I have, for several years now, called myself an authoritarian. That's essentially the most repugnant label on earth to my libertarian friends, but I'm not lying. Look up at the tag for this blog: better living through hierarchy. That tag has been there for nearly three years. Pretty obvious sign that I'm serious, isn't it?
This made for some interesting conversations.
Despite the fact that I rejected their label and embraced their natural antonym, the libertarians didn't agree that I'm an authoritarian. They recruit, man. It's what activists do. So I had a couple of very interesting conversations about why I really was a libertarian, deep down. Sometimes they almost made sense. Almost.
Since I like libertarians, and since I'm not a libertarian but often agree with them, I'd like to explain how this works. And since that means going in-depth and real world on what libertarianism is, this might get uncomfortable.
The first issue is to go ahead and say something lots of libertarians are going to hate.
The modern liberal understanding of the word "freedom" is, in the real world, more free for more people than the libertarian understanding of freedom.
I say this with full awareness that "freedom" is a word that has a shifting, self-serving definition. Its ontology is emotional more than fixed, which means that talking about freedom is talking about an emotional preference. And what most people prefer is simply more. Of everything.
To get a handle on this, we need to talk about both libertarianism and modern liberalism, and talk about it with a genuine interest in what liberals today are trying to do.
Modern liberalism split from classical, libertarian liberalism in the early twentieth century, although the ideas that give it shape began earlier, with Rousseau at the latest. Classical liberalism viewed social control in terms of government and people, wherein the government created rules and order that explicitly and clearly manipulated people's behavior through law, AKA threat of force. So to a classical liberal, a good government is one that simply did not do this, and instead utilized what power it had to protect people from explicit force, namely foreign incursion. Beyond this, Thoreau's understanding of freedom - "that government is best which governs least" - was often the arbiter of quality.
This was domestically extended to protecting people from force among each other as well. Banning murder, assault, theft, rape, and other clear examples of people accosting or taking from other people without permission, made for a compelling standard of justice. Classical liberalism essentially declared the sovereignty of the individual. That idea laid the groundwork for what was to come.
The point being, that the government legitimized mutual, explicit consent, declared consent, as the standard of power. That means contractual arrangement, allowing regularity and stability on a basis of choice. Contracts freely entered took the place, in theory, of any coercive cultural system of organizing people. Such choice created a system whereby the individual could select options that already existed, without legal preference from any established class or other clear discriminatory factor, or if no advantageous choice existed, create one. Thus, people were limited only by the possible and by their ability to convince others of what is possible.
Libertarianism suffers, as much as a matter of appeal as a matter of actual consistency, from all the issues modern liberals have been highlighting for a century or more. Freedom hardly seems free when you have no food to eat, no medical care when you're sick, no shelter from the elements, and no resources to make them or exchange for them. It makes no apologies for requiring that the individual deal with other people, often from a position of vulnerability, in order to acquire those goods or services. It does not necessarily care that those who reject society's norms might find their opportunities to acquire them very limited. If it tried to enforce any other standard, it would end up hypocritically curtailing someone else's prerogative to not be coerced.
That hurts people, putting them in that position. And as a philosophy, its attraction is limited only to those who are very honorable and stringent in their understanding of accountability. Normal people do not call this "freedom" in the real world.
Modern liberalism is an expansion on the previously mentioned internal understanding of justice by addressing coercion indirectly, as well as directly.
People have needs that simply being left alone doesn't fulfill, so in the past, they have created institutions and norms to deal with those needs. Since those institutions are hierarchical and result in inequalities of power, the formation of institutions has created a drive towards conformity. Modern liberals want to liberate people from the internal pressures their own society's structures and norms place on them, believing internal social forces acting on the individual could comprise every bit as unjust a manipulation of their behavior as any external force.
To them, government overreach is not a problem. It can be held in check so long as people vote properly. Quite the opposite, government is useful at this point, because in order to relieve the individual of coercion, the modern liberal must tend to their needs, not just as a matter of choosing to do it, but as a matter of setting up a social system where one is entitled to their needs being met, and is thus secure, without fear of reprisal for making a choice others are uncomfortable with. To a libertarian, this is a fancy way of saying theft, because those resources have to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is invariably those who fund the government.
Equality is the name of their game. You cannot consider a society "free" if some people have the power to push others into positions of responsibility for situations they had no control over, or to accept obedience out of a "necessity" which was created by other people's unwillingness to treat them as equals. Thus, people need to have an equal degree of power to be free. Where a libertarian thinker sees free choice, free contract, and free association, a modern liberal is more likely to see Leonine contracts and Stockholm Syndrome.
Almost every institution and tradition outside of democracy itself comes in for criticism. Religion is an obvious example: although there was no established, government mandated religion, modern liberalism takes issue with any social expectation that people join or maintain loyalty to a community church. They end up actively promoting secularism with their policies. Same goes for gender roles. Same goes even for language.
The clearest case is made in the economic world, as the threat of poverty induces people to work jobs they don't like all the time. The need to make a paycheck has no doubt created a lot of pain and frustration, worse when the paycheck is inadequate to fund their needs. Its worst enemies are money and property; its affinity with Marxist ideology seems obvious.
They obviously aren't too crazy about law enforcement or the military, either, although their maleable nature as government subunits makes them less insidious. In fact, there are no empowered formal authorities which have escaped a broad prejudice among the modern liberal that those with power are, by virtue of simply having power, corrupt sociopathic assholes.
A modern liberal might view classical liberalism as a necessary ideological step in the journey towards a truly free and just society, but they understandably see their worldview as the natural refinement of a perspective given character by freedom.
The ultimate result of modern liberal policy is that intermediate institutions are being stripped of their purpose and power, and thus their legitimacy, done as a matter of conscience, in the name of greater individual freedom. These people have never had any qualms about killing off every ordered hierarchical group, from the family to the nation-state, in order to remove obstacles to expropriating the powerful for the welfare of the vulnerable. The message to all private institutions is: liberalize all rules, allow anyone to be a part of your groups without pressure or prejudice, or be eliminated. This is simply the logical end result of the individualist, universalist, and egalitarian ethos the West has subscribed to for nearly its entire documented history.
So what does all this have to do with our political terminology, and how does it explain how someone like me could come to the conclusion that authoritarian and libertarian are even partially compatible ideas?
Simply put, if your goal is individual utilitarian welfare in any measurable sense, the modern liberals are mostly right.
Does the institution of property give some people more power than others? Yes.
Does this power result in coercion, to do things or be someone you'd rather not? Yes.
Do cultural beliefs and practices often set the popular basis for inequality? Yes.
Do social expectations develop which could be seen as anathema to freedom? Yes.
Do consumer protections, employee protections, the safety net, social security, minimum wages, protections that specifically target women and minorities actually help the people being targeted by them? With some caveats, yes.
As I said, modern liberal freedom is more "free" for the individual than libertarianism. That freedom means less risk, less pain, more care, more consistently. It means not having to give a damn about the perspectives of those with institutional power, people coming and going from jobs and churches and marriages, no commitment required. And that resounds with people, particularly people who are basically materialists, and who believe the purpose of social order is to care for the weak.
The democratic system, in which an unemployed former janitor has the same formal voice as the most successful people in the country, has created an anti-hierarchical hierarchy and an anti-institutional institution, where the least powerful members of society are given power by never having to worry about serious deprivation. And it has definitely worked. In comparison to any other historical era, the people are more emboldened and the authority figures are more cowed and implored into making a big show of how compassionate they are towards even the most useless and miserable failures.
All these gifts might be appreciated, might create happiness, until people got used to them, took them for granted. People adapt, and as the last century has shown, increasing people's utilitarian quality of life has done precisely fuckall for the perceived legitimacy and satisfaction people feel for their society. All it's done is raise expectations and put greater strain on resources. Until it's threatened, they consider their gifts about as much as they consider the sun coming up, with no regard for cost.
So I don't put much stock in greater utility as the goal of a society. Quite the opposite, when I see that people have so many needs with still more unrealized and more being created, I take it as a clear indication that we're on the wrong track.
Other drives - for belonging, a sense of place and feeling like you're part of something great and timeless - make for better goals. Again, people adapt. Their main adaptation to the causes of strife over the centuries has been joining institutions and making the compromises inherent in them. People need to be invested in something bigger than themselves. Modern man, with his language and complex, specialized societies held together with ideological abstractions, is an irrelevant ape outside the institution.
So empower institutions instead of killing them. Push people to become social beings again, and not self-important consumers alienated by a lack of purpose or pressure or role. Libertarian principles, with their respect for fiscal solvency and personal responsibility - which means the individual has to actually be responsible to someone or something - actually set up a legal framework in which institutions can thrive, which is exactly why a lot of right-wingers support them.
We all should know this by now. Libertarians are often insulted because they theoretically support drug use and prostitution and other forms of vice. But that's damn strange considering how many traditionalist Christians and employers who would need a disciplined workforce support those policies. Why? Because of all those other reasons modern liberals dislike libertarians: libertarian policy demands people take care of their own business, which means joining groups, which means allowing themselves to be subjected to group discipline.
Trying to get rid of drug use using the state has resulted in great expense and an inflated state apparatus, and has also failed miserably. But if your church, or your work, or your family, or some other institution you need has a problem with your drug use, they have a better chance, especially since they can ultimately kick you out.
Libertarianism is not libertine decadence. That's liberalism's job. Libertarianism is not a culture. It's a legal principle. It's negative freedom, which has never been a total philosophical answer to life's questions. That's it.
What happens when you live under that principle? Well, you have to get your shit together.
Few individuals are truly capable of living without support from friends, allies, and powerful people defending their interests. Most people can't tell a safe product from a faulty one, a good insurance deal from a bad one, a sensible retirement plan from an idiotic one. We can't even figure out if we should trust our own police force. It's a specialized, complex world. We do need regulation, and protection.
In a libertarian order, we have to pay for them. We have to choose who we trust, and do it consciously, and provide something of value for what we take that has value. It allows for different ways of doing things, different views, for each group. Real diversity. Not on the individual level, but on the group level, which can help create real evolution. Social ethics, practices, attitudes, restrictions, expectations can all be experimented with, to see what works. In this kind of environment, productivity, discipline, tradition, and strength might again be seen having value.
The practical effect of libertarian policy is decentralized authoritarianism.
And I, for one, welcome it. I want this country to be run by businessmen, priests, fathers, and those who have earned respect. That's far better than the activists, media personalities, and lawyers who run the thing now and don't take responsibility for it.
This might horrify some libertarians, especially left libertarians, who are a motley collection of idiots in any case. But right-libertarians know what I'm saying. They are often religious people who know their church can only be saved by having a clear practical purpose that was hijacked by government decades ago. They are also often businessmen who know that, soon enough, they won't be able to count on anyone showing up reliably for work without paying them a growth-ending wage. And sometimes, they're just men - and they are largely men with a few notable exceptions I'm friends with - who are tired of their roles in society as providers and protectors being seen as an entitlement by those who rely on them.
So: what kind of authoritarian I am, that I'm fine with decentralization and even free exit?
The kind that's not insane. I like being in a dynamic society that has risks and opportunities, which requires an understanding that power can be gained and lost. Since I appreciate the opportunity to gain power, a respect for those who have it comes naturally, especially when they can maintain it over a long period. So I simply acknowledge authority as fact, necessary for the organization of people into functional groups. Their imposition of discipline and desire for purpose is at the core of everything great in our species. And I think that the vast majority of authority figures throughout history have done a decent job in society's most crucial position.
I'm a historian, and before the advent of postmodernism and "people's history", the field was considered a "chronicle of great men". And I believe they were worth the hype. Despite the many "sins" of whites, imperialists, men, and institutional powers over the millenia, they are just as responsible for the good things about any given society as for the bad. And as far as I can see, the good far outweighed the bad long before democracy showed up, even by that terrible utilitarian standard. We have a huge collection of narratives in this culture telling us that power corrupts or that its only good purpose is protecting people from other forms of power, and I think that's nihilistic garbage.
In this hypothetical libertarian future I'm imagining, groups will have more power, so institutional hierarchies and thus authority make a comeback. I would prefer those authorities to be recognized, legitimate, and explicitly attached by contractual terms to the societies they direct. I would prefer them to be accountable, not to the people at the bottom of their respective hierarchies - good God no - but to the pressures of their physical environment and competitive peers.
I agree with Nozick: effective, expanding institutions would eventually evolve into something similar to a state if anarcho-capitalism came around tomorrow. In the case of libertarian national policy, institutions would evolve into something similar to state governments prior to the 60's and the destruction of the 10th amendment, subunits of the nation, handling most of the details except military protection. Which would be perfectly fine by me.
The individual right to free exit is basically a formality: it can't be enforced without stamping on the rights of other people to provide for that exit, with free information or travel, and in any case, it requires initiative on the part of whoever wants to leave. If you can get out, fine: the law will not drag you back. If you don't want to be a part of the group, no sensible group should want you anyway, and no other group will take you if you left dishonorably. With a few minor changes, this way of doing things is actually about the best compromise between Western individualism and the necessity of social compromise I could formulate.
Don't confuse authoritarianism with totalitarianism. There's a difference, and it comes down to the basic functioning of the attention economy.
A hierarchy is a system of attention distribution. Really, it's the ONLY system of attention distribution. Any society needs to distribute the attention of its members effectively in order to run a stable system. Businesses know this: they have to create job titles, departments, bureaucratic rules, and make decisions on outsourcing in order to get things done. Churches, universities, families, every institution requires it.
Some agents have more power than others, with the most powerful almost always being the positions that appoint and supervise the rest and evaluate their effectiveness. Those at the top are, in ecological terms, the keystone species. They look outward at the challenges, assessing information normal people simply don't have the time or inclination to acquire, and responding by sending directions down the structure.
But it's obviously not just at the top: intermediary agents have power over their specific territory or task and the people affected by them, and their judgment is crucial. When other agents are predictable and productive, requiring little supervision - ie when there is trust - the attention required to supervise them was minimized. That's what efficiency looks like in a formal institution. This is why old honor cultures like aristocracies placed so much emphasis on duty, honesty, loyalty, and meeting the obligations of your task and position. Their power required trust, and the more trustworthy they were, the more a supervisory power could treat them like a thermostat, give them their goals and walk away, set it and forget it, turn their attention elsewhere. Micromanaging is for bad leaders.
Totalitarian systems are marked by such a complete lack of trust that they try to observe, control, and micromanage every aspect of their people's lives. Their attention is focused inward, not outward. They were perpetually paranoid, watchful, and ruthless about internal dissent.
But that's ridiculously wasteful. No rational authority wants to put that much attention into watching everyone. Unless, of course, they're incredibly insecure. Sometimes it's paranoia, and sometimes, your system really is at risk, especially when it runs like a broken clock.
Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union both fit nicely into that type. They were terrified of losing power. They didn't trust huge swaths of their own people, so much so that they sent them to gulags or concentration camps. There were spies everywhere. The communist system didn't trust anyone outside of the tiny cadre of nomenklatura with even basic trade, denying their own populace of agency and trust in any economic matter.
So I'm not a totalitarian. My authoritarian tendencies want people to be productively divided into institutions that, in the search for lasting power, figure out new ways to get the best out of their people. That means authorities that are comfortable in their positions, that can apply pressure, that can create environments in which their perspectives are held in common and taken seriously. It means unequal power, the individual having incentives to tolerate some hardship, and an honest evaluation of who has worth to the group and who doesn't.
That sounds rough, I know, placing that kind of power in the hands of people you can't even pretend to control with a vote. But while a lack of trust in your own people from the top down bodes poorly for a culture, so does a lack of trust from people on the bottom looking up. People at the bottom never have complete enough information to evaluate the performance of those at the top - their attention is usually and sensibly focused on their own business - and invariably give greater priority to their own problems and priorities. So they have a choice to either trust their leadership or not, which is why most political candidates are judged by character more than their positions on issues. Micromanaging the leadership is as stupid and inefficient as micromanaging the subordinates.
In democratic societies today, paranoid loathing of powerful people is rampant. We don't trust the priests, the businessmen, the fathers, even the politicians which the people elect. The democratic system is a reflection of a democratic culture that views power with nothing but suspicion. We adore the idea of putting systems in the control of machines, from self-driving cars to machine-like bureaucracies awash in red tape, simply because our imaginations would rather the system break than leave its functioning up to a self-interested human.
Today's authority figures suck at what they do, but in this cultural environment, it's no wonder. They can't say what they think, they can't assume people will give them a fair shot, so they backpedal and lie and dodge responsibility constantly. That's a much greater threat to a society than any lack of material fringe benefits. We need good leaders, and we can't get them without a people who understand leadership, including being able to trust them and recognize their own limitations. We have a better chance of seeing this happen in a culture where authority has more power, where expectations line up with honest potential.
Coming soon: Zappos has implemented a system called "holocracy" which is supposed to do away with formal hierarchy. Since I've said that hierarchy is the ONLY way to organize attention, this requires a critique on my part. And a history lesson.