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Archive for March 2015

The Many Faces of Libertarianism, Part II: Classical Liberalism

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The term “libertarian” has changed meaning over time. Joseph Déjacque, the first self-described libertarian was an anarcho-communist. He lived in the period influenced by the French Revolution and his anarchism meant he was anti-authoritarian, anti-hierarchical, anti-private-property and anti-state. His philosophy was based on workers being able to cooperate and essentially to govern themselves in a non-hierarchical manner, free of any institutional oppression 

Today’s American capitalist libertarians cite a different historical tradition from that of Déjacque to explain their roots. If you talk to a Ron Paul supporter who’s into history you will likely hear about classical liberalism and this is not quite like the liberalism (called “social liberalism”) you’re accustomed to. Classical liberalism is the historical basis of libertarianism as fancied both by Ron Paul as well as Murray Rothbard whom I quoted in Part I who admitted he stole this word from left-wing anarchists.

Classical liberalism developed from the Whigs of Great Britain, who were essentially the first political party, originating from opposition to absolute monarchy, or particularly that of Catholic monarchy. Great Britain had a Civil War in the 1640’s due to the tyranny of King Charles I who was beheaded in 1649 and the Commonwealth headed up by Oliver Cromwell followed, but his regime turned out to be a Puritan Dictatorship of sorts and he slaughtered the Irish because they were Catholics. After 11 years of this unsatisfactory solution to absolute monarchy, many Brits were more than ready to get their “good old fashioned” monarchy back and Charles’ son, Charles II came to the throne in 1660. Problems emerged in 1670 when he entered into the Secret Treaty of Dover, an alliance with his first cousin King Louis XIV of France. Louis agreed to aid him in the Third Anglo-Dutch War and pay him a pension, and Charles secretly promised to convert to Catholicism at an unspecified future date. Charles attempted to introduce religious freedom for Catholics and Protestant dissenters with his 1672 Royal Declaration of Indulgence, but the English Parliament forced him to withdraw it. In 1679, Titus Oates’s  revelations of a supposed “Popish Plot” sparked the Exclusion Crisis when it was revealed that Charles’s brother and heir (James, Duke of York) was a Catholic. The crisis saw the birth of the pro-exclusion Whig and anti-exclusion Tory parties. Charles sided with the Tories, and, following the discovery of the Rye House Plot to murder Charles and James in 1683, some Whig leaders were executed or forced into exile. Charles dissolved the English Parliament in 1681, and ruled alone until his death on 6 February 1685.

The Whigs’ ideology emerged dominant over that of the Tories following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and was associated with the defense of Parliament, upholding the rule of law and defending landed property. The origins of rights were seen as being in an ancient constitution which had existed from time immemorial. So now the stage was set for classical liberals who were committed to individualism, liberty and equal rights. They believed these things required a free economy with minimal government interference. Central to classical liberal ideology was their interpretation of John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government  and “A Letter Concerning Toleration”, which had been written as a defense of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Although these writings were considered too radical at the time for Britain’s new rulers, they later came to be cited by Whigs, radicals and supporters of the American Revolution.

The standardbearer of American right-wing capitalist libertarianism, the Mises Institute defines “Classical liberalism” as:”the term used to designate the ideology advocating private property, an unhampered market economy, the rule of law, constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and of the press, and international peace based on free trade” The original designation of classical liberalism was simply “liberalism”. Over time “social liberalism” came into existence and was “associated with wide-ranging interferences with private property and the market on behalf of egalitarian goals”.

One key factor in this was the labor movement and workers wanting more wages and rights to be able to afford their own private property and climb the socio-economic ladder to approach the level of their capitalist “benefactors”. Classical liberalism encompassed the sociological concept of society as a complex set of social networks—that individuals were “egoistic, coldly calculating, essentially inert and atomistic” and that society was no more than the sum of its individual members. The purpose of government was to protect the citizens from each other as each citizen pursued enlightened self-interest without control or restraint by government.

Classical liberals believed that individuals should be free to obtain work from the highest-paying employers, while the profit motive would ensure that products that people desired were produced at prices they would pay. In a free market, both labor and capital would receive the greatest possible reward, while production would be organised efficiently to meet consumer demand.

Drawing on selected ideas of Adam Smith, classical liberals believed that all individuals are able to equally freely pursue their own economic self-interest, without government direction, serving the common good. They were critical of welfare as interfering in a free market. They criticized labour’s group rights being pursued at the expense of individual rights while they accepted big corporations’ rights being pursued at the expense of inequality of bargaining power noted by Adam Smith.

It was not until emergence of social liberalism that child labor was forbidden, minimum standards of worker safety were introduced, a minimum wage and old age pensions were established, and financial institutions regulations with the goal of fighting cyclic depressions, monopolies, and cartels, were introduced. They were met by classical liberalism as an unjust interference of the state. So called “slim state’ was argued for, instead, serving only the following functions:

  • protection against foreign invaders, extended to include protection of overseas markets through armed intervention,
  • protection of citizens from wrongs committed against them by other citizens, which meant protection of private property and enforcement of contracts and the suppression of trade unions and the Chartist movement,
  • building and maintaining public institutions, and
  • “public works” that included a stable currency, standard weights and measures, and support of roads, canals, harbours, railways, and postal and other communications services.]

They believed that rights are of a negative nature which require other individuals (and governments) to refrain from interfering with free market, whereas social liberalism believes labor has a right to be provided with certain benefits or services via taxes paid by corporations.

Core beliefs of classical liberals did not necessarily include democracy where law is made by majority vote by citizens, because “there is nothing in the bare idea of majority rule to show that majorities will always respect the rights of property or maintain rule of law.” For example, James Madison argued for a constitutional republic with protections for individual liberty over a pure democracy, reasoning that, in a pure democracy, a “common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole…and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party.

As this movement of classical liberalism was developing the term “libertarian” did not yet exist and, in fact, it was over 100 years after the Whigs emerged that finally a “radical Whig” William Belsham used the term “libertarian” in 1789 to indicate he believed in free will and opposed any physical determinism upon human will. Just 4 years later, the founder of “philosophical anarchism”, William Godwin argued that government is a corrupting force in society, perpetuating dependence and ignorance, but will be rendered increasingly unnecessary and powerless by the gradual spread of knowledge and the expansion of the human understanding. As the French Revolution was underway, Godwin expressed the goal of overthrowing all existing political, social, and religious institutions. Monarchy he felt was unavoidably corrupt and he desired a government of the simplest construction and came to consider that by its very nature government counteracts the improvement of original mind.

These two historical movements, originate from opposition to absolutist monarchs first in England then in France. The French Revolution is far better known than the English Civil War between the Parliamentarians and Royalists, but the Brits did behead their King Charles, a revolutionary act, and in 1688, the so-called Glorious Revolution took place and the Constitutional Monarchy was estabished as the Dutch William of Orange took the throne. These historical developments led to the classical liberalism viewed by American libertarians as their historical foundation. The anarchists, of which there were many, grew from the French Revolution and their libertarianism is called “libertarian socialism”.

Of course, there is more to the history of people wanting to get the government off their backs and our journey will continue in Part III.


Written by joethebohemian

March 30, 2015 at 9:16 am

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From Anti-Capitalist to Pro-Capitalist: The Many Faces of Libertarianism, Part I

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Ever since Ron Paul came into prominence, his version of free market capitalist libertarianism is what people equate with libertarianism. This is based on the deliberate disregard for history so that free market capitalism devotees can use a word connoting “liberty” to give a rose-colored hue to their movement and entice millions to join.

The free market adoring ideologue Murray Rothbard plainly explained in his book, Betrayal of the American Right, what his capitalist cultists in the United States had accomplished:

“One gratifying aspect of our rise to some prominence is that, for the first time in my memory, we, ‘our side’ had captured a crucial word from the enemy…’Libertarians’ had long been simply a polite word for left-wing anarchists, that is for anti-private property anarchists, either of the communist or syndicalist variety. But now we had taken it over and more properly from the view of etymology; since we were the proponents of individual liberty and therefore of the individual’s right to his property”

Having opened a portal into the real history of the word he helped to steal from the “enemy”, Rothbard enables Joseph Déjacque, the first self-described libertarian, to enter an informed examination of libertarianism’s history. Déjacque (1821-1864) was a French early anarcho-communist poet and writer and the first recorded person to employ the term “libertarian” (French: libertaire) for himself in a political sense.

Unlike Pierre- Joseph Proudhon, the first self-described anarchist and founder of mutualism,  Déjacque argued that, “it is not the product of his or her labor that the worker has a right to, but to the satisfaction of his or her needs, whatever may be their nature.”In New York he serialised his book in his periodical “Le Libertaire, Journal du Mouvement social” that ran from 1858 to 1861 and was the first anarcho-communist journal published in the United States and the first anarchist journal to use the term “libertarian”.

Anarcho-communism is a theory of anarchism which advocates the abolition of the state, capitalism, wages, and private property (while retaining respect for personal property) and favors common ownership of the means of production, direct democracy, and a horizontal network of voluntary associations and workers’ councils with production and consumption based on the guiding principle: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”

Déjacque was anti-authoritarian and anti-elitist to the extreme, rejecting the division between a visionary and his inner circle and the “vulgar herd”, the people. He was equally opposed to all forms of social republicanism, to the dictatorship of one man and to the little prodigies of the proletariat, seemingly prophesying Lenin and the Bolsheviks. He wrote that: ‘a dictatorial committee composed of workers is certainly the most conceited and incompetent, and hence the most anti-revolutionary, thing that can be found…(It is better to have doubtful enemies in power than dubious friends)’. He saw ‘anarchic initiative,’ ‘reasoned will’ and ‘the autonomy of each’ as the conditions for the social revolution of the proletariat, the first expression of which had been the barricades of June 1848. In Déjacque’s view, a government resulting from an insurrection remains a reactionary fetter on the free initiative of the proletariat. Or rather, such free initiative can only arise and develop by the masses ridding themselves of the ‘authoritarian prejudices’ by means of which the state reproduces itself in its primary function of representation and delegation. Déjacque wrote that: ‘By government I understand all delegation, all power outside the people,’ for which must be substituted, in a process whereby politics is transcended, the ‘people in direct possession of their sovereignty,’ or the ‘organised commune.’ For Déjacque, the communist anarchist utopia would fulfil the function of inciting each proletarian to explore his or her own human potentialities, in addition to correcting the ignorance of the proletarians concerning ‘social science.’”

He also thought that “government, religion, property, family, all are linked, all coincide.’ The content of the social revolution was thus to be the abolition of all governments, of all religions, and of the family based on marriage, the authority of the parents and the husband, and inheritance.

Déjacque established his proposed state as follows ““the state of affairs where each would be free to produce and consume at will and according to their fantasy, without having to exercise or submit to any control whatsoever over anything whatever; where the balance between production and consumption would establish itself, no longer by preventive and arbitrary detention at the hands of some group or other, but by the free circulation of the faculties and needs of each.

The common element for all people calling themselves “libertarian” is opposition to the tyranny of the state. The manner of this opposition and the acknowledgment of other forms of tyranny done under the pretext of “liberty” is another matter. So-called “right libertarians” are concerned with “aggression” but this does not seem to apply to factory owners or capitalists aggressing upon workers with 14 hour days, locking them in fire traps, having children work in horrific conditions in mines or other adult workers often dying as a result of working conditions. One capitalist’s liberty is based on the radical infringement on many other people’s liberty.

The historical journey of libertarianism as a concept having many guises and the clashes of those economic forces and theories laying claim to that word is a long story. So this is just Part I of that story.

Written by joethebohemian

March 26, 2015 at 1:36 pm

Posted in Uncategorized