In recent years, the number of people identifying as libertarian has grown significantly. The support for reactionary movements is also on the rise. The relationship between the two is evolving and complex, and an exploration of the similarities and differences between the two should be enlightening.
In order to produce a meaningful analysis, it is necessary to begin by defining terms. This essay will use the following definitions:
- Libertarianism: a philosophical position on what constitutes the morally acceptable use of force. Libertarianism says that initiating the use of force is never acceptable but defensive uses of force are always acceptable.
- Reaction: in the broadest sense, a political position that favors a return to some status quo ante which is believed to have possessed desirable characteristics which are absent from the status quo. In a narrower sense, reactionaries oppose liberal democracy, socialism, communism, egalitarianism, tabula rasa, and Whig historiography while supporting hierarchical structures, traditions, nativism, and skepticism.
Within both of these groups, there are religious and secular variations as well as leftist and rightist variations. Religious and secular libertarians differ on whether rights come from God or from the nature of sentience as well as on whether a supernatural ruler is any more tolerable than a natural one. Religious and secular reactionaries differ on whether human nature is a result of special creation or biological evolution as well as on whether traditions are a result of divine revelation or adaptive memetic developments. Left-libertarians place more emphasis on social equality, egalitarianism, and other left-wing causes than on private property rights, favoring a more classical form of anarchism. In contrast, right-libertarians strongly support private property rights and tend to oppose egalitarianism, favoring a more capitalist form of anarchism. Reactionaries are usually considered to be right-wing extremists, but progressives who seek a return to a larger welfare state and other socialist policies which have either failed or been repealed in recent decades could be considered left-reactionaries under the broader part of the above definition.
While libertarianism is well described and explored elsewhere, the nature of reaction is less understood. The first thing to note is that the term ‘reaction’ is used for a reason. The natural instinct of humans is to make progress. This manifests variously as a desire to better oneself through physical training and intellectual studies, a desire to improve relationships with other people, and a desire to perform labor upon the physical world in order to sustain and improve quality of life. But like any other natural impulse, the desire to make progress can misfire. When this happens, a society can advance along the wrong path. Whenever a group of people within the society believe that this has occurred, they will seek to make society reverse course, get back on the correct path, and move forward again along it. The desire to reverse course is contrary to human nature and only occurs as a reaction to a perceived mistake, hence the term ‘reaction.’
Second, like all other political movements, reactionary movements have varying degrees of success and can be placed into three general categories: those that fail to gain traction, those that gain traction and fail, and those that gain traction and succeed. When a reactionary movement fails to gain political power, the course of society continues on its current course, for good or ill. If a reactionary movement gains power, it can fail for a variety of reasons. The reactionaries can over-correct, taking society backward beyond the point at which they believe mistakes were made, causing needless damage in the process; they can take society off of one wrong path and put it onto another, even worse path; or they can make changes only to lose power and see their changes reversed by a counter-reactionary movement. Finally, it is possible that a reactionary movement could achieve its goals and maintain them against attempts at reversal, though this has yet to occur.
Third, from a certain perspective, libertarianism is the most ancient and fundamental form of reaction. Taken to its logical conclusion, libertarianism requires anarchy and views the creation of both ancient city-states and modern nation-states as a societal error in need of correction. This mistake occurred far earlier than those cited by other reactionary movements, as the first recorded states were created around 3000 BC. Although many libertarians seek radical reforms of other kinds and current libertarian movements trace their lineage to a far later time period, this reactionary core radiates outward through other beliefs commonly held by libertarians, especially right-libertarians and religious libertarians.
Given the theoretical relationship between libertarianism and reaction, let us examine the contemporary practical relationship. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, right-libertarians and religious libertarians are more likely to have reactionary views on issues other than what constitutes the acceptable use of force and the logical implications thereof. But the recent growth of the libertarian movement due to the Ron Paul presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2012 has resulted in a different type of libertarian becoming more prominent. These campaigns attracted leftists who oppose war while supporting homosexual marriages and drug legalization, but these people do not embrace these positions through the logical approach of libertarian theory, but rather through progressive dogma and/or individual hedonism. As such, they want the state to enforce their perception of liberty rather than remove initiatory force from society and let the chips fall where they may. Their desire to end the state, if present at all, comes from a fundamentally different worldview in which egalitarianism is a goal rather than a nightmare and the state is a barrier to egalitarianism rather than a cause of it. Furthermore, their quests to add to the non-aggression principle would destroy it if taken to their logical conclusions, and the more intelligent among them seem to be fully aware of this. When these people encountered the old guard of libertarianism, conflict inevitably resulted. When the leftists lost logical arguments, true to Socrates’ adage, they resorted to ad hominems in the form of accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and so on. This has fueled reactionary sentiment to the point where some of the most ardent anarchists are willing to support a borderline fascist presidential candidate just to push back against leftist influence.
This brings us to the contemporary question of the Donald Trump presidential campaign and what libertarians with reactionary leanings should do about it. The desire to use state power against those who are using state power against oneself is certainly understandable, and the idea of estoppel would justify this as self-defense in a vacuum. But elections do not solely affect the people who participate in them; they harm other people as well. Even people who live in other countries and cannot vote are aggressed against due to foreign policy. The only situation in which harming innocent third parties is acceptable is an innocent shield situation, as disallowing this is both contrary to negative homesteading and a path to an absurd result, namely that an aggressor could simply hide behind an impenetrable amount of human shielding and get away with crimes. But there are people affected by voting who are not innocent shields, at least not with respect to a United States presidential election. Thus, voting does not qualify as an act of self-defense and the proper course of action is not to enter the voting booth, but to destroy it.
As mentioned above, there are several methods by which a reactionary movement can fail. While losing power and seeing the changes reversed by a counter-reactionary movement is a future issue that cannot yet be resolved, Trump is quite capable of taking society backward beyond the point at which his supporters believe mistakes were made and of taking society off of one wrong path and putting it onto another wrong path which is even worse. Despite these dangers of being too strong in these senses, Trump’s movement is actually too weak from a philosophical libertarian perspective. Trump questions the status quo in a way that no other candidate does, but not once does he strike at the essence of state power. Never does he question the role of government; only how it should be carrying out its role. Even if Trump succeeds and the changes he would make are not undone, libertarians will still have almost all of the problems they currently have along with some new ones, such as more cronyism and more use of state power against libertarians.
In short, while the Trump campaign is a form of reaction, it is not a libertarian form of reaction. The goal of a libertarian reactionary should not be to get one’s foot into the boot of state power, but to cast the One Ring into Mount Doom. A libertarian form of reaction must correct the ancient and fundamental mistake of human civilization, which is the creation of states. Then, it must do what has yet to be done by protecting this change against attempts at reversal over a long period of time.