Apr 19, 2004: Libertarian Politics and Voluntaryism

The radical libertarian movement, the so-called “anarcho-capitalists”, have pitted the whole of their efforts against the Iraq War, the Bush administration, and the neoconservatives. As the violence in the Middle East escalates and Coalition defeat becomes increasingly conceivable, the anarchic libertarians have descended into something of a frenzy. It is unlikely that this sect has ever reached such an emotional pitch before, but in fact this latest obsession with the Iraq War and the occupation is merely an extension of the fixation libertarians have always had on politics. Although they, in principle, object to “statism”, they have never been able to mount more than a rather steady stream of criticism against the particular actions and composition of government, criticism often divorced from wider considerations of libertarian principles and goals.

Although the rhetoric from these libertarians describes the Iraq War as a climactic battle for liberty (a mirror image of the Coalition’s claim), in reality nothing has changed. “Statism” is not threatened in the slightest by anything that happens in Iraq. The only real difference is that the libertarians have shown a greater willingness to resort to invective and personal attacks. From the tenor of their writings, it would seem as if their personal animosity for their opponents has driven them to use the war as a means to humiliate those opponents, particularly the neoconservatives, rather than to truly advance the libertarian cause. Indeed, they have gone so far in their opposition to the war that they have paradoxically sided with the Islamist and national-socialist militants in Iraq, forsaking their claim to cherish peace.

By attempting to turn these Iraqi radicals into proxies for the anarchic libertarians’ imagined battle for liberty, these libertarians are playing the worst kind of politics. Sites like LewRockwell.com, which seems to maintain an unenthusiastic but permissive attitude towards participation in government, and Strike-the-Root.com, which is altogether opposed to participation in government, have nevertheless rhetorically lifted the sword with relish. They treat every Coalition setback as a victory for their own cause. Peace and freedom, it seems, are to be achieved through violence and tyranny.

The notion of using violence and coercion in the interest of liberty is an acute problem, particularly for libertarians. It is not unrelated to the question of anarchism and “minarchism”, since the latter would argue that coercion can somehow coexist with freedom. But, it is the anarchists who are implying just this in the case of the Iraq War. They seek to use power, although wielded by fighters half a world away, to secure their ends. What is worse, they are unable to even develop a half-plausible case as to how a defeat at the hands of Iraqi militants would translate into greater liberty for Americans or Iraqis or anybody else. Libertarians make for awful politicians.

There are, however, libertarians who have steadfastly refused to allow the poison of coercion to infect their philosophy. The Voluntaryist, most notably, has consistently addressed the immorality of state coercion and, when assessing particular government policies, always shown how such policies are inherently coercive and unjust. By firmly and resolutely taking a principled stand against violence and coercion, the voluntaryists have rejected statism, as well as political anarchism and any other such ideology that would bring about yet another coercive regime.

They have rejected political solutions to the libertarian problem, insofar as participation in the political system implies consent to and tacit approval of the necessary outcome of all political processes, namely coercive government. Majoritarian democracy is rejected as unequivocally as are other forms of tyranny.

The only way to concretely combat against coercion, the voluntaryists argue, is to refrain from being coercive oneself. That therefore requires that one refuse to participate in government, refuse to consent to the domination of oneself or of others. Central to that refusal, for those who live as we do, under a social democratic system, is to abstain from voting.

On the offensive side, the voluntaryists are devoted to education, convincing others to likewise withdraw their consent from the government by dispassionately detailing the true nature of the state. The voluntaryist strategy is very simply then to deprive the state of consent. It is a strategy born less out of calculation than the mere application of principle, which is its genius.

Although the anti-Iraq War libertarians and the voluntaryists might be conveniently classified as merely different emphases within anarchic libertarianism, in fact, they are altogether different movements. Many of the anti-Iraq War libertarians have long since rejected voting, but as we have tried to demonstrate, they have not abandoned politics, the wielding of coercive power. Voluntaryists have consistently focused on the coercive nature of government and the necessity of withdrawing consent from government.

The furious opposition to the Iraq War is only an extension of the political obsession still so prevalent among libertarians. It is an attempt to change government policy or to effect change through political means. Voluntaryists are undoubtedly as opposed to the Iraq War as are their libertarian cousins, but they are likely to make the point that war is coercion and that it always leads to further instances of coercion. They do not hold out the false hope that coercion and statism are to be destroyed by war, particularly a war fought between two coercive powers.

Vocal libertarian opponents to the Iraq War may protest that their opposition is rooted in the desire to educate others about the warlike nature of government. That is perhaps an element in their opposition, and it may have been their chief motive at the beginning, but that motive has been subsumed under more dubious drives and passions. The clear and overwhelming interest of these opponents has become the defeat of Coalition forces, above and beyond any interest in educating others.

As we pointed out in last week’s column, the obsession with the defeat of the Coalition has only been justifiable by grossly distorting reality, by strangely pretending, as Lew Rockwell does, that the Iraq War has been an uncharacteristic detour from an otherwise noble tradition of liberty, a detour that will conveniently end with a bloody failure. But this war is, in fact, an altogether characteristic continuation of the warlike nature of government, American government included. Government is inherently coercive and warlike, whatever other virtues it might display or use to shroud its nature, and it is our duty to remove this shroud, to show the tyrannical nature of government, and to do our all to undermine the power of the state, which is not to be found on the battlefields of Iraq but in the consent and active support of ordinary Americans.

April 19, 2004

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