In the preface to the 1991 edition of Murray Rothbard’s, The Betrayal of The American Right Rothbard describes the Old Right as follows:
The Old Right arose during the 1930s as a reaction against the Great Leap Forward (or Backward) into collectivism that characterized the New Deal. That Old Right continued and flourished through the 1940s and down to about the mid-1950s. The Old Right was staunchly opposed to Big Government and the New Deal at home and abroad: that is, to both facets of the welfare-warfare state. It combated U.S. intervention in foreign affairs and foreign wars as fervently as it opposed intervention at home.
The second half of this description of the Old Right, to any contemporary libertarian, bears not a similarity to but a mirror image of libertarian views. The libertarian movement is, of course, opposed to big government, foreign intervention, and welfare. But the first half, to some, does not appear so similar to the libertarian movement we know today. The second sentence does not pertain to us as the libertarian movement did not lose prominence in the twentieth century, but instead, is still growing and getting larger in the twenty-first century, especially outside of the U.S. But the first sentence, that the Old Right arose as a reaction, is the focus of this article. Can the libertarian movement be said to be one of reaction? Are we, indeed as our detractors have purported us to be, a reactionary movement? The answer, I posit, is the modest thesis that in opposition to some major historical changes to the political landscape of the west, the libertarian movement is, indeed, reactionary.
What it means to be reactionary is certainly a point of contention. One possible definition that was posited by John Hunter Sedwick is, “a movement toward the reversal of an existing tendency or state of things, especially in politics; a return, or desire to return, to a previous condition of affairs; a revulsion of feeling.” Another, he pulls from the Century Dictionary which claims that reaction is “action contrary to a previous influence, generally greater than the first effect; in politics, a tendency to revert from a more to a less advanced policy, or the contrary. Any action in resistance or response to the influence of another action or power; reflexive action or operation; an opposed impulse or repression.” Regardless of the precise definition, it is clear that the reactionary opposes some political status quo in favor of another, previously existing, status quo. The political reality of today did not manifest itself all at once. The leviathan state did not at once appear and the injustices of taxation and regulation did not, out of thin air, come to bear upon us. Instead, as we all know, these came with the passage of time and the evolution, birth, and destruction of human institutions. Some of these institutions still plague us today and undoubtedly are major reasons for the prominence of (as small as it still may be today) and the need for the libertarian movement. And thus, as I will show, with three prominent examples, the libertarian movement stands fervently in reaction and opposition to some horrific changes that have taken place in human history.
The first example of a political change that libertarianism is in reaction to is the one mentioned just above by Rothbard; the New Deal. The New Deal came as a supposed solution to the Great Depression that began with the Hoover administration and continued into the Roosevelt administration. The solution involved the creation of thousands of new regulations, taxes, public works projects, new executive branch departments; everything that one thinks of when he hears “big government”. From the Revenue Act of 1932 which raised income, corporate, and estate taxes to the Emergency Banking Act (1933) which provided a bank holiday in which banks could avoid paying depositors who held deposit certificates to the creation of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation and the Federal Housing Administration which set federal standards for the appraisal of homes and the construction of homes respectively, the New Deal invaded every inch of the American life and inserted the government there. Libertarians, then, obviously opposed to big government and government interference in our lives had to come out in staunch opposition, and thus reaction, to it. And to this day we stay in opposition to the New Deal. How can the libertarian today not see the thousands of executive branch departments, bureaus, agencies, and offices and be awestruck by the incredible and wasteful bureaucracy that comprises the U.S. federal government? It is not merely an aesthetic aversion to large bureaucracy that gives libertarians good reason to be appalled by the New Deal, (after all, are there not many large private bureaucracies that are efficient and just?) but that it has been the launching point for a new era of government taxation and spending. Warren Redlich argues, “that the United States of American was extremely libertarian until 1860 and still very libertarian until roughly 1930” as he notes that U.S. government spending was never above 10% of GDP until 1930. Thus, there is a real and tangible change in the way that America politics operates which produces more rights violations than its former operation. Can we not say openly and unequivocally that we are in opposition and in reaction to this change in political status quo from the small government of early America to the leviathan state of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries?
The second large political change that libertarians are, or at least should be, in reaction to is the spread of democracy in post-war Europe. Since the end of the first world war, European countries have almost everywhere undergone a regime change from monarchies to republics. One need only look at this set of maps detailing the rise of republics from 1914 to present day to see the radical shift that has occurred in only one-hundred years. The reason that libertarians should stand in opposition to democracy is that it breeds illiberalism, intervention, and aggression against property owners. The reason for this is given by Hans-Hermann Hoppe in his most (in)famous work, Democracy: The God that Failed. On one hand we have monarchy in which the government is “privately owned” in a sense, by a hereditary monarch. As Hoppe explains,
The defining characteristic of private government ownership and the reason for a personal ruler's relatively lower degree of time preference (as compared to criminals and democratic governments) is that the expropriated resources and the monopoly privilege of future expropriation are individually owned. The expropriated resources are added to the ruler's private estate and treated as if they were a part of it, and the monopoly privilege of future expropriation is attached as a title to this estate and leads to an instant increase in its present value ("capitalization" of monopoly profit). Most importantly, as the private owner of the government estate, the ruler is entitled to pass his possessions on to his personal heir. He may sell, rent, or give away part or all of his privileged estate (and privately pocket the receipts from the sale or rental), and he may personally appoint or dismiss every administrator and employee of his estate.
Thus, the monarch is incentivized to allow for the growth of the economies in the states they command via capital accumulation. In contrast, democratic rulers are not incentivized to concern themselves with the long-term economic growth of the states they command. Instead, they are incentivized to loot as much as they can without regard for the capital stock of the country they control since they cannot profit from the future production of that state, but instead, must get as much as they can during their time in office. As Hoppe puts it,
A democratic ruler can use the government apparatus to his personal advantage, but he does not own it. He cannot sell government resources and privately pocket the receipts from such sales, nor can he pass government possessions on to his personal heir. He owns the current use of government resources, but not their capital value. In distinct contrast to a king, a president will want to maximize not total government wealth (capital values and current income) but current income (regardless and at the expense of capital values). Indeed, even if he wished to act differently, he could not, for as public property, government resources are unsaleable, and without market prices economic calculation is impossible. Accordingly, it must be regarded as unavoidable that public-government ownership results in continual capital consumption. Instead of maintaining or even enhancing the value of the government estate, as a king would do, a president (the government's temporary caretaker or trustee) will use up as much of the government resources as quickly as possible, for what he does not consume now, he may never be able to consume.
Thus, we can see that democratic regimes are much more likely to result in the economic destruction and the expansion of private property violations. Theoretically, Hoppe’s suggestion that democratic regimes are more illiberal than their monarchical counterpart seems clear, but the empirical data which backs his argument is horrific. As Hoppe points out in his book, Getting Libertarianism Right,
[T]he actual results are truly horrendous, surpassing the worst fears. As far as moral degeneration and corruption is concerned, and taking only the US as the dominant example and model of a democratic State into consideration, a few indicators may suffice as illustration.
In the US, a Code of Federal Regulations — a document listing all government rules and regulations — did not exist at the beginning of the period (until 1937). By 1960, the Code had reached 22,877 pages, and by 2012 it had swollen to a total of 174,545 pages, subdivided into 50 titles, regulating in minutest detail the production of everything imaginable, from agriculture and aeronautics to transportation, wildlife, and fisheries.
Hoppe continues, explaining that state officials, state employees, welfare recipients, and other tax recipients such as NGOs make up an overwhelming proportion of the citizenry:
As a second indicator for the degree of corruption it is revealing to contrast the total population number with the number of State-dependents … only 79 million people or about one third of the adult (above 18) US population of 260 million (or about 25 percent of the total population of 320 million) can be said to be financially wholly or largely independent of the State, whereas close to 70 percent of the US adult population and 57 percent of the total population are to be counted as State dependents.
Hoppe then asks us to take a look at the moral degeneracy of our democratic leaders:
Finally, as a third indicator of moral degeneration and corruption, a look at the top of the democratic State system is instructive: at the politicians and political parties who run and direct the democratic show. In this regard, whether we look at the US or any of its satellite States in Europe and all around the globe, the picture is equally unambiguous and clear — and equally bleak. If measured by the standards of natural law and justice, all politicians, of all parties and virtually without any exception, are guilty, whether directly or indirectly, of murder, homicide, trespass, invasion, expropriation, theft , fraud, and the fencing of stolen goods on a massive and ongoing scale. And every new generation of politicians and parties appears to be worse, and piles even more atrocities and perversions on top of the already existing mountain, so that one feels almost nostalgic about the past. They all should be hung, or put in jail to rot, or set to making compensation. But: Instead, they parade around in public and broad daylight and proclaim themselves — pompously, pretentiously, arrogantly, and self-righteously — as saintly do-gooders: as good Samaritans, selfless public servants, benefactors, and saviors of mankind and human civilization.
Thus, the libertarian, who is concerned with curtailing the expansion of government and their violation of the rights of property-holders, should stand in opposition to the expansion of democracy throughout Europe. Once again, we have moved from a previous political status quo to a new one in which the contemporary status quo is obviously worse: it is one which incentivizes and produces more property rights violations. Thus, we must stand in reaction to the horrors of democracy and its spread across Europe and hope that we might return, one day, to a better (although far from perfect) political status quo; that of monarchy.
Finally, there is the greatest political change of all time. The one greatest mistake in human history that must be corrected. That is, the advent of the state. Undoubtedly, the libertarian sees the state as a great violator of rights and has been the focus of much libertarian analysis. As Rothbard explains in Power & Market, “the State is uniquely the agency engaged in regularized violence on a large scale.” So, what is the state? A state is a territorial legal monopoly which is the final judge in all cases of interpersonal conflict including cases in which it itself is involved. This appears to any lay person as almost obviously a problem. If I am to be the judge in the case of interpersonal conflict including myself, as I have reiterated previously, two problems present themselves. The first is the most obvious, that in cases of interpersonal conflict in which I am involved, I will undoubtedly side in my own favor. If another man should claim that I have stolen his crops, I will simply judge that I did not. If I claim that someone else has stolen my television and he claims to the contrary, I will simply judge that he did, in fact, steal my television. But the problem does not stop with me judging in my own favor whenever conflict does arise. Instead, I am now incentivized to create interpersonal conflict for my own gain. Now, I can simply steal your crops or television or house without fear of retribution as I will judge if I am guilty of any crime. I can now violate your person, using you how I please, to labour for my benefit or perhaps to die in defense of my territory should I choose. Again, who will stop me? I decide what is criminal.
The state, then, is clearly a great evil, a great oppressor, which must be opposed by the libertarian. But how did the state come about? As Hoppe asks, “How did such a crazy institution such as the state become possible? Something that, on the face of it, makes no sense whatsoever?” Here, I will offer two (non-exhaustive) explanations as to the origin of the state that have been taken seriously by libertarians. The first, is that of sociologist Ludwig Gumplowicz, the conquest theory of the state. Harry E. Barnes summarized Gumplowicz’ theory as follows:
For the sake of orientation in further analysis, the theory of Gumplowicz regarding political origins may be briefly summarized as follows: mankind must be assumed to have had a polygenetic origin, resulting in the existence of many different or heterogeneous social groups. These groups were led into conflict with one another through the natural and inevitable tendency of all individuals and groups to improve their economic status and to increase the means of satisfying their desires. The first conquests of one group by another normally resulted in the extermination of the conquered, but sooner or later slaughter was commuted into physical and political subjection and there arose the institutions of political sovereignty and the state.
Rothbard was a proponent of this theory of the origin of the state and argued that Grumplowicz “pointed out that, in fact, states were born of conquest and coercion of one ethnic or “racial” group over another.” Rothbard’s most interesting work (in this author’s opinion), if less well known, on the subject is his short story, A Fable for Our Times By One of the Unreconstructed, in which Rothbard opens with a fictional account of a state coming into being which follows the conquest theory:
Once Upon a Time there was a peaceful valley. The people were happy in this valley; they worked, they traded, and they laughed together. No man exerted force upon his neighbor, and all lived and prospered.
One day there came to this valley a roaming band of marauders, led by a gang leader, whom we shall call Hector. This band came with machine guns, and, as was their custom, raped and looted at will among the people of the valley. As they were preparing, as usual, to put the whole valley to the torch ("for kicks," as one of Hector’s Gang put it, succinctly), one of their number, a brilliant young intellectual whom we shall call Iago, stopped them. "Look, chief," said Iago, "Why don’t we change our modus operandi? I’m getting pretty sick of all this roaming around, looking always for the next mark, the next victims, always on the run. This is an isolated spot, a beautiful spot. Let’s settle down here, and run these people’s lives. Then, we can milk them all the time, instead of killing them all and moving on." Hector was a shrewd gang chief, and he saw the wisdom of the idea. The gang settled down.
And so the robbery and the pillage became chronic instead of acute. Annual tribute was levied on the people, the Gang exercised power and dictation over them, and the Gang strutted about in uniforms, issuing orders.
If we take the conquest theory of the state seriously, then we must recognize that there existed stateless societies prior to the formation of a conquering state. Thus, this “original sin” of statism is one which needs correcting. We, again, must ask to return to a political status quo that existed prior to our own; one of statelessness.
The second theory that I will present of the origin of the state is the one which Hoppe is a proponent of. In this case, Hoppe argues that
During the period of the Middle Ages or so, people went with their conflicts that they had with each other to what we might call aristocrats or nobles. You would not choose as judges somebody who has no influence, who is not respected by the rest of the people because ultimately you have to enforce the verdict that the judge makes. And, only if you have prominent successful people that are respected by the public will you be able that your verdict will also be enforced; that people accept that this is the right judgement and that this is the way we solve this problem. And there was not just one person or one institution to which you could go for the resolution of your conflicts, but there were several ones, several prominent people, aristocrats, whatever; people with great respect from which you could choose and there was nobody who was the ultimate judge. Even if you had a judge that made such and such a decision, his word was not the final and last word. You could always go to somebody else. And everybody, all judges, were considered to be under the same law. Nobody had a monopoly position in this. You could always go higher. You could go to the king. You could go appeal to the pope. And even the pope was not the ultimate decision maker because popes could also lose their position. So, there was competition in the job of being judges to decide how conflicts should be handled.
A big step, then, occurred (and the most decisive step occurred) when one of these voluntarily chosen judges, competing for respect against other judges, elevated himself to the position of being the monopoly judge. “My word is the final word and there is no appeal beyond my decision. Nobody is above me. My decision is the final decision and that is it.” This, we would call an absolute king. He eliminates all his potential competitors; all the other nobles, judges that you could previously appeal to if you were not happy with the first decision as it was made.
How did they get away with that? On the one hand, they got away with it by bribing some of the other competing judges by saying “Okay, I will give you a subordinate position in my court.” And the other thing that they said is, talking to the people, the general public, “Look you might have certain obligations and contracts with other people that you regret that you did them and I will free you of these obligations.” And so, they got public support for this move of competing judges to a situation where you had one monopoly judge. Historically, this process took several hundred years. It started in the late 16th and early 17th century where states were formed where previously there existed no such thing as a state. There existed competing centres of authority but no ultimate authority. (This is self-transcribed from the above linked talk in Moscow, all errors are the present author’s)
While Hoppe’s preferred theory of the state appears quite different than Rothbard’s, there is one important similarity; there was a political shift from a stateless society to a statist one. A look around the world today will find virtually no land which is not under the control of some state and thus, the libertarian must recognize that this political shift as a major and decidedly impactful one which should be a focus of opposition. One might question if libertarian theory might have ever risen to its current level of precision and had it not been for this particular political shift. So where does the libertarian stand when confronted with this change? Again, they must stand in fervent opposition and reaction against it.
Here, I have only mentioned a few of the many ways in which the political landscape has changed for the worse over time. There are many examples in contemporary history alone which we should regard, again, as negative changes to the world we live in: The change from hard money to fiat, the centralization of European power through the European Union, the mass production of nuclear arms by superpowers, etc. Undoubtedly, as mankind continues to evolve its institutions, create new ones, and destroy old ones, we will see more changes which we must regard as negative.
What does this mean for the libertarian today? It means that we should not accept all change as positive ones. The march of progress is rarely linear. Some changes are ultimately regressive and run counter to our purpose as a movement. Thus, we must look at all political changes skeptically, always through a libertarian lens. The libertarian must ask himself if the changes currently occurring around him are changes in the direction of justice. He must ask of every new institution if it serves or if it is in opposition to the libertarian ideal. Further, the libertarian must search in existing and previously existing traditions and institutions to ask if they might better serve our purpose today than whatever institutions might take their place. There is nothing to fear about the past if the past serves as a guide towards justice where modernity turns us to injustice and absurdity. As Herbert Spencer wrote, “[E]very trespass produces a reaction”. We must always stand in opposition to every trespass of man’s rights. We must stand in reaction against them.