Libertarianism as Ambivalence and Critique

The libertarian political goal is dead. The achievement of a small state, so small that you could drown it in the bath, is never going to be achieved in pluralistic democracies that favour particular groups of lobbyists, tribes or social movements. Each of these groups will increasingly desire patronage and a seat at the table, increasing the complexity of decision-making and the distribution of resources which in turn increases the scope of the state and its organisational nexus. A small state then is impossible unless coercive structures are in place to limit its growth, thus making the ideal of a small state redundant.

Figure 1: The Scope of Innovation Governance

Even in the anarchist variants, there is a reliance on a steady state progressive destruction, whereupon states inhibit economic growth or innovation due to over-regulation, overburdening taxes and planning investment that ignores the complexities of local economic knowledge in the market, thus leading to situations where the state becomes either irrelevant or so destructive that it is actively fought. While states do certainly engage in these activities, limiting opportunities for many while benefitting few, the economic reality is hardly turning against the state as a central locus of political power. Whether the increasing dominance of Chinese industrial policy and clientelism, the growth of national populism as a remedy to globalism, or the maintained strength of the US military-industrial complex. Or take for example the recent debates around online platforms’ treatment of speech. Libertarians get themselves into binds either convinced that private companies in Silicon Valley can regulate the speech on their platforms however they like (leading to ludicrous suggestions that one can build their own platform or their own internet; try finding the same level of audience on those), or suggesting that because they’re subsidised companies like Facebook or Twitter, they are quasi-state organisations and thus deserve regulatory treatment[1]. Guess what, either way you are increasing legal arbitrage. These developments are growing in geopolitical and economic importance[2] as Western states stagnate under increasing accumulations of public and private debt and look to new public-private mixtures to maintain geopolitical strength and policy relevance.

The strength of anarcho-libertarian thought can also be its weakness. Its strength comes from its analysis of alternative socio-political systems that created high levels of prosperity despite interference from strong central states or prevailing conditions of poverty. Raico’s analysis shows one such dynamic, whereby the varied polities of Feudal Europe created conditions ripe for economic innovation through freedom given to merchants and tradesmen. The different political and juridical forms meant that competitive dynamics limited the capacity for any one power-centre to fully monopolise political force, leading to political situations where corporate forms varied across European time and space depending on the geographical context[3] (thus limiting feudal powers of patronage and serfdom), and legal situations where courts would hold different forms of jurisdiction and compete for cases and judgments[4]. There existed multiple political forms within which market values exemplified by merchant guilds and different trades could germinate. These included hierarchical cities that developed regional market systems, integrating surrounding rural locales into relations of interdependence; and maritime city networks that acted as nodes for international trade and commerce, being gateways to the wider world and allowing for the germination of meritocratic values that challenged the aristocratic orthodoxy[5].

However these alternative, decentralised political-economic systems gave way to centralised, bordered states with the Treaty of Westphalia and the development of Napoleonic-type centralised state structures with powerful bureaucracies that rationalised national economies and markets. Such can be seen in France, Spain, England and Prussia (as it evolved into Germany). The Hanseatic League, the maritime trade networks and the independent city-states were either integrated or coercively subsumed as their military power and ability to collect taxes was miniscule in comparison. Competition gave way to central scale. Thus the anarcho-libertarian alternatives (which rely on historical context) are increasingly pulled into utopian, closed ideological totalities which have an answer for every question of how they would function, but very rarely answer how they would germinate and ossify.

I have attempted to engage in such ideological arbitrage myself[6], conceptualising a manifesto of systemic commitments and closed wholes that will engage in direct competition with the state. While my petty attempts don’t equal those made by Rothbard or Mises.org, the answer to their development and growth do tend to remain the same. Either low-level insurrection such as building alternative infrastructure and working through the black market (much as Karl Hess did) or through educational programs that instill libertarian values. Neither appears particularly useful, as neither moves beyond the small-scale. The black market as a series of flows and junctures is equally as compatible with political clientelism and state-capitalist circuits as traditional markets. For example, “20 percent of the world’s financial deposits are located in unregulated banks and offshore locations”[7]. The flows of wealth are hardly examples of stateless, free market activity. With regards to education, certainly one could begin to engender libertarian values through schools and online educational formats, but how far can this possibly go before it hits buffers. What level of success could this possibly attain except to create potential politicians and entrepreneurs who are slightly more conscious of the coercive realities of modern states and are thus prone to avoid dealings with it (which is practically impossible).

So where to go. Well the first thing to be noted is that manifestos are closed totalities i.e. they are unitary answers and sets of options that lead to particular outcomes. In other words, they are centralistic phenomena that desire specific circumstances in any context, and thus ignore the dictum of Hayek’s knowledge problem, that sets of local plans must interact with the market and the prices and strategies that already exist there. In other words, they must negotiate with reality thus realising certain aspects and diluting or removing others. Libertarian ideals must interact with the real world, in all its messy complexity and coercive realities. The state will not simply go away because small sectors have found ways to route around it, or because militias or terrorist groups have found ways to take on military-industrial complexes. They certainly show directions toward forms of alterity, but they are parts of negotiated strategies that produce less-than-perfect (in some cases awful) outcomes. Lets be honest, how many people really want to be a life long tax-resister, a militia member or someone who lives off the grid. These options are answers to some, but not many.

This means that libertarians, to achieve anything close to success, must engage in strategies that rely on existing structures, whether that be forming lobbying groups or think tanks and thus forming part of the demo-bureaucratic infrastructure. In these structures groups can push for provisions that emplace decentralist dynamics or limit unnecessary oversight. In such developments, one may either contribute so much lobbying-type nonsense that collapsitarian developments breed as lobbying becomes too stratified and forces the state to retreat or collapse in a certain sector, or one may provide new forums for political engagement that allow for less coercive methods to be entrenched in market regulations or tax collection. This however is no guarantor of success, so alongside such lobbying the building of alternative infrastructures for purposes of resilience and autonomy should also be encouraged, whether these be through government methods or shadow network methods. The Seasteading and innovative governance movements have shown that working and negotiating with states can actually lead to decentralised polities and increasing governmental competitiveness[8], whether those be independent financial districts in Dubai, the city-states of Singapore and Hong Kong, or the SEZs of China.

Of course none of this actually decreases the size or scope of the state (and in some cases could even increase it), but then who really thought that was possible. Even the freest market systems have wholly relied upon states and governments to maintain equilibrium and provide certain capital goods that break collective action problems and deadlocks. Rather, it is recognising the assemblage-type quality of state structures and forms, and implanting oneself within them when possible. The state as assemblage means seeing the state as a set of interdependent organisational loci[9] that must interact for the development and implementation of policy, involving lobbying, different scales of governance, and the possibility for either deadlock or failure[10] (thus presenting possibilities for decentralisation and the production of new forums). The messy reality of the modern world means negotiated strategies and variable methods are the best means for increasing decentralisation and economic freedom. With the increasing maintenance of state military and economic strength, it may be the only strategy with any modicum of success. What this means is libertarianism acting as a method for ambivalence and critique. Ambivalence toward centralised structures and the calcification of markets, instead encouraging experimentation through multiple means (whether this be Silicon Valley vs. Route 128 or the Zaibatsu developing decentralised JIT production lines) and the ability for arbitrage and opt-outs from all stakeholders involved. Critique toward state or shadow state methods that increase coercion and limit the free interplay of knowledge and innovation. Experimentality and the flows born from it should be the aim.

[1] https://www.socialmatter.net/2018/09/25/the-death-and-tragic-rebirth-of-libertarianism/

[2] Micklethwait & Wooldridge, The Fourth Revolution

[3] https://mises.org/wire/european-miracle

[4] Edward Stringham, Private Governance

[5] Manuel DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society

[6] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2015/04/04/the-anarcho-capitalist-agenda-a-rejection-of-the-parameters-of-the-state/

[7] Carolyn Nordstrom, Shadows and Sovereigns

[8] https://www.cato-unbound.org/2018/07/11/mark-lutter/local-governments-are-changing-world

[9] https://thelibertarianideal.wordpress.com/2018/08/24/the-hobbesian-jungle-over-leviathan/

[10] Manuel DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society

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