A Critique of 'Against Libertarian Brutalism'


Column by Paul Bonneau.

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Jeffrey Tucker writes a thoughtful (if not concise) article in his Against Libertarian Brutalism, but at the end, one is left unsatisfied. It has the flavor of one big straw man argument, as well as looking like a bit of “divide and conquer,” splitting libertarians unnecessarily into two distinct camps (as if we did not have enough camps already).

Toward the end, Tucker asks, “It all comes down to the fundamental motivation behind the support of liberty itself. What is its overarching purpose?”

That is indeed the question.

He has answered it to his own preference, earlier in the article: “These kinds of arguments make the libertarian humanitarians deeply uncomfortable since they are narrowly true as regards pure theory but miss the bigger point of human liberty, which is not to make the world more divided and miserable but to enable human flourishing in peace and prosperity.”

Notice the pejorative, “pure theory”?

Seems to me, every political philosophy ever advanced by every state thug, down to the worst dictator, has promised “human flourishing in peace and prosperity.” Why am I not impressed?

What would Tucker do, if some state system was discovered or invented, that reliably produced even more human flourishing than liberty does? Such a thing, though it seems unlikely to us, remains within the realm of possibility. Would he abandon liberty then?

I suppose this makes me a “brutalist”: I love liberty no matter what its drawbacks, no matter all the warts--even if “the greatest good for the greatest number” can better be produced without it.

To me, the overarching purpose of liberty is to leave people to live their lives as best they can, without “improvers” bending them to their preferred ways. That beauty and goodness can come of liberty is a wonderful side effect, and an extremely reliable side effect if one has a bit of patience, but it is a side effect. It may well be the best selling point for liberty that can be found, but it is a side effect.

Tucker, in one of his more “straw mannish” passages, writes:

So let’s say you have a town that is taken over by a fundamentalist sect that excludes all peoples not of the faith, forces women into burka-like clothing, imposes a theocratic legal code, and ostracizes gays and lesbians. You might say that everyone is there voluntarily, but, even so, there is no liberalism present in this social arrangement at all. The brutalists will be on the front lines to defend such a microtyranny on grounds of decentralization, rights of property, and the right to discriminate and exclude—completely dismissing the larger picture here that, after all, people’s core aspirations to live a full and free life are being denied on a daily basis.

So . . . what would he do? Enlist the aid of the state, to impose better behavior on those people? He’s no libertarian. Argue against what goes on there? Every libertarian would do the same thing, although some might tone down the criticism enough to avoid outright war between communities, which seems prudent. I see no libertarians cheering burkas, and I wonder where he finds any.

He continues:

Further, the brutalist believes that he already knows the results of human liberty, and they often conform to the throne-and-altar impulses of times past. After all, in their view, liberty means the unleashing of all the basest impulses of human nature that they believe the modern state has suppressed: the desire to abide in racial and religious homogeneity, the moral permanency of patriarchy, the revulsion against homosexuality, and so on.

The question is not whether bad impulses are to be unleashed or not, but how they should be leashed, and who decides to leash them. One cannot be a (consistent) libertarian and believe the state should leash them, so that leaves social pressure and the free market to do the leashing. Is he suggesting there are libertarians out there who do not support these forces? I have never seen one who does not support the free market; and while some (e.g. John Stuart Mill) lash out against social pressure, all must admit it is possible and likely in a voluntary world.

Now, it is true that panarchy admits the likelihood of communities existing that are repressive in some way or another, so it surely also admits communities and tribes in which all repression is gone, including that of bad influences. But what is to be done? Social pressure and the free market are the legitimate tools available--along with patience. Does Tucker see anything else?

There is another tool, “voting with your feet.” You don’t have to stay in communities that don’t suit you. Again, one wonders if Tucker simply discounts the power of these tools in favor of something else.

The state should unleash people. Does Tucker agree, or not? Even if some of those people subsequently make unlovely choices about how to live?

I suppose Tucker, and many others, are distressed that our enemies can call libertarians “racist” or “sexist” or whatever, by taking our remarks out of context. Why should that be distressing? At least they are now taking us seriously by creating phony arguments against liberty. That’s a heck of a lot better than the old days, when they simply ignored us. The remedy is to set such arguments straight, when you see them. There is nothing to get depressed about. The truth will out in the end.

Tucker finishes with, “Will libertarianism be brutalist or humanitarian? Everyone needs to decide.”

Um, no, we don’t. There are not two camps of libertarians, brutalists and humanitarians. We can all use arguments that seem appropriate to the particular venue we are arguing in, whether “get down to the nitty gritty” (so-called brutalist) or “peace and goodness” (so-called humanitarian). No good salesman would throw out half his tools for making a sale.

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Paul Bonneau's picture
Columns on STR: 106


John deLaubenfels's picture

Lately I've read several columns with the theme, "We have to be careful not to behave (or advocate) in a way that will cause average people to think we're kooks."  Tucker's offering is another of this genre.  I couldn't disagree more!  This is a game that can never be won, but can only cause its practitioner to water down his own principles until he stands for nothing.  Of course, nobody should act (or advocate) in a way that is gratitously offensive, but the best way to teach the world that liberty works is to live it!  Make and live our choices, even the ones that seem unthinkable to many people.  Show that it doesn't make the sky fall.

Lawrence M. Ludlow's picture

Paul, I think that you are correct about Tucker creating a straw man. He would have done better if he had simply written that when we express our arguments, we need to show empathy for people who suffer from the sometimes negative consequences of poor individuals choices. It was not necessary for him to act as if there were some kind of huge number of brutalists among us. Yes, sometimes we express ourselves with the insensitivity. I have done this myself at times. So has Tucker. This does not make of him or me a brutalist. That name is simply a stereo type, and stereo types are always over generalizations.

Regarding the effects of Liberty, I believe that peace is more than just a side effect of Liberty, however. Because the spontaneous order that characterizes liberty is the naturally emergent system, it is by its very nature the most peaceful one. Perhaps not in every instance, but overall, yes it is. Study of chaos theory, swarm theory, decentralized decision making, and emergent systems indicates that the spontaneous order really is the one with the least friction. It also is the one that supports life more than any other.

Paul's picture

I will have to defer to you on that one, Lawrence. It may well be more than a side effect. However there is (as far as we are concerned) only one world, the one we are living in. It is hard to run controlled experiments, and any research concerning humans is immediately suspect in any case.

Did you ever read Ira Levins' "This Perfect Day"? That was in the back of my mind when I wrote the passage in question. There may well be "better" (according to some standards) worlds without liberty, that are possible. I still would want nothing to do with them.