A Simple Truth of Libertarianism

If a nation has a strong, moral culture and a strong, moral people the state is unnecessary, the culture of the people is enough, but the state can destroy the culture, civil society, and the people that makes the nation great.

If a nation has a weak, immoral culture and a weak immoral people, the state will inevitably be corrupt, and will destroy those few strong, moral people left.

The state is at best unnecessary, at worst, a corrupt, mass-murdering destroyer of culture, morality, civil society, and people.


  1. The fatal flaw is that groups of people can only have common cultures up to a certain size. Beyond that point, an organizing state is necessary to facilitate the amiable exchange between uncommon cultures — moral or immoral. I don’t think there’s any evidence to suggest that nations can exist at all without states defining them.

    States were originally just bodies that united subsidiary political organizations. Doesn’t matter whether those were clans, tribes, duchies, counties, or kingdoms. It has only been recently that those have effectively dissolved and the state has become the central unit of political organization.

  2. What do you mean by “state”? Do you mean government? But consider the problem of weights and measures. What is a pound? Everyone is better off knowing that when a man says he will sell a pound of something, it is a pound. The definition of “a pound” is a public good. It makes free trade easier. But it doesn’t matter what a “pound” weighs. Could be a kilogram, could be a ton – could be a pound – as long as it’s consistent and everyone uses the same measure. Thus there is no market-based way of designating that a “pound” weighs a fixed amount – the pound. We need to coordinate in some way to define what “a pound” means.

    We can’t define it individually and let market interactions determine whose idea of a pound wins, because there is no Nash equilibrium to this question. (We are positing a libertarian free market utopia of free and fair competition, so there is no monopolistic or oligopolistic producer that has the market power to cast the deciding “vote”.) So we have to in some way decide on what “a pound” means. Well, if we are feeling democratic, we could all get together, present our various proposals, and vote on what “a pound” should weigh. Hello and welcome, we have just created a government.

    Now if we’re all perfectly moral and ethical and rule-abiding, we don’t need to enforce the idea that a pound weighs a pound – everyone will go home from our camp meeting and use exact weights forever and ever after. But we still had to come up with a way of making the decision in the absence of a market-based means of doing so. (Again, if one producer has the power to tell everyone else what things weigh, you do not have a free market, so you’ve wandered off from libertarian utopialand.) So we have government. Note that it doesn’t matter what form the government takes, for this purpose. We could decide whoever is the oldest person gets to decide what a pound weighs. Doesn’t matter. The means are, for this purpose, immaterial to the ends. We just need to somehow make a decision and agree to abide by it.) Now, maybe our government doesn’t do much. A pound is a pound, resolved, any other business, no, motion to adjourn, seconded, good and done and all go home.

    But then we’ve still got a government – it “governed” the definition of a pound. Yes, in this case the government was just us getting together for a chat, but when we decided what a pound weighs for everybody, we ceased to act as individuals and acted as a collective body made up of individuals – a democratic government. (Again, we didn’t have to have a democracy. Some people seem to like it but it’s not strictly necessary.) We’ve formed a government – it’s just subsequently inactive. Don’t need any new weights and measures standardized – phew, because when we pack everyone into the town hall for the meeting, it starts to smell bad. Somebody likes their chili and beans.

    This solution is Pareto-optimal regarding individual liberty. I certainly wasn’t doing great having to constantly check and recalculate what someone means when they say “I’ll sell you a pound of sausages.” So I’m better off with a standard weight. Maybe I would have preferred a pound to weigh a kilogram because I’m strange that way, but if that were the case the guy who wanted a pound to weigh a ton would be unhappy. So we can’t change the decision and make one of us happier without making someone else unhappy. We’re all better off now that our government has decided what a pound is, and we’re better off leaving “a pound” as our “government” has defined it.

    The problem with libertarianism as an ideology is that it is incredibly anti-liberty. It doesn’t maximize liberty at all; it confines it. It puts liberty in a box. Libertarianism as a political strategy – pursue means that allow individuals to maximize their own liberty – that can work. But ideology has to be teleological, so ideological libertarianism has to have some idea of what “maximum liberty” means. If some ideology is defining for you what maximum liberty means to you…you’re doing it wrong. That ain’t liberty.

    Personally, I think political libertarians have it wrong too. I’m not saying I think other political goals are better, but accepting politics as an answer is accepting defeat.

    I would rewrite the first part of this blog post as follows: “If a nation has a strong, moral culture and a strong, moral people…who cares about the state (government).”

    I mean think about it. Who makes up the state (government)? People! If the people are moral then the state is moral. If the state is moral…well I suppose it could be stupid, and we would need some system to prevent or mitigate that, but absent stupidity if the state is moral it’s going to do the right thing to the best of its ability. Sounds good to me. Let me know what a pound weighs so I can go buy some coffee beans. See? Our goal ought to be to become a strong, moral people with a moral state government and that’s called “Heaven”.

    Now, to be clear, we of course don’t have anything like a universally strong, moral culture or people and some of us think human nature being what it is we won’t ever get there except some of us believe we have a Super Special Helper who has Super Awesome Powers and can help us be Super Moral if we have ravioli – the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s meal of choice – every Friday. But if we really were all superbly moral then…we’re done. It’s good. If you, a superbly moral person, want to be supreme dictator…heck go for it. I’m learning to play the harpsichord, it seems more fun. To each his own I guess. As long as we’re all superbly moral about it.

    So I think libertarians have it all wrong. Libertarians keep trying to limit or reduce government power, which is really very difficult. It’s a form of utopianism. Whereas I’m for making sure we’re governed by people who are superbly moral. And granting them the power to, well, govern. Morally. Will they be absolutely moral and perfect? Well no. But I can think of plenty of moral people to whom I would trust state government. Politically, it would be hard for them to get the job right now (because they’re moral) but it would be a darn sight easier than creating the libertarian utopia out of the semi-socialist disaster we have now.

    Again, this isn’t a diatribe against liberty or individual libertarians. It’s just the ideological libertarianism that gets injected sometimes that I find objectionable. Liberty uber alles! You need liberty, and darn it we’re going to tell you what that means! Um…thanks but no thanks? It all seems kind of fascist to me. Instead of arguing over which policy is more liberty-maximizing than the other, why don’t we just be nice to each other? I mean we can agree to disagree, and as long as we respect each other we won’t try to force each other to do things we don’t want to do. So yea. To me, libertarian ideologues always seem to be getting the steps wrong and putting in too many. They’re all like, “We need a completely free society with absolute maximum personal liberty and then we will all be superbly moral and everything will be perfect!” (Note I realize that’s not how this blog post started out, which is why I think it can so easily be rewritten more appropriately.)

    I say we just skip to “let’s all be superbly moral and everything will be perfect.”

    Of course not everyone agrees on what being “moral” means, because they are unenlightened savages. Which is why in addition to a common definition of a pound we need a government to coordinate our military means, so that when the evil immoral people come to make us be immoral and stop eating ravioli on Friday, we can nuke them.

  3. The above rant would make much more sense if it wasnt for the fact that most weights and measures did in fact originate on the market. The government cannot “dictate” the length of a yard. Imagine if people had decided that a yard was this or that length, and the government came in and said NO! It is something completely different! No one would care, everyone would use the old measurement. Thus, the government can only codify what already exists on the market.

    And Im getting pretty tired of Nash Equilibriums. People use the term for all sorts of nonsensical arguments saying that since “I cannot find/There is no” nash equilibrium for this, the market doesnt work.

    This is the main reason I argue panarchism and secession. You have your perfect or less-than-perfect state, Ill take my liberty to make mistakes thank you very much. We neednt associate, except I suspect you want to force me to pay for your government. Pay for it yourself.

  4. Another damn “X won’t happen without the government” rant from Chevalier de Johnstone. Bitch, please…we’ve heard it all before

  5. “The state is at best unnecessary, at worst, a corrupt, mass-murdering destroyer of culture, morality, civil society, and people.”

    Or perhaps it would be simpler and more correct to say that the state is a reflection of its people. If the state is useful and helpful (cf. The God of the Machine) at channeling power productively, it is only because the people over whom the state has power desire this and are willing to work towards it (eg. 19th century Britain). If the state is capricious, petty, and micro-managing, it is only because the people are that way as well. I do not know the direction of causality in regards to the state and citizens, but I imagine that there is a definitely a self-reinforcing feedback loop between the two. What I have observed is that the tyrannical American government has lot of tyrannical citizens, each of whom wishes to impose his petty whims on everyone else, and thus democracy is nothing more than the mob rule of petty dictators. At any rate, the point I’m getting at is that culture matters more than political structure, and that the state is nothing more than a reflection of the people it rules.

  6. I wouldn’t go far as to say a strongly moral people would make the government entirely “unnecessary”, but I do agree it would make it much less necessary.

    Part of the reason Michelle & friends is able to get away with all the food policing is that there are so damn many fat kids running around. Even if there weren’t as many fat kids, they’d still probably try to control us, but it would be less likely to gain as much traction.

    You therefore hit on an important point many libertarians miss. I agree that it’s not the government’s role to legislate morality, but that doesn’t make morality any less important. An immoral people is going to “need” more governing, for the immoral won’t prosper as much as the moral so they’ll need the state to make up for the “unfairness.”

    Per the Founders, the purpose of government is to preserve individual freedom. The problem is that immoral societies define “freedom” as the “freedom to” (power) as opposed to “freedom from” (liberty). If you define freedom as power, if you want that loaf of bread but Walmart isn’t giving it to you because you don’t have any money, your rights are being violated. You therefore need to diminish the freedom of Walmart to do what it wants with its loaf to increase your own freedom. If “rights” are “power”, you can only be “free” if you can control others, and that’s the express lane to hell.

    A handy phrase I sometimes use is “If somebody else has to give it to you, you don’t have a right to it.”

    However, even in a healthy society in which people see freedom as liberty and don’t want to use the state to deprive others of their property, there will be some bad apples out there who will steal or kill and do whatever they can to take take take. That’s why we need a government, but it should be damn near the only reason.

  7. In the Appalachian mountains during the late 18th century, perhaps the closest thing to a libertarian society existed – briefly. Those men and women who ignored the English King’s line of 1763 found themselves in land where no king, or potentate, or emperor held power. They formed communities from the family level upwards. When enough men were in an area to form a church, they selected one of their own. They elected a judge to hear cases and issue writs, and elected a sheriff to carry out those writs. The preacher was expected to teach reading, but if some young woman was willing to teach, then there would be a schoolmarm.

    They all were “on the same page”, because their primary book was the Bible. They were culturally homogeneous. They were ferocious opponents of the American Indians. And whenever too many newcomers had arrived, and society became too complex, they would move on West.

    Libertarianism is not all that popular in the US. It is essentially a curiousity in the rest of the world; there are essentially none in Latin America or East Asia, or most of Africa. Now tell me that immigration is only a good, with no negative side effects…

  8. @ Arred: That might be true, which is why I’m also strongly in favour of subsidiarity. Things should be kept local when possible so the problem of size can be avoided.

    @ Chevalier: For the examples of weights, individuals would necessarily get together freely to decide. I have no problem with collective action; in fact, I strongly support collective action, but collective action should be done voluntarily. I’m not quite sure what you mean by “defining maximum liberty”.

    Libertarian is somewhat utopian in our current context. Defeating government is hard, but if you don’t try, it can only get worse.

    As a libertarian, I don’t believe people will be moral. I believe people will muddle along on their own; some will be evil, some will be anti-social, but others will be good and pro-social. Libertarianism simply allows the good and pro-social individuals to not be attacked by the evil and anti-social.

    @ hpx83: I agree.

    @ jeff: Is this a carry-over discussion from another blog?

    @ Simon: I’d agree with you on that. Culture matters far more than any legal or governmental structures.

    @ Martel: Morality is necessary for any society to function. Libertarians who miss that are just as mistaken as statists who think the government can enforce morality.

    @ Borderline: Agreed. A shared culture and morality is necessary for a free people. Destroying that unity will necessarily destroy liberty.

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