A Philosophy for the Propertied

Libertarianism offers no solution to today’s plutocratic politics — it’s nothing more than a reactionary rejection of political struggle.

Libertarian presidential hopeful Gary Johnson speaking at the 2015 Conservative Political Action Conference. Gage Skidmore / Flickr

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The next president will almost certainly be a Democrat. For the Left, the likelihood that no single party will control the federal government is little cause for optimism. We can still expect mass deportations, increased government surveillance, and spiraling economic inequality following a likely Clinton win in November.

After beholding the viciousness of the Democratic Party’s liberalism — and the contempt that elite Democrats have for the very constituencies that sustain the party — many will undoubtedly continue to cast about for different perspectives.

One alternative, of course, is a systematic critique of capitalism, joined to a commitment to the transformation and democratization of social relations. Another set of possibilities, however, may be found in that peculiarly American political phenomenon: right-wing libertarianism.

In a moment of economic immiseration and feckless governmental responses to it, the libertarian pitch for restricting the scope and reach of political institutions in favor of deregulated markets and individual decisions may have a paradoxical appeal for some.

But to embrace libertarianism is not to reject the failed politics of the present or to strike a blow against elites. Still less is it a blueprint for dismantling the hierarchies and structures of domination. Libertarianism — even in its most seemingly benign forms — is a reactionary rejection of political struggle and an affirmation of the private abuse of power.

Reasons and Power

What is libertarianism? The question is fraught, and dwelling on it is unlikely to be productive; when it comes to political tendencies, attempts at definition are slippery and frequently question-begging. (And it should be acknowledged, of course, that the term’s referent in American politics is idiosyncratic — speaking of libertarians as reactionary obscures libertarian currents in left political formations.) 

We should ask what makes libertarian arguments distinctive: do many or most libertarians share a core set of commitments marking them as adherents of a distinct political current? In particular, can libertarianism be distinguished from philosophical liberalism?

To hear them tell it, libertarian theorists refuse to analyze politics with reference to collective interests. Instead, they exalt the capacity of autonomous individuals to articulate, exchange, and endorse or reject particular arguments. Starting from premises similar to those in liberal social contract theories (indeed, libertarians often insist they are “classical” — that is to say, true — liberals), libertarians argue for a minimalist conception of public power — no more than is needed to secure the freedoms of individuals to contract with one another and to pursue their own projects without troubling others.

Libertarianism is a species of utopian political thinking. It supposes that the form of individual rationality prized by capitalism’s apologists is the basis of the best kind of human community. According to such a view, public power is fundamentally incompatible with the free activity of individuals whose interactions are mediated by the market and uninhibited by anything other than their own volition.

The limits and contradictions of libertarianism are many: it can’t solve collective action problems like environmental degradation and global warming. It denies either the possibility of depending on others or the probity of requiring that others be assisted. It regards a historically specific mode of social action — calculated self-interest in the pursuit of surplus value — as the innate, natural core of human rationality.

Often, libertarian ideals have sent their adherents down ignominious roads. In the twentieth century, repelled by the idea of placing public constraints on private behavior, libertarians denounced the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and other expansions of civic freedoms as unjust.

Right-wing libertarians have indeed “built an entire ideology around the worldview of twelve-year-old boys.” Why, then, does that worldview continue to attract adherents, even from outside the ranks of the affluent and the influential?

Consider libertarianism’s focus on rationality. It prizes the free-thinking individual, and condemns concentrations of (public) power. If I cannot persuade you to do something, how could I possibly be justified in forcing you to do it? This — more so than libertarian apologetics for hierarchy, exploitation, and unfettered private power — is the key to libertarianism’s enduring allure.

Libertarianism resembles liberalism in its celebration of depoliticized rationality. Historically, many liberal thinkers have been preoccupied with the legitimation of public power from the perspective of the individual. For these theorists, legitimation is a matter of finding ways to justify institutions as they exist — or as they might exist, with some tweaking — to the bulk of those people affected by them.

For libertarians, public power becomes wholly intolerable when its use is contrary to the conclusions about good government that a reasonable person might arrive at.

Much depends, then, on whom libertarians consider to be these “reasonable people.”

They don’t look like the average voter, we’re told. Many contemporary libertarian theorists regard electoral democracy as pathological, arguing that experience has conclusively shown that voters don’t know what’s good for them. One popular libertarian solution? Epistocracy: rule by experts whose only qualification is their epistemic rankings on an allegedly objective scale of policy competence (which just so happens to correspond with capital’s vision of the proper social order).

When it comes to voting, there is also little light between libertarians and some liberal thinkers. For example, the liberal political philosopher David Estlund defends democracy based on its ability to deliver “correct” outcomes. He argues that democratic procedures can be accepted so long as they’re cabined within institutional arrangements that steer discussion and debate in the right direction — hardly a resounding case for democracy over technocracy.

What’s forgotten in such debates is that voting empowers collectivities. We don’t ask every voter to persuade a panel of authorities; we count ballots. The latter approach is at least potentially empowering for masses of people, even if it hardly qualifies as an emancipatory political event. The former is not.

What about deliberative institutions, where reason ostensibly prevails? Can institutions designed to resist electoral pressures deliver better results?

While aggregating votes is hardly a sufficient condition for guaranteeing popular control over policy, let alone any emancipatory political event, its limitations do not provide a warrant for limiting the scope of elections.

Buffering institutions from mass politics does not produce more equitable rule. Social power inevitably conditions deliberative processes, whether in the design of the institutions themselves, the selection and framing of the topics to be debated, or the discussion itself. Far from expanding access to power or decision-makers, deliberative institutions frequently sustain self-reproducing patterns of elite entrenchment. As the political scientist E. E. Schattschneider put it over half a century ago: “the definition of alternatives is the choice of conflicts, and the choice of conflicts allocates power.”

Not surprisingly, political institutions in the US that privilege deliberation — such as the Senate and the Supreme Court — have not been friends to the powerless and the exploited. Insofar as libertarians offer these sorts of elite-driven deliberative bodies as remedies, they fail to attack the problem of plutocratic rule at the heart of today’s political crisis.

Indeed, any theory that elevates this kind of persuasion tends to protect the interests of those at the top. Norms of civility and expectations about what constitutes acceptable discourse shape access to institutions and the attention of those who staff them. Questions of interpersonal ethics tend to predominate over concerns about collective interests and social structures.

In a sense, contemporary libertarianism’s fetishization of reason-giving and -accepting can be read as an absurdly turbocharged model of deliberative democracy — the state of the art in liberal political theory. Hostile to those that see politics as a field of struggle between competing collective interests, deliberative theorists such as Jürgen Habermas and John Rawls have asked how coercive institutions might be justified to the individuals enmeshed in them.

Their answer? Model the conditions under which individuals possessing (capitalist) rationality would pick their preferred forms of social organization — and hold those forms forward as publicly justified. If a reasonable person — perhaps inhabiting Habermas’s “ideal speech situation” or caught behind Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” — should come away thinking a given institution is legitimate, then we should accept them as such. Compromise, they tell us, is what politics is all about — not conflict.

Deliberative social theories are theories of the status quo. They equate the horizons of persuasion with the frontiers of political possibility; they present the balance of forces at any given moment as the natural, inevitable terrain of politics. Such a perspective also obscures forces and structures like racism, class, and gender, which shape and limit lives in profound ways.

The deliberative view is even more myopic when the liberal lens is replaced with a libertarian one — state institutions become the only objects discernible at all.

Unencumbered by the social commitments of contemporary liberalism, libertarianism quickly goes beyond the depoliticized inertia of deliberative theory and actively advocates the dismantling of institutions that are publicly accountable (even in the limited and mediated forms of accountability that characterize actually existing democracy).

For libertarian theorists, democratic oversight is an immoral abrogation of individual rights. Public power is unjustifiably coercive except in those cases when public violence is needed to enforce private prerogatives: the enforcement of labor contracts, the protection of private property, and the reproduction of capitalist social relations in general.

Far from denouncing coercion, libertarians celebrate it — provided that it is deployed for the benefit of the possessors of property. Libertarianism’s veneer of rational detachment cannot conceal its reactionary results: an expanded sphere of private domination, facilitated by a contracting sphere of public authority and public oversight.

Against Libertarianism

Contemporary liberalism is an exhausted ideology, but libertarianism is a poor alternative.

Where liberalism tends toward technocracy, libertarianism exalts the superior virtue and sagacity of those who believe they know more than the rest of us. Where liberalism expresses ambivalence about subsuming more of the social world under capital’s control, libertarianism equates the rule of property owners with freedom.

Ultimately, libertarianism is a philosophy concerned with the defense of individual property owners and their pursuit of surplus value. Its superficial solidarity with contemporary social liberalism on issues like drug policy or gay marriage cannot conceal its foundational disregard for the poor and the unpropertied.

By elevating capitalist rationality above all other forms of social organizing, and by dismissing the public authority of democratic institutions as provisional and limited at best, libertarians advocate for conservatism, for capitulation to elites, and ultimately for the rejection of political activity. Libertarian political theory is in fact a potent form of anti-politics.

Yet historically, oppressed populations have secured social gains only by challenging power and making demands on capital and the state. When political struggle is removed from the picture, we get a bowdlerized narrative of history that churns out stories about redemption, unity, and leadership. And instead of political antagonism, liberals insist on unity and consensus as the master values of politics: vote for an ever-rightward-tacking Democratic Party, or you abet something much worse.

We should reject liberalism, but the utopianism of libertarian political fantasy is no improvement on it. Politics is conflict — a struggle for power in the pursuit of collective interests. Social transformation is born of contestation. We do not seek to persuade oppressors and exploiters that they must stop doing what they do. We seek to overcome them.

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