George Floyd

Bourgeois Libertarianism Can Save America

Reliance on persuasion, freedom, property, and markets might deliver both peace and justice where "No Justice, No Peace" has so far failed.


As various American cities descend into weeks or even monthslong street disorder, launched by anger and anguish over police brutality, standard American political ideas and groups seem equally powerless to preserve the domestic tranquility for which Americans theoretically give over large chunks of our fortunes and our choices to government. Many of these protests have evolved into generalized orgies of destruction and even arson, which is the most fiendishly destructive thing the average person can do in dense cities and which has been done with careless glee dozens of times.

In the places Americans gather to publicly reason with each other via awkward two-sentence chunks and snide insults, a disturbingly large number of people are insisting we recapitulate the stark choices that Germany seemed to offer its citizens a century ago between the world wars: a controlling, decadent left out to destroy private property, and a right that embraces a harsh, violent authoritarianism suspicious of outsiders of all stripes. 

Both sides' appeal is energized by the existence of the other, and both seem so obviously intolerably evil to each other that they agree on one thing: that no moral or prudential choice exists other than to join one of those two sides and come out swinging. 

The blood on the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin (Kenosha, Wisconsin!) this week is a small preview of where that path leads.  

Traditional American libertarianism, to the extent either side acknowledges its existence, is seen by both leftists and rightists as either supporting the Evil Side or, at best, a pusillanimous, pie-in-the-sky distraction from the necessary business of seizing state power to crush the enemy.

But that old school, non-revolutionary, bourgeois American libertarianism, if actually embraced by most Americans, remains the only peaceful way out.

That it's a mistake—both morally wrong and likely ineffective—to use government force to solve most social problems is one of libertarianism's staid tenets. As the past months should have made evident, police power in the conventional sense can't keep cities secure if even a small number of people are unwilling to live and let live. State power simply cannot rule a people if even a small, energized minority refuses to let it. If you actually care about a functioning civilization, it is never enough to have the state controlled by the "right side." 

What makes civilization work, when it does, is people roughly hewing to libertarian principles, which, fortunately for Western civilization, most people do even when they are not being governed in a libertarian manner. 

What makes civilizations collapse, as we are now seeing, is people relentlessly seeking state or state-like solutions to their perceived grievances, particularly the kind that threaten your fellow citizens' liberty to live, think, express, work, save, and do business in peace, even if you have a good reason to be angry and feel a burning, even justified, need to see things change. 

To begin at the root of the current unrest, a more libertarian world would not have a police force engaged in continual series of overaggressive assaults on citizens, whether or not suspected of crimes. We suffer that now because police, as representatives of the state, are not subject to the same discipline for their crimes that most citizens are. 

At that same time, a more thoroughly libertarian world would not see certain tactics pursued by some on the progressive left who agree with the libertarian goal of reducing police's unjust spasms of "authority." For instance, that world would not have angry mobs insisting threateningly that random fellow citizens join them in some public expression of political piety, however noble the cause. It would also lack roving mobs setting fire to buildings and breaking windows. 

Those actions, unchecked and continual, tear at the roots of civilization that have made us as wealthy as we are—the relatively free and unmolested ability of people to possess wealth and space and use it to offer goods and services to others for a price. 

American movement libertarianism was revolutionary—but only intellectually so. Most American libertarians, even in the face of continual obscene injustices on the part of the state, never figured that reducing the civic order to a violent battlefield was the just or prudent response, especially in a world where most fellow citizens didn't want libertarian governance. The mission has always been selling people on the idea that they would benefit from more libertarian governance.

Thus, the notion of "no justice, no peace" that animates both angry anti-police-brutality progressives and major aspects of historic American foreign policy doesn't quite ring true for most American libertarians. Another country's criminality has often been insufficient to convince many libertarians that the mass life and property destruction of war were justified. Likewise, even though they are inspired by justified anger at recalcitrant and evil government policy, the weeks of property destruction and occasional attacks on bystanders are perhaps not the just or effective response.

Libertarians have a narrow sense of when and how force can be justly brought to bear to right wrongs. When it comes to either overseas war or domestic battles to change government policy or public attitudes, most libertarians can't agree that the lives and property of those innocent of committing the crime should suffer, especially when the connection between the violence or destruction and righting all relevant wrongs is tentative and uncertain.

The standard American libertarian has been traditionally and boringly bourgeois. Many think that while preserving life is indeed a higher priority than preserving property, property's vital role in human flourishing and happiness both individually and socially means that one cannot blithely treat it as sacrificeable to make some point about how angry you are or to pursue a vaguely seen path to "justice" for others.

The fanaticism of seeking to bloodily right all the world's wrongs, then, was never really the libertarian thing. The love of peace and prosperity that motivates libertarians to embrace liberty inclined them to think that truly effective and secure social change came not from violence, chaos, and force, but from treating fellow human minds and bodies with respect, as ends not means, and attempting to persuade them that libertarian ideas ought to shape human social life. 

The fanatical pursuit of "no justice, no peace" makes any reasonable civic life impossible. In a polity where agreement from a critical mass of your fellow citizens is necessary, certain sacrifices of peace in pursuit of justice will likely damage your chances of getting the kind of justice you say you want.

Such possibly counterproductive sacrifices include large scale denials of the right to use public streets unmolested and the idea that the livelihoods and savings of people with no direct connection to the wrongs can be justly ruined, most especially given what we know about how weeks or months of urban violence destroy prosperity for decades 

Those craving hope for America's near future might take small comfort in the fact that, as newsmaking as they rightly are, as fascinatingly grim as they are to discuss, as much as they dramatize in a colorfully violent way real fault lines in the beliefs and hopes of America writ large, the number of people so far fighting in the streets, breaking windows, and setting fires is very, very tiny in comparison to the vast number of Americans who do in fact, consciously or unconsciously, live their lives according to the tenets of bourgeois libertarianism.

That is the lived philosophy of the peaceful enjoyment of life and property, mostly minding one's own business, living and letting live, not enforcing orthodoxies of thought and expression no matter how good the cause, or treating other people's lives and property as sacrificable for a political goal. We are seeing that even a small number of people choosing to not live in accordance with those libertarian principles creates civic spaces in which no one can thrive—not even, in the long run, the people choosing to create chaos in the name of justice.