Recently I was asked by Eric Bigelow of I Am An Individual to write an essay on my libertarian awakening, and here it is….
Several years ago, perhaps after seeing the Soviet-style campaign posters for Obama in 2008, I began to realize that the American Experiment had failed and tried to figure out why. I wondered: If the Founders had put an express right to secede in the Constitution, would the federal government have respected States’ rights more? If Lincoln had not been elected or if he had let the South go, would the federal government have been checked, giving rise to two truly federalist (rather than nationalist) governments, or to a peacefully reunited country whose government respected the voluntary nature of the Union? If Wilson had not been elected or if we had entered the First World War on the side of Germany (a distinct possibility), would classical liberalism have been saved? If we had never gotten ourselves involved in any foreign entanglements as President Washington had advised, would we now be a free society shining a beacon of hope to the rest of the world?
Unfortunately, with every question I asked myself, the obvious answer kept popping up: no matter what the Founders could have done, no matter what change could have been made to the Constitution, no matter what politician was or wasn’t elected, the experiment of liberty-preserved-by-government would have failed. I concluded that if there is a seat of power, eventually that seat will be filled and enlarged by those who desire power and its rewards, rather than occupied by those who wish to limit government and promote liberty.
I distinctly recall having this epiphany while vacuuming my bedroom–it was like when the Twin Towers fell, or as the older generation say, when JFK was shot–I remember the exact instant, it was so momentous to me. My despair was total but at the same time, liberating. I knew my quest for liberty and justice was utterly hopeless, that man was destined for servitude, but I didn’t have to worry about it anymore because there was nothing anyone could do. I actually thought I had come to the end of my quest for truth the way the guy in the commercial a few years ago, bleary-eyed and unshaven, clearly having just spent days surfing the web, got a message on his screen: “You have come to the end of the Internet.” That was me. I had come to the end of the metaphorical Internet, or so I thought.
In fact, it was the Internet itself that saved me for the very reason that it doesn’t end. It led me to a truth beyond my truth: anarcho-capitalism. While searching for an old book an aging uncle recommended, America’s Great Depression, by Murray Rothbard, I stumbled upon the website of Rothbard’s compatriot, Lew Rockwell. I noticed that one of Mr. Rockwell’s recent podcasts was titled: “Democracy: The God That Failed, an interview with Hans-Hermann Hoppe.” I thought to myself, “C’mon, don’t tell me someone else thought of this! No way, it’s gotta be just another communist manifesto,” but I clicked on it anyway. I could not believe what I heard–I simply could not believe it. Not only was Professor Hoppe saying EXACTLY what I had thought, but my epiphany was just the beginning of the story. What’s more, Hoppe wasn’t desperate as I had been, he was hopeful–he had cracked the code! Or at least he deciphered the code Murray Rothbard had cracked. Rothbard and Hoppe observed that a just, self-limiting state was impossible, as I had concluded, but went on to point out that it was also unnecessary!
Hoppe, like Rothbard, claims (and does a good job demonstrating) that capitalist society is self-ordering. Contrary to current misconceptions, capitalist society simply means a society based on the ability to forego current consumption for future surplus, aided by the division of labor and the employment of a price mechanism and a medium of exchange. Rothbard and Hoppe point out that there is no need to make any assumption about the virtue or vice of man, other than the self-evident truth that he acts to serve his own interests, whatever they may be. They base the conclusion that capitalist society is self-ordering on the fact that it is in almost everyone’s enduring interest to interact peacefully and voluntarily, and it is in the interest of this vast majority of people to cooperate voluntarily to deter or repel the occasional rogue actor who would break the peace. It is not necessary for social order to have a coercive, monopoly state that uses the threat of violence to shape the behavior of peaceful citizens.
Once the scales fell from my eyes about the true nature of society, I explored whole new avenues of thought and gained a better understanding of the current system and its true purpose. Most notably, I found Albert Jay Nock’s concise and brilliant, Our Enemy the State, which develops the idea that the modern state is first and foremost a mechanism through which government actors use their monopoly on power not to preserve citizens’ rights as they claim to do, but to circumvent those rights in order to bestow privileges on others in return for benefits to themselves. (Even the founding of America was a function of this mechanism, according to Nock.)
It is beyond the scope of this essay even to touch on the many avenues these lines of thought opened up to me: the economics of the Austrian School, the political philosophy of classical liberalism, treatises on human nature, and readings from brilliant anarchist thinkers from the past such as William Graham Sumner, Leo Tolstoy, H.L. Mencken and Lysander Spooner, just to name a few. Also worth exploring are the answers to practical questions such as “who will provide roads?,” “how will we provide for the national defense?” and “who will regulate dangerous industries?,” all of which can be found in the rich and robust body of literature available on libertarian thought. (Mises.org is a great place to start an inquiry into any of these subjects.)
You might ask, however, why we should take the time and effort to dig deep into the principles of libertarian economics and political philosophy, especially now when we are so far from being able to hold our government to these principles? My answer is that the time will come when these ideas will be needed.
Because of the failure of democracy to maintain limits on government power, the United States now operates a system that is a combination of social democracy and fascistic corporatism. The citizenry is entrenched in government dependence through public employment and entitlements, and the business class is entrenched in crony capitalism through competition-limiting regulatory barriers to entry plus revenue-generating public contracts and reimbursements. Given this economic structure, the majority of votes and money will oppose fundamental reform until collapse is imminent. When that turning point arrives, however, we “the remnant” (to use a term of Nock’s), must be ready with ideas and principles that provide an alternative to the “more government” solution that will surely be the first choice offered on our ballot of crisis as it is now on Europe’s.