Libertarianism is a First World Problem

June 4th, 2013   Submitted by Roman Skaskiw


It seems the illusion of good government is in free fall and no one knows precisely what will happen when it shatters upon the rocks. An enormous lie upon which the masses have staked livelihoods and personal identities is about to be shattered. How should we brace for the likely interruption to the global division of labor?

Guns, gardens and gold (and Bitcoins!) seems as good a recommendation as any. Many American libertarians, including entrepreneurs Jeff Berwick, Doug Casey and Erik Voorhees have sought and found greater economic freedom outside the United States. They’ve been vocal about opportunities in lower-trust societies.

“Get [your] money out of the country . . . and if you don’t want to get washed away in the flood . . . get yourself out of the country too,” Dough Casey said during his brilliantly irreverent speech at Libertopia, 2012.

Though the advice may be sound, we should not mistake these havens for Galt’s Gulches, at least not yet. The economic freedom of such havens is not based upon recognition of self-ownership or a respect for the libertarian conception of property, but upon bribes and the self-interest of a different group of tax farmers. At best, it reflects attempts by foreign tax farmers to attract new cattle by minimally imitating libertarian principles.

The occasional praise one hears for the governments of lower-trust societies is misplaced. It reflects not praise for the new system, but resentment of the old one. Ayn Rand, having escaped the Soviet Union, was similarly motivated when she made ridiculous statements like “the United States of America is the greatest, the noblest and, in its original founding principles, the only moral country in the history of the world.”[1]

Why should the relatively free, relatively lawful, relatively high-trust United States[2] also be among the most feared? As articulated by professor Hans Hermann Hoppe, “states that tax and regulate their economies comparatively little — liberal states — tend to defeat and expand their territories or their range of hegemonic control at the expense of less liberal ones. This explains, for instance, why Western Europe came to dominate the rest of the world rather than the other way around, More specifically, it explains why it was first the Dutch, then the British and finally, in the 20th century, the United States, that became the dominant imperial power, and why the United States, internally one of the most liberal states, has conducted the most aggressive foreign policy.” [3]

With substantial power comes substantial abuse, but it’s not directed at large for fear of dispelling the illusion of good government upon which they rely. It is aimed carefully at threats to the monopoly privileges of the political class, hence it is precisely the entrepreneurs whose innovations and ambitions threaten these privileges that benefit most from emigration. Though tax farms outside the first world may be worse in general, rich immigrants are able to purchase the protection necessary to engage in the type of commerce stifled in their previous home.

Aside from their appeal as new tax-cattle, there is a second reason why entrepreneurs, especially financial ones, have found success outside the first world. Lesser tax farmers have already been robbed of much of their monetary privilege by their powerful, first-world rivals. They feel comparatively little incentive to stifle financial entrepreneurship. They’ve had to settle for more modest monopolies. They’ve erected barriers and organized violence for exclusive access to local commerce and natural resources. These they guard jealously, but a financial entrepreneur’s threat to a rival’s privilege is met with indifference or tacit approval.


Despite the promise of such havens, an important difference should not be taken for granted.

First-world governments gain legitimacy from the illusion that they actually do good. As has been observed many times,[4] no government can survive without at least passive consent from the governed. The political class is aware of this, intuitively if not explicitly. When they want to exercise their considerable capacity for violence against a threat, say, against the threat Bitcoin poses to their money monopoly, they weigh it against the risk of revealing their true malevolent selves to the public. They must tell a good story or else rely solely on covert violence which bears its own risks.

By contrast, second and third-world governments gain legitimacy from their imitation of first-world institutions. Their publics admire first-world wealth and give passive or explicit consent in exchange for their government’s albeit imperfect imitation its first-world counterparts. Secular democracy is the correct system as evidenced by the wealth of the first world, and the main question among the politically conscientious is how to best achieve it, or more precisely, how to elect politicians who will bring it about.

For those of us who’ve lived in what are sometimes called “emerging economies,” the spectacle is pathetic indeed: bad ideas imitated poorly. Economic actors don’t know whether to celebrate the alternate avenues to commerce offered by the corruption rampant in such societies, or mourn the stagnant, fetid, cesspools of bureaucracy and predatory legal systems from which there is absolutely no “clean” escape.

The greatest risk for prospective emigrants is that when second and third-world governments exercise violence against threats to their monopolies, they are less restrained. They feel little pressure to feign benevolence. They need only convince a majority of the public (be it the most ignorant, emotional, vindictive majority) that they remain on a trajectory toward the correct institutions of government, the ones exemplified by the first world. Covert violence is also easier in more crime-ridden societies.

I quote H.L. Mencken to console Ukrainian friends who express personal shame for the behavior of their politicians, and long for more “Western” government institutions: “Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.”

Most radical libertarians would dismiss their desire outright. Government is evil. Government cannot be reformed. Maybe so, but their desire has merit if one interprets it as longing for a high-trust society.

Consider this: In much of the world, the revelations which pave a libertarian’s intellectual journey (government does more harm than good, every act of government is necessarily an act of violence, a state is, by definition, a monopoly on security and justice, natural rights, non-aggression, self-ownership) are not revelations. They are not even news.

Of course the government (in its current manifestation) is no force for good, of course they are violent, of course the powerful prey on the weak, and all this talk about self-ownership and rights is as relevant as a children’s fable with a discernable but idealistic lesson about the real world.

Libertarian proselytizers from the first world may be thrilled that the illusion they’ve long struggled to dispel — the illusion of good government — is nearly non-existent, but horrified by the myopic, ignorant pursuit of that illusion. Nobody believes government does good, but almost everybody believes it can and should. Philosophical principles upon which to begin are callow distractions, constantly giving way to more pressing concerns like the next election cycle.


Though the latter may describe the masses of the first-world as well, there remains an important difference in the nature of the dialogue.

Most libertarians do not appreciate this. They remain unconscious and ungrateful inheritors of a rich philosophical foundation: the high-trust society built by western civilization, an oft-forgotten and oft-ignored anomaly of history. Pockets of this society now exist all over the world, and to a limited extent, technology transcends geography and builds global societies. Also, it has degenerated in its place of genesis. Nevertheless, its emergence seems unique to Europe, to the Europe west and north of the Hajnal Line.

The cathedral of libertarianism stands atop the individualism, rationality, and justice of the Enlightenment. It cannot long survive upon ignorance, brutality or mysticism (or for that matter, upon the threat of its own making: the secular, nihilistic religion of post-modernism).

The ideas we cherish can rightly be considered first world problems. Let’s appreciate how fortunate we are. The question of whether self-ownership is an extension of our biology or bestowed by “nature or nature’s God,” is moot without either 1) the ability to defend this conception against aggressors, or 2) membership is a society that cherishes this paradigm.[5]

Culture matters. The Rothbardian tearing down of coercive institutions is good but insufficient.

There are many important questions to consider: What will emerge from the ashes of the great fiction? What implication will its shattering have for states which have long gained their legitimacy through pursuit of the illusions? Are those who’ve sought refuge in the second and third world safe?

For the sake of posterity let us also consider, how do high-trust societies emerge? Why do they vanish?

[1] From a speech delivered to cadets of the United States Military Academy, transcribed in Philosophy: Who Needs It, 1982.

[2]Though its freedoms are diminishing, the United States is #10 on the 2013 Heritage Index of Economic Freedom.

[3]Hans Hermann Hoppe, The Great Fiction, Location 3991, 2012.

[4]John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, chapter 8 section 95, 1690; Etienne de La Boétie, Discourse of Voluntary Servitude; David Hume, Of the Original Contract; and others.

[5]We libertarians would do well to qualify our beloved self-ownership principle. How can we simultaneously claim self-ownership while observing the many ways that exercising self-ownership will be met with violence? So long as the rebuttal to self-owner consists of shackles, Tasers and bullets, then the best we can claim is *rightful* ownership of our bodies. No more.

13 Responses to “Libertarianism is a First World Problem”

  1. HReardenNo Gravatar says:

    Well look what happened after the fall of the former USSR. People living in the former USSR are still being oppressed by a state. After the fall of the former USSR what replaced it was a bunch of smaller states. In some cases the same geographic areas a state comprised prior to the formation of the USSR. There is still government corruption in what was the USSR. They have learned nothing. The absense of a state with a few historical exceptions seems to be a temporary situtation because the vacuum is filled by a new state.

    • Bob RobertsonNo Gravatar says:

      This is why simply “tearing down” is insufficient. Something must replace it.

      Problems occur when people attempt to replace the state with voluntary institutions because those who run the state are jealous of their power and fight the formation of those very institutions.

      Chaos benefits the state. The state deliberately and carefully fosters chaos. Constantly shifting rules and regulations means people cannot adapt to, and predict what, the state is doing. The voluntary institution that is established “legally” today, is prosecuted into insolvency or non-existence tomorrow.

      The fact that you can say “The absense of a state with a few historical exceptions seems to be a temporary situtation because the vacuum is filled by a new state” answers itself. This is not a matter of circumstance or human nature or any other abstract.

      It is a deliberate and careful result of the actions of the state to use its coercive monopoly to ensure its own “necessity”.

      The Big Lie, the fraud by which the state exists: “Remind them why they need us!” shouts the tyrant as he orders his minions to create the very chaos the state supposedly is there to “prevent”.

      • HReardenNo Gravatar says:

        I think many people would be willing to support the creation of a new state after the collapse of a state. Many do not question if a state is necessary just like many people do not question if the USA is number one. Just like many people assume the arrangement of keys on a keyboard are the way they are because that arrangement has been proven to enable the typist to type faster. Actually the opposite is true because the first type writers had hammers that would jam up if one typed too quickly so the arrangement that exists was created to slow down the typist.

  2. Don DuncanNo Gravatar says:

    I don’t understand the problem. Anarchy is a necessary condition for freedom, but not a sufficient one. It has been claimed by statists that where anarchy existed, a state emerged. This fact is supposed to prove that states are a natural progression for societies. What is not recognized is the role of ideas in society. As Thoreau pointed out, men will have freedom when they are ready for it, i.e., when they want it because they understand it to be in their best interest.

    The question is: How do ideas become dominant in a society? Ayn Rand laid the responsibility on the intellectuals in her book, “For the New Intellectuals”. I agree. The intellectuals have to work through the arguments (do the heavy thinking) and present a distilled plan of action for the masses. If one wants freedom, one must be willing to work for it by convincing the masses it is desirable.

    The Libertarian Party was founded for this purpose. It failed. Why? Could it be hypocritical to seek political power to eliminate political power? Could it be that the primary problem is not the holders of power, but that the power is granted? Wouldn’t a non-contradictory strategy be to advocate boycotting politics, e.g., voting? And boycotting govt.? Of course, you have to explain why you advocate self governance. This may require answering a great many questions, all of which need to be anticipated. Selling ideas is difficult and may take a lifetime. Even when successful, the success may not manifest itself immediately.

    • The point I’m trying to make is that libertarian arguments exist where people already accept the idea the justice is universal and that violence is wrong.

      In the civilized world, are argument is often: “Hey, do you realize that the government is violent?”

      But we don’t appreciate that there’s a big part of the world where that statement would be met with “so what.”

      Arguing libertarianism is completely different outside the civilized world. You have to basically start by giving listeners the enlightenment.

      • K.B.No Gravatar says:

        >>“Hey, do you realize that the government is violent?”
        >>“so what.”

        Mr. Skaskiw, I see that attitude all too frequently here in the US. I know that people see government violence and assume that the victims deserve it, I just don’t know how large of a percentage of the population they represent. My gut tells me they are a substantial majority.

        Have you ever noticed how many of the working class take something for anxiety? People live in fear for their jobs, their safety, their way of life, and most of all, of the random criminal. The most common attitude that I see is that so long as they obey the rules they will not be the target of government violence.

        The tiny minority that will understand any discussion of the Enlightenment don’t need convincing, and the majority that will not can not be convinced to rock the boat, at least not until the waves are crashing over the gunwales. Even then, they won’t know which way to lean, nor who to take orders from, and so thus will inaugurate as the new government the first powerful gang that promises to save them.

        We live in an age when those who control enough wealth to make the rules want most of us gone. To make an intellectual appeal to them for the rights of the average person or rightfulness of individual sovereignty is to whisper in the wind. The only “rights” are privileges that one may earn and enjoy, so long as obeisance is observed and any challenges to the ruling beliefs are made through the proper channels.

        • Fritz KneseNo Gravatar says:

          K.B., this is very well wrlitten and thought out. Many will say tou are too cynical, but LI applaud your realism.

    • Fritz KneseNo Gravatar says:

      I basically agree wilth you. There is no fixing the state to be a bastion of freedom. The state exists to serve the interests of the ruling elilte. Freedom and law are antithetical, so anarchy is a precondition for true freedom. I advocate “dropping out” to the extent feasible so that there may be a cadre of freedom orilented folks living in the backwoods who have kept the aconcept of freedom alive to be taught to upcoming generations especially if and when this society fails. Just realize that it can be quite lonely being a social pioneer.

  3. rathbone steelNo Gravatar says:

    “First-world governments gain legitimacy from the illusion that they actually do good.”
    It is precisely this dichotomy that has gotten mankind into so much trouble, this good vs evil, this light vs dark mindset that people get their mind states into, which is how even such a totalitarian state this ussa is can still have millions and millions of psychological backers. Because they look at the flags, at the first grade rhetoric, at the symbols its shows, and they see mostly good. All of society is built upon a fragile foundation of illusion, a crumbling support of words with shifting meanings that hides from all the true value of existence…
    Can human meaning really be found in the interent, cable television, and working all day to pay for houses and cars?
    Please see a wonderful anarachist: Rathbone Steel: Rules of the World: ld-and-those-who-follow-them/

  4. Roman,

    Great propertarian argument. Doesn’t appeal to arbitrary and subjective preferences as universal morals or truths. Touches on the problem of soft (informal) institutions. Identifies the problem of creating a high trust society. Great tone.

    The commenters seem to agree with you.

    RE: “Problems occur when people attempt to replace the state with voluntary institutions because those who run the state are jealous of their power and fight the formation of those very institutions.”

    It’s not just the prior actors but external actors. There is nothing more profitable to ‘own’, or more status enhancing, than the property of another group of people over whom you can establish property rights that favor you rather than them. The first purpose of any government is to define the system of property rights since any system of property rights must be a monopoly in order to function as a means of resolving differences.. The second purpose of government is to prevent others from establishing an alternative set of property rights – by force (violence), Persuasion (religion), or Invasion (immigration or conquest). Libertarians conveniently forget that it was not government but religion and priests that formed governments originally – until irrigation systems started bumping into each other, and professional warriors emerged, and eventually dominated the priests – or at least competed with them. (See McNeil)

    RE: “Many do not question if a state is necessary”
    Well, we do a pretty poor job of distinguishing between (a) a corporeal state, (b) a bureaucratic monopoly government, and (c) the rule of law under the common law with the one-overriding law of several property rights. That rule of law is in fact, government. It is just a government of law that guarantees property rights, not a government of men that seeks to circumvent them.

    If we run around saying “government sucks”, it’s actually no only incorrect it’s misleading. The problem is monopoly and bureaucracy – freedom from competition, and the ability to issue commands under the guise of law.

    RE: “Anarchy is a necessary condition for freedom,”

    This statement isn’t precise enough to guarantee that we interpret it correctly. Both anarchy and freedom would need to be defined. Anarchy as in the absence of a state? Absence of a government? Absence of rule of law? Absence of norms: manners, ethics and morals?

    Does freedom mean several property rights? Or does it (as in Rothbard’s case) mean freedom to profit from asymmetry of information, absence of warranty, abridgment of norms, and privatization of commons both real and habitual?

    It’s not clear that the absence of government does anything other than create a vulnerability to other governments (organizations that impose a system of property rights within a geography.)


    “In the civilized world, are argument is often: “Hey, do you realize that the government is violent?”

    “But we don’t appreciate that there’s a big part of the world where that statement would be met with “so what.” [And so} Arguing libertarianism is completely different outside the civilized world. You have to basically start by giving listeners the enlightenment.” – Roman Saskiw

    However, I think you’re making a pretty sophisticated argument, and so it’s going to go over most people’s heads.


  5. PrimeNo Gravatar says:

    “no government can survive without at least passive consent from the governed”

    I think a better word for this is “acquiescence,” rather than “consent.” While they are somewhat synonymous, I think this is more accurate.

    • Fritz KneseNo Gravatar says:

      Acquiescence is definitely better than consent, but is either really true? Is reacting out of fear really consent or acquiescence? I think most people obey government partially out of fear of the consequences of not obeying and partially because we have been brainwashed since we were infants to accept authority. Look at how many people get up in arms about the pledge of allegiance! This is the major reason government wants control of education so as to continually brainwash the upcoming generations so they are ever smaller dangers to the ruling ellite.