Lew has a great article today, Regime Libertarians. The timing is appropriate because it helps crystallize some of my own thoughts on this–right at a time when I was discussing with another libertarian his critique of “contrarian” libertarians; I was pointing out that contrarians are not the problem; the problem is mainstream libertarians who go along with the state.
Lew’s column makes a nice distinction in pointing out:
These social and career pressures often account for why libertarians sell out. But it is not the whole reason. There are also intellectual confusions having to do with one’s view toward government itself. Some believe that while freedom is a good thing, it has a precondition in good government and state institutions that bring about the core conditions of liberty. This is a view that freedom cannot care for itself and that society and civilization cannot arise on their own. Freedom needs government police, judges, legislatures, and presidents, they believe, to establish the conditions that make freedom possible in the first place.
So that we are clear, we are not speaking here of merely the belief in limited government, or what is sometimes called “minarchism.” There is a difference between believing in the need for government to preserve and protect freedom, and the view that government is the first condition of society, responsible for giving birth to freedom. In one view, some government is unavoidable; in the other view, power is the benefactor of freedom, the force to which all liberty owes its conception. There is a difference between seeing government as a necessary evil, and viewing liberty as the offspring of power.
Lew calls these libertarians “Regime Libertarians,” in contrast with Laissez-Faire Libertarians:
A good name for this school of thought is Regime Libertarianism. The modifier identifies the means they choose to bring about their view of what constitutes freedom. It identifies the target audience of their urgings and pleadings. It identifies the institution that they believe to be the first condition in the advance of civilization. It spells out precisely where their ultimate loyalties lie. Thus do all plans for freedom come down to redirecting the attentions of power but not uprooting it altogether.
The column is a typically excellent one by Lew. I have noticed myself this tendency of some libertarians not only to thing government is a necessary evil or unavoidable, or to be tolerated to solve a few intractable problems; but to believe it is a good thing. These libertarians view the state as mainstream people view the highway department. The government has to build a road “infrastructure,” as a precondition of an industrial society, it is commonly held. Likewise, the Regime Libertarians seem unable to conceive that the liberty runs on its own; they see the state as providing a necessary legal and political infrastructure without which civilization is impossible.
Now I do not mean to imply, nor does Lew I believe, that all minarchists (non-anarchists) hold this view. Many minarchists only tolerate the state, seeing it as an unfortunately necessary, but very dangerous, institution, needed for a bare minimum of functions like defense and courts. But minarchists need not see this agency as good or as the benefactor of mankind; it is not something we need to be grateful to for bestowing liberty upon us, or for giving us the “preconditions” for production and civilization. Rather, even minarchists can and do have a healthy distrust of the state and although they believe it serves a function, they don’t view it as the source of civilization. They recognize it is parastical on society, inherently dangerous if not corrupt, and therefore needs to be watched closely.
By contrast, the attitude of many Regime Libertarians is, as Lew explains, that the state is a good thing that lays down the infrastructure of civilization. I believe many Objectivists tend to hold this view, schizophrenically condeming the unlibertarian “excesses” of our current government while still holding a rosy view of its origins and possibilities; if we just tweak the Constitution, or get the right people in power, things can be all hunky dory again. Etc.
I have long thought that what is missing from some libertarians is that they do not hate the state. And lo and behold, it turns out Rothbard has an article, Do You Hate The State? Great. Check it out too.
All this helps to explain the hysterical reaction I got from my critique of libertarian critics of the Kelo case. They want the Supreme Court to exercise its benevolent powers–even though they were not granted–to reach in and set the states straight. It just does not occur to them that this might be very dangerous; they don’t hate the central state.
The Regime Libertarians feel compelled to not criticize the basic validity of even today’s monstrous state, because they don’t want to be marginalized; they want to have influence over perhaps incremental movements in the direction of liberty. This may be a bit understandable, but not only do they fear to admit that the emperor has no clothes–they also attack fellow libertarians who have the courage and clarity to say outloud that the Empreror has no clothes. The first thing people do, when they sell out in any sense, is begin to hate those who have not. They become, in effect, agents of the state, doing the state’s dirty work for it–demonizing its real enemies.