Libertarian History/Philosophy

When All Else Fails, Try Anarchy

Classical liberalism's radical edge.

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The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism, by George H. Smith, Cambridge University Press/Cato Institute, 225 pages, $29.99.

For centuries, brilliant political philosophers have taken on their ideological opponents by proving that their foes' beliefs logically imply anarchism. This was long considered a self-evident reductio ad absurdum that falsifies a political claim: If you can't defend the state, you must be wrong.

But maybe they were all correct. Maybe the state really can't be justified.

George H. Smith is an independent scholar who for many decades has lectured and written about the history of classical liberal and libertarian ideas. The System of Liberty is his first extended take on this history to be published by a high-level academic press—a tribute both to Smith's dogged scholarship and to the rise in the respectability of the libertarian tradition he explains and espouses. The book is more collection of essays than unified history, exploring, as the subtitle promises, various "themes in the history of classical liberalism." Without rigorously drawing its borders, Smith defines classical liberalism as an outlook that sees individual freedom as the highest political value. By Smith's account it first cohered in the 17th century, though unrefined elements of it can be found in older Greek and Catholic traditions.

His book touches on, among other things, the 19th century British "voluntaryists" who argued for a rigorous separation of school and state ("the State could not consistently assume the support and control of education," one of them wrote, "without assuming the support and control of both the pulpit and the press"); the key role of liberty of conscience, the true core inalienable right, in the classical liberal tradition; the real risk of imprisonment that liberals used to face; and the classical liberal belief that the only sure way to ensure the public good was to keep government restricted to protection of individual rights, thus melding utilitarian and rights-based approaches to political philosophy.

The best chapters reach bravura levels of daredevil intellectual play. "The Radical Edge of Liberalism," for example, is a close-reading ideological annotation of the Declaration of Independence. It manages to concisely and convincingly sum up centuries' worth of explanations of how and why the Declaration embodies and apotheosizes the Lockean liberal tradition, while explaining why Jefferson did not mention "property" and making the case that tyrants rather than resistors are the true rebels against the properly constituted authority that makes social life possible.

Sometimes the book falters: There are chapters that feel less like unified explorations of themes and more like info or analysis dumps. Yet even then, the information and analysis are always interesting.

The book's most valuable section is Smith's extended discussion of what he calls "the anarchy game"—the game of refuting your philosophical opponents by insisting their political philosophy necessarily implies anarchism.

Robert Filmer, the 17th-century advocate of monarchical absolutism, played the anarchy game against liberals who anticipated John Locke's argument that government should be based on consent. If governments derive their just powers from consent of the governed, Filmer argued, why would anyone give such consent? Where and when did people agree to this government? And if the world is not to be ruled by a single king, implying that smaller communities have the right to form separate sovereignties, why does this principle not apply all the way down to individual families? Filmer wasn't defending anarchism: He was mocking those who believed governments derived their rights from consent by proving that this path led to anarchy.

Other people suspicious of Lockean liberalism—including Edmund Burke, whose  Vindication of Natural Society (originally published anonymously) seemed to defend anarchism but by Smith's telling was a parody meant to reduce it to an absurdity—have used FIlmerian arguments to question liberalism's ability to justify any government at all. In 1689, Locke turned around and played the anarchy game against Filmer: Even if he could prove that God granted sovereign power to someone, there would be no way to rigorously prove that any given actual government on Earth holds that God-given power—"tis necessary that [people] know not only that there is a Power somewhere in the World, but the Person who by Right is vested with this Power over them," Locke wrote in his First Treatise on Government.

Jeremy Bentham, for his part, admitted that the idea underlying his philosophy of utilitarianism "when considered rigorously…may appear fictitious," but he decided that we just had to accept that fiction, because without it, "all political reasoning is at a stand." If we didn't accept a state based on maximizing utility, even if we know there's really no way to do that, how could we accept a state at all?

Many political thinkers of all stripes considered the French Revolution a living bad example of where all this individual rights stuff can get a society; Smith argues that this helped blunt the radical edge of liberalism and helped prompt the 19th-century shift away from rights-based arguments even among liberals. But while you might not like where rights can lead, Smith argues at length that "rights" are not something any political philosopher can dismiss. Indeed, a belief in government requires a belief that the governing authority has the right to govern. Smith has no patience with defenders of the state who act as if only believers in self-sovereignty bear the burden of justifying the rights they claim. In the eyes of all 17th- and 18th-century political philosophers, he writes, "to reject all appeals to rights would have meant the destruction of political philosophy as a coherent discipline."

Classical liberalism began in freedom of conscience and took the implications of that for freedom writ large to fresh and exciting places. Its advocates deserve credit for a world that is largely free of slavery, somewhat free of conscription, and increasingly inclined to respect freedom of speech and the press. Today's libertarians fight to extend the right to be free of coercion still further.

How far? Absolutism, consent, utility: All these excuses for a state seem to fall apart, in the eyes of some of our brightest political thinkers. This might tell us something.

NEXT: Brickbat: Communication Breakdown

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  1. Woohoo! Your early morning “cops being vicious shits” link.

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    1. STOP RESISTING!!!

      1. What a couple of fat, disgusting pigs.

        At least it is funny when the one fat, pathetic pig falls down.

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        2. Its funny until that becomes the basis for an “assaulting a police officer” charge, which it assuredly will.

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    2. Whatever. You don’t know the facts in the case. You’re not this stupid. Stop automatically siding with videotape.

    3. Now I understand why they have POLICE in such big letters on the back of their uniforms. They wouldn’t want to pick the wrong scumbag by mistake.

  2. Nice to see classical liberalism vigorously defended. Many of the conservatives in the peanut gallery will object but we will win eventually.

    1. How is the weather there in upsy-downsy land?

      1. The weather is good. I have a morning tee time – I will see you whores at four.

        1. I will see you whores at four.

          Wohoo! Much of the day will be imbecile free!

          1. “Wohoo! Much of the day will be imbecile free!”

            Dont get your hopes up. Imbeciles are legion. Just because this one turd polisher is gone doesnt mean that Tony or American or Mary or whoever will not fill the vacuum with stupidity.

        2. I wonder how much PB earns from caddying.

          1. His level so stupidity implies some kind of electoral office or cabinet position to me.

        3. I’ll see your whores at four, and raise you pimps at five

      2. No, that’s invisible furry hand.

    2. who the fuck is “we”? No one in the Dem Party understands classical liberalism; they just get unfettered statism.

      1. Uh, no one? What about George Soros? What about MoveOn.org? What about Bill Maher? Those guys get the core principles of classical liberalism, and fight the good fight against the theocratic impulses of the conservatism, which is liberty’s greatest enemy.

        Whoa, that was weird. I just typed a bunch of laughable bullshit that ignores not only the definition of classical liberal, but also every available fact from our shared objective reality. It’s as though for a moment I was a shrieking shill for whoever’s not Republican. Scary.

        I knew that LSD from the termite control guy was too good a deal. The fact that he used old Aldi receipts as blotter paper should have tipped me off.

        1. George Soros is a Libertarian!!!!

          How do I know? Libertarians hate the religious and so does George Soros. Classical Liberalism has nothing to do with religionists! The first classical liberals were atheists!! Individual freedom does not include religious freedom!!

          DDEEEEEERRRRPPPPP!!!!!

          1. You forgot the most important one…that Captain shitweasel is an ardent defender of the second amendment.

            Holy shit, that is perhaps the most laughable statement ever to appear on H&R….at least equal to the schizophrenic rantings of White Indian.

            1. I got that once on the adulterated molly that my pool cleaning guy makes. It was so scary I checked myself into rehab. Fortunately, my pool cleaner also runs a rehab group out of his storage unit.

              And that’s where I met my exterminator.

    3. You must be getting Reason confused with another message board you post on – ’cause over here you’ve never been within LOS of “classic liberal”.

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  4. Smith defines classical liberalism as an outlook that sees individual freedom as the highest political value… unrefined elements of it can be found in older Greek and Catholic traditions.

    Stalin and Mao had newer “Atheist traditions”.

    1. Stalin and Mao were deeply religious. Their religion was Humanism. The belief that a government of men is the ultimate higher power, that might makes right, and because of this government can do whatever it pleases with no limitations or respect for the individual.

      Tony’s wet dream.

      1. “Their religion was Humanism”

        😀 yeah, cos every -ism is a religion. seriously tho, you have to a special kind of crazy to claim that humanism is a religion.

        or was this just poe’s law?

        1. Most who claim that X is a religion mean that ‘X is a dogma.’ I suspect the word religion is used because it sounds worse somehow than dogma.

          Religion is a set of practices and beliefs concerning the spirit world on the other side.

    2. Maybe it’s time to revive the Chinese Libertarian Tradition and replace Mao’s pic in Tiananmen square

  5. once again i am struck by how much John Locke looks like a lifelong gruel eater

  6. While I do truly believe that we have the most moral argument and that our ideal state would be the best for across the board happiness sometimes, as I get long in the tooth, I just feel like telling certain progressives – “Look, you guys do not believe in gun ownership and disdain military service while veterans like me – the kind who not only know how to use military firearms but own dozens of them – would literally stand in the way of your political plans to protect the rights of all Americans. What the Hell do you think you are going to do about it?”

    1. “What the Hell do you think you are going to do about it?”

      Tough talk, but wait until they unleash their drumming circle

    2. They honest think the military will just follow their orders when it comes time to round us up into the FEMA camps.

      1. Many would.

        1. I dunno. Cops will gleefully join in the fun because abusing their fellow citizens is what they do. Military? I’m not so sure.

        2. Most wont. The military will become greatly fractured.
          The same thing will happen to police forces.

          What worries me is the expansion of homeland security and the massive purchases of ammunition they are making.

          1. Yeah – the military would be very split. Even a large minority of cops would have real problems with that. DHS agents? Not so much.

          2. “The military will become greatly fractured”

            Yup. I did my first 4 year tour with the US Marine Infantry. The past 10+ years I’ve been with the Army Reserve. So I know something about how troops and officers might respond. A progressive movement to repress American citizens would not get much support from the military.

            1. Yet, the evidence is staggering in the other direction.

              Why the ambiguity about what the soldier boys will do?

              The fact that they join in the first place reveals that they can not hack it in the private sector and that they can not abide by the NAP.

              Real men of valor do not join state sponsored military or paramilitary organizations. Real men of valor recognize that rugged individualism is utterly incompatible with being a porkulas parasite.

              1. What has the military done to protect the income derived by those who make and produce and serve upon a consensual, voluntary basis?

                Where are the marines when it comes to the war on drugs? How many grunts have stood up to leviathan to protect those who have had their homes, their farms, their cash and their businesses confiscated by the regime?

                Yeah, bitching that not enough people thank them for their service.

                1. Most service men join at around the age of eighteen before a coherent political philosophy is formed and before they witness the rot of the public sector from the inside. My brother is a consistent libertarian, a highly successful engineer in the private sector, but spent nine years in the Navy, and, yes, that experience turned him against government anything. Dad did well in the private sector for decades before his rum demon nearly killed him spent his first decade of adulthood as an army ranger and did so to escape the poverty of being a mariachi’s son. The extended family is full of former and current service members who ‘hack it’ in the private sector. How much experience do you actually have in the real world that you can even say something like The fact that they join in the first place reveals that they can not hack it in the private sector? It can’ be much. You can hardly turn around in most private organizations in America without meeting a well functioning former member of the military.

                  1. Look at the great number of military personnel who are still employed by the Pentagon long after they have turned 25, 30, 35 and 40.

                    Look at the ever growing number of military suicides.

                    Look at all the vets who take advantage of the horrible VA services.

                    Look at all the retired vets who do not disclaim their pension checks.

                    Yes, there are vets who have grown up and have become educated as to the evils of being part of the Empire’s killing brigades.

                    1. Ignore the commentariat Paultard. Yeah, there’s alot of career Pentagon hacks but most 20 year old vets come out as disciplined, hard workers….unlike their frat boy counterparts.

              2. Ha, ha!

                I enlisted on the day after I turned 17 and by the time I was 20 I was a mortar section leader in charge of 17 Marines. Where the Hell was I going to get that kind of responsibilty and experience, that early in life, in the private sector?

                In between then and now I have over 20 years experience working for household name, global corpoations. So hacking it in the private sector has not been a problem either.

        3. Know a lot of people who are or have been in the services?

          I know quite a few. And every last one of them takes their oath very seriously.

          And that oath is to the Constitution, not the President.

    3. What they will do about it is what they are doing. Creeping slowly and furtively towards totalitarianism, using mendacious rhetoric and underhanded trickery.

      Lately they seem to think they have gotten far enough that they can just drop the pretenses and brazenly put the boot to us. I am wondering how long they can get away with it.

      1. “Lately they seem to think they have gotten far enough that they can just drop the pretenses”

        Yeah, I think this is what makes me feel like what I said above.

      2. I am wondering how long they can get away with it.

        Until the rabble starts getting hungry.

        1. I thought it was until the toilet paper runs out.

      3. Slow and furtive and convince the youngsters they are on a moral path.
        Young Germans with guns didn’t have much compunction about herding fellow citizens – even WWI decorated vets – into cattle cars for the ride East.

      4. I was just reading today’s Class Warfare Times article about the Tiananmen Square massacre, and I was honestly shocked to see some commenters defending the Communist Party’s crushing of the student protests. Their comments got a healthy number of thumbs up too. Their argument is something like (I am not kidding): if China was not authoritarian, then it’d be like Western democracies, which have income inequality, are racist, and led to Nazi Germany.

        We are so fucked!

  7. Music fans, rejoice, for the new QOTSA album is awsome. Here is them playing most of it.

    1. Shit, I hate when I put stuff that was supposed to be in the AM/PM links in the wrong thread.

    2. so happy you pointed that out

  8. If we didn’t accept a state based on maximizing utility, even if we know there’s really no way to do that, how could we accept a state at all?

    It would be easier to accept the state based on maximizing utility, if only there weren’t so many counterexamples.

    1. Well, to be fair, that’s more or less the justification of the state in all the non-anarchist libertarian plans.

      That state is justified which maximizes utility (individual happiness).

      The difference being that the libertarian side has as a core axiom that it maximizes utility by being as minimal as possible; the State as a necessary evil (ala Nozick) is maximizing utility compared to no-state, and the minarchist state is maximizing utility compared to more invasive states.

      “Accept a state based on maximizing utility” is not the same as accepting that any old state maximizes utility; it’s the thesis that utility is maximized with some specific [, libertarian, in our case] form of state as compared to the alternatives.

      (Rothbard would deny that thesis, but Nozick would react by saying that a State is unavoidable, and the Mises/Hayek bloc are baldly for a state, just one drastically limited in its powers.)

  9. “and the classical liberal belief that the only sure way to ensure the public good was to keep government restricted to protection of individual rights”

    Is this true? Did the classical liberals make the distinction between individual rights (good) and group rights (bad)?

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