Story by Joseph Ford Cotto
Libertarianism has seen better days.
A few years ago, certain political forecasters claimed that the future of America's center-right belongs to libertarians. Since the 2012 presidential election, however, protectionism surged -- not only in the GOP, but among Democratic ranks as well. Now, amid the age of Donald Trump, libertarianism's once-ascendant nature seems a distant memory.
"I fear that the classical liberal/libertarian idea and ideal will be seriously tarnished by the policies and politics of the Trump Administration," Dr. Richard Ebeling, one of our time's greatest Austrian School thinkers, recently told me.
He continued: "Virtually all of Trump’s proposed policies involve a continuation or an intensification of government involvement in social and economic life. He acts as the all-knowing government central planner when he calls in business executives and tells them where to invest and what products they should make to 'create jobs.' He undermines respect for and protection of essential civil liberties when he ridicules the freedom of the press and their way of reporting on his administration’s actions and his words."
Ebeling went on to state his worry "that with the assistance of the mainstream media the Trump Administration’s anti-freedom policies will tarnish the real case for a free society and a free market. That is, people who want lower taxes and fewer regulations on business will be identified as the people who also believe in torture, discrimination against immigrants, violations of civil liberties, and the instigation of trade wars because of aggressive nationalist attitudes."
While libertarianism is easy enough to discuss in a superficial, explicitly political context, what does it mean in a deeper, philosophical sense? Of course, such a question necessarily delves into the realm of politics, but at the same time, there are finer aspects of libertarianism that defy any neat category political science has on offer.
Fortunately, Dr. Jason Kuznicki is here to help us figure all this out.
"Kuznicki is the editor of Cato Unbound, the Cato Institute’s online journal of debate," the Doctor's Cato biography reads. "His ongoing interests include censorship, church-state issues, and civil rights in the context of libertarian political theory. He was an assistant editor of the Encyclopedia of Libertarianism and the author of Technology and the End of Authority: What is Government For? (Palgrave, 2017). Kuznicki earned a PhD in history from Johns Hopkins University in 2005, where his work was offered both a Fulbright Fellowship and a Chateaubriand Prize."
Kuznicki recently spoke with me about the ins and outs of libertarian thought. Some of our conversation is included below.
Joseph Ford Cotto: What is the essential difference between right-libertarianism and left-libertarianism?
Dr. Jason Kuznicki: It can be as little as a difference in emphasis, or as much as a white-hot hatred. The term left-libertarianism means at least two things; it may mean (1) libertarian socialism or communism, or (2) the sort of Bleeding Heart Libertarianism found at the blog of that name, perhaps at the Niskanen Center, and here and there throughout the property-respecting libertarian world. Iexpla’m a part of the second tendency myself, but emphatically I am not a part of the first.
Cotto: How does Geolibertarianism fit into the American libertarian spectrum?
Kuznicki: Geolibertarians are oddities. You’ll find some of them here and there, and the basic idea they subscribe to is intuitively appealing, but I think it’s unworkable.
Cotto: Green libertarianism has attracted some attention over the years. What does it stand for?
Kuznicki: As I understand it, this is the attempt to use libertarian methods to solve environmental problems, by pricing environmental harms and allowing property rights and invisible hand mechanisms to solve the problem. I am not an environmental policy expert, so I am reluctant to comment extensively about it.
Cotto: Perhaps the most seemingly contradictory philosophy yet hatched is Marxist libertarianism. How can this even exist in a theoretical sense?
Kuznicki: I don’t know. In my book Technology and the End of Authority, I examine Marx’s theories, which I generally find wanting. I do think he made an interesting move when he posited that the existence of government (or not) might be dependent on the technological development level of a given society. This is a claim worth thinking about and remembering. We may also thank him for having made some specific and testable empirical claims, which is much better than most social theorists ever manage. Marx’s claims have been falsified, however, and his system has to be rejected. I am in no sense a Marxist, and if you’d like a sympathetic view, you will have to inquire elsewhere.
Mikhail Bakunin is sometimes called a libertarian communist, and although I am certainly not a communist, I believe that Bakunin’s criticism of Marx was basically a sound one. As I understand it, Bakunin was the first to note two important facts about Marx’s system: First, it is impossible for an entire social class to serve as a dictator, which means that there can be no dictatorship of the proletariat: some person or committee will have to do it instead. And second, a complete dictatorship over inanimate things, as Marx proposed, will necessarily be a complete dictatorship over people as well. On these two points, history has shown that Bakunin was right, and Marx was wrong.