The Authoritarian Divide

Ancient GreeceIn my previous post I briefly introduced the narrative being created suggesting an authoritarian vs. libertarian divide in our contemporary political discourse. This storyline may be a persuasive marketing tactic for libertarian journalists or quasi-alternative right personalities looking to bring people into their movement, but it has very little to do with the truth. Ideology cannot be disturbed by things such as truth being expressed in a philosophically cogent manner, which is why these kind of narratives gain ground in political movements. Identity by way of ideology, rather than the pursuit of truth, is the hallmark of this new libertarian credo. This ambitious tale, however, cannot withstand the weight of its own inconsistencies. Far from being a bold, principled position firmly rooted in axiomatic truths embedded in the metaphysical structure of reality, contemporary libertarianism suffers from the same modernist myth of moral neutrality prominent in liberal philosophy. Due to these deficiencies, the authoritarian vs. libertarian narrative fails on the two basic pillars it promotes; the first is the claim that libertarian philosophy is able to transcend the left-right divide in American politics; second is the idea that the state, no matter how miniaturized, can maintain the status of being morally neutral when preserving the culture in which it seeks to uphold.

Nick Gillespie succinctly captures the narrative when he says,

“Don’t be fooled: The real future of the Republican Party isn’t a struggle between G.O.P. frontrunners Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. It’s between authoritarians, who prize order and control uber alles, and libertarians, who push for increased autonomy and freedom of choice in how to live, work, and thrive.”

Jeffrey Tucker clearly articulates a commitment to the same authoritarian vs. libertarian plot,

“Let’s return now to the early critiques of Trump. Authoritarianism means to intensify government control over the lives and property of the people. Deregulation and privatization mean the exact opposite. Rule by bureaucracy has been the standard practice in the United States for a century.

And we should never forget that every rule in the books, every regulation and code, is ultimately backed by the power of the State to force you against your will. You don’t need a strongman with a populist appeal to realize authoritarianism; it can also emanate from a legion of petty bureaucrats who are just following the law and regulations.

To dismantle such a regime means rejecting authority as a means of social control. It means trusting freedom.”

Tucker summarizes his position in these final paragraphs of the highlighted article (emphasis added),

“Here we come to the core problem in all Progressive (and generally left-of-center) politics. They want civil freedom. They believe in free speech. They want freedom of press. They believe in marriage freedom. They are suspicious of cops and sympathetic to the victims of police abuse. But when it comes to anything having to do with economics or commerce, the narrative switches dramatically. Here they want massive controls on all exchanges: laborers and management must not be allowed to work out their own deals; producers may not just throw products and services on the market and let consumers decide; advertisers can’t have free speech; and so on.

Only through this distorted lens can Trump be at once criticized for authoritarian leadership and deregulatory intent. What the left has yet to discern is that controlling economic life means controlling people, and, conversely, that the curbing and elimination of economic freedom is a devastating blow to freedom itself. Freedom is all of a piece. Anything else is authoritarian.

In this article Steven Horowitz categorizes President Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders as nationalists and fascists,

“…both embrace the thinking of economic nationalism, if not fascism.” He also associates conservatism with aspects of fascism, saying, “They also share a different political tradition. It may seem to contradict their shared fascist pedigree, but Trump and Sanders are both, in a meaningful sense, conservatives.”

Horowitz finalizes this article by stating,

“This is why classical liberalism rejects the idea that the path toward progress entails electing the right people (the “decent men”) and the cult of personality that frequently accompanies that idea, as we’ve seen with Trump and Sanders. Classical liberalism understands how, under the right rules and institutions, progress for all is the unintended outcome of allowing each to pursue their own values and ends with an equal respect for others to do the same, regardless of which side of an artificial political boundary they reside on.

If we want to live in peace, prosperity, and cooperation, we need to recognize that progress is a product of unpredictable, uncontrolled, and uncontrollable change.

Trump and Sanders can stand on their porches telling us to get off their lawn, but we’re going to do it in an Uber imported from Asia and driven by a nonunionized immigrant, because we classical liberals welcome the change they fear.”

Even Breitbart, a page I frequent when checking out headlines is endorsing this narrative, which is notably odd given their support for President Trump. This article highlights the rise of cultural libertarians, and identifies these key characteristics:


Free expression. No idea is too dangerous for cultural libertarians, who want total artistic and intellectual freedom. They often indulge in deliberately outrageous jokes and wacky opinions to test the boundaries of acceptability. Little wonder that the movement’s leaders often attract large followings from the the chaotic, politically incorrect world of anonymous imageboards like 4chan.

Resisting identity politics and public shaming. The movement can also be seen criticising modern methods of cultural control and the neo-puritanism they say has infected modern cultural criticism. The newest of these is a rash of social justice-inspired online vigilantism where professional offence-takers use the power of social media to destroy the reputations and careers of their targets. Justine Sacco, who faced global outrage and the loss of her job over a single politically-incorrect joke, is one well-known victim. Astrophysicist Dr. Matt Taylor and biochemist Sir Tim Hunt were also victims of this modern form of thuggery.

A sense of humour. Cultural libertarians combat anger with ridicule. There is a certain preposterousness to bloggers and social media addicts setting themselves up as a new priesthood, which makes them easy targets for comedy. As MIT Technology Review editor Jason Pontin puts it: “Tyrants, authoritarians and activists all hate the sound of laughter.” Cultural libertarians understand this instinctively.

An end to nannying and “safe space” culture. Arrayed against the cultural libertarians is the control freakery of the establishment, left and right, and the second coming of political correctness as embodied in campus safe space movements. This latter movement claims that students are too fragile to be exposed to dangerous ideas, and that even mildly offensive speech can cause permanent emotional damage. On the internet, these activists enjoy the support of outlets like Vox and Buzzfeed.

Defending personal freedom. Cultural libertarians may have their own opinions about how people should live their lives, or have low tolerance for offensive speech. But what distinguishes them from their opponents is their rejection of attempts to impose personal standards on others.

Defending spaces for uncomfortable opinions. Reason columnist Cathy Young is a critic of the “misogynistic rhetoric” of masculinist bloggers like Daryush Valizadeh, but nonetheless defended Valizadeh’s right to speak after activists launched a campaign to ban him from Canada. Cultural libertarians are serious about protecting the the freedoms of people they despise.

Fact over feelings. Hand in hand with their commitment to free speech goes a loathing for narrative-led journalism. Cultural libertarians are highly critical of “feelings over facts” in general, but particularly where it gives rise to failures in reporting such as the Duke Lacrosse case, the Rolling Stone debacle, “Mattress Girl” Emma Sulkowicz and GamerGate.

Standing up for consumers and producers over hand-wringing middle-class panic merchants. Cultural libertarians are the natural allies of consumers and want fandoms to have access to a wide variety of culture and ideas. They also stand up for the right of publishers and content creators to experiment wildly with art and believe that nothing should be “off-limits” however uncomfortable it may make some people.

Celebrating culture in all its forms. Cultural libertarians can be divided into three broad categories: vanguard hell-raisers who generate headlines by provoking social justice warriors, followed by a loose coalition of academics, journalists and social commentators who provide intellectual substance to the movement.

Finally, comedians, directors and movie stars who recognise the threat to creative freedom posed by cultural scolds bring up the rear, cautiously interjecting when authoritarian critiques overreach.

The political narrative of the liberty-lovers vs. the authoritarian maniacs is crafted in a recognizably inventive way. It casts those in opposition to the libertarian worldview as being afraid of change, while the libertarians are totally open to whatever may occur when full autonomous liberty is granted to every person existing in a given society. The libertarian, or the classical liberal as Horowitz suggests, is courageous, brave, welcoming of diversity, and miraculously transcends the current oppressive political divide. On this view, freedom is an absolute ideal, and to infringe on it in the slightest degree imaginable is to slip back into fascist tendencies, a bygone era of statist strongholds and their bureaucratic mechanisms. Fascists want to control you and impose their moral code upon non-adherents. Libertarians want you to be free to live any way you would like, whether by the principles of a noble stoic or a degenerate pimp who prostitutes drug addicts for a profit. They may not approve of the latter, mind you, but the libertarian would never think for a moment to force you to live as the former. On this view, virtue and vice are on equal footing in the culture because both are legitimate expression of autonomous choice.

When the narrative table is set in this manner, who wouldn’t want to be a libertarian? Clearly they are the followers of the most morally sound, culturally tolerant, anti-authoritarian political philosophy ever conceived in the minds of men. Any and all opposition to this view of reality is transparently insane, statist, totalitarian, authoritarian, fascist, evil, oppressive, xenophobic, racialist, and motivated by an unbridled fear of liberty itself.

The problem with this story is that it is entirely false. And oddly enough, the libertarians have authored a script that rivals the progressives in its default pejoratives for those in disagreement with their views. When liberty has been absolutized in such a way, any disagreement with the terms under discussion results in the immediate accusation of being a fascist looking to control people and resources. Once liberty has been deified all criticism become heresies. This, of course, only begs the question concerning the proper definition of freedom rather than settles it.

Consider for a moment the suggestion that libertarianism is able to successfully transcend the contemporary left-right divide. Is this the case? Is it true that self-described libertarians are freeing themselves from the the ongoing political dialectic between those on the left and right? Not even close. The contemporary libertarian view, of say, Steven Horowitz is that of classical liberalism, which can trend either towards the right in its view of the culture, political institutions, the law, morality etc. or it can trend towards the left. Far from transcending contemporary politics, classical liberalism participates on the same political spectrum as progressives, conservatives, and libertarians. All have their roots firmly planted in modernism.

Even more damaging to this claim of transcending the political divide is the fact that the Rawlsian “original position” is everywhere present in the fabric of libertarian identity. The veil of ignorance thought experiment suggests that representatives of reasonable citizens in possession of freedom and equality can properly identify the institutions of a just society if we lift ourselves from the historic and empirical conditions which we exist, so that we might remake the institutions anew, free from the stains of aristocracy, oppression, and inequality. The purpose of the original position is to ascertain the necessary conditions of justice from a perspective of ignorance, that is, a social order devised in a way that we are ignorant of what class, gender, sex, race, sexual orientation etc. we might occupy and subsequently be categorized within the social order. Freedom, equality, and fairness are the guiding principles behind the veil. For example, my representative may not want to take a hard stance on wealth distribution if he cannot know that I might occupy a position of desperate economic destitution. Moreover, a necessary component for the just society, presupposed in the original position, is that individuals must be free to define for themselves what the good life amounts to; there can be no totalizing moral schematic, no institutionally enforced worldview, and no virtue or duty that can be forced upon the citizen if it results in the violation of individual autonomy. Simply stated, there can be no comprehensive doctrines in a liberal democracy because, according to Rawls, no reasonable citizen would accept such a suggestion. The state must be totally neutral regarding morality, choice, and individual autonomy. Rights reign supreme and can only be abrogated if allowing an action would infringe upon the ability of someone else to exercise their rights.

Far from transcending the left-right divide, the libertarian political worldview expressly participates in the problematic liberal doctrines handed to us by Rawlsian philosophy, which also falls within the social contract tradition of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. The libertarian stresses individualism, autonomy, political principles of abstraction unconstrained by history and experience, and rejects the idea of “forcing morality onto others.” In fact, the relationship between the Rawlsian liberal and the libertarian are so intertwined at the foundation, that the differences in economic theory only amounts to a minuscule nuance in how individual autonomy ought to be defined in the economic realm of society. Even Hayek, who Horowitz seems to strongly identify with in the above article, suggests an element of wealth redistribution that some liberals would most likely applaud.

Libertarians would have you believe that they are political rebels existing outside of the mainstream categories of contemporary politics, however, they occupy the same spectrum of modern political theory as everyone they disagree with. Philosopher Roger Scruton identifies a common theme in liberal political philosophy, and I contend that it can be traced right through the center of libertarian thought,

“Liberalism, however, is essentially revisionary of existing institutions, seeking always to align them with the universal requirements of the first-person perspective – this, I believe, is the true meaning of Rawls’ ‘hypothetical’ contract, designed to identify a point of view outside present arrangements, from which they may be surveyed and, where necessary, amended or condemned. This revisionism pertains not only to liberal political theory, but also to the individualistic emphasis that guides the daily conduct of the liberal-minded person. In all its variants, and every level, liberalism embodies the question: ‘Why should I do that?’ The question is asked of political institutions, of legal codes, of social customs – even morality. And to the extent that no answer is forthcoming which proves satisfactory to the first-person perspective, to that extent are we licensed to initiate change.”

There is not a word in this description of the liberal mind that does not fully, and equally, apply to the libertarian.

Now that we can reject the suggestion that libertarians transcend the left-right political divide, let us examine the idea of political authority.

It is very easy for libertarians to criticize those who are in power (or those vying for power) for being authoritarian during their reign. Is it the case, however, that if libertarians were to attain the seat of governing influence that they would not become authoritarians themselves? Not only is this not the case, but it is preposterous to even make such a suggestion. It is by the very definition of authority that one becomes an “authoritarian” when power is attained. If the libertarian is going to protect, sustain, and preserve a social order according to their philosophical values, it is going to require the force of authority to do so. And this gets at one of the key faults in not only the Rawlsian liberal paradigm, but every libertarian creed sharing in this model of the civil society. Recall that in the original position there can be no state enforced view of the good life, that the citizens must be free to decide for themselves what the good life might entail and the state must remain neutral in this regard. This suggested neutrality quickly becomes problematic because the only possible way for this scenario to endure in the culture is if the governing institutions relinquish the very neutrality they just procured in the original position. There is a recognizable difference between the abstraction of moral neutrality in a suggested political theory and its application in the historical, empirical reality citizens find themselves interacting. In order to protect against the possibility of a counter comprehensive doctrine from inhabiting governing institutions and forcing itself onto citizens who might disagree with the suggested notion of a reasonable citizen, liberalism must become what it says it cannot – a comprehensive doctrine that is forced upon its citizens. Whether a person likes it or not, they will exemplify the codified philosophical understanding of the reasonable citizen according to the liberal conceptions of fairness and equality.

Liberalism, and therefore libertarianism, are guilty of a contradictory philosophical position. On the one hand, governing institutions are to maintain moral neutrality concerning the choices of citizens pursuing the good life, while on the other hand, if liberalism and libertarianism are to be preserved in the culture, governing institutions must forego said moral neutrality in order to sustain the desired social order. That is, libertarianism can only exist in the culture by an authoritarian means enforced by governing institutions.

There are a number of unpleasant consequences stemming from such a regime, but for now, the important thing to consider is that the libertarian has no moral high ground regarding the charge of authoritarianism.

It is important to note that I am not faulting libertarianism for being authoritarian. What I am attempting to accomplish is to force them to speak candidly concerning government, authority, and the law. If libertarians can get over their fear of being honest about their own political philosophy, we might be able to advance the conversation into areas of truth, rather than continually obfuscate by way of faulty narratives constructed to hide noticeable cracks in the foundation of a suggested philosophical theory.

The debate is not between authoritarians and libertarians; it is between which values regime will have authority to preserve a culture defined by a specific worldview.


– Lucas G. Westman

NOTE: The Roger Scruton quote is taken from The Meaning of Conservatism, Pg. 186.

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