Henry Olson Misunderstands Libertarianism

On September 25, Social Matter published an article by Henry Olson titled “The Death and Tragic Rebirth of Libertarianism”. While this article raises several important issues for libertarians and gets some points correct, it also has major theoretical problems. Whereas Olson’s misunderstandings are more commonly distributed and believed than correct libertarian theory, and this is a primary reason for many rejections of libertarianism, let us explore them and offer corrections while also noting where his essay is accurate.

Abstract

Olson begins,

“Whatever their partisans claim, political ideologies rarely succeed in describing some timeless truth about the world. More often, their existence is entirely contingent on the events around them. They serve as gathering points for similar personality types to consider the important issues of their day. When the issues change, most partisans move somewhere else, and the ideology goes stale.”

This is mostly correct, though libertarianism (in the Hoppean sense) does succeed in providing a rational proof that self-ownership, non-aggression, and respect for private property form the basis for how people should act, even if it is not how they do act. Though a political ideology can become stale when partisans leave, it can also lead to renewal as those who would use (and abuse) the ideology for their own purposes go elsewhere and take their corruptions with them.

Olson views the rise of political libertarianism through Ron Paul and its recession away from Rand Paul in favor of Donald Trump and the alt-right as an example of this staleness. He describes the passing of the “libertarian moment” in favor of Trumpism and the alt-right as “the sadness of a vanished childhood, where we realized that the dreams we once believed so deeply were only dreams”. But as we will see, this view rests upon a foundation of misunderstanding, as does the mainstream corporatist libertarian position that Olson criticizes.

Libertarian Theory

Olson attempts to provide the reader with a brief overview of libertarian theory, but offers a deeply flawed version of it. He writes,

“The central tenet of libertarianism was always simple. It was based around the so-called ‘non-aggression principle’ (or NAP), which held that anyone may do whatever he pleases with his own property so long as he respects other people’s rights to do the same with theirs. Since the boundaries on what it means to encroach on someone else’s property rights are not always clear, the NAP was typically understood as a prohibition on the initiation of force.”

While it is odd to read of even a former libertarian referring to the “so-called NAP,” the issue here is that self-ownership is the central tenet while NAP and private property are corollaries thereof. Though the definition of “encroachment” is not always clear in the abstract, it usually is clear in practice because people negotiate agreements in order to avoid unnecessary conflicts. The exceptions to this tend to be caused by state interference that inhibits the ability of private actors to negotiate such matters between themselves. Olson’s footnote about zoning laws, which suggests that libertarians have no answer to the objection that zoning laws “make communities nicer for nearly everyone and do not significantly harm the few cranks and outliers they inconvenience” suggests an unfamiliarity with libertarian theory. Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s theories on covenant communities resolve such problems, as does the work of many other libertarians on the subject of contracts. If one wishes to prevent “transforming the Vermont village green into a strip mall,” for instance, the charter of a covenant community may provide that this space is never to be developed. The residents of the area may also band together to make socioeconomic life so difficult for anyone who would develop a particular plot that no one would want to take the risk. “Using force to preserve something that nearly everyone appreciates” is not “defined as immoral from the outset”; it simply requires that the proper private legal structures be put into place and that the proper forces be arranged toward that purpose.

Olson raises the canards of Murray Rothbard’s case for letting children starve, Walter Block’s less palatable chapters in Defending the Undefendable, and the apparent love affair that the Mises Institute has with Ebenezer Scrooge. For the former two, it must be said that even the greatest thinkers can be dreadfully wrong on occasion. No philosopher should be followed exactly on reputation alone, but neither should the rest of their canon be rejected without further cause. Defending Scrooge, however, makes far more sense, especially from a Social Darwinist perspective, which a person moving from libertarianism to neoreaction could reasonably possess and retain. Even so, Olson praises libertarianism for giving “the right answers to the most pressing practical issues of the late 2000s,” even if its adherents occasionally wished for a past that never was (also common among reactionaries of all types). However, his history is slightly off. The Austrian School began in 1871 with Carl Menger’s Principles of Economics; those working in the early 20th century (e.g. Ludwig von Mises) were the second generation of Austrian economists.

The Moment Passes

Olson’s initial description of the passing of the “libertarian moment” on the right is poignant:

“As the defections of former libertarians and Tea Partiers to Donald Trump and the alt-right showed, a lot of the libertarians from the Ron Paul years fundamentally did not believe in libertarian theory as much as they thought they did. They flocked to it at the time because it offered an intelligent critique of the Left and the mainstream Right that was otherwise lacking in a time when Sean Hannity and Karl Rove were leading right-wing luminaries. But when a meatier opposition arose—based on nationalism, immigration restriction, and economic protectionism—many libertarians saw no problem in dropping their old beliefs for contradictory ones.”

These people never were libertarians (or Tea Partiers, for that matter); they were anti-progressives and anti-cuckservatives who saw no other political movement that opposed both camps. He then identifies himself as being in this category, which is glaringly obvious by the analytical mistakes in his next paragraph. Olson writes that his “libertarian dream died with the 2014 riots in Ferguson, Missouri.” His description of events is saturated with exactly the type of political autism of which reactionaries tend to accuse libertarians. It is true that within context, the police and National Guard forces imposed order upon a rioting mob that was attacking innocent bystanders and destroying their property. But who created that context? For the past century, all levels of American government have worked tirelessly to suppress militia groups that once performed the legitimate functions of the National Guard. Many cities once had racial zoning ordinances that created segregated ghettos where none had existed previously. The welfare state provides perverse incentives that have destroyed black families and grown the criminal element, and government education has failed to prepare them to lead a life outside the criminal justice system. Legal protections for the press dating back to the Constitution itself keep them from facing proper consequences for inciting people to riot, loot, and burn. Wherever one looks, the state is at fault, and expecting them to clean up their own mess is the least that one can ask. It is fair to criticize “the libertarian theorists pontificating on how the best solution would be to privatize the roads, abolish the police, or legalize pot” for not addressing the problem at hand with the implements at hand, but they did far more than “offer only platitudes in the face of real life-and-death problems”.

On the left side, Olson is closer to the target:

“Certain aspects of libertarianism insisted on drug legalization, open borders, and the right to all kinds of weird sex, in what was then an even more aggressive manner than the mainstream Left. But as the ‘mainstream’ Left adopted increasingly radical positions in the culture wars, such that, today, elected Democratic politicians demand that we ‘abolish ICE‘ while Democratic voters nominate transgenders as their gubernatorial candidates, there is little reason for cultural leftists to stick with libertarianism. Why buy the knock-off when the real thing is just as accessible? So these people left too, and joined the freakshow known as liberalism circa 2018.”

His errors here are minor. First, there has always been a degenerate, hedonistic element in majuscule, political Libertarianism. These people come into libertarian circles because they seek a safe space for the practice of their vices, whatever they may be. Leftist elements within libertarianism provide them with this safe space because doing so is an easier way to grow the movement than authentic proselytization. This also gives them occasion to attack right-libertarians for opposing the adulteration and degeneration of their political movement. Second, they are not leaving the Libertarian Party in sufficient numbers to turn it rightward, as many of them know that they lack the talent to perform in a major political party and would rather remain as big fish in a small pond, fighting over worthless scraps of non-existent power.

A Tragic Rebirth?

We now reach the purpose of Olson’s article: to make the case that libertarianism is an enemy in the fight against corporate censorship. He describes the importance of this struggle thus:

“The most important battle of our time is now shaping up to be the battle against the tech monopolists. Whereas issues like changing demographics, non-white immigration to the West, and the glorification of sexual deviancy and hedonistic consumerism over traditional Western norms all pose existential threats to our civilization, the threat from the tech world presents an even more fundamental problem. It challenges whether we will even be able to talk about these other issues at all. By excluding dissident websites from Google search results, by preventing rightists from using Facebook or Twitter to spread their messages, or by banning the Right from online payment processors, private tech monopolists have every bit the same power to silence critics as the old Soviet Cheka.”

Once more, Olson is poised to ignore how the current context was formed. He continues,

“In fact, their power may even be greater. The secret police of the twentieth century communist regimes had to rely on glaringly primitive and brutal tactics like the gulag, the torture chamber, and the firing squad. While a force like the Cheka was obviously able inflict much more pain on individual people than Google can, its obvious brutality could not help but stir up popular resentment; thus, the common refrain that by the fall of the Berlin Wall the only people still believing in communism were American university professors. Therefore, the fact that modern tech companies have given up primitive methods of control for more sophisticated ones is an evolutionary improvement in managerial totalitarianism, not a weakness. The goal of the gulags was rarely to hurt individual people; it was to make the cost of opposing the system prohibitive to others. If Google, Twitter, PayPal, or any other company can silence dissent just by changing search algorithms or banning dissidents from using a service, then it has achieved in the same results in a less intrusive way. And because their methods are less obviously evil, they are also less likely to engender popular disillusionment or revolt.”

That soft power frequently faces less backlash than hard power is important to remember, as is the fact that private enterprise working hand in hand with the state typically results in the worst of both worlds: the evil of the state combined with the efficiency of the market. It is important to remember that the market is fundamentally amoral; it is not a thing but a process. If the inputs are corrupted, so will be the results. Just as markets “find solutions that the government misses” for good, so can they for evil. As Hoppe writes,

“Moreover, free competition is not always good. Free competition in the production of goods is good, but free competition in the production of bads is not. Free competition in the torturing and killing of innocents, or free competition in counterfeiting or swindling, for instance, is not good; it is worse than bad.”[1]

Olson accuses libertarianism of “rush[ing] to the rescue of the establishment censors,” defending them as “private companies [that] can set whatever terms of service they want.” While some prominent libertarians are saying this, proper libertarian theory says no such thing. Instead, it recognizes that corporations are not private companies; they are legal fictions created by the state to shield business owners from full financial liability and ease the enforcement of laws upon those businesses. It is impossible to create a corporation without involving the state, as attempting to do so without chartering or registering the corporation with a state will have no effect. The closest one could come would be to negotiate recognition of a business entity with limited liability with each customer of that business, but this would not be identical to a state-recognized corporation in terms of its interaction with the state or with bystanders. Corporations as we know them are therefore incompatible with libertarianism; they should be replaced by other forms of business organization, such as common-law partnerships and cooperatives.

Olson quotes Rothbard on the matter of freedom of speech:

“Freedom of speech is supposed to mean the right of everyone to say whatever he likes. But the neglected question is: Where? Where does a man have this right? He certainly does not have it on property on which he is trespassing. In short, he has this right only either on his own property or on the property of someone who has agreed, as a gift or in a rental contract, to allow him on the premises. In fact, then, there is no such thing as a separate ‘right to free speech’; there is only a man’s property right: the right to do as he wills with his own or to make voluntary agreements with other property owners.”

What both Olson and Rothbard neglect is that, as explained above, corporations exist on the backs of taxpayers who are extorted to fund the government that allows them to incorporate. It is not trespassing for those taxpayers to enter the property of the social media companies, payment processors, etc. and make use of their services against their wishes because their incorporation is a benefit of property rights violations. Therefore, their exercise of private property rights by denying service to people and trespassing them is estopped as long as they remain incorporated.

Olson correctly points out that (misunderstood) libertarian theory serves the progressive leftist establishment, and that they will use the part that serves their interest while ignoring and discarding the other parts and implications, such as the right to discriminate racially. But as shown above, his descriptions of libertarians who do oppose the technology giants are false:

“They range from an acknowledgment of the problem but a refusal to find a solution (e.g., ‘a free speech social media alternative will come eventually, so we can ignore the problem for now’) to a half-baked rationalization that government tech regulation really is not regulation at all (e.g., ‘tech companies get lots of government subsidies, so it really does not aggress against their property rights to regulate them’).”

The consistent libertarians really are not “the tech apologists,” nor are the effective opponents those who would “rally government force to stop them.” If the NAP really said that “we are not allowed to stop them” from “silenc[ing] dissent to aid our ruling class’s efforts to turn America into the Third World and destroy the civilization that we inherited,” then one could reasonably say “to hell with the NAP.” Fortunately, it says no such thing. Government force is the ultimate cause of the problem because it provides the means to destroy Western civilization and empowers the technology giants to become giants that serve as tools of oppression in the first place. Though it may be necessary to break up the near-monopolies of Google, Facebook, and Twitter, this alone will not be sufficient. Nor will regulating them as public utilities, as this will both stifle innovation and incentivize regulatory capture.

Conclusion

Olson’s article is most interesting for its dueling political autisms; he correctly chastises mainstream libertarians for their inability to understand and deal with the current situation, all while remaining blissfully unaware of how his beloved state created the current situation. The solution to censorious technology giants will likely require taking the reins of power, but only for the purpose of setting parts of the Cathedral against other parts in order to hasten its demise. If the Right, per his suggestion, “learn[s] to be unapologetically statist,” it will only retread a predictable course that ends in failure, more robust leftism in the long term, and the abandonment of liberty.

References:

  1. Hoppe, Hans-Hermann (2001). Democracy: The God That Failed. Transaction Publishers. p. 87.
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