Libertarianism and Liberalism: What Went Wrong

Since the general theme of this blog is an anti-authoritarian entente – or even coalition – of diverse liberal and libertarian elements, one question that comes to mind is: “What are the most objectionable features of both establishment libertarianism, and establishment liberalism, from the standpoint of achieving such a coalition?”

1. The problem with mainstream libertarianism is its almost total departure from its radical roots. Early classical liberalism was a revolutionary doctrine, which declared war on the most entrenched class interests of its day. Even the most mainstream of classical liberals (like Adam Smith, James Mill and David Ricardo) displayed considerable hostility to the landed oligarchy and the politically connected mercantilists who dominated Britain in the early nineteenth century. And the classical liberal movement included, as well, a large radical wing represented by thinkers like Thomas Hodgskin, who saw the new capitalist system as a bastard fusion of  partially free markets and industrialism with the old feudal class system. For Hodgskin, the new industrial capitalists were amalgamating with the old landed aristocracy to form a new ruling class. The capitalist system  that was coming into existence was not a free market, but a new class system in which capitalists controlled the state and used it to enforce special privileges for themselves, in exactly the same way that the landed  interests had controlled the state for their own interests under the Old Regime.

The significance of this radicalism increases when you bear in mind that Hodgskin’s radical wing of classical liberalism overlapped heavily with the early socialist movement, back when a major part of the workers’  movement still aimed simply at abolishing the special privileges of landlords and capitalists and building a market economy based on workers’ cooperatives.

The radical wing of the classical liberal movement did not by any means disappear, even when classical liberalism as a whole shifted rightward. It survived in the American individualist anarchism of Warren, Tucker and  Spooner, and in the various offshoots of Henry George (e.g. Albert Nock and Ralph Borsodi), among other places. Nevertheless, it was relegated to the margin of the larger classical liberal movement.

For the overall movement, the transition came toward the middle of the nineteenth century, when the industrial capitalists had supplanted the landed elites as the dominant class in Britain. At this point, the main body of classical liberalism shifted its emphasis from an attack on entrenched privilege of the great land-owning classes and mercantilists, to a defense of the interests of industrial capitalists.

With the political triumph of the Third Estate, the mainstream of classical political economy–the generation after Ricardo and Mill–made the switch to what Marx called “vulgar political economy,” and took up the role of  hired ideological prizefighters for capitalist interests.

From a revolutionary ideology aimed at breaking down the powers of feudal and mercantilist ruling classes, mainstream libertarianism has evolved into a reflexive apology for the institutions today most nearly  resembling a feudal ruling class: the giant corporations.

A useful illustration of the shift is the contrasting positions of the early and late Herbert Spencer. The early Spencer was a disciple of Thomas Hodsgkin, who attacked the artificial property rights of the landed elites and regarded the rents collected by the great landowners as a species of taxation. The later Spencer (although still a more complex thinker than these remarks might suggest) was described by Benjamin Tucker:

It seems as if he had forgotten the teachings of his earlier writings, and had become a champion of the capitalistic class. It will be noticed that in these later articles, amid his multitudinous illustrations (of which he is as prodigal as ever) of the evils of legislation, he in every instance cites some law passed, ostensibly at least, to protect labor, alleviate suffering, or promote the people’s welfare. He demonstrates beyond dispute the  lamentable failure in this direction. But never once does he call attention to the far more deadly and deep-seated evils growing out of the innumerable laws creating privilege and sustaining monopoly. You must not  protect the weak against the strong, he seems to say, but freely supply all the weapons needed by the strong to oppress the weak. He is greatly shocked that the rich should be directly taxed to support the poor, but that  the poor should be indirectly taxed and bled to make the rich richer does not outrage his delicate sensibilities in the least. Poverty is increased by the poor laws, says Mr. Spencer. Granted; but what about the rich laws  that caused and still cause the poverty to which the poor laws add? That is by far the more important question; yet Mr. Spencer tries to blink it out of sight.

In other words, as Cool Hand Luke would say, “Them pore ole bosses need all the help they can get.”

2. Establishment liberalism, on the other hand, is all too true to its roots. Its origins lie at the turn of the twentieth century.

After the Civil War, American society was transformed by giant, centralized, hierarchical organizations: the large corporation and the large government agency. To these was eventually added the large charitable foundation and the university. All these large organizations shared a common organizational style, and a common managerial culture. Progressivism, which was the direct ancestor of twentieth century liberalism, was the ideology of the professional and managerial New Middle Classes that ran these large organizations. Especially as exemplified by Herbert Croly and his associates in the New Republic circle and the National Civic  Federation, Progressivism sought to organize and manage society as a whole by the same principles that governed the large organization. The managerial revolution carried out by the New Middle Class, in the large corporation, was in its essence an attempt to apply the engineer’s approach (standardizing and rationalizing tools, processes, and systems) to the organization of society as a whole. And these Weberian/Taylorist ideas of  scientific management and bureaucratic rationality, first applied in the large corporation, quickly spread not only to all large organizations, but to the dominant political culture. The tendency in all aspects of life was to  treat policy as a matter of expertise rather than politics: to remove as many questions as possible from the realm of public debate to the realm of administration by “properly qualified authorities.” As a New Republic  editorial put it, “the business of politics has become too complex to be left to the pretentious misunderstandings of the benevolent amateur.” At the same time, the individual was transformed from the independent and  self-governing yeoman of the Jeffersonian ideal, to the client of professional bureaucracies. He became a “human resource” who took orders from the Taylorist managers at work to whom he had alienated his craft skills, went hat in hand to the “helping professionals” to whom he had alienated his common sense, and expressed his “individuality” entirely in the realm of private consumption.

Conclusion. So what do we need? Libertarianism needs to move back to its radical roots. The elements of the libertarian movement that favor genuinely free markets as a matter of principle, as opposed to defending  corporate interests under the guise of phony “free market” rhetoric, need to separate the sheep from the goats.

Liberalism, on the other hand, needs to move away from its managerialist roots (”The body of Leviathan and the head of a social worker,” in Joseph Stromberg’s memorable phrase) and become more genuinely left-wing.  It needs to embrace direct democracy, self-management, and decentralism.

I think there is a huge, unmet demand in this country for a third alternative in politics. Right now, mainstream American politics consists of a Daddy Party and a Mommy Party. The Daddy Party, the Banana Republicans, want to turn this country into one giant dioxin-soaked corporate sweatshop, while acting as Pecker Police and making sure nobody catches a glimpse of Janet Jackson’s tit. The Mommy Party, personified by a 900-foot-tall nanny in kevlar vest and gas mask, has as its slogan “Momma don’t allow! Momma don’t allow!”

We need an alternative that appeals to everyone who finds both of the above distasteful. The third agenda would be something along the lines of the “Common Sense II” pamphlet put out by the People’s Bicentennial  Commission thirty years ago, which promoted local self-government and cooperative economics. Its centerpiece would be reducing the power of both big government and big business, and devolving power to human  scale political and economic organizations subject to direct democratic control. The overriding principle would be to eliminate privilege, and to eliminate all the ways that government currently stacks the deck in favor of  the rich and big business, and then get out of the way as much as possible. Let workers keep the share of our product that’s currently consumed by useless eaters (landlords, usurers, bureaucrats, and licensed monopolists), and then do with it as we will.

This entry was posted on Thursday, March 13th, 2008 at 9:31 pm.

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