All Commentary
Wednesday, October 1, 1969

The Libertarian Philosophy

Dr. Rogge is Chairman of the Department of Economics at Wabash College. This article is from a Chapel Talk at the College on April ¹º, ¹969.

I intend to answer a question that disappointingly few people even bother to ask. The question is this: Just what is Ben Rogge’s social philosophy? Or, as some have put it: “Rogge, just what kind of a nut are you?”

I suppose one must expect to create both suspicion and confu­sion when he demands, at one and the same time, that the social se­curity system be abolished, that the laws making it a crime to use marijuana be repealed, along with the laws against child labor, and that we sell Yellowstone Park to the people who operate Disney­land. This is indeed a mixed bag, but it is my very own bag; and to me these apparently diverse ele­ments represent simply different applications of a single guiding principle. This principle is that each man and each woman should be permitted to do his thing, singly or in pairs or in groups as large as the Mormon Church or General Motors, so long as it’s peaceful. Or to put it another way: In Rogge’s world, the role of the state would be precisely no more and no less than that of the night watchman. In the words of Thoreau, “Govern­ment is an expedient by which men would fain succeed in letting one another alone.”

Now to the heart of the matter. First, is my social philosophy properly described as one of the competing ideologies of our day? To this the answer is no. In the first place, it is so far out of fash­ion that it can hardly be said to be competing; secondly, it is thought by many to be not of our day, but of the last century; and thirdly, I see it as not an ideology at all but rather as the negation of ideology.

I quote now from Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary: “IDE­OLOGY—the integrated asser­tions, theories and aims constitu­ting a politico-social program.” To me, this identifies the ideologue as someone, be he Christian or Mos­lem or Marxist or Fascist or Lib­eral Reformer or Monarchist, who has a clear vision of what man is or should be or could become and who has some kind of socio-politi­cal program for bringing about the desired state of affairs. To the ideologue, the ideal social system is to be defined in terms of certain ends or goals to be attained, such as the elimination of poverty or the elimination of racial prejudice or the maximizing of the growth rate or the establishment of the one true religion or the dominance of the master race or the imple­mentation of the General Will or the Eternal Glory of the American or the French nation. Usually, but not always, there are certain re­straints placed on the means to be used, but the emphasis is always upon the vision of the proper goal of man’s existence here on earth, as revealed by voices from burning bushes or by prophets or by the magnificently objective results of science or in the massive and blind forces of history or in the dark and mysterious processes of the human mind or what-have-you.

Look to the Means

To the libertarian, in a certain sense, it is not the ends of man’s actions that count—only the means used in serving those ends. To each of the ideologues he says: “You may be right and you may keep on trying to convince me and others that you are right but the only means you may use are those of persuasion. You may not im­pose your vision by force on any­one. This means not only that you are not to stone the heretic or the prostitute or the hippie or the col­lege dean or the Jew or the busi­nessman or even the policeman; it means as well, and most impor­tantly, that you are not to get the policeman or the sheriff to do your stoning for you.”

In saying this, the libertarian is not necessarily declaring him­self to be agnostic in his attitude toward any and all ideologies. He may in fact have some clear pref­erences as among ideologies. At the same time, men who feel deeply about something are rarely tolerant with respect to that some­thing. I, Ben Rogge, do not use marijuana nor do I approve its use, but I am afraid that if I sup­port laws against its use, some fool will insist on correcting my habits. I believe that the typical Episcopal Church is somewhat higher on the scale of civilization than the snake-handling cults of West Virginia. Frankly, I wouldn’t touch even a consecrated reptile with a ten-foot pole, or even a nine-iron, but as far as the Angli­can Church is concerned, I am still an anti-antidisestablishmentarian, if you know what I mean.

Distinctive Characteristics

Well, so what? How does all this set the libertarian apart (whether for better or for worse) from all others? Let us first take the traditionalist or conservative, with whom the libertarian is often linked, largely erroneously. True, together they sing the chorus of damn the unions, damn the mini­mum wage laws, and damn the progressive income tax. But when the libertarian starts a chorus of damn the tariff or damn the Sun­day blue laws, he ends up singing a solo.

Let me be careful about this.

What I am asking for is pre­cisely what men like Albert Jay Nock have asked for in the past—that the society be distinguished from the state and that the society not be absorbed by the state. So­ciety, with its full network of re­straints on individual conduct, based on custom, tradition, reli­gion, personal morality, a sense of style, and with all its indeed powerful sanctions, is what makes the civilized life possible and meaningful. I am not proposing an anarchic society; on the con­trary I am essentially a conserva­tive on most questions of social organization and social process. I do believe in continuity, in the im­portant role of tradition and cus­tom, in standards for personal conduct, in the great importance of the elite (imperfect though they may be).

But unlike the political con­servative, I do not wish to see these influences on individual be­havior institutionalized in the hands of the state. As I read his­tory, I see that wherever the gen­erally accepted social processes have been made into law, civiliza­tion has ceased to advance. For one, the penalty to be paid by the innovator, which is severe even without the law, and perhaps properly so, is made so severe (even including death) as to stop that healthy and necessary and slow process of change through which civilizations move to higher levels of achievement.

For another, the elite, if given the power to implement their views with the use of force, are almost certain to be corrupted by that power and to cease playing their essential and beneficial role in society. The pages of history are strewn with the wreckages of superior men who have been un­done by the corrupting influence of possession of the power to coerce.

Modern Liberalism

Now to the modern liberal. How does the libertarian differ from the modern liberal? Well, the mod­ern liberal cuts in where the con­servative cuts out and cuts out where the conservative cuts in. Like the libertarian, the modern liberal is all for sin, so long as it’s peaceful. But unlike the liber­tarian, the modern liberal is per­fectly willing to use the sheriff to attempt to bring about whatever outcomes he desires in economic life. Should there be a Pure Books, Plays and Films Administration? Never, says the modern liberal. Should there be a Pure Food and Drug Administration? Of course, says the modern liberal. If two consenting adults engage in an unnatural act in private, should the law intervene? Never, says the modern liberal. If two consenting adults arrive at a wage contract calling for the payment of $1.00 an hour to the one, should the state intervene and require that the payment must be no less than $1.60 per hour (even if, by the very act, that leads to no contract; to no job at all)? Of course, says the modern liberal. These exam­ples could be multiplied indefi­nitely.

Now, perhaps there are real dif­ferences in circumstances that make these differences in evalua­tion consistent. Perhaps the mod­ern liberal is right and the liber­tarian is wrong. What I am trying to point out is that the libertarian, be he right or be he wrong, is opposed to intervention by the state in any of the peaceful ac­tions of individuals or groups, whether the relationship involve sex, games, or the market place; and this sets him apart from both the modern conservative and the modern liberal.

The New Left

Now what of the New Left? Here, too, there are some family resemblances, and some of my lib­ertarian friends are now involved in a love affair with the New Left. In some ways this makes sense. The New Left and the libertarians share a common suspicion of con­centrated power, and particularly of the power to coerce; they join in not wishing to be ruled by any establishment, even of the elite; they tend to be alike in leaning toward pacificism and noninter­vention, at least in opposing the U.S. involvement in Viet Nam and the Russian involvement in Czech­oslovakia. But there the love affair comes to an abrupt end.

To the libertarian, private prop­erty is an extension of the human personality and an absolutely nec­essary element in the structure of a society of free men; to most New Lefters, private property is largely an invention of the estab­lishment to suppress the free hu­man spirit and is a barrier to the full expression of human concern and relatedness. To the libertari­an, or at least to Ben Rogge, the “politics of confrontation” of the New Left is neither peaceful as a means nor acceptable as an end, if the end is what it so often seems to be, the imposing of a minority view on the majority by what amounts to blackmail. “Give in to my demands and I’ll leave your office; throw me off your property and you are the one who is guilty of breaking the peace. Call in the cops to protect that which is yours and you are a Fascist pig.” To the libertarian this is nonsense, and very danger­ous nonsense indeed. The goal of the victory of persuasion over force in human affairs can hardly be well served by what amounts to the use of force.

But of course, the goal of the New Left is not the goal of the libertarian—the right choice of means. In fact, the goals of the New Left are difficult to identify, particularly in terms of the kind of social arrangements they wish to see brought into being out of the ashes of that which we now have. Given their rejection of capitalism and liberal democracy, there seem to be three main possi­bilities: (1) an essentially anar­chic arrangement, with no govern­ment; (2) a syndicalist-commun­alist-pastoral arrangement, pat­terned after the kibbutz in Israel, with minimal government; or (3) an out-and-out Marxist-socialist dictatorship of the proletariat. To the libertarian, the first would mean the tyranny of the strong, and life would indeed be mean, nasty, brutish, and short; the sec­ond would mean economic chaos and, given our dependence on the goods produced by a sophisticated technology, this approach would require that some eight out of every ten of us lie down and die; and the third would mean tyranny, bold and bloody and bright.

We Work with Imperfections and Thus Need to Be Free

To all of these—the conserva­tive, the modern liberal, and the New Left—the libertarian says, with Huckleberry Finn, “No thank you, I’ve been there before.” He insists that what marks the civil­ized society is not so much what goals its people are seeking but what means are used and accepted in the seeking of goals. He insists that to the opinions and ideas and revelations of even the best of men must still cling the mortal, the human uncertainty. If even those who come to be least im­perfect in knowing and acting can­not be identified in advance (or even clearly identified after the fact) surely it follows that each imperfect man must be given (in­deed, has) the right to follow his own imperfectly selected star in his own imperfect way, to march to the music that he hears and not to the music that you and I hear.

The libertarian is in no sense a utopian. He argues only that in a world in which each imperfect individual was left free to make his own imperfect decisions and to act on them in any way that was peaceful, enjoying the fruits of his successes and suffering the agony of his mistakes, man could at least fully attain to the dignity and tragedy and comedy that comes with being a man rather than a thing. And here, somewhere East of Eden, there is little more that we can expect out of life.



Up Through the Ranks

There is not of necessity any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life. Many independent men everywhere in these States a few years back in their lives were hired laborers. The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This is the just and generous and prosperous system which opens the way to all, gives hope to all, and consequent energy and progress and improvement of condition to all. No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from poverty; none less inclined to take or touch aught which they have not honestly earned. Let them beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which if surrendered will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they and fix new disabilities and burdens upon them till all of liberty shall be lost.

ABRAHAM LINCOLN, Message to Congress, 1861 

  • Benjamin A. Rogge (1920-1980) was Distinguished Professor of Political Economy at Wabash College, Crawfordsville, Indiana. He held degrees from Hastings College (A.B.), the University of Nebraska (M.A.), and Northwestern University (Ph.D.), and was a member of both the American Economic Association and the Mont Pelerin Society. He had a gift for rendering into clear English the vital principles of economics, all with a touch of unforgettable humor. He opposed compulsory, state-funded education and sought market alternatives. Among his intellectual mentors was Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek.