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A Libertarian Culture?

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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.

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