A Libertarian Culture?


Wilhelm Röpke and Social Order

I recently read a piece by Wilhelm Röpke called “Free Economy and Social Order.” It was part of “The 30 Day Reading List that will Lead You to Becoming a Knowledgeable Libertarian.” His basic point in it (at least from what I could gather) is that the market system cannot be something thought of independently from the people who participate in it; there is a certain kind of culture required. He states:

Libertarian Wilhelm Röpke

Wilhelm Röpke

It illustrates the fact that the market economy is a form of economic order that is correlated to a concept of life and a socio-moral pattern which, for want of an appropriate English or French term, we may call buergerliche in the wide sense of this German word, which is largely free of the disparaging associations of the adjective “bourgeois.”

This buergerliche foundation of the market economy must be frankly acknowledged. All the more so because a century of Marxist propaganda and intellectualist romanticism has been astonishingly and alarmingly successful in spreading a parody of this concept. In fact, the market economy can thrive only as part of and surrounded by a buergerliche social order.

Its place is in a society where certain elementary things are respected and are coloring the whole life of the community: individual responsibility; respect of certain indisputable norms; the individual’s honest and serious struggle to get ahead and develop his faculties; independence anchored in property; responsible planning of one’s own life and that of one’s family; thriftiness; enterprise; assuming well calculated risks; the sense of workmanship; the right relation to nature and the community; the sense of continuity and tradition; the courage to brave the uncertainties of life on one’s own account; the sense of the natural order of things.

Is that the case? I’ve been trying to answer the question of who and what ideological foundations can be appropriately put under the “libertarian” umbrella. I think one of the obvious tenets is acceptance of the free market system as legitimate (this would include all voluntary human interaction, including communes that are mutually agreed upon by their members). I would also say that full consistency would require the application of the non-aggression principle to all human relationships. Anything beyond that ceases to be solely libertarian. For example, one can consistently be ardently opposed to the use of narcotics for recreation yet also be opposed to the criminalization of such activity. Libertarians only need be “socially liberal” in the sense that they tolerate people doing things that aren’t aggressions against others’ person or property, not that they accept them as morally upright.

Thin and Thick Libertarianism

Libertarian Matt Zwolinski

Matt Zwolinski

This idea of only needing to accept the non-aggression principle is called “thin libertarianism” (please see Zwolinski’s argument for why he thinks libertarianism rests upon a “thicker” foundation). Zwolinski is critical of Rothbard’s foundational arguments for libertarianism, but I am sympathetic to the idea that libertarianism as such deals solely with when the use of force is justified. But I would like to comment on Zwolinski’s idea that libertarianism “rests on more foundational  beliefs about individualism, tolerance, skepticism about power, respect for spontaneous order, and  belief in the importance of property rights…” What I find interesting is that both libertarians of the left and right variety believe that certain cultural norms and attitudes are required for a free society to operate beyond only a respect for property rights (though this may be the most important).

A difficulty I have is finding out where left and right libertarians diverge in their beliefs. According to Gary Chartier, the “left” in left-libertarian is marked by an opposition to subordination, deprivation, and exclusion. Of course, these aren’t meant to be an exhaustive list, but it gives us a start. However, I don’t imagine libertarians who don’t consider themselves left-libertarians would disagree with these positions, but might give them a different importance in terms of priority or importance. Come to think of it, I don’t really notice many people self-identifying as “right-libertarian.” Just looking at the Wiki for it, it’s hard to come up with a definition of it at all. The first sentence says that right-libertarians are libertarians who believe in limited government, free markets, and self-ownership, yet left-libertarians also support free markets, self-ownership, and if they support the existence of government at all it is as a strictly limited entity. Strangely, if I didn’t know any better, I would say that the existence of left-libertarians leads us to naturally believe there must be such a thing as right-libertarians, not that there actually is such a thing that necessitates a delineation with left-libertarianism.

Thus, the way I think about libertarianism is this: I think that the “thin” idea of libertarianism is the proper one: that libertarianism is largely based in non-aggression. Anything beyond that, like having the social goals of, say, decreasing racial prejudice, is something beyond libertarianism. Libertarianism is a political philosophy, not an all-encompassing moral theory. Thus, though there are traits we would like all libertarians to have (such as being friendly to all races, treating women respectfully, and so forth) those are things beyond libertarianism. So, I regard the “thick” brand of libertarianism as being “libertarianism plus something else.”

Libertarian Cultural Values

As to whether libertarianism requires some types of cultural values, I would say it is undoubtedly so. As Röpke states above, I think personal responsibility, a certain amount of thriftiness and industriousness, as well as familial and community ties will help ensure the health of a libertarian society. Indeed, the fewer people who have any desire or need for the welfare state, the less likely it is to exist. As well, the greater tolerance and consideration we have for others, the less likely that conflicts will occur. So, while libertarianism gives us insight as to what proper legal rules are, there are certain moral behaviors that will help reinforce these rules.


6 responses »

  1. I think you can assign all the blame to Gary Chartier for creating the confusion between right-wing vs. left-wing libertarianism. It seems to me that he likes to call himself a “left libertarian” or of the “libertarian left” or a “free market socialist” because he thinks it appeals to lefties. However, if you read past his redefinition of the terms “left” and “socialism,” he is a plain old anarcho-capitalist whose leftist aspirations are just wishful thinking and not a necessary outcome of his political philosophy.

    • I wholeheartedly agree that the left-libertarians have the exact same goals as anarcho-capitalists in terms of “public policy,” that is, no public policy at all. But I think there might be some use in trying to appeal to leftists; libertarians should address everyone’s concerns. What about the poor? What about minorities? What about women? What about the environment? I think that a leftist that properly understands economics should be libertarian.

      I also like some of the emphases by left-libertarians (but also dislike some others). For example, Roderick Long does a service by explaining left- and right-conflationism, that advocates of free markets should not be confused so as to defend the current state of economic affairs as if they resembled a free market, but should point out that the problems in the medical industry, banking, etc. are due to privileges to the politically connected and other government interventions.

      However, some points made by left-libertarians about things like “rape culture” are less than perfectly helpful. Now, I think there are good points to be made about how women are treated differently, but it can go too far, such as when they compare the implicit violence of the State with the implicit violence men present to women, simply because they are male. Not only is it a bad analogy (since the State actually does threaten violence for disobedience) but is insulting to men (as if any one of them could turn to rapists at any moment).

  2. I have a few issues with this:

    “A difficulty I have is finding out where left and right libertarians diverge in their beliefs. According to Gary Chartier, the “left” in left-libertarian is marked by an opposition to subordination, deprivation, and exclusion…. However, I don’t imagine libertarians who don’t consider themselves left-libertarians would disagree with these positions, but might give them a different importance in terms of priority…”

    If you don’t believe that this distinction between right and left libertarians holds true, let me give you a perfect example of a conservative (“right”) libertarian who actually believes “exclusion” is a necessary component of a functional libertarian society, rather than something to avoid or actually fight against: Hans-Hermann Hoppe…

    “There can be no tolerance toward democrats and communists in a libertarian social order. They will have to be physically separated and expelled from the society. Likewise, in a covenant founded for the purpose of protecting family and kin, there can be no tolerance toward those habitually promoting lifestyles incompatible with this goal. They – the advocates of alternative, non-family and kin-centered lifestyles such as, for instance, individual hedonism, parasitism, nature-environment worship, homosexuality, or communism – will have to be physically removed from society, too, if one is to maintain a libertarian order” (Democracy: The God that Failed, p. 218).

    Hoppe is equally fond of “subordination” as can be seen by his constant referring to “social elites”:

    “Clearly then, the task of maintaining the covenant entailed in a libertarian (proprietary) community is first and foremost that of the proprietor. Yet he is but one man…. In particular, the proprietor needs the support of the community elite, i.e. the heads of households and firms most heavily invested in the community” (Democracy: The God that Failed, p. 216).

    So, either you need to make the case that Hoppe is not a libertarian (an argument I think you have tremendous trouble making, since it’s not true) or you must recant your claim that right libertarians are just as likely to accept the responsibility of libertarians to oppose “subordination, deprivation, and exclusion”.

    • Unfortunately, the way it was written may not convey this, but I didn’t mean to imply I knew that thoughts of ALL libertarians, rather that MOST libertarians would agree with these ideas. Perhaps if I put in the modifier, “…most libertarians who don’t consider themselves left-libertarians would disagree with these positions…” you would be happy?

      Look closely at where Chartier says exclusion is acceptable: “…when particular intimate sub-communities justly exclude someone—for the simple reason that they would cease to be the kinds of communities they are…” That seems to be what Hoppe is going for here: he wants to exclude those who would cease to make the society libertarian or family-oriented. Perhaps Chartier would think Hoppe isn’t satisfying his second stipulation (“when justifiable exclusion occurs, it ought not to reflect false beliefs about or unreasonable reactions to some group to which the excluded person belongs”), but maybe not. I think it’s debatable. Furthermore, Chartier emphasizes that exclusion would be more acceptable among small, intimate communities rather than large, impersonal ones. I haven’t read much Hoppe, but I think it’s reasonable to assume he’s talking about the former.

      As for subordination, Chartier says, “One person, A, is subordinate to another, B, when B has significant, persistent power over A. The power involved may be physical, but it may also be economic, psychic, social, or cultural. The important thing is that B determines, to some meaningful degree, what A does. A is significantly un-free in relation to B, either because B can impose on A some cost that A is unwilling to bear or because A genuinely (but mistakenly) believes that B is entitled to determine the character of A’s conduct.” The label “community elite” doesn’t imply this type of subordination; Hoppe is talking of heads of households and firms. Unless we think of any hierarchy as necessarily being subordinating, then I don’t think we should conclude that Hoppe is supporting it.

      Thus, I don’t think we can say Hoppe violates the stated left-libertarian ideals as defined by Chartier.

      • Since I’ve read very little Chartier (maybe an essay here or there), I’m puzzled as to what his position on subordination exactly is. Is he opposed to anything that counts at subordination under the definition above? That seems, to me, completely insane; aren’t parents entitled to determine a large degree of the character of their children’s conduct? Don’t Christians believe that the system of Christian morality – as policed by theologians, ministers, the pope, etc – rightfully dictates or guides how one ought to act? The hierarchies of parent-child and organized religion seem totally incompatible with opposition to subordination as Chartier defines it.

        You make a good point, Tate, to say that not all hierarchy is subordinating, but the Hoppe quotes Brock gave seem to show that Hoppe favors the exercise of “economic, psychic, social, or cultural” power against the practice and influence of hedonism, homosexuality, communism, etc. But perhaps I’m reading a position into Chartier that he doesn’t actually hold.

      • Here is the link to Chartier’s article, where he discusses all of these things leftists are against: http://liberalaw.blogspot.com/2008/12/left-in-left-libertarian.html

        He goes on to say that, “I assume here that subordination is presumptively morally objectionable. That, indeed, is part of what it means to adopt a position I would recognize as leftist. I do not seek to justify this presumption (perhaps that’s a task for another post) nor to suggest how one could correctly identify cases in which it might rightly be defeated.”

        His mentioned examples include violence against women and workers not striking for fear of violence. I’m not sure how much power needs to be exercised for Chartier to consider such an exercise subordination; obviously the nature of parenting inherently involves some power, but it would be hard to say that such “subordination” (if Chartier would consider it that) is morally undesirable.

        I will say that I don’t think Chartier would approve of Hoppe’s exclusions, himself. As far as subordination goes, I think Chartier needs to define it more clearly. But a thought does come to mind: it seems as though Chartier would want heads of households and firms to exercise power, just as much as Hoppe, only for different ends. Where Hoppe would have them exclude certain groups, I think Chartier would use their influence to get more people to accept them. Would this exercise of social power be subordinating? Or is the quality of being subordinating dependent on what preferences are being promoted?

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