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Open Letter to Pagan Libertarians, Part I.

Libertarians have a long history with modern NeoPaganism. In the early years of our rapid growth science fiction writer Robert Heinlein ‘s Stranger in a Strange Land,   helped inspire creating the Church of All Worlds.  and the libertarian spirit and strong female characters in his The Moon is a Harsh Mistress  was popular with many.  Historically the connection between libertarians and Pagans is deep.  Today many Pagans are libertarians and still more are sympathetic to what they imagine that philosophy to be.

On the surface that connection makes a lot of sense because libertarianism’s ethical principle is remarkably compatible with the Wiccan Rede   Libertarians generally say no one has a right to coerce a peaceful person and our rede states “An it harm none, do as ye will.”

Words are often like frosting on a cake. Ideally they reflect the quality of the cake below but often fancy frosting covers inferior cakes. In my view such is the case with modern libertarianism. As it currently exists libertarianism in my view is deeply incompatible with Pagan religion in any form. It need not be, but it almost always is. Libertarian Pagans tend to confuse the attractive frosting with what it covers.

This essay will explain why, how libertarians do not really understand their primary ethical directive, and why Pagans should be aware of these problems.

Who am I to write authoritatively on libertarianism?

I do not like parading my credentials around , but in order to be taken seriously on this subject, I want to describe why I know what I am talking about when I discuss libertarianism. The next paragraph will be meaningful primarily to well informed libertarians. Others can skip it if they wish, and go directly to my arguments.

Charles Koch   bought me my first serious scholarly books while I was a high school student, including works by Ludwig von Mises.   As an undergraduate I brought Mises to speak at the University of Kansas. I knew Murray Rothbard   personally, as well as many members of Ayn Rand’s “inner circle,”   some well and some only slightly.  My PhD was the first serious application of F. A. Hayek’s  work in political theory. Later I held positions at libertarian and classical-liberal oriented think tanks such as the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE)   and the Institute for Contemporary Studies (ICS).  I received recognition from the Atlas Network for my work in applying Hayek’s spontaneous order theory outside economics. I helped found the libertarian academic journal Critical Review  as well as later founding the online journal  Studies in Emergent Order and am currently helping found the new international journal Cosmos and Taxis.  I have put on international conferences on Hayek’s work, work which continues to underlie most of my own scholarly work.

In short, I know deeply what libertarianism and associated traditions are. Important thinkers in that broad tradition, such as F. A. Hayek and Richard Cornuelle   continue to be among my most important intellectual influences.  I ceased identifying with the position for serious and I think well thought out reasons, and I continue to accept the moral principle that peaceful people should not be aggressed against.

Errors of libertarianism

I no longer call myself a libertarian and have not for many years. After years of seeking to have my concerns addressed in libertarian scholarly circles and being ignored or worse, I have written them up in an in-depth critique as my chapter in the new book Uncivil Liberties: Deconstructing Libertarianism,  This book is not expensive (nor do I get any royalties). My critique covers every aspect of libertarian thinking, but for this essay I will discuss only a few key weaknesses.

Ironically, libertarians do not really grasp what individuals are nor do they grasp what power is beyond the most obvious example of a pointed gun. To make my point I will give an example from Ron Paul. Discussing the issue of employee rights, he said 

Employee rights are said to be valid when employers pressure employees into sexual activity. Why don't they quit once the so-called harassment starts?  Obviously the morals of the harasser can't be defended, but how can the harassee escape some responsibility for the problem?  Seeking protection under civil rights legislation is hardly acceptable.

Paul writes as if finding jobs is as simple as deciding to buy a toothbrush. If a boss is a jerk, get another one. But for almost everyone, quitting a job to find another is neither easy nor pleasant. Needed income is abandoned in the hope of getting replacement income before savings run out. If the person quitting supports a family, to quit a job can threaten their children. We also know what can happen when someone falls behind in paying a mortgage. A new job often requires a letter of recommendation from the old employer, and he can use that need to pressure his employees for sexual favors. This is not like buying a toothbrush.

There is a cold heartlessness in libertarian ideology masquerading as concern for rights.  But those rights are divorced from actual people and from the actual context of human life.  They attempt to create a moral system without building it on understanding human beings.

Here are additional examples of how this effort leads to moral bankruptcy.  Libertarian Robert Nozick argued we should be free to sell ourselves into slavery  if we want, writing would “a free system . . . allow him to sell himself into slavery.  I believe that it would." He never wondered what conditions might lead to such a situation, such as needing money for a sick child.

            Murray Rothbard defended parents' rights to abandon their children even if it meant they starved to death, writing. the parent should not have a legal obligation to feed, clothe, or educate his children, since such obligations would entail positive acts coerced upon the parent and depriving the parent of his rights. . . .  the parent should have the legal right not to feed the child, i.e., to allow it to die.”  The Rothbards, not surprisingly, were childless. 

            Ayn Rand argued that killing Indians who resisted people taking their land was OK because they were selfishly (!) keeping it for themselves.  Native Americans "didn't have any rights to the land and there was no reason for anyone to grant them rights which they had not conceived and were not using....

"What were they fighting for, in opposing the white man on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence; for their "right" to keep part of the earth untouched --- to keep everybody out so they could live like animals or cavemen. Any European who brought with him an element of civilization had the right to take over this continent, and it's great that some of them did.” 

And please take note of Ron Paul's calling sexual harassment "so-called," and suggesting the woman shares responsibility for being harassed. In truth his libertarianism apparently can only see aggression when actual physical force is used.  Rothbard likewise also emphasized parents could not kill or beat their kids, that was aggression.  They could however allow them to die by neglect, which was not aggression.

The list could be extended considerably, but Ron Paul, Robert Nozick, Murray Rothbard, and Ayn Rand are major libertarian figures.  The heartlessness underlying their thought is why modern libertarian ideology cannot grasp the meaning of the nonaggression principle to which they give such constant lip service. 

To take another example of incoherent thinking arising from this lack of comprehension, libertarians argue the free market is moral because it consists of voluntary exchanges and the sanctity of private property ensures this happy outcome.  But property rights describe relationships into which people can enter with one another or with what they own.  These relationships have to be defined, and can change over time and with respect to what can be owned.  For example, I can make lots of noise on my farm at 3 am, I cannot do the same in my city apartment. Who decides what should be my rights and what should not?

Defining property rights is defining a realm of legitimate relationships.  And as my noise example shows, people will disagree what those definitions should be. Under the nonaggression principle the only fair way to define property rights is for everyone at some point to have an equal input.  That means only democratic procedures can legitimately define property rights. Arguing otherwise permits aggression by the powerful against the powerless. Libertarians oppose any means by which property rights can be defined democratically, thereby privileging the powerful over everyone else.

I focus on libertarianism and Paganism as such in Part II, Libertarianism and Pagans.

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Gus diZerega is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca. He studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.Dr. diZerega has published widely on the social sciences in the academic press as well as on spirituality.  His second book Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources.  His third, coauthored with Philip Johnson, is Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue. His art frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter.DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing.His newest book, Faultlines: The Culture War and the Return of the Divine Feminine, received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. 

Comments

  • Jamie
    Jamie Thursday, 04 April 2013

    Very good and well-reasoned article! I also rejected libertarianism.

    I despise anarchists, because in my opinion, they also champion the violation of human rights...in the name of human rights. Property rights are among the most basic of human rights, though obviously no right is an absolute.

  • Chris Sherbak
    Chris Sherbak Friday, 05 April 2013

    I'm not libertarian but don't many of the arguments supporting things like "just get another job" presuppose a fairly extensive (and somehow binding...I was never clear how exactly, but let's assume) employment contract. Specifically outlining acceptable behavior and penalties when those contract stipulations were violated? In a lot of ways, it seems to me, libertarians would be supportive of widespread unionization, if not to make economic contracts easier for businesses but also to protect workers rights. My sense was that they were always against discrimination and sexual harassment, etc., but the enforcement mechanism was the mutual contract (i.e. so slavery was possible, but possibly never entered in to) not government.

    Again, my understanding of Libertarian thought...

  • Greybeard
    Greybeard Saturday, 06 April 2013

    A growing number of Americans, including American pagans, are Libertarian on social issues and Conservative on issues of economic freedom. The government (Big Brother) should not be stepping in to administer all human interactions, nor taking OUR money to hire police state enforcers to do so. I've been pagan for several decades, and I seem to disagree with you on virtually every radical left wing straw man argument you make. You claim to be "Gardnerian," but Gardner was a conservative and colonialist.

  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega Sunday, 07 April 2013

    Greybeard, I am intrigued that you never ever actually confront a single argument I make, preferring rhetoric no one can disagree with until you give an actual example. Since I tried to make it clear that I support markets and am in no sense an advocate of government planning, and have written for years on such matters, you might try to take the time to actually confront an argument rather than making up false charges.

    Yes, Gardner's politics were in some ways probably genuinely conservative (in the British sense), as are mine (in the American sense), unlike the nihilistic devotees of domination currently hiding under that name and throwing poo and insults instead of arguments.

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