Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Lauren Southern on "The Problem With Libertarians"

By Robert Wenzel

Andrew Moran has asked me to comment on the recent video by Lauren Southern on "The Problem With Libertarians"
At Economic Collapse News, Moran goes on:
In the video, she makes some good points, especially when she critiques libertarians who have metastasized into Bernie Bros and social justice warriors. But then she makes some other errors, such as claiming the Cato Institute is a libertarian organization or that Reason is the go-to source for libertarian writing – both are false (see here and here).
Ultimately, the video attacks libertarians who advocate for international free trade (even if that means trade barriers imposed by other nations) and open borders. Moreover, the Libertarian Party hasn’t been truly libertarian in a long time (Bob Barr, Gary Johnson, Bill Weld).
That said, the libertarian movement has lost a lot of steam since Ron Paul called it quits. The libertarian message has been distorted by many different types of people and organizations. With the rise of Donald Trump, libertarianism has unfortunately taken a sabbatical until the next presidential election.
Let’s hope Robert Wenzel of the Economic Policy Journal issues a detailed response!
Moran is correct Southern does make a number of sound points but it is clear she is disappointed with the direction that she sees libertarianism going in.

But here is the thing.
We need to expect these distortions and splinter groups. It is the nature of high-level, small in number, ideological groups---both left and right.

I would urge Southern to pick up The History of Trotskyism by James P. Cannon. He is a great writer and he provides an excellent history of the clashing Trotskyite splinter groups in the United States. At times, I found the accounts hilarious.

Further, in the battle of ideas, we must keep in mind that we can sometimes lose words and terminology to our ideological foes. For example, close to home, we all know that the word "liberal" has a different meaning in modern day America than it once did. Those of us who appreciate the original meaning of the word must now resort to the term "classical liberal."

In the field of economics, I can think of a term that I have given up on, namely "inflation." In the old days, it meant an expansion in the money supply. Currently, amongst the general population and even many economists, it means an increase in the price level. Thus, I use "price inflation" and "monetary inflation" to distinguish.

But whether to fight for a specific meaning of a word, or phrase, is really a marketing and tactical decision. Tactical considerations may change at some point but it appears to me there is value in attempting to hold on to the term "libertarian" and call others out who use it in a manner that would be a distortion from libertarianism as only an advocacy of the non-aggression principle.

So I don't see a "problem with libertarians" as much as I see distortions of the word from its pure form--- distortions which are to be expected--- and distortions which, for educational reasons, we should battle against.

There is no shipwreck. Those of us that hold libertarianism to be the advocacy of NAP are simply being tested to see if we have what it takes to hold the line against the infiltrators and opportunists attempting to capture the term libertarian.

And the infiltrators can come from many directions. Southern is correct to warn of the "libertarians" who want to append "social justice" advocacy to libertarianism. These people I call libwaps.

But there can also be right wing-leaning libwaps, a group Southern may be a member of since she seemingly with approval mentions in her video the "ascent of cultural libertarianism," by which she apparently means old fashioned conservative values linked with libertarianism. I have no problem with old fashioned conservative values and they certainly could be the order of the day in parts of a libertarian society but there in nothing about such values that is demanded by libertarianism, if we define libertarianism as only the advocacy of  NAP.

Libertarianism, in the words of Murray Rothbard,
is not and does not pretend to be a complete moral, or aesthetic theory; it is only apolitical theory, that is, the important subset of moral theory that deals with the proper role of violence in social life. . . . Libertarianism holds that the only proper role of violence is to defend person and property against violence, that any use of violence that goes beyond such just defense is itself aggressive, unjust, and criminal. Libertarianism, therefore, is a theory which states that everyone should be free of violent invasion, should be free to do as he sees fit except invade the person or property of another. What a person does with his or her life is vital and important, but is simply irrelevant to libertarianism. It should not be surprising, therefore, that there are libertarians who are indeed hedonists and devotees of alternative lifestyles, and that there are also libertarians who are firm adherents of “bourgeois” conventional or religious morality. There are libertarian libertines and there are libertarians who cleave firmly to the disciplines of natural or religious law. There are other libertarians who have no moral theory at all apart from the imperative of non-violation of rights. That is because libertarianism per se has no general or personal moral theory.
Southern also mentions "establishment libertarianism," by which she seems to mostly mean organizations funded by the Koch brothers. She links these organizations with their support of firms like Google and Facebook against government policing. However one feels about the mounds of beltarian work coming out of these organizations, though, the demand to prevent government from interfering with the operations of Google and Facebook is not one of their weaknesses. Libertarians should want less government interventions, not more.

Southern objects to unilateral free trade in her video. I would ask her to read  The Case for Unilateral Free Trade by Louis Rouanet and view Milton Friedman on Unilateral Free Trade, on this topic.

Finally, Southern calls out what she describes as the "absurdly optimistic view" that a libertarian future is within grasp.

She is correct in that no such future appears to be just over the horizon. The optimists are likely to be very wrong. But this doesn't mean we can't argue, as she seems to imply, in the great intellectual debates that libertarianism would be the best structure for society.  It would be.

It is not going to happen anytime soon but if we love the intellectual battle and debate, then there is no reason not to join the battle. It is a noble cause.

However, if Southern is looking for short-term results, the battle for a libertarian society should not be her focus.

We may win a battle here or there on a given issue but the grand libertarian society is not coming anytime soon. The only reward is going to be in the good fight, the battle itself. It is not for everyone.

Robert Wenzel is Editor & Publisher of and Target Liberty. He also writes EPJ Daily Alert and is author of The Fed Flunks: My Speech at the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Follow him on twitter:@wenzeleconomics and on LinkedIn. His youtube series is here: Sunday Morning with Robert Wenzel.


  1. Whoops! You mentioned the NAP... I can think of several who will immediately take umbrage. ;)

  2. If you oppose free trade, you're not a libertarian.

    1. Well that sounds like one of those narrowly pitched judgements Rothbard mentions. When trade is "truly" free, I will support it. In the meantime I have nothing but disdain for the current Neo-feudal Ogliarchy that likes to call itself free trade.

    2. Re:Shegottawideload,

      --- When trade is "truly" free, I will support it. ---

      Translation: I'll support free trade when no one is free to trade with foreigners.

    3. So under what circumstances is a 3rd party justified in interfering with a mutually voluntary exchange?

  3. --- Ultimately, the video attacks libertarians who advocate for international free trade (even if that means trade barriers imposed by other nations) ---

    Sounds like that argument I heard once "He promotes all-you-can-eat buffets even when there are people dying of hunger somewhere!"

    Also known as a Non Sequitur.

    --- [...] and open borders. ---

    Right. Because nothing says liberty better than becoming a hermit kingdom.

  4. Based on this video (I have only otherwise seen Lauren Southern on We Are Change and interviewed by Molyneux) Southern has some economic ignorance. To paraphrase Rothbard, this is not a crime. But Southern does have loud and vociferous opinions making her totally irresponsible when commenting on trade.

    Looking for results in the near future is understandable. We all want that. Her youth probably gives her more hope than those of us that are old (I mean a bit more mature) that real change can occur while she is still above ground.

    She seems pretty intelligent and hard working and to have some courage. Hopefully she will read some of what RW suggested.