The Vexing Libertarian Issue of Transition

I have appointed myself an old sage to the world. When your knees are creaky and every snotty eighteen-year-old treats you patronizingly, the least you can do to compensate is award yourself wisdom. Anyway, long story short, it’s a good excuse to spend much time on Facebook. I feel I am rendering a public service. I am continuing my teaching career there. It’s unpaid but the conditions are much better and all the students actually want to be in class.

Of course, it’s also true that Facebook is addictive. It’s not a bad addiction. For this old guy, it’s almost incredible to have frequent conversations with an MD in Pakistan, my niece in India, an old girlfriend in Panama, a young friend’s wife in Japan, and of course, many different kinds of French people. I even have a Facebook friend who lives in the mountains of Algeria; we have lively talks in French. Recently, a young woman who described herself as a Myanmar village girl reached out. (I know what you are thinking but if she is really one of those internet sex trolls, I salute the originality of her marketing strategy.) At all times a day and night, I have at least one Facebook friend who is not asleep. It’s pleasant in these days of confinement.

The same confinement, perhaps, slows me down and makes me more likely to tally up everything. As a result, a new impression has pierced my consciousness. Expressing contempt for democracy seems to be in vogue among people who identify as libertarians (with a small “l,” big “L” Libertarians have nearly vanished from my world. It could just be me.) This contempt reminds me that I have been asking the same question of libertarianism for now about fifty years, all with not much success.

I refer to the question of transition. I mean, what is it supposed to look like moving from wherever we are, in terms of governance, to a society with a drastically diminished government interference in individual lives? I have been receiving evasive answers, answers that don’t make even superficial sense, and swift escapes effected by changing the subject.

Let me say right away that I am not looking for a crushing reading assignment (a common punitive, passive-aggressive maneuver among intellectuals). Mine is a simple question. One should be able to sketch a rudimentary answer to it. Then, it would be up to me to follow through. Then, no excuse!

To my mind, there are only two extreme transition scenarios. One is the Somali scenario. The state falls apart under its own incapacity to limit internal aggression. It disappears or nearly so. When the point is reached where government authority extends only three blocks from the presidential palace to the north and east, and one block from the south and west, you pretty much have a stateless society. Goal reached!

The second scenario is a gradual change from the current “democratic” arrangements. I mean by this fair and reasonably honest elections followed by a peaceful transfer of power. I mean freedom of expression. And, disturbingly, this also includes courts of law. This is disturbing because courts without enforcement of their decisions are not really courts. This fact implies the threat of coercion, of course.

Now, I can imagine a situation like right now with the Corona Virus epidemic when governments (plural) demonstrate on a large scale their inability to do the obvious. The citizens often react to this sort of demonstration by asking for better and more government. However, it does not have to be that way. The combination of wide communication through the internet and – like now – of enforced leisure – may switch the dial. It’s conceivable that large numbers will get the idea that government that is at once heavy-handed, expensive, and incapable is not a good answer to much of anything. With that scenario one can imagine a collective demand for less government.

Strangely, this sort of scenario may be on display in France now, as I write. Well, this is not so strange after all. A deeply statist society where govt absorbs 55% of GDP and up may be exactly the best place to figure out that more government is not the answer. From this thought to the idea that less government may be the answer there is but one step. My intuition though is that it’s a big step. That’s because few people understand markets. No one but a handful of college professors seems to have read the moral philosopher Adam Smith. (Tell me that I am wrong.)

So, I would like for those who are more advanced than I am on this issue of transition (a low bar) to engage me. I am not interested in the same old ethical demonstrations though. Yes, the state is an instrument of coercion and therefore, evil. I already know this. In the meantime, the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States does a fair job of protecting my freedom of speech, my freedom, of thought, my freedom of religion. I am not eager to leave this behind for the complete unknown. Are you? Why? How?

22 thoughts on “The Vexing Libertarian Issue of Transition

  1. Indeed. If liberals seem to favor cures ahead of diagnosis, many libertarians appear to reverse that … Perhaps both tend toward overweighting some aspects of human behavior compared to tthers?

  2. My working assumption is that libertarians do not and will not control the circumstances of the transition — that the state will do the heavy lifting of achieving its own collapse, leaving us the easier job of preventing a new one from forming.

    But I could be wrong. It could happen some other way. Or evil might triumph and snuff out humankind. There are no guarantees.

    • Well, Thomas, that’s nice and it explains much of what I see as libertarian passivity. So, libertarians will be ready for a new solution like the Kerenskyites of 1917?

  3. The contempt for democracy is a troubling one, in some respects, but in others it’s a healthy position to stake out and maintain. Democracies make bad decisions, don’t they? Majorities are oppressive, aren’t they?

    • Okay, cool.

      I guess the issue of transition depends on who you ask. For me, I can think of an America with no federal Departments of Education, Energy, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, HUD, or Commerce.

      I’d be willing to get rid of the Dept of Interior, too, if I knew what it was for. (I am thinking it’s the Department that lords over the conquered indigenous polities.)

      I’d pay all the bureaucrats off. No need to stiff them a penny. I’d pay for it by selling off some of the land the federal government owns out West.

      Those’re the changes I’d make at the federal level. Counter-intuitively, I think the easiest way to do this would be expanding the number of states in the union to include polities that are sovereign (like our NATO or East Asian allies) or semi-sovereign (like Puerto Rico or Greenland).

      At the “state” level, I’d have to think a bit more about what I’d like gone (I live in a relatively well-governed state), but it’d probably have to do with further cleansing its criminal justice system of old chattel slavery mores.

    • “I’d pay for it by selling off some of the land the federal government owns out West.”

      The federal government owns no land, out west or anywhere else.

      A criminal gang violently holding unhomesteaded/unowned land out of legitimate homesteading and ownership isn’t the same thing as that criminal gang actually loaning said land.

    • Sure; it makes a difference but American states still rule by the threat of coercion. I agree with everything you say but it does not sound all that libertarian. It’s more like a mitigation of big government. Again, I agree with you but I am not a libertarian, I think. (God knows I have been trying!)

    • When did wanting to abolish whole federal departments stop qualifying as libertarian?!

    • And Somalia is a terrible straw man. Somalia is not anarchist in any way, shape, or form. It’s a failed state (emphasis on “state”). The people in Somalia cannot improve their situation much because Somalia is embedded in the international system as “Somalia.”

      A better example might be medieval Iceland, which Barry has written about before.

    • I am well aware of medieval Iceland. I keep hoping for a modern example. I was only posing the issue of transition anyway. I was not (not) asking for a model of the nearly perfect anarchist society. Somalia is a fair instance of a stateless society, no matter how it got there. Any critic – such as you- can always say, “Of course, I don’t think the transition should be from a failed state; rather ….” I am waiting. It’s been many years.

    • “Somalia is a fair instance of a stateless society”

      Yes, because a UN-imposed state fighting a war with a would-be Islamist state is soooooo much like statelessness.

    • When I thought about the transition from what we have to anarchism, I couldn’t do much more than picture the state withering away a la Marx. You’d have to get all the states of the world under one government and then slowly start withering away at the said one government. Otherwise, you’d have a stateless society that neighbors states? What would these neighboring states call the stateless society? How would the stateless people prevent neighboring states from just claiming the stateless societies territory? (This is what Thailand and Myanmar have done to the hill people in southeast Asia.)

      There is also the issue of preventing stateless societies from forming states. What if societies wanted to form a state? Wouldn’t it be un-libertarian to prevent them from doing so?

      What if, in the process of the state withering away, other, rival states formed in its place? The American federal union was formed to tackle this last question specifically, as the postwar North American continent was on the verge on Balkanization.

    • Societies don’t want things or do things. They’re aggregates, not actors.

  4. Age does not necessarily bestow wisdom, but it does provide experience; the two are not necessarily complementary and in unfortunate situations such as we are in now may conflict, unless we keep our wits about us. The only transition from common sense is the failure to use it. You cite Adam Smith, who is a difficult read at times, but very much as you say a moral philosopher. In the more modern parlance, although I am not always a fan of Milton Friedman, he correctly suggests that those that have a problem with free markets are those that have a problem with freedom. The two are necessarily not just complementary but inseparable. The future is likely to be a transition to whatever-who-knows what, but I understand where you are at as I too have run the course of life and understand the apparent dilemma many have with the marginalization of liberty in favor of, well – whatever “progressive” means at the moment.

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