Libertarianism is a strange creature. It originated as part of the European workers movement, alongside Marxism, communism, and anarchism. But in mainstream American thought, this history has been forgotten and, in the public mind, it’s become entirely associated with right-wing ideology. Most American libertarians, sadly, don’t know this history either.
Typically, this idealized socipolitical order, too often entwined within the neo-feudalism of social Darwinian pseudo-meritocracy and plutocratic capitalist realism, is portrayed as being the polar opposite of authoritarianism, such as shown on the popular political compass. And many right-libertarians like to portray progressive-minded liberals as among the worst and most dangerous of authoritarians, in the accusation of their being covert fellow-travelers of communists and Marxists, Stalinists and Maoists. This is the propaganda of the Cold War and the conspiracy theory of Cultural Marxism, with its origins in ant-leftist (and anti-semitic) fascism.
In any meaningful sense, is that distinction true, the proclaimed opposition between libertarianism and authoritarianism, as either theory or practice? It depends on how one defines libertarianism, and also if it is libertarianism as means or end, the reason many leading libertarian thinkers and advocates can be accused of hypocrsy in sometimes appearing to be inconsistent between their principles and the application or rather enforcement of their principles. A shocking number of right-libertarians openly oppose democracy, sometimes even when it seems to mean betraying the moral standard of liberty itself. Yet, without democracy or some other egalitarian system akin to democracy, authoritarianism would be inevitable. It often comes down do libertarian rhetoric as another way of talking about power and privilege, that is rights for me but not for thee.
Some libertarians claim to be fine with this, as they see it as a necessary evil. For example, Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek supported Augusto Pinochet’s regime that killed thousands and tortured tens of thousands. Likewise, Ludwig von Mises praised Benito Mussolini as the savior of European civilization. Why? Because these self-identified libertarians argued that it was necessary to temporarily and violently force liberty in defense against oppressive majoritarian democracy and and public mandate, popular will and populist demand. The people must be saved from themselves — only a paternalistic ruling elite and enlightened aristocracy could step in to establish freedom, specifically the freedom of markets and capitalists, not necessarily anyone else’s freedom.
That demonstrates a key difference and division. Liberty can be forced. Freedom cannot. So, what kind of libertarianism is it that, temporarily or permanently, results in authoritarianism and other forms of oppression and unfreedom? And, if we are to give legitimacy to this ideological ideal of libertarianism, upon what basis is it portrayed as inherently, fundamentally, and absolutely opposite of and opposed to authoritarianism when, in the repeated actions of numerous self-avowed libertarians, this obviously is not always true? What is the relationship or distinction between freedom and liberty? How did our political tradition of ideological rhetoric develop?
In American thought, going back to the colonial era, freedom and liberty became mixed and sometimes conflated, allowing for a slippage of meaning. This is because the English language and Anglo-American politics was shaped by two separate linguistic cultures. Knowing the details of history and etymology would help. The word ‘liberty’ comes from Latin, whereas the world ‘freedom’ comes from German, with the same root as ‘friend’. The latter means to be a free member of a free society, but the former does not require this larger social context of meaning. In the Roman Empire built on slavery, to have liberty simply meant the legal status of not being a slave while others were enslaved. So, freedom is about the relationship between people (i.e., a free people) while liberty is about the relationship of the individual to the state (i.e., civil liberties).
The Romans upheld liberty but not freedom or democracy and so Roman Emperors could be described as libertarian dictators. Libertarianism simply requires the bare minimum potential or maybe just the theoretical possibility of not being a slave and of having full rights protected by the state, though not guaranteeing it. So, by that definition, many dictators like Pinochet could be called libertarian in this broad sense. There is no doubt that there have been many infamous examples of leading libertarians supporting or praising dictators. There are also some that make the case for libertarian monarchism, which would mean an anti-republican libertarianism, although a constitutional monarchy could be democratic like the United Kingdom.
All of this seeming strangeness can make sense within the conventional discourse of American right-libertarianism. There is the typical distinction between freedom and liberty, although the terms get conflated in American English. So, right-libertarians will often condemn the positive freedom (real world results of lived experience, civil rights, political power, and economic freedom) of progressive liberalism and the radical’s rebellion to gain it, while praising the supposed negative ‘freedom’ (theoretical opportunity as abstract ideal) of classical liberalism, as first articulated in Isaiah Berlin’s essay “Two Concepts of Liberty.”
Of course, there were early progressive and egalitarian liberals like Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine or even Adam Smith, all of whom criticized high inequality as being contradictory and destructive to a free society, all of whom opposed slavery (although by law, because Jefferson was in debt, he could not free his slaves even if he wanted to for any attempt to do so would have meant his slaves would have been immediately seized as payment to his debtors; maybe part of the reason Jefferson worked so hard to legally dismantle the binding and oppressive aristocratic order that he, along with the slaves he inherited, was born into). But that is not the kind of person right-wing libertarians are referring to. Instead, they mean those like John Locke who obsessed over property rights, to the point of defending the ownership of humans in formulating a justification for slavery in writing the Carolina constitution.
That brings us back to the origins of liberty in Roman slave society. There is a reason slaveholding aristocrats looked back to Rome for inspiration in declaring liberty. This sense of narrow and selective legalistic liberty was emphasized in contrast to the British Empire, in their fight against the American colonists, having promised freedom to slaves. The slaveholders were advocating negative freedom, the potential of freedom in that slaves theoretically could be released or buy their freedom, as was also true in the Roman Empire. The British Empire, on the other hand, was offering American slaves a guarantee of positive freedom in the living present, not merely a theoretical opportunity of a future possibility of freedom, although it would take a while for abolition to be enacted in British politics.
At the same time the British Empire threatened freedom for all in the colonies, while radicalism and revolution was in the air, the American slaveholders wrote beautiful words of liberty in defense of their way of life. But liberty had long been an inspiraton of high-minded rhetoric. In Rome, the Stoics reinterpreted libertas as a spiritual state, that one could be enslaved in body but that, in mind and soul, one could never be chained and oppressed, forced and commanded. The Christians inherited this understanding, which rationalized their acceptance of outward forms of enslavement because of spiritual promises.
This might relate to why Friedrich Nietzsche called Christianity a slave religion. Indeed, Christian tradition, theology, and text formed a strong wall buttressing the institution of slavery in early America. There was never a contradiction, in principle or in practice, between liberty and slavery — they were two sides of the same coin. In the rhetoric of Stoicism and Christianity, such spiritual liberty, disembodied as it was ungrounded and unworldly, is basically the same as the secularized abstract liberty modern libertarians have since proclaimed as negative freedom, a strange freedom that never has to prove itself by the evidence of results, never has to guarantee that all are actually free in practice.
Liberty always has been just another noble ideal, as pretense and fantasy, to be trotted out by the the comfortable classes of the privileged and respectable. There is a reason that libertarians are the wealthiest ideological demographic in the country. It’s a belief system of the monied elite and those who aspire to elitism, along with the temporarily embarassed millionaires, as true today as it was in the past. Libertarianism, like Stoicism, was never constructed for the poor and oppressed, the landless peasants and the slaves, the dirty masses and the working poor, the proletariat and the permanent underclass.
Unlike freedom that is a right of all, liberty is a privilege of the few for, otherwise, it would lose it’s value within the libertarian worldview, within the moral imagination of capitalist realism. Within the rigid hierarchy of power and privilege, liberty is a precious comodity because of its violently enforced scarcity, constrained and delimited by a faith-based ideological determinism. There is no such thing as a universal promise and guarantee, full enactment and implementation of liberty. Without slavery or other forms of unfreedom, liberty would not hold such value in the eyes of those who exclusively possess it in being able to deny it to others.
Consider the great Stoic Marcus Aurelius who wrote of “true liberty.” His words on life and society have inspired many libertarians and similar thinkers, not to mention having been a favorite philosopher of many an American slaveholder. As emperor, Aurelius had the power to end slavery but chose not to do so. He did protect the rights of slaves, for whatever that’s worth, but not the right to not to be a slave. To be fair, the Stoic Epictetus, having gained his own liberty from his former enslavement, did recommend against enslaving others and yet never argued for manumission of all slaves.
That is largely because, in the philosopy of Stoicism, liberty as a spiritual state was not a birthright but something individually earned or achieved, such that the Stoic’s liberty was assumed to be the result and expression of spiritual worthiness, not entirely unlike how outward good fortune proved and demonstrated one was of the Calvinist elect or enlightened aristocracy, not to be obtained by most because of their presumed low moral character and weakness of mind. That is to say, only good and wise men, a spiritual elite, could be spiritually free in holding to a harsh, narrow, and demanding vision of liberty that few could ever hope for. This rarified state was a prize to be won through hardship and struggle, not something to be freely given as civil right, much less birthright.
This was a view that would resonate with Christian original sin that justified submission to a divine-mandated social hierarchy of clergy and theocracy, even as it posed the blind faith in the otheworldly principle and delayed promise of equality before God in the afterlife. Later in the Middle Ages, following the Black Death and the beginning of the enclosure movement, some peasants and serfs began to question this theology for, if they were truly born equal in the sight of the Creator of the world, why was inequality of power and wealth enforced by a worldy ruling elite whose behavior contradicted any moral justification. This led to the English Peasants’ Revolt, what some consider the first modern political revolution and class war, although it would require later Enlightenment thought to bring this moral impulse to its fullest form.
The ancient Stoics, obviously, did not envision that a free and democratic society was possible; as their view on slavery was philosophical, not political. Choosing for or against slavery, even in Epictetus’ slightly more generous version of liberty that morally condemned the enslaver to be wrong and unjustified, was still left to the personal choice of the enslaver with the enslaved having no legal right or moral standing to an effective opinion and empowered action on behalf of himself or herself, beyond the confines of his or her own isolated mind. The slave-based order itself, as legal system and social institution, remained safely in place without any principled position and moral claim to challenge it. Natural law, as such, would remain impotent as a rhetorical and political force to threaten unjust power until being reinvisioned by post-Enlightenment radicals and revolutionaries who articulated an entirely new deistic natural law of secular self-governance that opposed and undermined the traditional theocratic divine law of the Church and state.
To the Stoics, liberty went hand in hand with fatalistic resignation and acceptance, not to fight for freedom or against oppression but to find peace of mind and contentment of soul by not resisting, like a possum playing dead in the hope that the predatory class and the powers that be would leave one alone. As opposed to invoking the archetype of the rebel and radical, Stoicism was the origin of the tradition of martyrdom as romanticized victimization and noble victimhood, a mythologized narrative of victory in defeat and liberty in oppression only later adopted and popularied by early Christians. The supposed freedom from oppression, as in negative freedom, is in reality a freedom within oppressive order in that, according to ancient Stoics and right-wing libertarians, one has no presumed freedom toward any actionable guarantee, socially supported and legally defended, of freedom’s result in lived experience of private rights and collective expression of public good as part of a free and democratic society as upheld by social norms and culture of trust, mutual respect and common vision.
The inner liberty that was articulated did not even include free will but instead a love of fate and so there was no point in hope of progress and betterment, much less personal freedom as member of a free people in a free society. The physical and legal, economic and political condition of slavery was taken as an irrefutable ideological realism of the social order, if not a natural state by natural law, such that liberty as a rare privilege meant acceptance of enslavement for the masses, although theoretically any individual might gain the wise libertas of the Stoic philosopher in the way the hope of ending bondage and servitude was dangled before the slave as a solace for their suffering, a salve for the chafing wounds of their chains. For all of its vaunted idealism and noble wisdom, the Stoic’s individualistic liberty has never inspired a slave revolt and universal suffrage, a civil rights movement or democratic reform.
There are those on the right that declare the United States is a republic, not a democracy. This is ideological trolling, of course, and can be dismissed on that level. On the other hand, there is a genuine point that can be made along these lines. Although many Americans have sought democracy since the American Revolution, it’s questionable if we actually have a democracy even now. Full suffrage only happened about a half century ago and yet voting rights remain constantly under attack. Combined with an anti-democratic ruling elite that controls the electoral process, it’s easy to conclude we now live in a banana republic.
Yet, going by the original meaning of liberty, this country could fairly be called libertarian. It may be true that some have more liberties than others based on wealth, but anyone might get rich and gain such privileges. That has long been the argument of meritocracy in its social Darwinian form. American right-wing libertarianism has never promised equal rights and freedom in practice and in results. This kind of liberty, as with wealth in capitalism, has to be earned. No one is born deserving it. That is what distinguishes libertarianism from democracy, and liberty from freedom. They are two very different worldviews that sit uncomfortably together within American thought.