August 10, 2017

Libertarianism Against Popularity

By In Articles, Political Theory

Aside from the sweeping and meta-view economic case against democracy as offered by Hans Hoppe, there are also simple reasons why democracy and liberty are incompatible. Of course, as we have to emphasize time and again, we define liberty as literally the situation where there is no intervention against the property rights of an individual. To the extent that there is intervention, aggression, there is a necessary limit on liberty.

Democracy, though, in a political sense, is an attempt to justify intervention via popular demand. When intervention is justified via majority vote, the minority is inevitably the victim of aggression.

At the left-libertarian (though even including the word “libertarian” is misleading) Niskanen Center, ex-Catoite Brink Lindsey attempts to make the case for “why libertarians and conservatives should stop opposing the welfare state.” Yes, there are self-described “libertarians” who pretend like national welfarism– a nationalization of aggression– is compatible with libertarianism, the political theory of non-aggression. Unfortunately, this is far from the first time such defenses appear in nominal libertarian circles.

One of his arguments is especially infuriating:

“The brute fact that confronts libertarians and their conservative sympathizers is that most of what modern government does is highly popular.”

And again:

The popularity of small government generalities tricks libertarians and conservatives into thinking they have public support, but when it comes time to actually cut something they see that support evaporate.”

Here is the problem though. Libertarianism as a political philosophy does not depend on what’s popular. The idea that libertarians should contradict themselves or ignore their principles due to popularity concerns hands the entire intellectual arsenal over to the state. The state has spent decades, centuries even, convincing the masses that the fundamentals of a society include public schooling, militarism, welfarism, and subsidization of arts and sciences. Of course they’re popular! Most people have never heard of any alternative are instead addicted to statist thinking.

Libertarianism exists in the world of ideas, it confronts man at the intellectual level– what the world needs is intellectual confrontation. To achieve a free society, the libertarian must primarily preach liberty, not put better people in power. The government will always be a reflection of the opinions held by society’s members and to cater to popularity is to protect, not overcome, modern man’s awe of the state.

If socio-economic ends are attempted to be fulfilled by appealing to the immediate desires of the masses, we enter a battlefield that has been mastered by the state. Politicians, in a democracy, are professional salesmen– offering free goods and services in exchange for power. How can the libertarian compete with that? We appeal to the long term economic benefits of freedom, as well as the justice of non-aggression. We give up our entire argument when we cater to what is popular instead of what is right.

Democracy is the system of appealing to the majority to justify coercive activity. Lindsey makes the claim that social security is popular and therefore should not be opposed. But this is the opposite of libertarianism. Libertarianism must be a bulwark against the claim that unethical activities should be left alone if they are popular. Just as the state uses popularity to establish its dominance, so the libertarian must use ethics and economics to overcome this fraudulent justification of democratic statism.

Consider Mises on the role of ideas:

The main objective of praxeology and economics is to substitute consistent, correct ideologies for the contradictory tenets of popular eclecticism. There is no other means of preventing social disintegration and of safeguarding the steady improvement of human conditions than those provided by reason. Men must try to think through all the problems involved up to the point beyond which a human mind cannot proceed farther. They must never acquiesce in any solutions conveyed by older generations, they must always question anew every theory and every theorem, they must never relax in their endeavors to brush away fallacies and to find the best possible cognition. They must fight error by unmasking spurious doctrines and by expounding truth.

The problems involved are purely intellectual and must be dealt with as such.

Society is a product of human action. Human action is directed by ideologies. Thus society and any concrete order of social affairs are an outcome of ideologies; ideologies are not, as Marxism asserts, a product of a certain state of social affairs.

Any existing state of social affairs is the product of ideologies previously thought out. Within society new ideologies may emerge and may supersede older ideologies and thus transform the social system. However, society is always the creation of ideologies temporally and logically anterior. Action is always directed by ideas; it realizes what previous thinking has designed.

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to