Rothbardian Radicalism: A Critique of Softies in the War for Liberty
I’ve been trying to discern what distinguishes what I can only describe as soft libertarians–those bent on popularizing the liberty brand–from the hard-nosed, tough libertarians equally bent on denouncing the state at every possible turn. There are some characteristic differences: adherence to the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP), sensitivity to race and gender issues, even support of military intervention abroad. But none of the positions on these or other concepts holistically distinguish the softies from the hardcore. The very non-politically correct notion of dividing “the movement” toward freedom is important, if not popular. How can we expect others to understand us and our position on liberty versus statism if we ourselves do not?
In an article in the 1977 Libertarian Forum, recently re-posted to lewrockwell.com, Murray Rothbard juxtaposed “plonky conservatives and patriots” like Milton Friedman to “radical libertarians” like himself. The contrast slightly modified–substituting the socially obsessed for conservative–persists today. Self-described Bleeding Heart Libertarians profess “social justice” while Rockwellians like Bob Higgs routinely target the state, whether from an ethical, religious, or moral starting point. The list of soft libertarians is lenghty: Jeff Tucker, Alexander McCobin (who I elaborate on here), Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, Justin Amash, Cato Institute scholars, etc. In the other corner are modern day radicals like Lew Rockwell, Andrew Napalitano, Ron Paul, David Stockman, Peter Schiff, Dan Sanchez, Tom Woods, and Bob Wenzel.
Some things of notice here. Hardcore libertarians need not be anarcho-capitalists (ancaps); think Napalitano, Stockman, and Schiff. Just as well, some soft libertarians are ancaps, alah Tucker and Friedman Jr.. Nor is there a consistent division of the generations; older and younger alike may intuitively seem soft or tough on issues of liberty. However, there are some correlative differences: the softies are by and large more likely to read and recommend F.A. Hayek and Ayn Rand whereas the radicals promote Mises and Rothbard. Radical libertarians will generally adhere closer to the NAP while the softies abound with varying notions of what it really means to be libertarian; Tucker’s “humanitarianism” and McCobin’s “Second Wave Libertarianism” come to mind.
The reader of libertarian literature may find he or she has a guttural, instinctual attraction to the work of the radicals and consequential disgust with that of the softies. The truth-seeker finds this seemingly irrational knee-jerk reaction odd; there must be a coherent, logical mechanism explaining this phenomenon. It’s my position that Rothbard, way back in 1977, nailed it. What systemically distinguishes the tough from the soft is radicalism:
Radical in the sense of being in total, root-and-branch opposition to the existing political system and to the State itself. Radical in the sense of having integrated intellectual opposition to the State with a gut hatred of its pervasive and organized system of crime and injustice. Radical in the sense of a deep commitment to the spirit of liberty and anti-statism that integrates reason and emotion, heart and soul.
Rothbard acknowledges that “you don’t have to be an anarchist to be radical in our sense, just as you can be an anarchist while missing the radical spark.” That spark in the work of non-anarchists Thomas Paine and Albert J. Nock “is far more important to the cause of liberty than the fact that [they] never crossed the divide between laissez-faire [minarchism] and anarchism.”
Rothbard even appreciates “radical anti-statists [who] are extremely valuable even if they could scarcely be considered libertarians in any comprehensive sense.” Glenn Greenwald comes to mind. Hardly a “root-and-branch” libertarian, Greenwald’s work drips with cynicism and loathing of the state apparatus; he’s a Rothbardian Radical in every sense, despite his non-libertarianism.
Further in Rothbard’s analysis is his observation of the abolitionism-gradualism divide, those “‘button pusher[s]’ who would blister [their] thumb[s] pushing a button that would abolish the State immediately, if such a button existed” versus those who desire “‘feasible’ methods of getting ‘from here to there.’” Bob Poole and Milton Friedman in Rothbard’s day represented the latter, as do Ted Cruz, Justin Amash, and most importantly Rand Paul in ours. Dreaming of blistering his thumb is Rand’s father Ron Paul, on record as promoter of changing minds rather than fighting the government in government courts and an advocate of secession down to the individual. Paul Sr. is an exact illustration of the fact that the radical need not be radically abrasive in his presentation, as Paul is perhaps the dictionary definition of gentleman. Yet his policy proposals–likely better thought of as anti-policy proposals–are quintessentially radical; “first steps” of a Paul administration would have stricken five federal departments and a trillion dollars from the federal leviathan. In contrast, Paul Jr. is resoundingly soft, meekly calling for a “balanced budget,” submitting to the mainstream right in alleging that Israel is an “important ally,” and wavering weekly on intervention in Iran. A far cry from his father’s admirable, radical consistency.
Rothbard concludes by posing the question:
Why should there be any important political disputes between anarcho-capitalists and minarchists now? In this world of statism, where there is so much common ground, why can’t the two groups work in complete harmony until we shall have reached a Cobdenite world, after which we can air our disagreements? Why quarrel over courts, etc. now?
We could and would march hand-in-hand in this way if the minarchists were radicals, as they were from the birth of classical liberalism down to the 1940s.
Such is my beef with soft minarchists, bleeding hearts, and the dramatically socially conscious. Brazenly absent from their speeches, articles, and books is that relentless vigor, that savory radicalism, be it implicit or unabashedly present. Their gooey, watered down method of promoting liberty is spectacularly ineffective in achieving it. Sure, Students for Liberty may continue to grow its ranks, Rand Paul may do well in if not win a presidential race, and tax rates may one day trend downwards, but this accomplishes nothing in the long run. Liberty-themed happy hours for college kids, four years of a Randian administration, and temporary tax cuts just aren’t good enough.
Armed only with a “deep and abiding hatred of the State and its vast engine of crime and oppression” can lovers of liberty ever dream of penetrating the welfare-sedated mindset of the masses. Absent Rothbardian radical provocation mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters will eventually but forever, if even reluctantly, cave to the patriotic state lullaby whispered in our ears by state media, heroic politicians, and opinionated next-door neighbors. They’ll elect to vote, rather than opt out. They’ll let the officer search the trunk and shrug at NSA snooping, because they have nothing to hide. They’ll never question whether their green pieces of paper really are money. They’ll encourage their nephews to join the army because it’ll toughen them up, but loath the irrational foreigners who greet him with an IED; after all, they only hate us because we’re free. One day they’ll giggle and yelp when the post office mails them their new national ID card, because it’s just so convenient! One day they’ll text the NYPD that the guy in 7A sure talks about militias a lot, because the DHS billboard reminded them: see something, say something.
The resources of the federal government are vast, and their propaganda machine well-maintained and ever-growing. Soft gradualism is no match for the state. The war for “liberty in our time” will only be won with Rothbardian Radicalism.