How Libertarians Make Fascism Real: A Rebuttal
“Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting, and doing the things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks. Historians are pessimists because they ignore the banks for the river.”
My good friend Preston Picus and I have had many friendly and spirited discussions in the last year and a half or so about politics and philosophy. Picus is an author and a grassroots activist, and while we have many disagreements, every time we go back and forth I think we both come away learning something new and become richer for the experience.
Recently, Picus wrote an article on his blog called, “How Libertarians Make Fascism Real.” I wanted to respond to as many points as possible and attempt to rebut the claims that Picus makes about libertarianism.
Neither Left Nor Right
Picus starts off by making a point that I would tend to agree with, if for entirely different reasons:
I’ve been concerned for quite some time about the mislabeling of Obama as a communist by the right and far right wing of the United States.
Since Obama took office in 2009, I also noticed an immediate attack on Obama from the right-wing that he was some sort of Marxist, crypto-Muslim, sent from Bill Ayers’s brain to destroy America’s traditional values and impose socialism on us blah blah blah.
But right off the bat in an article attacking libertarianism, Picus calls out “the right and the far right wing.” Are libertarians part of this right/far-right wing of the US?
I think that most libertarians would agree with me that Obama is not this caricature that conservatives portray him as, but rather he is a half-white, conservative/centrist Democrat, imperialist, warmonger, corporatist, and torturer. Sure, his rhetoric may occasionally be progressive-sounding, but actions speak louder than words. Obama’s record is very similar to George W. Bush’s, which is of course similar to all of his corporatist predecessors (with apologies to a small handful of less-than-rotten presidents).
But the broader point is, where do libertarians fit on the political spectrum? Unfortunately in the US, there is an artificial left-right political divide that forces people into boxes and allows for a very narrow political debate. This leaves many people confused by libertarians, who sometimes find themselves aligned with conservatives and liberals on a wide range of issues.
Is libertarianism then just a buffet-style political system, picking and choosing bits and pieces from the Respectable Opinion of Left and Right? Not at all. Libertarianism is simply the political philosophy that states that no body has the right to initiate physical force against anyone else. That’s it. This doesn’t sound too radical since virtually all of us abide by this non-aggression principle (NAP) in our social lives, but what makes libertarianism so unique is that it applies to this principle to everyone, including, and especially, the state.
I have always been puzzled why conservatives support, at least rhetorically, some resemblance of economic freedom. The market is a very unconservative process, constantly overturning established institutions and entrenched methods of production. Since mutually-beneficial market exchanges are the only way to produce wealth, conservatives see a (highly-regulated) market as the way to create the money that they want the state to steal in order to lock drug users in cages, keep gay people from getting married, and carpet-bomb Muslims. They support Reagan’s “tax-cuts” (even though he raised taxes seven times and exploded the federal budget) as a way to generate more revenue to the state that they love so much.
Sure, there are right-leaning libertarians and left-leaning libertarians, but these are largely cultural differences. This is the beauty of libertarianism. One can be a conservative Christian who hates marijuana, totes guns, and swears by the Bible or a gay couple growing marijuana plants in their backyard; all that matters is that no one has the right to initiate physical violence on others. Live and let live. Force can only be used in self-defense. What other philosophy has such tolerance and principle?
None. Libertarianism is the only political philosophy you can disagree with. Every other political system, whether it’s liberalism, conservatism, fascism, socialism, or communism, seeks to impose their values and beliefs on the rest of the society by the barrel of a gun through the state. By this premise alone, libertarian anarchism should be the starting point of any political debate, philosophy, or program. After all, what’s the point of debating if the other side is willing to fine, maim, cage, or kill you depending on your level of resistance to their beliefs?
Libertarianism Makes Fascism Improbable
Fascism is the enforcement of the big wins of the big winners in the free market by the government.
There is no magic bullet or perfection in politics. We are dealing, after all, with flawed human beings. No political system can guarantee results or a specific outcome; all we can deal with is incentives.
First of all, we have to define fascism. Fascism is a political ideology which seeks to merge state and corporate power and centralize institutions as much as possible. Nationalism and war are also great virtues for the fascist, giving the “country” a unified, grand meaning. As Italy’s dictator Benito Mussolini described it, “All within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”
Libertarianism is the complete rejection of the state, as the only institution “allowed” to violate the NAP, on principle, so we can swipe away the idea that libertarianism leads to fascism simply on theory by the fact that they are polar opposites.
But let’s assume that we are hopelessly naive, and unbeknownst to us we are carrying the water for corporate interests despite our repeated objections against it. Well, some revisionism is needed.
A common theme in US history is that the state, guided by nothing other than benevolence for the common man, stepped in to throttle the free market and rescue us from the monopolistic, predatory, exploitative big business that inevitably results from laissez faire societies. But the late Gabriel Kolko, a great Marxist historian and no friend to libertarianism, had a slightly different view of what is known as “the Progressive era.”
In his book, The Triumph of Conservatism: A Re-Interpretation of American History, 1900-1916, Kolko discovered the concepts of rent-seeking, public choice theory, regulatory capture and “crony capitalism” that define our fascist economy to this day, explaining how industry could capture regulatory agencies in ways that cartelized the market and suppressed new competition. Just like the progressive or conservative who wants to use the violence of the state to achieve his ends, business interests do so as well.
In a great article at the Independent Review, Roger Danway and Rob Bradley cite Kolko:
Kolko rejected ipso facto the standard model that Progressive historians had propounded during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s: that the federal government’s economic interventions during the Gilded Age and thereafter resulted from high- minded reformers, both Populist and Progressive, who sought to curb the social ills of laissez-faire capitalism. According to Kolko’s version, such “progressive” reformers were actually political conservatives who worked with their business counterparts to create what today is called crony capitalism.
Kolko’s fundamental challenge to the dominant Progressive paradigm was coolly received in the academy [emphasis added].
Murray Rothbard, the godfather of modern libertarianism, loved Kolko’s work on this topic (and Kolko’s great revisionism on US wars in the 20th century), writing:
“Despite the wave of mergers and trusts formed around the turn of the century, Kolko reveals, the forces of competition on the free market rapidly vitiated and dissolved these attempts at stabilizing and perpetuating the economic power of big business interests. It was precisely in reaction to their impending defeat at the hands of the competitive storms of the market that big business turned, increasingly after the 1900s, to the federal government for aid and protection.”
In other words, the regulatory and welfare state, old-age pensions, “progressive” taxation, central banking, big government, big business, big labor, and progressive liberalism in general, are the real tools of corporate power, bankers, monopolies, and conservatism. Free markets are the enemy, not the ally, of fascism.
And it’s not just Kolko who saw this. Marxist historian Martin J. Sklar wrote in great detail about how the modern regulatory state was installed by conservative interests to protect themselves from the beautiful anarchy of the market. Gore Vidal and Thaddeus Russell also offer a similar analysis from the Left.
To dive into this concept further, and with more recent examples, let’s look at the Crash of 2008 and the subsequent bailouts. Forget for a minute about the corporatism, fascism, regulatory capture, and easy money that lead to the crash; what happened after? The big banks were “bailed out,” (the state used the threat of violence to take money from the rest of us) to socialize the losses of those that had been incentivized to make bad bets. In a free market, these banks would have been left to either fail or spin off into smaller companies to restructure their debts. This is what markets force large concentrations of power to do, even when these powers have been propped up by the state for decades. The market was sending signals (through the price system) that these guys were loaded with toxic assets.
Instead, because we live under a political system dominated by institutionalized violence, Citigroup and others were allowed to privatize their profits and socialize their losses. Multiply this concept over the entire economy, and you have the fascist corporate state. Libertarians oppose this root and branch, and in fact seek to undermine this process by striking at the heart of it: a group of people, calling themselves the state, claiming for themselves the right to commit acts which violate the NAP that governs civil society and the market.
Libertarianism leads to fascism? If history and economics theory is any guide, libertarianism is the antidote to fascism. And if the aforementioned historians aren’t convincing enough, let’s just take a step-by-step logical process of the “solution” of state power (in the right hands, of course!!), with a strong, democratic process, tough regulations on those evil business men, and leaders uncorrupted by money interests.
Well, imagine that someone proposed that the key to establishing social justice and restraining corporate greed was to establish a very large corporation, much larger than any corporation hitherto known. A corporation that held a monopoly on some extremely important market within our society, and used its monopoly in that market to extend its control into other markets, hired men with guns to force customers to buy its product at whatever price it chose, and periodically bombed the employees and customers of corporations in other countries. By what theory would we predict that this corporation, above all others, could be trusted to serve our interests and to protect us both from criminals and from all the other corporations? If someone proposed to establish a corporation like this, would your worries be assured the moment you learned that every adult would be issued one share of stock in this corporation, entitling them to vote for members of the board of directors? If it would not, is the governmental system really so different from that scenario as to explain why we may trust a national government to selflessly serve and protect the rest of society?
No True Scotsman Would Support Communism
First, the principles of communism are designed to help the poor, not enrich the government. We have taken it for granted that when you give the government total power, it stops serving the poor or leveling the playing field and moves into a mode of hyper-self-enrichment. Marx didn’t write about a system whereby Stalin gets to do whatever he wants and have as much power as he can grab. It is simply that the idealism of Marx was twisted by Stalin to do just that. Communism began as an idealistic attempt to lift those impoverished by the standing system into a relatively egalitarian state.
First, I think we can safely assume that intentions and designs are not synonymous with results. Twain famously knew where the roads of good intentions lead.
But let’s take those intentions at face value. Is egalitarianism inherently a desirable goal? Individuals are unique, possessing different skills, traits, characteristics, flaws and beliefs. This is the beauty of civil society; true diversity. What is no noble about “equal” cogs in a machine, a bland uniformity that seeks to stifle our differences? Every thing that makes society worth living and experiencing – the different religions, accents, languages, cultures, opinions, habits, norms – must be sacrificed to the God of Egalitarianism. The State is turned into a God; all other private loyalties are distractions from the Greater Good that these wise rulers have planned, by force if necessary, for the rest of us. And who enforces something so radically unnatural to the human experience?
Those at the top of the state pyramid, of course. This is why communism inevitably leads to dictatorship; someone must impose this ideal on the rest of us, and those that dare to disagree and assert their natural, individual rights to life and liberty have to have coercion used against them. Voluntary communism, like co-ops and mutual-aid societies, I have no problem with. But it harkens back to an earlier point: are you free to disagree with Marxism? If one chooses to not be a Marxist, will the state employ violence against them?
In a libertarian society, it does not matter how society organizes itself only that no one is allowed to initiate violence against anyone. There are an infinite amount of ways human beings can cooperate. Communism is allowed, businesses are allowed. In a communist system, only rigid adherence is allowed – or else.
I have heard many sympathetic to Marxism claim that Stalin was not a “true” communist. I would argue that communism leads to Stalin because it must be enforced by institutionalized violence. Otherwise it wouldn’t be communism, it’d be the market.
But let’s take at face value that Stalin bastardized communism. Well, what about the others like Mao, Pol Pot, Lenin, Castro, etc? Did they bastardize it too. In Southeast Asia, the communists literally went to people’s homes, took their property, and handed every one an equal amount of money. Leaving aside the ethical issue of certain people claiming for themselves the right to take their property and mold society in this way, what were the results? Poverty and killing fields. When Lenin took over Russia, Russia was the breadbasket of Europe. He abolished private property. The results? Poverty and kill fields. Compare Havana to Hong Kong. South Korea to North Korea. West Germany to East Germany. Mao helped starve and kill over 50 million people. Are all of these aberrations?
If I wasn’t an anarchist, I’d say that the Black Book of Communism should be required reading for every child.
As Ludwig von Mises argued almost a century ago, socialism and communism must fail because they lack the pricing structure of the market to coordinate production in the most efficient way possible. As Lew Rockwell explains in his latest book, Against the State: An Anarcho-Capitalist Manifesto:
Why does socialist central planning not work? The means of production are not held privately, so there cannot be any exchange markets for them and therefore no exchange ratios established. That means there is no way to calculate profit and loss. Without profit and loss, there is no way to assess the tradeoffs associated with alternative uses of resources. That means there is no economy in the literal sense of that term.Let’s say there is only a limited amount of gasoline. Should it be used to fuel trucks to haul debris away, run construction equipment to put in power plants, or used to move building materials in for new schools and roads? There is no way to assess the relative merit of these choices. The same is true for every resource.
Without the order of pricing that arises from private property and voluntary exchange, it’s “planned chaos” as Mises called it. Economics is not prescriptive, it is descriptive. It does not tell you what you should do, only what will happen if x or y happens.
If the state uses violence to impose an artificial price floor on, say, lumber or labor, then all things being equal, there will be less labor and less lumber employed. No amount of emotional appeals or desires will change this. Economics has no room for starting with the end point of society (egalitarianism) and working backwards. There are consequences to avoiding economics laws. In light communism/fascism like we have in the US and in most countries, this leads to shortages and distortions that rippled across the economy (every economic exchange) that harms all but the very rich. In heavy communism/fascism, this leads to gulags, guillotines, and gas chambers.
And looking around at America and the rest of the world, what more do Marxists want? It seems like no matter how many of their goals are achieved, it is never enough. Think about all of Marx’s planks of communism. How many are entrenched in American political discourse, defended by all Respectable Opinion? Progressive income tax? Check. Inheritance tax? Check. “Free” education? Check. Centralization of credit – hell, centralization of everything – into the hands of the state? You betcha.
The conservative, big business fat cats would be smiling.
Libertarianism: The Anti-Utopian Philosophy
Instead of the ultimate freedom to exchange as we see fit in a utopia spared creativity stifling government pressure, we will have fascism. If we go far to the right, no matter how well intended, we will create a brutal regime using the incredibly idealistic goals of the libertarians to stomp on the faces of the vast majority of our American citizens to benefit a tiny, wealthy minority.
One of the most important aspects of libertarianism is its inherent rejection of utopianism. If you listen to any other political philosophy, all of them inevitable boil down to getting “the right guys” in charge. It is the fallacy of the golden gun: state violence magically becomes noble when employed by these good guys. If the Stanford Prison and Milgram experiments teach us anything, it is that political power in and of itself is the abuse.
Any system that depends on the right guys to be in charge is flawed both theoretically and practically. It assumes that some people have the right to initiate violence against others as long as their intentions are noble (who judges this?), that they seek nothing but the public good (what is the public good? who defines it?), and that good results can come from evil means (using violence or the threats of it). But then what happens when these “good guys” lose power? The same power given to them will inevitably fall into the hands of people who disagree with the former benevolent rulers.
This seems like a perfect microcosm for the Left-Right debate in America. Every few years, we go back and forth on who will get to use the state monopoly privilege against whom. Libertarians want to part of this. We see this entire process through Lenin’s eyes, who said the fundamental question of politics is “who does what to whom.” The what, of course, is violence. The who/whom matter little in the grand scheme of things; it’s the what that we, and libertarians alone, focus on.
For libertarianism, it does not matter if human beings or good or bad. Our philosophy is not dependent upon a noble ruler or changing human nature, unlike the Communist Man or forcing everyone into a box of “Judeo-Christian heritage.” Libertarianism is the most sober and practical answer to political problems because it doesn’t seek to mold society. Society can’t be molded! It is an organic, holistic process. Libertarianism is, as Edward Abbey put it, “the hardheaded realization, based on five thousand years of experience, that we cannot entrust the management of our lives to kings, priests, politicians, generals, and county commissioners.”
You say that the “ultimate freedom to exchange as we see fit in a utopia spared creativity stifling government pressure, we will have fascism,” but I have to vehemently disagree using both theory and practicality. Isn’t it utopian to give a small group of individuals the right to initiate violence against the rest of us and expect that this power can be limited, controlled, or even more ridiculously, harnessed for good?
And secondly, we don’t need to ask if free exchange will lead to fascism (you mean, like now, with the biggest state in world history?) because all we have to do is look around. Since we wisely reject the political process and think that nobody has the right to coercively rule over someone else, libertarians have instead started building free societies without permission or license.
In New Hampshire, thousands of libertarians have moved there to freely exchange with each other, and instead of fascism we see economic prosperity, peace, and order. All over the country, we are imitating NH’s and building voluntary communities are on our own that exemplify the market: diverse, horizontal, and bottom-up. We are homeschooling and unschooling our kids. We are raising our children peacefully to build a generation of anarchists, understanding that violence and yelling and hitting our children leads to sociopathy and aggression in later life. Jury nullification is being used to keep innocent people from being locked in a government cell. We are practicing agorism, a quiet and peaceful away of withdrawing oneself from the corporate state.
While the rest of the country bickers over who will point guns at whom, we are voting with our feet and creating examples for the rest of the world to emulate. Only if they want to, of course.
And it’s hard to think of a better example of this than the spread of Bitcoin. Any government economics class will tell you that of course states must supply money. Why, there’d be anarchy and chaos if there was no institutionalized violence in the provision of one-half of every economic transition.
Bitcoin is the proof of concept that shatters this myth. A private, free market, decentralized, deflationary currency that vastly improves upon the utilitarian functions of money (medium of peaceful exchange) while also providing us with the technology to circumvent the state and build real communities. The Bitcoin blockchain and public ledger can be used to form companies that are more transparent and decentralized, design contracts, exchange value, and be used for an infinite amount of other revolutionary features that make the statist world of licensing, subsidies, privilege, centralization obsolete.
It also makes charity far easier. Without a middle man skimming off the top, people can transfer value across the world in seconds for fractions of a penny. You think this makes PayPal and Western Union happy? Should we use the power of the state to “level the playing field?” Or let the market put these guys out business instead?
We know where the state sides in this. Sean’s Outpost in Florida, in the span of one year, has “fed 60,000 meals to the homeless people in the Pensacola area, secured a nine acre property with plans to open a campground for those in need of a safe area to stay, and opened a thrift store all through Bitcoin donations. The community of Bitcoiners has been extremely generous and supportive, and real progress is being made.” This is real community and charity. The state has responded by using the only power at its disposal – violence – to try to shut them down and make life as difficult for them as possible. We can’t have people showing up the state’s “welfare” can we?
For the billions around the world without access to bank accounts or whose governments eat up all the aid send to them, Bitcoin is a revelation. It’s no wonder it was started and spread by libertarians.
I myself keep as little War Dollars as I can and use Bitcoin as much as possible. It’s the currency of peace and liberty. Money out of politics? How about politics out of money!
And one day I hope to move to NH or its libertarian copycats to have freedom for myself as well as knowing that others have their freedom as well.
Why Not Leave Us In Peace?
The essence of fascism – state power – is such a non-sequitur to the problems of society. In science, there is a “god of the gaps” fallacy which invokes divine intervention as a way to understand natural phenomena that science is presently unable to explain.
The state plays the same role in political discourse. Government is to society is God is to physics. How would x,y,z, work in a free society? What about this specific issue or problem? Well the answer must be the state!
But the logic doesn’t follow. Libertarians, being realists and anti-utopians, don’t assume that a free society will be perfect, only that institutionalizing coercion does not only not solve any perceived problems but tends to make things worse. Just because abolitionists did not know what society would look like without slavery does not mean that slavery is the answer to how cotton should be picked. It is immoral, so it must be opposed. End of story. The same goes for state power.
Thankfully, as technological process grows and more people have access to information, we are already seeing free market alternatives to things that both liberals and conservatives think would be impossible without using violence against people.
The fundamental question of politics is: when is coercion, force, and violence allowed in society? The libertarian is the only one who can answer this question principally and universally: only in self-defense. This does not mean that violence will never be initiated or bad people will vanish, only that we shouldn’t institutionalize this violence or give these bad people armies, police forces, or elections.
Just because one doesn’t like a choice someone else makes in their personal life, a habit they pick up, or an economic transaction they deem as “unfair,” this does not justify violence.
A good rule, I think, is applying this principle to oneself. If libertarians are right and violence is only moral and ethical in self-defense, let’s play it out a bit. If someone attempts to murder me, steal my stuff, pollute my land, or defraud me, I have the right to use force to stop them. Since I have this right, I also have the right to delegate this power to someone else.
But when it comes to using violence against those haven’t initiated it against anyone else, I have no right to do this. Since I don’t have this right, I can’t delegate it to anyone else. Even if there is a magic wand of democracy, voting, badges, or costumes, I can’t delegate a right that I don’t have.
So whenever one calls for the state to do anything other than use defensive violence, I ask: are they willing to personally use violence in order to achieve these ends? Why outsource it? Are they willing to go door-to-door and point guns at people even if they haven’t aggressed against anyone? Does this change if the ends are “noble” and “virtuous?”
These are the types of issues that concern libertarians. We prefer Socrates over Plato; asking the right questions, rather than proposing the wrong answers. This is why, despite holding no power whatsoever and representing less than 1% of the population, we are seen as such a threat.
We oppose a system of institutionalized violence that makes the rich richer, prevents the rest of us from undercutting them and competing with them, entrenches corporate interests, makes war, inflates the currency, prevents people from making their own decisions over what they put into their bodies – and offers liberty as the antidote.
Despite having millions of guns pointed at us by liberals, conservatives, fascists, socialists and communists, we are building free societies against all odds and state regulations. We have no grandiose ambitions of revolutions; those are for neocon warmongers and socialists. We humbly seek liberty, and to set an example to others on how civilization is built upon the pillars of individual liberty, private property, and non-aggression.
We would never dream of imposing our values on anyone else. All we ask of other political philosophies is that they give us the same tolerance and respect.