Libertopia, with asterisks — Crooked Timber
As I was reminded in comments last time, snarking about libertarians is not a very productive substitute for writing well-argued posts about The Way Forward for Social Democracy, or writing my nearly-due examiners report for that PhD thesis, or revising my article on climate change on discounting, or getting the yard under control. But if I was capable of responding to that kind of reasoning, I wouldn’t be a blogger would I. So, in lieu of something useful, here’s a thought that occurred to me.
Among the more plausible candidates for an Actually Existing Libertopia, the US in C19 (with asterisks) is pretty prominent. Also, on the basis of fairly thin historical evidence, the Iceland of the sagas. It seems to me that these examples have one crucial point in common that hasn’t received much attention
Looking at the US case, it seems fair to say that, if you ignore the asterisks (women, blacks, native Americans and the emerging industrial working class), the 19th century setup was a fair approximation to the libertarian ideal. I’m going to ignore the industrial part of the economy for the moment, and, for the sake of argument, treat slavery and Jim Crow as aberrations peculiar to the South. Finally, and again for the sake of argument, I’ll concede the possibility that the legal rights of women and men could have been equalized (at least in formal terms) without upsetting the C19 applecart.
That leaves on remaining asterisk – native Americans – and it seems to me that this is the one that can’t be avoided. In a largely agricultural society, the historical norm has been the emergence of an aristocracy based on the ownership of land, and ruling over a tenant peasantry or landless laborers. The only case that doesn’t happen is where there is an appealing exit option for the peasants, such as migration to the city.
But another exit option exists wherever there is a frontier (that is, a border with a less militarily advanced society) as in C19 US. With a frontier, agricultural land is freely available to anyone willing and able to kill, drive away or enslave the current occupiers. That obviously makes life difficult for any aspiring aristocrats. The Icelanders were in a similar position. If any local jarl got too big for his boots, it was a simple matter to hop into a longship and go off to loot some abbeys.
It is, as my Marxist friends used to say, no coincidence that the end of the era of (white male agricultural) US libertarianism came to an end with the “closing” of the frontier. I’d guess, though I have no real evidence that the same was true in Iceland once the Viking option was no longer available.
The standard Lockean case for (propertarian) libertarianism rests on the (universally false) assumption that an appropriation of land leaves “enough and as good” for anyone else. As long as land can be stolen from people who are outside the pale in one way or another, Lockeans (and a fortiori Jeffersonians) can convince themselves that they are devotees of liberty rather than of the forcible imposition of property rights in land (and, for Jeffersonians, other people). Once there’s no more land left to steal, it becomes obvious that propertarianism is fundamentally dependent on coercion, just like (for example) socialism or any other form of government.
fn1. The only place a real agricultural aristocracy emerged was in the South with slavery and then, in a more attenuated form, with sharecropping, dependent ultimately on Jim Crow.