The Civilized Ancap and The Hippie Individualist

Talk of extended principle is the present issue in libertarian circles. When the modern libertarian crowd was introduced to the thick/thin debate via the writings of Charles W. Johnson, others at C4SS and elsewhere, the issue proved itself divisive and thought provoking. From this grew the related distinction between libertarian “Brutalists” and “Humanitarians” as described in Jeffrey Tucker’s now infamous essay Against Libertarian Brutalism. Tucker argues that

[Brutalism] strips down the theory to its rawest and most fundamental parts and pushes the application of those parts to the foreground. It tests the limits of the idea by tossing out the finesse, the refinements, the grace, the decency, the accoutrements. It cares nothing for the larger cause of civility and the beauty of results. It is only interested in the pure functionality of the parts. It dares anyone to question the overall look and feel of the ideological apparatus, and shouts down people who do so as being insufficiently devoted to the core of the theory, which itself is asserted without context or regard for aesthetics.

Tucker’s concern for “finesse”, “refinements” and “grace” have to do with his predisposition for a certain “civilized” aesthetic that has always been an implicit component to Anarcho-Capitalism itself. Tucker’s verbose monologue on shaving cream and undetachable tuxedo may act as some elaboration. Between him and Murray Rothbard, the bow tie has become synonymous with Anarcho-Capitalism: the “Ancap bowtie” now appears on shirts, posters, and even the masthead of the Anarcho-Capitalism subreddit. At last year’s Students For Liberty Southern California Regional Conference, I learned that wearing a bow tie to a libertarian event was considered an unspoken “AnCap signifier” from a friend who was surprised to meet a bow tie-adorned newcomer who regrettably turned out to be a “Conservatarian” who didn’t get the memo. Tucker’s penchant for the “civilized” stems from his optimistic outlook on the future of 3D printing, BitCoin and the robust power of markets in general. Markets are, after all, the optimal means to allocate scarce resources that end up producing marvelous wonders of civilization, so it only stands to reason that it’s proponents would adopt an aesthetic that mirrors that truth. On the flip side of this pride in the productivity and driving social force of markets is a distaste for the “uncivilized”. Historically, in the 20th century liberty movement, this has included, but was not limited to daydreamers, free spirits, hippies and other counter-cultural types. The now defunct Paleo-Libertarian strategy called for a renouncement of left-leaning cultural and aesthetic preferences. Lewellyn Rockwell, who fervently argues against thick conceptions of liberty, once pushed his own batch of thickist commitments:

In his essay “The Case for Paleo-Libertarianism”, Rockwell accused mainstream libertarians of “hatred of western culture”. He argued that “pornographic photography, ‘free’-thinking, chaotic painting, atonal music, deconstructionist literature, Bauhaus architecture, and modernist films have nothing in common with the libertarian political agenda – no matter how much individual libertarians may revel in them.” Of paleo-libertarians, he wrote “we obey, and we ought to obey, traditions of manners and taste.

In the same vein, Rothbard didn’t hold back his distaste for those who daydream of a locus amoenus in his essay Conservation in the Free Market [PDF]:

One of the most disquieting features of the environmentalist movement is its evident abhorrence of modern technology and its Romanticist back-to-nature philosophy. Technology and civilization are responsible, they say, for crowding, pollution, despoliation of resources, so let us therefore return to unspoiled nature, to Walden Pond, to contemplation in a far-off glade.

For both Rockwell and Rothbard, it’s about more than morality and strategy. They had already established a clear view on cultural and aesthetic commitments before the 21st century thick/thin debate began. While the 20th century classical liberals championed the 19th century Individualists as fellow free-marketeers, at times they couldn’t have been further apart culturally, strategically and aesthetically. Consider Rothbard’s above dismissal of “Romanticist back-to-nature” types with Voltairine de Cleyre’s wistful prose:

I have never wanted anything more than the wild creatures have,—a broad waft of clean air, a day to lie on the grass at times, with nothing to do but slip the blades through my fingers, and look as long as I pleased at the whole blue arch, and the screens of green and white between; leave for a month to float and float along the salt crests and among the foam, or roll with my naked skin over a clean long stretch of sunshiny sand; food that I liked, straight from the cool ground, and time to taste its sweetness, and time to rest after tasting; sleep when it came, and stillness, that the sleep might leave me when it would, not sooner—Air, room, light rest, nakedness when I would not be clothed, and when I would be clothed, garments that did not fetter; freedom to touch my mother earth, to be with her in storm and shine, as the wild things are,—this is what I wanted,—this, and free contact with my fellows;—not to love, and lie and be ashamed, but to love and say I love, and be glad of it; to feel the currents of ten thousand years of passion flooding me, body to body, as the wild things meet. I have asked no more.

With the recent growth of groups like C4SS and the Alliance of the Libertarian Left and the inclusion of Left Libertarians into mainstream libertarian groups like SFL and YAL, these historical distinctions are becoming bolder and more relevant. Ryan Calhoun has written elsewhere about this very development:

I see a similar divide growing among Libertarians today. There are the young professionals at Students For Liberty and the lifestyle Libertarians who moved to New Hampshire to smoke weed naked in public parks. I think it’s uncontroversial to say that both are needed and will stick around, but I think the benefit of a radical Libertarian counterculture is underestimated. More than a political movement, Libertarians need a cultural movement. One that emphasizes the difference between current social values and alternative social values.

The thing is, libertarianism has hardly ever had a uniform “cultural movement.” While the likes of Jeffrey Tucker, Lewellyn Rockwell and Ron Paul praise productivity and a traditional work ethic in their own right, Nick Ford’s blog, abolishwork.com, challenges the state-corporate nexus and “the Protestant/Puritan work ethic which enables the modern day work ethic to persist and destroy people’s lives.” So how are we to pin down the precise trajectory of culture in an ideology with an historically nebulous commitment to culture and aesthetics? Or, as Leonard Bernstein asked “Whither music” in the 20th century, “Whither Libertarianism” in the 21st? While appropriate thickness orientations have been argued for, appropriate libertarian aesthetic commitments are an entirely different animal. The libertarian ideology, being inherently individualistic, attracts and embraces vastly different — usually idiosyncratic — types from all over. Even strictly defined subsets of libertarianism, like C4SS’s own Free-Market Anti-Capitalism have sub-sub-cultures with their own identifiable aesthetic: the Roderick Long virtue ethics posse being a good example. While we are seeing some strong divisions arise from the thickness debate, as we should, I don’t think we should expect to see — or should want to see — that same thing happen to the proverbial “libertarian aesthetic”, god forbid one take root. A particularly attractive and defining feature of the liberty movement is its regard for the individual, so what better libertarian aesthetic than the one that the individual happens to bring with them?

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