how progressive they are on homosexuality, drug use, sexual proclivity, racism, slavery, and so on. The usual leftist talking points.

Those Rothbardians closely associated with the Mises Institute, however, express concerns about the degradation of western culture, about the loss of the influence of religion on society (not to be confused with the cozy relationship of religious groups with the state– which has summarily and in retrospect been both bad on the statism front, as well as on the religious front), and also about the frightening rise of political correctness. In short, the Mises libertarians, as were Mises and Rothbard, are far more culturally conservative. As Hans Hoppe once noted of this strain of libertarian thought:

Rothbard’s own life-long cultural conservatism notwithstanding, however, from its beginnings in the late 1960s and the founding of a libertarian party in 1971, the libertarian movement had great appeal to many of the counter-cultural Left that had then grown up in the United States in opposition to the war in Vietnam. Did not the illegitimacy of the state and the non-aggression axiom imply that everyone was at liberty to choose his very own non-aggressive lifestyle, no matter what it was?

Much of Rothbard’s later writings, with their increased emphasis on cultural matters, were designed to correct this development and to explain the error in the idea of a leftist multi-counter-cultural libertarianism, of libertarianism as a variant of libertinism. It was false — empirically as well as normatively — that libertarianism could or should be combined with egalitarian multiculturalism. Both were in fact sociologically incompatible, and libertarianism could and should be combined exclusively with traditional Western bourgeois culture; that is, the old-fashioned ideal of a family-based and hierarchically structured society of voluntarily acknowledged rank orders of social authority.

Empirically, Rothbard did not tire to explain, the left-libertarians failed to recognize that the restoration of private-property rights and laissez-faire economics implied a sharp and drastic increase in social “discrimination.” Private property means the right to exclude. The modern social-democratic welfare state has increasingly stripped private-property owners of their right to exclude.

In distinct contrast, a libertarian society where the right to exclude was fully restored to owners of private property would be profoundly unegalitarian. To be sure, private property also implies the owner’s right to include and to open and facilitate access to one’s property, and every private-property owner also faces an economic incentive of including (rather than excluding) so long as he expects this to increase the value of his property.

From Hans Hoppe’s Introduction to Rothbard’s Ethics of Liberty

On a closely related front, and the inspiration for this short blogpost, one of the things you’ll notice of many of the beltway libertarians is their clear refusal to embrace secessionism and decentralization. They want freedom mandated and overseen from the Great Throne in DC. They are hesitant about states-rights, and only use it sometimes as a helpful tool. They’d prefer, however, for the Federal government to enforce freedom from Washington and overstep the decisions of more local governments. Of course, the libertarian rejects a good majority of the decisions of state and county level governments; but for the decentralist libertarian, it is safer that a government over a smaller jurisdiction make mistakes than set in habit the intervention from the Capitol.

This phenomenon of decentralist vs centralist “libertarian” (again, broadly conceived) can be seen in the tension between decentralists like Tom Woods and his nullification efforts vs. the establishment libertarians who, in all-out leftist form, immediately cry racism! slavery! whenever Woods and company spread the nullification message.

Many of these nationalistic libertarians (I use this phrase carefully– I’m not referring to them as nationalists in the fascistic sense of the word, just that they prefer to focus on the policies of the national government, rather than nullification local government-led change) such as Austin Petersen and his appropriately named (this always bugged me) Libertarian Republic website (AKA “The Clickbait Republic”), prefer the 14th amendment over the 10th amendment. This is a curious phenomenon that I’ve observed, and will hopefully have more reflections on in the future.

At any rate, I call them the “incorporationist libertarians” as they toe the Incorporation Doctrine argument (built on the 14th amendment) that the Bill of Rights is not strictly about keeping the Federal Government out of the liberties of the people, but rather, that the Bill of Rights should sometimes be enforced by the Federal Government against State governments.  One incorporation libertarian, interestingly, is Judge Andrew Napolitano. This is a very fascinating debate, and I will not undertake it here. But I will express my opinion and observation; namely, that the incorporation libertarians tend to be the same as the beltway libertarians, many of whom stand opposed to secessionism and nullification as the chief means toward liberty and keeping the Federal Government out. For the decentralist libertarians, following theorists like Hans Hoppe and his secessionist method of political change, keeping the bigger government out of local affairs is far more important than trusting them to solve local problems, even where the local government is clearly wrong.

One of the groups I forgot to mention in my previous article was the Koch-funded George Mason University economists, who are closely linked to the Cato/Reason type libertarians. I noticed in a Bloomberg piece recently that GMU’s Tyler Cowen, who tries to pawn himself off as Austrian economics-friendly (but really isn’t even close) opposes the separation of Britain from the umbrella of the European Union. Conversely, see some of the Mises Institute’s opinions here, here, here, and here. Interesting indeed. This seems to support my opinion that the beltway libertarians prefer large political unions over secession, localism, and so on.

The point of all this is not to prove that the decentralists are more right than the centralists, though I certainly think they are. The point is merely to share some more of my observations about the culture, methods, and frameworks employed by two camps of libertarians (The Mises Institute circles and the Koch Brothers circles).

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