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Do Libertarians Have a Problem With Authority?

Not if they understand the difference between law and legislation

A silly episode on Facebook recently underscored one of the tensions in the liberty movement: many people are attracted to libertarianism because they simply don’t like rules. This attitude stands in contrast to conservatives who also disdain big government but who don’t reject authority per se — their problem is with illegitimate authority. Although many types of individuals are united in their opposition to military empire abroad, the drug war at home, and confiscatory taxation, their underlying philosophies of life are vastly different.

A debate on all these matters started innocuously enough. I had put up a frivolous Facebook post telling my “friends” (most of whom are fans of my economic and political writing) that my office phone number was only one digit removed from that of a local pizza shop, and that the people erroneously calling me were “lucky my alignment was Lawful Good.” This was a reference to the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, which has an elaborate scheme to classify the ethical and moral views of its characters.

I was surprised to receive a fair amount of pushback, with many people surprised that I had described myself as “lawful.” They thought this meant I endorsed the actions of the U.S. government and that I was letting others tell me how to live my life. How could someone who had written a booklet on “market anarchy” be placed in such a category?

Yet this objection is absurd on its face. In the first place, advocates of “anarcho-capitalism” in the tradition of economist and political theorist Murray Rothbard are for private provision of legal services. They aren’t against “law,” they are instead against the unjust and inefficient government monopoly of the judicial system. It is a cheap ploy for left-wing interventionists to accuse critics of the welfare state or of government schools of being “against poor people” or “against education.” Such criticism is obviously nonsense. But by the same token, it is wrong even for fans of someone like Murray Rothbard to assume he would be “against law.”

Indeed, writers such as Rothbard emphasized that he was simply taking basic morality and applying it consistently. If someone tries to take half of my paycheck with a gun, that is stealing no matter what that person wants to do with the money. Yet for some reason, this action is classified as taxation when the government does it. For another example, there is a general revulsion at the practice of forcing someone to perform labor against his will under the threat of corporal punishment—that is slavery. Yet if the military acts in this fashion, it is called the draft.

With examples such as these, Rothbard argued that he was merely applying the same moral and ethical standards to government officials that we all apply to everyone else. Far from his worldview representing a rejection of rules, Rothbard’s approach enforced them on everyone, without the usual exemptions that most people habitually give to “the authorities.”

One doesn’t need to be a Rothbardian anarchist to see the issue. For example, many conservatives in the tradition of the Old Right oppose the reckless nation-building that is the centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy. Among its other travesties is the lawlessness with which the U.S. government has invaded and occupied countries in the Middle East. One could believe that there is a proper role for the use of military force, and that in certain cases the standard rules of morality do not apply simply because of the nature of modern warfare. Even so, it is critical for this engine of potential mass destruction to be shackled under elaborate procedures and protocols, most notably the constitutional requirement for a declaration of war. Aside from questions of ultimate guilt or innocence, the fact that the Obama administration’s “secret kill list” is bereft of judicial review makes it particularly loathsome to those who cherish the rule of law.

In his classic three-volume work, Law, Legislation and Liberty, Friedrich Hayek pointed out that “law” was a much older concept than “legislation.” People have always been rule- or law-following creatures; it’s necessary for society to function. Not only is it theoretically possible, but it actually must have been the case historically, that people followed laws before it occurred to anyone to create laws. It was a relatively recent innovation for humans to think they had the necessary authority and expertise to legislate top-down rules to make society function better.

Of course, the biggest schism on this issue comes about through religion. Many libertarians are staunchly atheist, while many conservatives are believers. The former are attracted to political liberty because they don’t want anyone telling them what to do — not even God — whereas the latter are attracted to political liberty because they don’t want men usurping God’s commands.

There are many people who oppose the size and policies of the current U.S. government. Within this broad coalition there are many diverse groups, who have radically different worldviews. Those who chafe at all law are confusing government perversions with the ideal. As political philosophers have argued for thousands of years, we can only be truly free under the rule of law—and governments may ironically be the greatest danger to it.

Robert P. Murphy is author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism. His blog is Free Advice. Follow him on Twitter.