The Libertarian Paradox I: Liberty

The Libertarian Paradox I: On Liberty….

By Phillip Logan

While the Libertarian movement has been around for a fair amount of time, its recent visibility and popularity has raised eyebrows for Leftists, activist and academic alike, living in a country that considered itself beyond the ideological wars of Europe. While Libertarianism is claimed as a conservative ideology, lower case l, libertarianism proper predates its political expression here in the United States, a concept accurately born of the radical Leftism associated with Bakunin and Proudhon. In its essence, American Libertarianism is a far-right interpretation of a predominately left wing political tradition dating back to the French Revolution. However, I will state that I am not interested in doing a historical analysis of the libertarian tradition, in the broad sense of the term; I will be focusing on its American interpretation, its underlying ideals, and its ethical implications for our present day society. This will be a series of articles analyzing various historical themes, their underlying tendencies, and their implications for American Late Capitalism.

Once upon a time, I came across a Paulista, a term we use on the radical left to describe followers of the ‘Ron Paul Movement’. For the ill-informed, the Ron Paul Movement, also known as the ‘Ron Paul Revolution’, is a Libertarian movement centered around the political aspirations of a American Libertarian ideologue, eerily resembling the ‘Dear Leader-type’, now former GOP presidential candidate, and a currently retiring Texas Congressman. Nevertheless, this Paulista I encountered was preaching about the power of ‘Liberty’ and its savior-like qualities when power is put back in the hands of the American people. Such a powerful statement strikes a chord amongst many Americans, particularly a distressed American middle class that has been struggling to grapple with the instabilities of the ‘global’ capitalist world system, and more recently, the emergence of neoliberal, finance-monopoly capitalism as the primary scheme of capital accumulation. While this man continued to pontificate on a number topics; sound money, military expansionism, debt, etc. Ironically, he reminded me of the occasional far-left Communists one encounters in Manhattan, pushing newspapers on New York City street corners about the savior-like qualities of a ‘Workers’ State’ headed by a vanguard party of the old Leninist mold. While his stressing of Liberty sounded good to the ear, I had to wonder — did the advertising match the finishing product. It was then that my philosophical inclinations took over and I began a thought experiment in my mind.

In the world of philosophy, particularly those of us who operate within the Marxist tradition, both of the orthodox and Post-Gramscian Marxist tradition, the basic dichotomy of real abstraction vs. ideal abstractions come to mind. While all theories, philosophies, and ideologies need abstractions or mental playgrounds as I like to call them, abstractions are not one in the same. Ideal abstractions are abstractions based in worlds wholly created in the minds of philosophers, perfect worlds where everything works together, bearing no resemblance to the world as it exist in the ‘desert of the real’. Concordantly, ideal abstractions are mental fantasies based on hyper-realistic, or completely imaginary worlds, that are devoid of the many material, and immaterial , forces and structures that limit our agency in the real world. Inversely, real abstractions are abstractions based on real world structures and real world realities. In the Marxist tradition, we utilize real abstractions to critique and understand our real existing society, and ideologies that profess to resemble real world schemas. Marx, in his critique of capitalism, particularly the ideal abstractions within the bourgeois political economy of Adam Smith, took the ideas of Smith and proved how they would work in the real world. Marx did this by breaking capitalism down to its basic element, the commodity, and applied Adam Smith’s theory to the real world, unveiling the inner workings of capitalism and capitalist crisis. It is this method that I will attempt to utilize in my analysis of liberty.

Liberty, as it is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “the power or state of being free, the ability to do as one pleases, or the positive enjoyment of various social, political, or economic rights and privileges.” At face value, the definition seems to match up well with the Libertarian philosophy. Libertarians have always been known as outspoken critics of the emerging national-security state, the war on drugs, and social-authoritarian Conservatism. Libertarians are also known as being strong advocates for civil liberties, including the decriminalization of marijuana for medical and recreational purposes. Libertarians are also known for performative protest of liberty throughout the United States. The protest of online personalities like Adam Kokesh lead one to be impassioned by such stalwart dedication to America’s prime principle. Furthermore, the emergence of talk radio personalities like Alex Jones, and the formulation of the 9/11 truth, Anti-Bilderberg movements, respectively, give a widespread legitimacy to this suspiciously popular movement. Yet is the ideal of liberty merely liberty, or is it ‘Liberty’, with a capital L.

Through my studies of Marx, and now my current knowledge from constructivist methodology, I have an understanding that the ideational roots of ideology are conditioned by the social-historical phenomena they are formulated within. For Marx, Gramsci, and many others, the given expressions of ideology is also the product of the classes they emerge from, and the hegemony, or the dominant influence of those ideas, reflect the position that said classes exist within the hierarchy of a given social schema. The dominance of bourgeois ideology, or the ideas of the property owning class, is no secret to those who acknowledge the dominance of the property-owning, and business-classes, both large and small, in the formation of our public policy.

According to the Pew Research Center report Beyond Red vs. Blue: Political Typology, Libertarians are predominately white, affluent and well educated. While they share a secular outlook with many ‘Post-Moderns’, or millennial aged youths in the Democratic Party, Libertarians are unique in their marriage of civil liberties and individual freedom, the ideas of classical liberalism harkening to the founding fathers philosophical rootedness in the Enlightenment, to the neoclassical interpretations of classical economics. While Libertarians claim Adam Smith as their predecessor, Libertarians have a strong deference for the political economy of the historically radical, marginalist thinkers like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek of the Chicago and Austrian Schools, respectively. The emphasis on free enterprise, private property, monetarism, and particularly, the foundation of political freedom and liberty on these concepts, are peculiar when held up alongside their professed love for a universal concept such as liberty.

The emphases on freedom of speech, freedom of expression, individual freedoms, and civil liberties are all powerful antecedents to the claim of liberty as the highest principle, yet belief is never merely belief. It is no secret that many Libertarians have a strong antipathy towards the welfare state, or any notions of social welfare through redistributive justice, or ‘affirmative action’ measures. The preoccupation with the state, an arguably well-deserved preoccupation, albeit in appropriate contexts, characteristic of libertarian ideologues of all stripes, is particularly curious considering the need for the Federal government, and the strong arm of the American state, to expand, recognize, and enforce the civil rights of sexual, racial, disabled, and religious minorities in the face of discrimination and marginalization by the dominant social archetypes of our society. While I wish to discuss these other topics in their own specificity and depth, in relation to Libertarian ideology, bringing them up purely for reference is appropriate for our understanding of what liberty means in the abstract, contrasted to Liberty for Libertarians. While liberty may, in the abstract sense, at face value, be a desirable trait of any just, democratic society, is liberty, wholesale, to be practiced to its fullest extent, without social discipline?

Take for instance the controversial, yet common, Libertarian stance on the relation of private property and civil rights. While it can be argued, and it often is by Libertarians, that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a violation of private property, the ethical implications of such an argument, if enforced, for a society that long has accepted that discrimination against minorities; sexual, racial, and religious, the disabled, and military veterans is unacceptable in public and private settings, has vast ethical implications on present day America. While it can be argued that the Civil Rights Act did violate private property rights, several questions emerge from this controversy. First, is liberty a right for all or is liberty a privilege? Secondly, if liberty is the ability to do as one pleases, say, without the obstruction of institutions and forces, both ideological and structural, should liberty also be in the service of social equity and fairness? Thirdly, if liberty shouldn’t be in the service of social equity; for example, distributive justice, then what is the purpose of liberty in our society, particularly for Libertarians? It is here that the sheep becomes a wolf.

A disturbing moment in the Republican primaries that took place before the official presidential race emerged when CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer asked GOP panelist Ron Paul whether should the uninsured receive medical care, regardless of their ability to pay. When the Congressman opposed Wolf Blitzer’s question, his series of responses had an underlying dark side that is often ignored by most. Noam Chomsky, speaking at Tennessee State University, highlighted this disturbing point quite aptly. For Ron Paul, “the death, or inability for someone to receive healthcare, lacking an ability to pay, was a tribute to our liberty,” a soul-chilling message implicit within Congressman Paul’s words. This point is echoed by many Libertarians who are fiercely opposed to social welfare measures, often citing liberty as their principled objection to social welfare programs, often requiring compulsive taxation to fund them. However, isn’t the liberty for a person to feed themselves or to receive healthcare a form of liberty? After all, the positive freedom implicit within the auspices of prescriptive rights, prescriptive rights referring to rights that governments and society are obligated to fulfill to their citizens, is a liberty in and of itself? It is here that one realizes that liberty for the Libertarian-mind is not a value neutral liberty, lower case l, but a value-loaded liberty. If I had to create my own term for it, I would describe it as ‘entitled liberty’, or liberty of the entitled.

Nevertheless, it is my assertion that this conception of liberty, and succinctly, its underlying values, is part and parcel of a larger socio-political machination that has a particular vision for the world; a world that doesn’t reflect a universal appeal for liberty of all, but a liberty for the most deserving. In the near future, I wish to hone in on this conception of liberty through a discursive of essays on subjects ranging from race, political economy, and power. A critique of this ideology is necessary in the face of what British political theorist Colin Crouch called ‘The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism’.

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  1. What exactly, in your view, is the difference between “orthodox” and “post-Gramscian” Marxism?

    • My understanding has been that Orthodox Marxism is very simplistic in its analysis of class and ideology, while Post-Gramscian Marxism is a bit more expansive in its understanding of ideology, particularly on concepts like hegemony, consent (let alone Critical theory). Maybe a poor choice of words but it made sense to me….

      • Well, essentially you say that all pre-Gramsci Marxists were simplistic in their analysis of class and ideology. I don’t think that’s the case. How many pre-Gramsci Marxists have you read?

        • Well, essentially you say that all pre-Gramsci Marxists were simplistic in their analysis of class and ideology.

          Perhaps, but what does any of that have to do with the subject of this essay, that subject being Libertarianism?

          I don’t think that’s the case. How many pre-Gramsci Marxists have you read?

          Not as many as you, as you implying with your probing questions. I have primarily read Kautsky and Lenin (snippets of Trotsky), I haven’t folks like Plekhanov, Luxembourg and Bernstein in depthly. I am curious as to why you ask?

          • I’d like to just a quick comment concerning the statement about the ability to pay or not for medical treatment as replied to by Ron Paul. My wife is French & raised in France. We were in our U.S. home looking at the Republican debates in 2012 when Ron Paul answered that famous line to that question Wolf Blitzer posed. My wife staggered back when she heard his reply and stated “where is the liberty in dying uselessly”? She further noted that the sign of a great nation is that it takes great measures in preserving it citizens regardless of their socio-economic or political affiliations. Indeed in most oaths taken by public officials, there’s a line that states that the one taking the oath will support & preserve the Constitution and protect the people from all enemies foreign and domestic. Ilnesses,ailments and bad health can easily be construed as enemies of “the people” on a certain level. This truth is self evident otherwise there wouldn’t be local & state health departments or the Surgeon general’s bureau the CDC other governmental organizations supported by the governmental structure. Ron, Paul’s statement (and others who think similarly) who promote insensitive reactions toward fellow citizens for the sake of it’s economy have lost the sense of why nations exist.

  2. Your argument assumes that “herp” exist in society and the only way to obtain an ideal Marxist world is to increase the amount of “herp derp” in society.

  3. Fantastic and well written.

    This article hits home as someone who got sucked into this well intended bull shit. I thank people like Chomsky for enlightening me. I’ll be sharing this all over. Thanks!

  4. I’m a semi-Paulista myself (this is nicer than what some of my Republican “friends” refer to us as). Here’s how I feel about social welfare programs (I’m using this broadly). We have an affirmative moral duty to care for one another. But where does my right to force you to help someone else come from? How may I legitimately force you to carry out an affirmative moral duty?

    I get what you’re saying about the liberty movement and it being backed by the reasonably privileged – i.e. those who would have a better than average shot in a libertarian society without forced assistance. But what of those who support these ideas that are not well off, not powerful, and would not be natural beneficiaries of a society that doesn’t force assistance? What of those who simply do not with to use legal force on another to accomplish a social goal?

    I enjoyed reading the article. It took me back to the heady days of college.

    Best wishes,

    Justin Alexander

  5. Why does’t the DSA disband itself and make one Social Democratic Party in this country.

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