Where do present-day fascists come from? Like any causal question about history, there’s no simple answer, but one factor is (right-)libertarianism’s simultaneous popularity and untenability. Right-libertarianism is a stepping stone either to the far left or the far right. I hope by spelling it out I can encourage the former.
People who call themselves libertarians today are generally right-libertarians – Libertarian parties and people like Ron and Rand Paul, Gary Johnson, objectivists, “anarcho”-capitalists, and everyone who is “socially liberal but economically conservative”. (I’ll use right-libertarian and capitalized Libertarian interchangably).
Like other (classical/neo-)Liberals, Libertarians will tell you they believe in individual freedom, property rights, and government only by the consent of the governed. They differ from other Liberals in the value they place on ideological consistency and Rationalism. It’s this desire for consistency that makes right-libertarianism untenable in a way Liberalism at large is not.
One of the defining functions of the Liberal state is to protect property rights. Max Weber defines a state as an entity that has a monopoly on legitimate violence in a geographic region. Liberals, by definition, entrust the state to recognize legitimate property rights and to use its monopoly on violence to protect those property rights (via laws, police, prison, etc.)
When most of us think of property rights, we think of a right to continue to own what the state says we legally own. For these to constitute “legitimate” property rights, we must find a way to believe that we morally own everything that we legally own. To be morally consistent, then, Liberals and Libertarians must either rationalize the present-day distribution of legal ownership of wealth, or find a basis for property rights that is not dependent on current legalownership.
Robert Nozick the Radical Leftist
Robert Nozick attempts to do the latter. Nozick gets credit for a lot of the theoretical foundations of libertarianism. He coined the Non-Aggression Principle “anarcho”-capitalists embrace, and developed an axiomatic theory of justice in distribution of wealth (from Anarchy, State, and Utopia: “The Entitlement Theory”):
- A person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in acquisition is entitled to that holding
- A person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in transfer, from someone else entitled to the holding, is entitled to the holding.
- No one is entitled to a holding except by (repeated) applications of 1 and 2.
The crux of his argument is that as long as his “principle of justice in holding,” in combination with his “principle of justice in acquisition,” are followed, any resulting distribution of wealth is just, no matter how unequal.
There is plenty to be critiqued in these principles themselves, but for now I am interested in what it would mean to follow these principles. Here’s the very next part of the chapter, which Nozick’s fanboys generally ignore (emphasis added):
Not all actual situations are generated in accordance with the two principles of justice in holdings: the principle of justice in acquisition and the principle of justice in transfer. Some people steal from others, or defraud them, or enslave them, seizing their product and preventing them from living as they choose, or forcibly exclude others from competing in exchanges. None of these are permissible modes of transition from one situation to another. And some persons acquire holdings by means not sanctioned by the principle of justice in acquisition. The existence of past injustice (previous violations of the first two principles of justice in holdings) raises the third major topic under justice in holdings: the rectification of injustice in holdings. If past injustice has shaped present holdings in various ways, some identifiable and some not, what now, if anything, ought to be done to rectify these injustices? What obligations do the performers of injustice have toward those whose position is worse than it would have been had the injustice not been done? Or, than it would have been had compensation been paid promptly? How, if at all, do things change if the beneficiaries and those made worse off are not the direct parties in the act of injustice, but, for example, their descendants? Is an injustice done to someone whose holding was itself based upon an unrectified injustice? How far back must one go in wiping clean the historical slate of injustices? What may victims of injustice permissibly do in order to rectify the injustices being done to them, including the many injustices done by persons acting through their government? I do not know of a thorough or theoretically sophisticated treatment of such issues. Idealizing greatly, let us suppose theoretical investigation will produce a principle of rectification. This principle uses historical information about previous situations and injustices done in them (as defined by the first two principles of justice and rights against interference), and information about the actual course of events that flowed from these injustices, until the present, and it yields a description (or descriptions) of holdings in the society. The principle of rectification presumably will make use of its best estimate of subjunctive information about what would have occurred (or a probability distribution over what might have occurred, using the expected value) if the injustice had not taken place. If the actual description of holdings turns out not to be one of the descriptions yielded by the principle, then one of the descriptions yielded must be realized.
That’s right, Robert Nozick, the father of right-libertarianism, hinged his entire theory on a principle of rectification of past injustice. The most straightforward reading of this passage would suggest that Nozick’s libertarians would embrace proposals like reparations for slavery/Maafa, which are too radical for Bernie Sanders.
The Path of Least Resistance: From Liberalism to Fascism
Going from right-libertarianism to radical leftism is a huge change in worldview. It requires a wholesale un-learning of foundational ideas that a core libertarian demographic – white, educated, upper middle class millenials raised in centrist/(neo-)Liberal environments – has taken for granted their whole lives, followed by piecing together something to replace it from scratch and from sources they previously derided.
It should be unsurprising, then, that many of the people who find themselves faced with that prospect choose the less threatening option: rationalizing the status quo.
As fiscal conservatives love to point out, money has to come from somewhere. Liberal theory usually begins with a few humans in an unspoiled state of nature, who can fence off patches of the commons without infringing on each others’ rights. Minecraft is a version of this fantasy world.
But Minecraft is not how history works. Liberalism was invented in the 1700s in Europe. The literal fencing off of the English commons (“enclosure”) didn’t even begin until the 1500s. All owned land was once unowned. We don’t know much about the first humans, but working backwards even a few centuries should make it clear that the vast majority of the world’s wealth does not satisfy Nozick’s criteria for justice in holding. Europe is wealthy because it extracted other continents’ resources through military power, violence, and coercion, not voluntary exchanges with indigenous people. Every bit of land in the Americas legally owned by someone who is not indigenous was at some point stolen. The United States is a settler-colonialist white ethno-state, and that was explicitly true de jure for most of its history.
One way to rationalize the resulting distribution is to simply embrace white supremacy, the same ideology so many genocidal presidents used to help themselves sleep at night. Another is to incorporate conquest into the philosophical axioms: might makes right, and I own exactly as much as I have the power to exclude others from (including through government). With the addition of this axiom, fascism is not only justified but practically inevitable – the only sure way to protect yourself from someone else’s fascist state is to make sure you’re aligned with a stronger one.
Absolutists can choose up to 2:
- All people are created equal (in terms of moral worth and rights)
- Non-Aggression Principle
- Legal ownership (under actually existing states) confers legitimate property rights
If you choose 1+2, then redistribution does not violate your property rights. You should be in favor of reparations for colonialism, and should not oppose even coercive measures for achieving that (because it is self-defense)
1+3 is consistent with fascism – it amounts to might makes right. 2+3 requires rejecting 1, e.g. by embracing white supremacist ideology. If you don’t like the idea of being a fascist or a racist (or both), you should probably rethink 3 – by making it non-absolute (taxation isn’t theft), by treating property rights as less important than individual rights (property rights never take precedence over human rights), and/or by scrapping property rights altogether.