Libertarianism as Extreme Middle-of-the-Roadism

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While the Libertarian Party’s presidential candidate Gary Johnson unsuccessfully tried to sell voters a lukewarm version of libertarianism as the good policies from both Democrats and Republicans but none of the bad (“neither too hot nor too cold”), there’s an argument to be made for libertarianism as the “golden middle.” But it is not a middle position between those two evils, but between two destructive extremes in social cooperation: the power of one and the power of none.

The power of one refers to the highly hierarchical and vertically organized (read: coercively coordinated) society where the power to mold both society and the individuals within it. This is how dictatorship is commonly understood, which not seldom appears to be a highly oppressive society with a guy with a mustache at the helm.

The power of none refers to the other extreme, the unlimited and uncontrolled power of the masses. Or, to use Karl Marx’s well-known term, the dictatorship of the proletariat. But it is likely less of a dictatorship (as the power of one) than it is the emotionally panicked masses of Nietzschean monkeys clambering over each other.

To illustrate the difference using examples from the realm of culture, the power of one sees a small cultural elite that decides what goes: what fine art is, what texts are to be read, and what entertainment is offered to the blind and uncultivated masses. It’s the rule of the self-proclaimed elite, which despises the common man. The power of none would here be the degenerate consumption of simple expressions of culture and the simplistic entertainment on the boob-tube washing over people in their living rooms.

To instead illustrate using economics, the power of one would be a fascist or centrally planned economy. The power of none would be the relentless and blind hyper-consumption of the static, entrepreneur-less economy found in mainstream economic models.

From the point of view of these two extremes, libertarianism offers the golden middle: power to rule is neither granted to one nor none.

Libertarian culture would be neither the degenerate consumption of simple and ever simpler “stupid” (at least from the point of view of the self-proclaimed elite) entertainment nor the rule over cultural expressions by the “sophisticated” elite. Instead, it would be the constant discovery of finer, better, and more beneficial culture through the repeated attempts by innovative individuals to offer improved cultural expressions and formation of the cultural mind in those willing to try. Cultural leaders are as subjected to the popular will as the popular will is subjected to the innovative initiatives that shapes the cultural scene.

And similarly, the libertarian market process is neither central planning nor the rule of the masses, but a discovery process where innovative entrepreneurs offer novelty and potential value to unsuspecting consumers. These entrepreneurs are as subjected to the wants and valuations of consumers as consumers in their consumptive behavior are subjected to entrepreneurs providing the means to consume.

Rather than reducing the destructive extremes to offer a lukewarm yet poisonous soup of bits of each, libertarianism takes the middle position pitching them against each other. The driving forces of both are intact yet used to at the same time tame their respective destructive tendencies – by setting, destroying, and recreating boundaries – and plays off their productive strengths in search of the path to progress.

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Per Bylund is Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship and Records-Johnston Professor of Free Enterprise in the School of Entrepreneurship at Oklahoma State University. His research focuses on issues in entrepreneurship, strategic management, and organizational economics – especially where they overlap and intersect with regulation and policy issues.