Laissez-Faire Institute - Freedom Without Compromise

In Defense of Laissez-faire

The "thick" vs "thin" libertarianism debate has been going on for quite a while. It should have been settled by the article "'Right-' and 'Left-' Libertarians are (oxy)morons". Instead, after Jeffrey Tucker published an article suffering from many of the confusions that consistent libertarians such as Vulgar Libertarians aim to address, the debate has grown even more. Thus, another clarification is now in order.

I thought of calling this article "In Defense of Brutalist Libertarianism", but I don't want to acknowledge the relevance of the term. I don't like "brutalist", "bare", "strict", or even "vulgar", which have negative connotations. Then I thought of other qualifiers - pure, minimal, clean, unadulterated. Consistent, uncompromising. I guess I could go with genuine libertarianism.

But really, libertarianism needs no qualifier. It's either libertarianism or it isn't. Furthermore, laissez-faire is an even better term than libertarianism, because it encapsulates in one word the whole philosophy of liberty: let do. Or, more eloquently: let everyone do whatever they want with whatever is theirs.

Restated, this message of tolerance means: it is not our place, as libertarians, to judge what an individual does with his freedom, as long as his actions respect the freedom of others. And of course, tolerance extends to all behaviors that some people disapprove of while others approve of. It extends equally to gays, anti-gays, anti-anti-gays, to racists and anti-racists, to drug users as well as teetotalers, to monks as well as anti-theists. Laissez-faire means letting people do what they want, whether you like what they do or not - as long as they leave you that same freedom, that is, do not commit aggressions against you.

What is laissez-faire?

Political doctrines can be understood and interpreted in many ways, but in order to survive and prosper, each doctrine needs an irreducible, constant element that represents its distinct identity and that cannot change without loss of the doctrine’s essential character.

Anthony de Jasay, Liberalism, Loose or Strict

Libertarianism is concerned with the use of violence in society. That is all.

Lew Rockwell, What Libertarianism Is, and Isn't

Laissez-faire is a philosophy of Law. As such, it gives one answer to one specific question. And it gives an answer that is universal: it applies equally to everyone. It relies on rational criteria that can be understood and accepted by everyone. It doesn't rely on any sensibility, preference, or feeling. It can be generalized to all times and places, to all cultures, to all human beings. Answers to past, present and future issues of rights can be derived from it.

The question is: when can I use violence?

The answer is: you can use violence only to defend property rights. This answer has been summarized by the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP), or the Minimization of Aggression Principle (MAP).

Rights vs preferences

If we wish to preserve a free society, it is essential that we recognize that the desirability of a particular object is not sufficient justification for the use of coercion.

Friedrich Hayek

A free man must be able to endure it when his fellow men act and live otherwise than he considers proper. He must free himself from the habit, just as soon as something does not please him, of calling for the police.

Ludwig von Mises

Laissez-faire is a theory of rights, saying only that you do not have the right to commit aggressions. It won't tell you which color to paint your kitchen. It won't tell you whether you should, or shouldn't, discriminate against gays. It won't tell you whether you should, or shouldn't, discriminate against those who discriminate against gays. In a word: it's not a totalitarian ideology that pretends to give you a guideline for every aspect of your life, answering all the questions. It's not a cult or a religion.

Therefore, the opposite of pure libertarianism is not "humanitarian libertarianism", but non-libertarianism: whatever you "add" to a consistent philosophy that cannot be justified by the same premises, is not part of it, and makes it inconsistent, contradictory. It dilutes the core message - it substracts from the theory. It creates conflicts of interests where there ought to be none: blending emotional preferences with a universal, rational theory will weaken the theory, both by making it less convincing and by reducing the possible number of people who are ready to accept it.

The inconsistency can go in many directions. Jeffrey Tucker and the "left-libertarians", basically, divide libertarians between those who think it should include leftist preferences, and those who think it should include rightist preferences. But the real dichotomy is between those who think it should include no preferences and those who think it should include personal preferences, whatever their "side".

We have to distinguish what we say as libertarians and what we say in any other capacity. As a libertarian I can criticize religions when they advocate violence. I can also criticize them for, say, corrupting morality, but that's not the libertarian speaking anymore. I can criticize the architectural choices of churches. But again, that's not the libertarian. The libertarian can merely criticize how the money to build them was raised. It's fine to have opinions on other stuff than politics. But don't confuse the two.

Besides, as a person, I do not need to have an opinion on everything. There are a lot of questions that don't affect me, that don't matter to me, that don't interest me, and that I can do absolutely nothing about anyway. If I start pretending to have an educated opinion on matters I'm uneducated about, it will only discredit my opinions on the matters I do know about. Only pretentious people feel like they need to, and do, know everything about everything.

It's the same for a philosophy. Laissez-faire answers one specific question, and answers it well. Having laissez-faire answer questions outside its realm can only make it weaker. The world doesn't need laissez-faire to tell it whom to discriminate, or not, to whom to be nice, or not, or to fix it coffee. The world needs laissez-faire - and needs it badly - to minimize violence: to reduce the revolting amount of harm done to innocent people.

The human failing I would most like to correct is aggression. It may have had survival advantage in caveman days, to get more food, territory or partner with whom to reproduce, but now it threatens to destroy us all.

Stephen Hawking

The category confusion is thus between what you like to do, what you want, and what you have the right to do, what you can use violence to enforce.

Let's take an extreme example, the President of Uganda signing a bill restricting the rights of gays, threatened now with the violence of a lifetime in jail. And not only the rights of gays, but of everyone else as well, who have their rights restricted by the denouncing of gays made mandatory.

Now what could possibly be his justification for signing that aggressive law? Pretty much his only argument is that he doesn't understand how a man can "fail to be attracted to all these beautiful women and be attracted to a man".

Now wait a minute. That's not a bad opinion. I don't want to change his opinion on that, and I don't think it's even possible. In fact, lots of good people could agree with everything he says. The problem is not his preference. The problem is the huge non sequitur between his opinion, his sexual preferences (his lack of attraction for men in this case), and his pretending to have a right to use violence against other people based on that opinion.

The issue is not his opinion, and our job is not to change it. The issue is state violence. The issue is using violence too lightly - not heterosexuality or homophobia. The real problem is the idea that voting, the State, or some other black magic gimmick, gives you rights you would not have otherwise. The problem is people thinking they have a right to use violence to enforce their preferences. The problem is using the State as a means to initiate violence against non-aggressive people, whatever the pretense might be. Whether that pretense is homophobia or anti-homophobia, racism or anti-racism, is not relevant. They are usually two sides of the same coin anyway: irrelevant justifications that the State uses to increase its power and the violence it deploys against civilized, non-aggressive society. You can notice that one same State might actually be using both at the same time, proving the irrelevance of debating one versus the other as far as freedom is concerned (in most Western States today, you can get thrown into jail both for peacefully expressing racist opinions AND peacefully crossing a border with the wrong citizenship, thus, you can end up in jail under both racist and anti-racist pretenses).

Humanism vs constructivism

La véritable distinction n'est pas la distinction habituelle entre les socialistes et les conservateurs (ou la droite et la gauche), mais entre les constructivistes et les libéraux, c'est-à-dire entre ceux qui pensent possible de « construire » une société et ceux qui pensent qu'il faut laisser agir les individus sans que l'on puisse savoir ce qu'il en résultera. [The true distinction is not the usual one between socialists and conservatives (or right and left), but between constructivists and libertarians, that is, between those who think it possible to 'construct' a society and those who think that individuals should be left free to act, without one being able to know beforehand what the results shall be.]

Pascal Salin, Libéralisme

Jeffrey Tucker tries to introduce a confusing dichotomy between "humanitarian" and "brutalist" libertarians, but the only relevant dichotomy in respect to "humanitarianism" has always been the one between humanists and constructivists, that is, on the one hand, those who see people as people, humans responsible for their actions, and those who see people as puppets, things to be controlled. The former are also knowns as individualists, or libertarians, whereas the latter are also known as collectivists, or statists.

The laissez-faire point of letting people do what they want, is precisely this: acknowledging that I do not have the right to use violence to mold society if I happen not to like the results of a natural, free, market order of things. As Tucker himself beautifully said:

If something in the private economy annoys you, look for government regulation, and you will find that there's a problem, imposed by government.

Jeffrey Tucker

The problem is not people, the problem is the State. Tucker's "anti-brutalist" piece is not humanist on this point at least: not trusting the free market, in itself (that is, people), to bring about a good state of affairs, as if somehow active involvement by libertarians in particular were needed, beyond achieving a society compliant with the non-aggression principle.

Maybe that's not what Tucker meant, but some left-libertarians, following up on his piece, certainly do:

We should not cheer a victory for freedom every time a racist refuses service to a minority

Alex Miller, In Defense Of Jeffrey Tucker

No indeed. We should not judge non-aggressive actions, we should judge aggressive actions. We cheer for victory every time a racist refuses service to a minority and is not aggressed as a consequence, and we cheer for victory every time a minority refuses service to a racist and is not aggressed as a consequence, either. In short, as libertarians, we cheer for victory every time peace is preserved, aggression is minimized, property is maintained, and rights are respected.

Now the moment anyone says that government should have no power to prohibit business owners from discriminating in public accommodations, a progressive interlocutor will respond, 'So a business should be allowed to refuse service to someone because the person is black or gay?'

To which I would say, No, the business should not be allowed to do that. But by 'not be allowed', I mean that the rest of us should nonviolently impose costs on those who offend decency by humiliating persons by the refusal of service.

Sheldon Richman, We Can Oppose Bigotry without the Politicians

People telling me whom I should not discriminate against, is to me really the other side of the same coin as people telling me whom I should discriminate against, as if this were somehow ever a real issue or necessity in a free market environment.

The free market brings the best in people, it leads to peaceful cooperation and trade. By minimizing conflicts of interests, even people with vastly different societal views end up trading, cooperating towards a better and wealthier civilization. And through that, incidentally, end up seeing each others' humanity, and their mutual, common interests.

The State, in contrast, leads to a war of all against all. The view of the world as a zero sum game makes it a negative sum game. A war for privilege, a war for special protection, special interests, making the State the great fiction through which everyone endeavors to live at the expense of everyone else (Frederic Bastiat).

Thus, issues we see today, issues due to forced integration, collectivization of costs, and all other violent state measures that make intolerance replace tolerance, would never have such proportions in a truely free market. Most of the reasons people dislike, for instance, immigrants, can entirely be blamed on the State using violence to force people to subsidize them, associate with them, praise them. Not to mention the effects of state-generated nationalism, artificial borders, redistributive policies that cannot coexist with open borders, etc.

There is no reason to assume that, once the State's perverting of the workings of the market would be removed, those intolerances would survive on such a scale. The one and only issue is using the State to use violence against non-violent people. There is no reason to assume that there are any other major social issues that would somehow need to be solved by the libertarian movement through "community organizing". The current debates always take place within the statist frame, where everything has to be controlled, and thus everything has to be either forbidden or mandatory. Either we burn gays, or we burn anti-gays: no wonder this leads to conflict! Maybe, maybe, people would actually care less about preventing gay marriage, if gay marriage made legal didn't mean their having to be forced to celebrate it, attend it, or even work for it?

In a thriving, competitive economy, everyone does bear the cost of his decisions. There is no need to "impose costs on those who offend decency". Sure, some people will boycott businesses who discriminate irrationnally. Other people won't. But it is wrong to assume that half the population is evil and that the other half will have as a perpetual duty to watch their behavior and ostracize them if they fall out of line.

Rights vs utilitarianism

Dites à un homme : « Vous avez le droit de n'être pas mis à mort ou dépouillé arbitrairement » ; vous lui donnez un bien autre sentiment de sécurité et de garantie que si vous lui dites : « Il n'est pas utile que vous soyez mis à mort, ou dépouillé arbitrairement. » On peut démontrer, et je l'ai déjà reconnu, qu'en effet cela n'est jamais utile. Mais en parlant du droit, vous présentez une idée indépendante de tout calcul. En parlant de l'utilité, vous semblez inviter à remettre la chose en question en la soumettant à une vérification nouvelle. [Tell a man: 'you have the right not to be put to death or arbitrarily despoiled' and you give him quite a different sense of security than if you told him 'it is not useful for you to be put to death or arbitrarily despoiled'. It can be shown, as I've already acknowledged, that indeed it is never useful. But by starting from rights, you present an idea free of any calculation. By talking about utility, you instead seem to invite to question the matter by submitting it to a new verification.]

Benjamin Constant, Des droits individuels [On Individual Rights]

Another issue with Tucker's article is that it defends a utilitarian, consequentialist point of view. Are we defending freedom because we like its results? Of course we like the results: the results are civilization, wealth, prosperity, peace. The problem is not that Tucker's presentation about the consequences of liberty would be wrong. It's not, and Tucker has done a great job in showing the beauty of the results of laissez-faire, the world as we see it and as it ought to be ever more. But: you cannot reason out a theory out of its consequences. If you do, you end up in confusions like the BIG. You end up confusing means and ends, and you might end up defending measures which, although seemingly similar to the consequences you want, will actually result in getting further, not closer, to them. The point is not that the results of freedom will be good. That's a utilitarian argument, like saying that capitalism yields more wealth than communism. Of course it does. But that's not the point.

The point is that no one has the right to interfere with my property. No one has the right to make speculations about the outcome of my actions and decide to limit my freedom based on whether he likes the result or not. Should we not be defending liberty if it were not to yield results we want? We have to embrace non-aggression because it's right, not because we expect it to yield results we'll personally like.

The strict, "brutalist" theory is the framework that allows us to know right or wrong actions, policies, decisisions. It allows us to have a consistent answer to the statist, nihilist, democratic, random based approach to Law and values. It allows us to have a clear answer to many questions that each person asks or should ask himself.

It is, in short, the framework that will make possible the kind of society that Tucker wants.

The utilitarian approach, in the end, ends up substituting other values than property to achieve its ends. Mises, for instance, warned us against "Pseudo-Socialist Systems", like Solidarism:

For if these norms aim only at free ownership and to prevent the owner from being disturbed in his right to keep his property as long as it does not pass to others on the basis of contracts he has made, then these norms contain merely recognition of private ownership in the means of production. Solidarism, however, does not regard these norms as alone sufficient to bring together fruitfully the labor of members of society. Solidarism wants to put other norms above them. These other norms thus become society's fundamental law. No longer private property but legal and moral prescription of a special kind, are society's fundamental law. Solidarism replaces ownership by a 'Higher Law'; in other words, it abolishes it.

In a similar way, our job is not to accept the leftists' premises that something should be done against bigots. Or the rightist ones that something should be done against gays or immigrants. We reject those constructivist premises, and the utilitarian-constructivist approach of defining ends, and then debating of the best means to achieve them. We make a case against aggression based on rights. If there is one opinion that people hold and need to change, this is the one. And really: changing it is a big enough job already. Let's not make it any harder.

Tolerance vs politics

Tout est politique. [Everything is political.]

French leftist slogan

In Italia i fascisti si dividono in due categorie: i fascisti e gli antifascisti. [In Italy there are two types of fascists: the fascists, and the anti-fascists.]

Ennio Flaiano

In today's America, there are two types of bigots: the bigots and the anti-bigots.

Not so long ago, gays coming out were ostracized, and state violence was used against them, merely for having declared being gay. Nowadays, anti-gays are ostracized, and in some jurisdictions (some European countries already have "anti-homophobia" laws on the books) state violence is used against them, merely for declaring being anti-gay. See any difference? I don't. And neither do other supporters of gay marriage:

If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us.

Andrew Sullivan, The Hounding Of A Heretic

It's the same statist, political, intolerant paradigm. The paradigm that everything is, or should be, political: the paradigm that everything must be either forbidden or mandatory, that you must either hate gays or hate anti-gays, love gays or love anti-gays. That what's happening inside your mind is of a collective concern. That your opinions are subject to public judgment. That "society" must form a political, democratic opinion on everything, and then enforce that opinion, either through violence or ostracism. The collectivization of everything and every decision, leading either to aggression, or to a society divided into factions segregating each other over irrelevant issues. A society where "tolerance" becomes mandatory intolerance.

Case in point? OkCupid urging its users to stop using Firefox, due to its CEO's 1000$ donation to an anti-gay-marriage campaign, applauded by Reason Magazine.

Does OKCupid's boss have a right to do that? Yes. Should we applaud it? No: it's part of a political paradigm. As libertarians we can't criticize it as aggression, but there's no reason to rejoice over it, in a similar way to someone building a statue of Barack Obama: it's not an aggression, but it's not something libertarians should applaud, and you're not acting as a libertarian if you're supporting people who support statism.

If you want to start boycotting browsers whose employees support causes you disapprove of (or who are even, indeed, undefendable from a libertarian point of view), why not start with say Google (Chrome Browser) or Microsoft (Internet Explorer browser)? The employees of both of these companies have donated over $800,000 to Obama. I'm all in favor of gay marriage, but let's not pretend that being against it is a bigger issue than supporting Obama and all the much worse aggressions he's done. The move appears indeed as hypocrisy, part of a despicable trend.

So again, let us not forget:

It seems then that as long as there are boors and bigots it is highly desirable that they be libertarians. In fact, none are more likely to profit from the libertarian orientation of bigots than the very people they are bigoted against. They will have lost a potentially significant enemy and won a functional champion of their rights.

Marko Marjanović, Jeffrey Tucker’s War against Sin


Laissez faire et laissez passer, le monde va de lui même! [Let do and let pass, the world goes by itself!]

Vincent de Gournay

The free market is not a system. It is not a policy dictated by anyone in particular. It is not something that Washington implements. It does not exist in any legislation, law, bill, regulation, or book. It is what you get when people act on their own, entirely without central direction, and with their own property, and within human associations of their own creation and in their own interest. It is the beauty that emerges in absence of control.

Jeffrey Tucker

Trying to blend preferences, constructivism, utilitarianism and politics into laissez-faire wouldn't be so bad, if these were not, precisely, the main pillars of statism that libertarians need to address.

Libertarian progresses throughout history have not been about changing peoples' religions, they have been about ending state religions. Not about ending racism, but about ending slavery. Not about ending homophobia, but about ending sodomy laws. Our first job as libertarians is not changing people's opinions and preferences, but convincing people to not use aggression so lightly.

Our second job is to preserve, and enhance, the consistency and strength of the libertarian theory corpus. So that when people start to see that statism is wrong, and when statism starts to collapse (as it does already), they don't fall into despair and nihilism, but instead, are aware, however dimly, that an alternative exists, that works, is right, is consistent, doesn't require hypocrisy, doublethink and outright denial of reality. So that anarchy doesn't become anomy and doesn't lead to another state.

That theory is laissez-faire, and we have to be careful to keep this theory consistent, and not let it become some watered down form of leftism, that once push comes to shove, would be dismissed as just another variant of left-liberalism, amongst all the other discarded ideological failures. So that liberalism in the European sense doesn't become liberalism in the American sense, so that a beacon of what is right remains. In order to have a theory, incidentally, that both the bigots and the anti-bigots can accept and see their benefit in.

Tucker et al are right that non-aggression alone doesn't make a perfect society that a libertarian would love to live in. If everyone is intolerant, and wants everything to be political, every aspect of life to be subject to collective decision and ostracism by the community, then I won't be living in my kind of world even if no aggression is ever committed against me.

But they're completely wrong in wanting to add social objectives to libertarianism, confusing the consequence as parts of the means. Non-aggression, not intolerance against those who don't cooperate, leads to cooperation.

Non-aggression has consequences far beyond non-aggression, and those include civilization, social cooperation, tolerance, peace, prosperity, happiness. But confusing those consequences with the means will kill the means, and the consequences shan't happen.

I do appreciate the way Jeffrey Tucker understands laissez-faire as an essential part of the greatness of civilization. But bringing people who hate each other into cooperation and peace (which in the end, does make them hate each other less) is no small part of that achievement. Part of the libertarian progress has been ending religious wars, not by having people stop being intolerant, racist jerks, but by having them stop using violence against those with other views, by separating religion and state. There is no contradiction or opposition in seeing libertarianism as protecting the rights of racists, and the rights of minorities, and therefore leading to a civilized society where everyone's rights are protected, and human greatness can flourish.