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Liberalism Round Two: Bionic Mosquito Edition

"I endorse Austro Libertarian Magazine 100%" —Tom Woods

Liberalism Round Two: Bionic Mosquito Edition

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UPDATE: BM replied to this and I replied to his reply.


Bionic Mosquito offered interaction with my previous post on liberalism this morning. This was good. It gives me a chance to elaborate, to clarify. What other mosquito do you know of that opens up such tremendous opportunity?

I share with my Bionic friend a certain trouble with liberalism. I will get to this momentarily.

In response to my claim that libertarianism purified classical liberalism, BM replies:

I am not so sure about the power of libertarianism to purify. That is expecting quite a bit from a political philosophy that can too easily free itself of the constraints of normative customs and traditions.

However, what was said here was not that libertarianism improved liberalism by dealing with the constraints mentioned. What was intended by this statement is that libertarianism (I have in mind here the Rothbardian NAP-definition of libertarianism) eradicated the fluff and the deficiencies of classical liberalism qua its role as a political philosophy. That is to say, Rothbardian libertarianism put political theory in its proper place and removed the aspects of classical liberalism that did not have to do with political theory specifically. In this way, libertarianism helped to square the problem and answer it in a more specific way.

In other words, libertarianism gave us a proper understanding of the scope and boundaries of its subject and– here is the kicker– opened up the opportunity for wise folks like BM and pretenders like myself to reflect on political theory as it relates to other subject matters, like sociological concerns.

A good example of this in the history of the libertarian movement is Rothbard’s interaction with Frank Meyer on the subject of Meyer’s fusionism. Murray Rothbard once wrote something that is often overlooked on the subject of classical liberalism:

Nineteenth-century liberalism rested its defense of liberty not on natural rights or moral principle, but on social utility and – in the case of the classical economists – economic efficiency. The classical liberal defense of liberty tended to be based not on the perception of freedom as essential to the true nature of man, but on universal ignorance of the truth.

This is very important. Rothbard stated this during an overview of the libertarianism of Frank Meyer. Meyer, Rothbard claimed, was a libertarian who didn’t know it because he misunderstood the libertarian creed. Rothbard wrote:

Meyer’s strictures against the utilitarian classical liberals were sound and well taken. As he put it, nineteenth-century liberalism “stood for individual freedom, but its utilitarian philosophical attitude denied the validity of moral ends firmly based on the constitution of being. Thereby, with this denial of an ultimate sanction for the inviolability of the person, liberalism destroyed the very foundations of its defense of the person as primary in political and social matters.” Meyer’s mistake was in thinking that he was thereby indicting libertarianism per se when he was really attacking the classical liberal world-view underlying the underpinning for its own particular libertarian position. As [Tibor] Machan points out, “Classical liberalism may properly be regarded as far more than a political theory such as libertarianism, since it is philosophically broader, involving ideas about the nature of man, God, value, science, etc. Although libertarianism may indeed be defensible from a very specific philosophical perspective, it is not itself that perspective”.

Importantly, this paragraph shows how, technically, I too cannot be put even in the category of “classical liberal.” I do not stand on utilitarianism and economic defenses of liberty as the principle justification for individual rights. I certainly am able and willing, and often do, make economic cases for freedom a la Ludwig von Mises; but following libertarians like Rothbard and Hoppe, place my principle justification on the moral realm, rather than the economic realm.

More can be learned from Rothbard’s consideration of Frank Meyer. Meyer’s complaint about the libertarians of his day (1970s) was that they were essentially libertines; that is, they did not care about culture, tradition, morality, family, or community. This clearly is a common and contemporary conservative critique of libertarianism. The problem with it is that it misunderstands libertarianism, which allows for the individual to care immensely about those things.

Frank Meyer considered himself a “fusionist.” His claim was that he wanted to “fuse” the individual responsibility and individual moral agency of libertarianism with the ethics and virtue concerns of the traditionalists (which included people like Russell Kirk) into a third option. He didn’t want to be solely a traditionalist, because of their collectivist tendencies, and neither did he want to be a libertarian, because of their libertinism. But as Rothbard pointed out, his problem was not with libertarianism, but rather with certain libertarians who personally did not appreciate virtue and community and all the rest.

Rothbard pointed out the following of Meyer’s so-called Fusionism:

Should virtuous action (however we define it) be compelled, or should it be left up to the free and voluntary choice of the individual? Here only two answers are possible; any fusionist attempt to find a Third Way, a synthesis of the two, would simply be impossible and violate the law of the excluded middle.

In fact, Frank Meyer was, on this crucial issue, squarely in the libertarian camp.

Meyer’s fusionism, essentially, was libertarianism coupled with social conservatism. Stated differently, Meyer was not rejecting libertarianism like he thought he was. He, like many conservatives, simply misunderstood its narrowness. It is vital to point out here that Meyer’s appreciation for community and tradition does in no way modify the libertarian creed. Rather, his cultural preferences and concerns existed alongside his libertarianism.

But Bionic Mosquito knows all that. And yet, he still struggles. As do I. What, exactly, do we struggle with? Consider another quote he pulled from my article:

Nonetheless, classical liberalism was a positive influence in the world and many of its doctrines should be defended and expanded upon, as was done by people like Mises and Rothbard.

But was it? I am still working toward a solid, firm, and systematic answer. Such an answer lies in bringing together Murray Rothbard’s narrative of classical liberalism setting the world free from the ancien regime and Hoppe’s narrative of classical liberalism being a revolt against private law societies. I am certain that I will have an entire essay on this soon enough.

For now, I think that a helpful way to approach the problem is as follows: the classical liberal theorists worked in opposition to their own 18th and 19th century status quo; and the medieval private law societies (which are praised by Hoppe, BM, and myself as approaching a rough sketch of how such a society could and should be organized) developed their own frameworks in a more organic way. Classical Liberalism brought back intellectually what was done more intuitively centuries before. The solution therefore is to combine the intellectual contributions of the classical liberals (or the more pure libertarians) with the intuitive and organic model of the medievalists. Intellectualism without a cultural root to sustain results in, well, look around. A corruption of the principles, a revolt against freedom, and a cultural rot that skips along the road to tyranny.

Bionic Mosquito concludes:

From Rothbard, a dose of reality: humans aren’t merely cash registers and ATMs. There is much that binds them together besides the market. Libertarians – or classical liberals – ignore this at the risk of their (and their philosophy’s) irrelevancy.

I am all for liberalism and libertarianism. I just don’t think it can be separated from the other stuff – common traditions, customs, and norms. In fact, the two are “indissolubly linked.”

Three points: one, this is all true and agreeable; two, liberalism and libertarianism do not, by the very boundaries of their intended scopes, deny this; three: completely disconnecting the political theory from the sociology, as if they can’t work in unison, is actually a tool of the critics of libertarianism. The critics love to lambaste the advocates of freedom for “reducing” humans to mere profit opportunities, devoid of human and social life. They do this because they think it gives them justification, based on the “social needs of human beings,” to utilize the state as our common connection. It is in the state that they find the bonds and bounds of humanity. It is here that Bionic’s warnings are most agreeable: if libertarians completely ignore the culture, the social bonds that exist independent of that dastardly institution known as the state,   then the critics are right to blame liberals for a sort of naive anti-social “independentism.” But there is nothing in libertarianism per se that suggest we are doing this.

BM doesn’t think libertarianism can be separated from the “other stuff.” However, by relegating libertarianism to its proper place in the study of human affairs, we actually open up the opportunity to have a much better understanding of the non-state aspects of social and cultural life. Libertarianism, just because it is a specific field of study, does not mean it cannot be coupled with other studies: economics as a praxeological investigation, and sociology as an empirical study of culture, its historical development, and the prospects for a thriving civilization.

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CJay Engel

Creator and Editor of Austro Libertarian. Lives in Northern CA, runs several businesses, spends time with his family, and reads as much economics and political theory as possible.

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