In his article “Magic Words and False Gods,” published in The Freeman’s October 2013 issue, Gian Pierro de Bellis exposes hypostatization’s fallacy of ascribing real existence to mental constructs such as “society” and the “market.” His warning has made me wonder about the threat hypostatization poses to our libertarian movement.
Let’s imagine a scenario where a Libertarian party triumphs in national elections and takes over the government. What a dream come true: Finally, a bona fide libertarian state! Effectively, the new leaders implement policies that libertarians advocate: free market, free trade. Everything seems to be going wonderfully, EXCEPT for the fact that this libertarian state has also bestowed upon the market godlike qualities, and revered it like a new religion. The new leaders worship the Market to the point of being radical and irrational, that they would persecute anyone who dares even suggest a possibility of forming a government (Yes, the new state has done away with any former central authority once and for all!). The Libertarian Guard seeks out and executes any potential “enemies” of the free market, from members of the old government to intellectuals who espouse different ideas. There is even a special intelligence committee to monitor the population for any possession of communist and socialist materials. Everything to protect the God of Liberty.
This over-the-top example serves to illustrate what I see as the absurdity and the grave danger of hypostatization. It represents an error and a manipulation of thinking. As de Bellis indicates, politicians hypostatize not only because it is convenient to stick to the ambiguity and gloss over details, but also to inspire and exploit their audience’s desire for a “promised land.” Human beings have this tendency to look for something that they can depend on, spiritually or not—a source of protection, a promise of security, or a solution to all miseries. When our trust in one “protector” runs out, we can readily look for another, and as a result, ideologues take advantage of this to promote their entity that can serve as an alternative “protector,” whether it be the “government,” the “workers’ paradise,” or the “market.”
Therefore, we must be more aware so as not to fall into the trap of hypostatization. De Bellis proposes the Orwell solution and the Bridgman solution to hypostatization and I would like to build upon those. Not only should we be clearer, more concise and concrete, but we should also never cease to better our own understanding of liberty in order to be more concise and concrete. Prior to replacing “the market” with “people engaged in free exchanges” in his discourses, the speaker has to be able to understand what “free exchanges” are, to describe them as a complex system of interactions, and to explain their merits. By doing so, he can improve both the clarity and the substance of his argument, and thus strengthen its legitimacy.
Finally, avoiding hypostatization prevents us from blaming another entity (like “the government”) for all the problems and fixating on that entity as the “enemy” to eradicate. In Ethics of Liberty, Murray Rothbard affirms: “For ultimately, there is no entity called ‘government’; there are only people forming themselves into groups and acting in a ‘governmental’ manner.” We cannot simply condemn “them,” the government, as evil, and “us” as good, for after all, regardless of the system we are in, we are human beings with the same old imperfections. And so, Rothbard notes, “There is really only one reason for libertarians to oppose the formation of governmental property or to call for its divestment: the realization that the rulers of government are unjust and criminal owners of such property.”
Working toward a truly libertarian society requires this realization and our ceaseless efforts to promote respect for the precious natural right to self-ownership.