Is purely the idea of individual freedom and property rights enough to build a movement/identity around in these times?
It’s not obvious that that idea of individual freedom itself, devoid of cultural, topical or historical context, has much emotional purchase beyond people like us – people who have the inherent proclivity for getting passionate about abstract concepts. For the many, a lot of people say, “Yes, I need more freedom in my life, but then what?”
The question stems from the splintering movement as it exists now. The movement, even with people who understand and who are on board with the whole thing, including property rights, has increasingly found it difficult to maintain momentum and passionately drive forward for these ideas. This has led some to believe there’s an upper limit as to how powerfully the core ideas can inspire the collective unconscious, without something else.
Agree with his cultural preferences or not, C Jay Engel in the newly named Bastion Magazine (formerly Austro-Libertarian) is asking a question that should provoke all libertarians: Are you going to just share taxation is theft memes all your life or is your libertarianism part of a wider, richer mindset?
Last week Engel published an article spotlighting what he sees as a “nihilistic” outlook in the wider libertarian group. It has existed for decades, he says, being first noted by Murray Rothbard in the early 90s. He’s not talking about edgy teens commenting “It doesn’t matter” on every post, but a tendency in libertarian circles to dismiss all cultural concerns as not only beyond the scope of discussion as libertarians per se, but inappropriate for any libertarian to have any solid judgement on.
Its reflected in the comments any time a libertarian writes on culture: “Why does this matter? Just live and let live.” This comes from the correct observation that libertarianism as pure political theory has no moral judgement on what people choose to do with their freedom. The fallacy is deducing from that that libertarians as human beings ought not to care what other people do, ever.
Engel argues that this “nihilism” necessarily allows the prevailing cultural assumptions to become the norm in libertarian institutions, which means leftist cultural assumptions (equality, diversity, libertinism). In that he recognises the 90s Paleo movement as an attempt to rebrand libertarianism as pro-Western civ, pro-tradition.
“While the above may not appeal to all libertarians in our time, as they feel they are neither libertine nor culturally traditionalist …. It is [in this nihilism] that many of us find the primary object of our own disillusionment with the “movement,” with libertarianism as a socio-political identity.”
It makes sense why libertarians who are cultural conservatives would resist the social-justice-ing of the Libertarian Party, but even those on the other side of this coin, those who see libertarianism as part of a wider project of liberalism in the broad sense, also see the problem of libertarian reductionism, if you will.
The example that comes to mind is Jeffrey Tucker’s infamous article Against Libertarian Brutalism, that is in hindsight worth considering as eccentrically prescient. In it he attacks certain libertarians who in his estimation only support freedom insofar as it permits them to form homogenous groups, exclude others, and generally be wretched characters, non-violently.
It’s not all about what we’re focusing on, but there are moment that illustrates our “nihilism” problem nicely:
“Brutalism asserted that a building should be no more and no less than what it is supposed to be in order to fulfill its function…
By analogy, what is ideological brutalism? … It tests the limits of the idea by tossing out the finesse, the refinements, the grace, the decency, the accoutrements…
Thus do the brutalists assert the right to be racist, the right to be a misogynist, the right to hate Jews or foreigners, the right to ignore civil standards of social engagement, the right to be uncivilized, to be rude and crude.
The parallel with our argument is the notion that all we really need to be concerned about is pure libertarian application, and all that is outside of that is fair game. The Brutalists are the other side of the coin. Where they want the right to be arseholes without complaint, the libertines want the right to be deviant without complaint.
It’s not a given that Engel and Tucker would agree with each other exactly, representing different expressions of the libertarian activist world. The point is, many worry that libertarianism as a broader movement is reaching the limit of its appeal, especially in these times when culture is becoming front and center. What are we going to do when we’ve understood the theory well enough and want to move forward?
No matter where you sit on the cultural spectrum, there needs to be some integration of your libertarian ideals into something deeper. At least be more thoughtful. You’re a human being with values of your own, and there’s nothing wrong with expressing them.
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