President Donald Trump has signed an executive order claiming that in the future the total number of federal regulations will shrink, via the elimination of two regulations for every new one. He has nominated an FCC chief and a department of education chief who advocate choice-enhancing changes in the way their agencies run. He says he’s a hardcore Second Amendment supporter (although he also supports taking away the right to bear arms based on mere suspicion). He’s offered up a Supreme Court justice willing to seriously question government regulatory and police powers. He at least claims he wants to see spending cuts and tax cuts.
Should libertarians—who are supposed to advocate those goals as part of a larger vision of reducing government power over our property and choices—admire and support Trump? Even a little?
Libertarianism is more than just advocating a random checklist of disconnected actions that in some respect limit government’s reach or expense. (See Steven Horwitz, an economist in the Hayekian tradition, for valuable thoughts on why judging Trump via a checklist of discrete changes in specific government behavior doesn’t work in libertarian terms.)
Libertarianism is a unified skein of beliefs about how the human social order should be shaped. What binds the philosophy is the understanding (or belief, for the skeptical) that using violent force against the peaceful both makes us, overall, poorer and is, at any rate, almost always or always wrong.
For most libertarians, the practical and moral arguments against aggressive force on the innocent support each other; the sense of what’s morally right for most libertarians is rooted in a generally rule-based sense of what furthers human flourishing overall. To most libertarians, that is, freedom is both a valuable part of human flourishing, and a necessary part of most other aspects of it.
That we should be free to do what we want with ourselves, and with our justly owned property, is the core of libertarianism. (A swirling, complicated debate surrounds questions about what behavior is truly about ourselves alone, and how, why, and under what circumstances property is justly owned and what that implies about how we can use it. Such questions can’t be resolved in a blog post.)
Given the nature of human beings’ productive powers, the best way to ensure the collective “we” gets richer faster is to ensure the individual freedom to exchange with others as we choose, and by doing so build long and complex chains of production and exchange that benefit us all (or even just some/many of us), irrespective of accidents like national boundaries.
Free trade and free migration are, then, the core of the true classical liberal (libertarian) vision as it developed in America in the 20th century: if you don’t understand and embrace them, you don’t understand liberty, and you are not trying to further it.
The Trump administration may not in every specific policy area do the wrong thing in libertarian terms. But whatever it gets right is more an epiphenomenon of certain alliances within the Republican Party power structure or the business interests he’s surrounding himself with. Trump and his administration can’t be trusted to have any principled and reliable approach to shrinking government or widening liberty, since Trumpism at its core is an enemy of libertarianism.
What appears to be the core of Trumpism, based on his earliest priorities and his closest advisers? The blatant, energetic, eager violation of the right to freely choose what to do with one’s justly owned property and energy, and fierce denial of the principle that through such freedom we create immense and unprecedented wealth for the human race. (Again, most libertarians don’t just clutch “freedom” as a value disconnected from all other values, although they privilege it in most cases. They also believe freedom is conducive to the greatest human wealth and happiness, overall. It’s a philosophy of social betterment as well as a philosophy of individual rights.)
Not yet a month into his administration, Trumpism is most surely centered on a poorly considered nationalism. His administration, with each swift and relentless bit of dumb bullying over our businesses’ right to choose what to do with capital, our right to buy from abroad unmolested, other humans’ ability to move peacefully into our country, acts on the principle that it’s best if we don’t trade with people outside our borders, that the Leader gets to decide what private businesses do with their capital and resources, and that we should beggar ourselves for the sour joys of keeping fewer people not born here from coming here (in a time when that alleged “problem” barely exists).
Trump is openly a type of illibertarian leader we haven’t seen in a while. The “open” part is important. Those wanting to downplay the threat of Trump can, justly, point to all sorts of crummy and illiberal policies that past administrations and imagined alternate administrations did or might also pursue. In the context of the current political debate, that scarcely matters. Trump is the president we have, and his policies are what we have to face, and fight. It may fit any given person’s amour propre to not ever risk seeming to overstate or overguess exactly how bad Trump is or might be, but it doesn’t necessarily help the cause of promoting liberty.
It does matter whether a president encases even protectionist or trade-managing or restrictionist policies with a stated appreciation for lower tariffs and more open migration, which at least on the margins likely keeps bad things from happening. By paying that tribute of statist vice to libertarian virtue, at least doesn’t deliberately imbue Americans with the belief that the country will be stronger by making goods and labor more expensive.
A president who openly and firmly rejects the principle of, and fails to grasp the benefits of, economic liberty is indeed worse than one who merely casually violates those principles. (And economic liberty is the core of human liberty, in a world where we must produce and trade to live).
Trump and his administration don’t merely violate the core principles of individual liberty carelessly or as a byproduct of other goals; he is against economic liberty, deeply and sincerely. More than anything else, Trump is a loud and proud enemy of libertarianism.
The continued presence and dominance of Steve Bannon in his inner circle indicates that Trumpian nationalism, though the administration doesn’t spell this out explicitly, yearns toward ethno-nationalism. Bannon believes American “civic society” necessarily excludes too many immigrants from Asia (even though people of that descent make up over 5 percent of America.)
While he’s been careful since taking his powerful position in the White House not to say much of what he thinks about anything, Bannon’s stated belief that the news organization he ran, Breitbart, was “a platform for the alt-right” and his own site’s definition of that often deliberately ill-defined term, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that his nationalism has an ethnic component.
The administration’s choice, apparently at the driving of Bannon and his ally Steven Miller, to launch their administration with an expensive and absurd “border wall” and for a spate of pointless (except in their disruptive cruelty) blows at movement of people from a small set of mostly-Muslim countries (that are not the Muslim countries from which any serious terror threat to the U.S. has ever actually arisen) show that the “public safety” rationale doesn’t hold up. They are either idiots, or the restriction has another purpose.
What the limited travel restrictions so vital to the Trump administration have demonstrated is that they are eager to build from the most speculative and phantom of fears an expensive and disruptive apparatus of control, one that Miller considers a test run to prove the president’s unrestricted power over certain matters, even in the face of the courts. And the fears they decide to focus on are fears of the foreign “other,” even if that foreign other is a legal resident of the United States or wants nothing more than to work for or with existing Americans.
If you are judging how to view Trump’s administration, and make reasonable guesses about its future actions based on demonstrated core commitments, those demonstrated preferences, goals, and methods are seriously bad, and more serious than (so far) semantic stunts about cutting regulation or taxes.
Trump v. Mises
Free trade and migration is not just one of a random pile of “freedom-increasing policies” that one can grab from and hope the whole number ends up large enough. It’s the heart. Trump’s disdain for them shows he can’t be trusted to stand for our core freedoms, for any reason other than pure political contingency, or perhaps as part of his unlovely desire to humiliate the enemies and opponents his administration is obsessed with. (Yes, someone out to stick it to the modern liberals may occasionally posit a freedom-enhancing policy. This doesn’t make “sticking it to the liberals” itself inherently a libertarian attitude.)
Is it just a sign of pants-wetting Trump Derangement Syndrome to call Trump the quintessential anti-libertarian? The modern American libertarian tradition is not unitary or invented by one person—I wrote an over-700-page book about it, called Radicals for Capitalism.
That said, given his influence on nearly every thinker or institution that comprised modern American libertarianism from World War II to the dawn of the 21st century, Ludwig Von Mises, the Austrian emigre economist and social philosopher, can be relied on to reveal what is core about modern American libertarianism.
Mises, driven from his beloved Austria by the Nazis and firsthand witness to the death of liberal principles via strongman ethno-national fascism, thought and wrote diligently and brilliantly about every aspect of social philosophy. From the start of his career to the end he identified free trade and free migration in a regime of legal respect for individual private property as the core of a free society. Those, again, are the principles Trump has nothing but contempt for.
Mises’ personal and intellectual experience taught him vividly why the nationalism at the heart of Trumpism is the worst enemy of classical liberalism, the humane and liberating and wealth-generating tradition Mises sustained and furthered.
Mises’ liberalism, and thus modern libertarianism, was built not solely in reaction to Marxist communism but equally against the wealth- and life-destroying evils of autocratic ethno-nationalist autarkic statism.
As Mises wrote in his first magisterial work of social and political philosophy, Socialism (1921), almost as if he foresaw a Trump who would try to bamboozle a nation into thinking it could enrich “the people” as opposed to special interests via protectionism and exclusionary immigration policies, and wanted to warn the liberty-minded that would be not just one concession on a liberty checklist but the end of the benefits and glories of free markets (as well as a clear violation of any pretense that one is working for “the people” vs some privileged elite):
It becomes a cardinal point of the particularist policy…to keep newcomers out.
It has been the task of Liberalism to show who bear the costs of such a policy….
A system that protects the immediate interests of particular groups limits productivity in general and, in the end, injures everybody—even those whom it began by favouring. How protection finally affects the individual, whether he gains or loses, compared with what he would have got under complete freedom of trade, depends on the degrees of protection to him and to others….
As soon as it is possible to forward private interests in this way and to obtain special privileges, a struggle for pre-eminence breaks out among those interested. Each tries to get the better of the other. Each tries to get more privileges so as to reap the greater private gain. The idea of perfectly equal protection for all is the fantasy of an ill-thought out theory.
For, if all particular interests were equally protected, nobody would reap any advantage: the only result would be that all would feel the disadvantage of the curtailment of productivity equally. Only the hope of obtaining for himself a degree of protection, which will benefit him as compared with the less protected, makes protection attractive to the individual. It is always demanded by those who have the power to acquire and preserve especial privileges for themselves.
In exposing the effects of protection, Liberalism broke the aggressive power of particular interests. It now became obvious that, at best, only a few could gain absolutely by protection and privileges and that the great majority must inevitably lose….
In order to rehabilitate protection, it was necessary to destroy Liberalism….Once Liberalism has been completely vanquished, however, and no longer menaces the protective system, there remains nothing to oppose the extension of particular privilege.
When it came to free immigration, Mises was so intellectually and emotionally attached to it that this generally quite pacific man thought that immigration barriers nearly rose to a legitimate excuse for the excluded to wage war.
His writing after seeing the horrors that ethno-national autarky brought to Europe in his 1944 book Omnipotent Government bookend his explanation of the vital, core importance of free trade and migration:
….imagine a world order in which liberalism is supreme….In this liberal world, or liberal part of the world, there is private property in the means of production. The working of the market is not hampered by government interference. There are no trade barriers; men can live and work where they want. Frontiers are drawn on the maps but they do not hinder the migrations of men and shipping of commodities. Natives do not enjoy rights that are denied to aliens. Governments and their servants restrict their activities to the protection of life, health, and property against fraudulent or violent aggression. They do not discriminate against foreigners. The courts are independent and effectively protect everybody against the encroachments of officialdom. Everyone is permitted to say, to write, and to print what he likes. Education is not subject to government interference. Governments are like night-watchmen whom the citizens have entrusted with the task of handling the police power. The men in office are regarded as mortal men, not as superhuman beings or as paternal authorities who have the right and duty to hold the people in tutelage. Governments do not have the power to dictate to the citizens what language they must use in their daily speech or in what language they must bring up and educate their children….
….In such a world the state is not a metaphysical entity but simply the producer of security and peace. It is the night-watchman….But it fulfills this task in a satisfactory way. The citizen’s sleep is not disturbed, bombs do not destroy his home, and if somebody knocks at his door late at night it is certainly neither the Gestapo nor the O.G.P.U.
The reality in which we have to live differs very much from this perfect world of ideal liberalism. But this is due only to the fact that men have rejected liberalism for etatism.
It’s not merely that of a grabbag list of “libertarian positions” Trump is picking a few and neglecting the others and thus libertarians have reason to be hopeful; it’s not merely that, oh, free trade and immigration were among Mises’ many positions, and his reasons for positing them as core to liberalism were whimsical.
They were, as he explained and knew in his bones from the horrible history of Austria and Germany he lived through, the core of liberalism (libertarianism). If one doesn’t understand that, as Trump and his people do not, then their instincts and intelligence can’t be trusted for anything when it comes to liberty.
Why Some Libertarians Might Not Seem Particularly Alarmed by Trump
Conflicting concerns and perspective have dictated many libertarians’ reactions to Trump. (In the social networking age, it is much easier, for better or worse, to understand a very wide range of perspectives not mediated through existing approved brands.) Libertarians tend to already see so much of what the American state has done, under control of both parties and a variety of politicians, as hideous evils that our sense of loud public outrage at what the government is up to generally has had to be kept in some form of polite abeyance, lest we become the sort of constant wild ranters that tend to be filtered out of any public discussion.
This sociological reality, perhaps, makes libertarians less likely to be the loudest and most panicked about Trump. Trump is, as we’ve heard from many in the past few weeks, inheriting powers and a system that have long existed and long been abused, from travel restrictions to deportations. I have seen an understandable wave from those of libertarian bent of “wait, you are telling me the government is scary now?” reaction to the more, let’s say, acutely panicked complaints about Trump.
This is a time of high rhetorical tension in American political discourse. One with a contrarian streak (and libertarians of necessity have contrarian streaks) might be inclined to discount the apocalyptic sense that Trump represents a unique and freshly unacceptable blow to American liberty. Predicting an unusually dire event occurring has social and intellectual costs; even someone highly alarmed by Trump might be reluctant to predict severe and unprecedented domestic repression.
But Trump’s very rise to power was unprecedented in many respects, and his core and proud illiberalism is fresh in modern America. (Again, governmental vice paying some tribute to the virtues of liberty is important.) The presence and growing power of Steve Bannon, a man near as we can tell genuinely and enthusiastically dedicated to ethno-nationalism, is what makes it hard to believe that Trump doesn’t want to take his economic autarky and restrictionism as far as he can get away with.
And from the perspective of the first few weeks of Trump, any remnants of dedication to free markets and freedom in these realms has seemingly already been flushed out of the body of the GOP in order to make room for an injection of pure malignant Trumpism, so we can’t count on his Party or its old rhetorical commitments to hold him back.
Trumpian nationalism and restrictionism is a philosophy that has already caused and will continue to cause misery, both direct and obvious in the lives of people whose movement is restricted and indirect and harder to see in the choking of the wealth-generating properties of international trade.
The president has chosen to make his leading adviser, one who seems to have outsized influence on the administration, a man whose sole political concern is both dumb and evil, and whose approach to that goal is, according to a quote that historian Ronald Radosh reports was said to him by Bannon (though Bannon later said he did not recall saying this to Radosh, or meeting him at all), “Leninist,” that is, dedicated to the revolutionary scorched-earth destruction of all existing institutions.
I know many libertarians who smile at that. Why, even early libertarian movement linchpin Murray Rothbard at times thought in Leninist strategic terms! Don’t libertarians hate the system and want to see it fall?
I, and most libertarians, hate lots about the “system” and would like to see lots about it fall. But Bannon’s hatred for modern institutions has almost no overlap with libertarians’. He doesn’t want more freedom. He wants ruthless state power supporting his particular vision of a favored class.
He doesn’t hate modern institutions for being tyrannical, for illegitimately bossing around or destroying people’s lives. Bannon sees libertarians as his enemies, and he’s right to do so. He hates the current establishment because he feels it insufficiently promotes war to the death against radical Islam. He hates it for insufficiently pushing an autarkistic ethno-nationalism that will make poorer and more miserable not only Americans but the world.
Trump’s Temperament (And Why it Matters)
There is another reason to find Trump especially alarming as president. It touches on what’s always undergirded why I was attracted to libertarianism on a sub-intellectual level when I was young, an inclination that made the explicit philosophy ring true. It is another reason I find it wrongheaded from a libertarian perspective to be a bloodless Vulcan tallyer of pluses and minuses for specific policies Trump has spouted or appointments he’s made.
Many libertarians don’t dislike the state out of some disconnected dislike for “government” qua government, but because they dislike cruelty and the needless causing of pain and misery to other human beings, and that underlies most of what government does, and appears to be Trump’s favorite parts of government.
Yes, government is an institution whose very function is control backed by violence and funded via extortion and is thus inherently cruel. But not everything government does is inherently wrong, considered outside the funding mechanism. Some things government does, were they not done by government, are perfectly proper things to do. Trump and his people seem most focused on the things that aren’t, like punishing and restricting the harmless and taking away our rights to trade outside barriers the leader thinks are appropriate.
From immigration to eminent domain to the drug war to asset forfeiture Trump seems to be particularly malign, particularly contemptuous of the shopkeeper virtues of trade and the American virtues of live and let live liberty, with a sort of Viking streak that appeals to many of his fans who love seeing an “alpha male leader” take the reins and punish their perceived enemies.
Trump tries very hard to delegitimize any countervailing structures, such as a free press or the courts, that could possibly make it harder for him to do what he wants. He is for making police stronger and will lie to make you agree with that. His attorney general Jeff Sessions is a pure exemplar of governing as a source to punish.
Even given any particular set of policies, even given whatever you know or think about past or potential other future presidents, these are a terrible, terrible set of attributes from a libertarian perspective for the president. Those long concerned about the fragility of our debt and monetary structures, or potential reactions to a new terror attack, should indeed I think be uniquely frightened by this caudillist sitting in the White House.
Some in the libertarian thoughtworld believe passionately that Trump will prove to be less likely to cause destruction and death abroad via war than the average American president. I simply don’t think there is a good reason to believe that will prove true, though it will be wonderful if it does.
Trump’s first week priorities indicate that what motivates him the most is ignorant malign cruelty, autocratic acts that disrupt other peaceful human beings’ plans and lives and business, acts that don’t need to be done and that cause immense harm.
Such acts are embraced by Trump and his supporters through some combination of economic ignorance (the trade autarky and desire to force companies to do with their property as the leader wishes), or mindless unsupported fearmongering (the border wall, the immigrant and refugee foolishness).
One may temperamentally enjoy seeing modern liberals cry because they presided over a growing state, or are contemptuous of other people’s peaceful chosen values, or are smug, or you don’t like the way they look, or whatever, but the ol’ drinking of modern liberal tears is a large price to pay for someone who likely doesn’t care if he wrecks international trade to show he’s tough.
Through the bad luck of elections, Trump runs a pretty much one-party state. He is advised by a proud ethno-nationalist. He likes to govern by executive ukase. None of these clear and dominant qualities of Trump and his administration are at all promising for a libertarian.
The best one could say about Trump for libertarians playing the long game in American political culture is it could be a teaching moment about the dangers of centralized executive power, of centralizing our culture’s institutions of humane care in a machine whose lever of control is won and lost as easily as is control of the federal government.
Previous administrations of course violated the principles of free trade and cosmopolitanism. But they did not gleefully and malignly and publicly reject them and expect the nation to come along. This devotee of Ludwig Von Mises is suitably alarmed. Instructing other libertarians on specific strategies isn’t really my bag. But not being publicly obstructionist regarding Donald Trump, who represents a special and revived threat to liberty from the populist right, well, I can’t see how it will do libertarianism’s future in the United States in the 21st century much good.
Anti-regulatory preening or not, libertarians—those dedicated to the entire fabric of liberty and social peace and prosperty—should consider it vital to defend the entire edifice of libertarianism, particularly in the face of a leader such as Trump who, no matter what else he does, admires authoritarian strength, hates allowing people or companies to make their own choices about what to do with their money and property, and has chosen, of everyone in the world he could have chosen, as his ideological consigliere a man like Bannon willing to tear down the fragile but vital benefits of modern international civilization in pursuit of his mad, ugly dream.
It might not end up as bad as it looks for libertarians, and those who paint the ugliest picture of the next four years may end up seeming overwrought. But from what has already happened with travel restrictions and trade restrictions and the overarching ideas and attitudes that infuse the Trump administration, it looks extraordinarily bad.