Jefferson Over Hamilton
The mainstream libertarian movement in the United States ties its idealism to the founders of the early government. Many in the mainstream movement champion individual rights, small limited government, constitutional representation and classical liberalism. At the time the early United States government was being constructed many arguments and debates occurred among the founders, but arguably the greatest of which occurred between Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.
In Hamilton’s view it would be irresponsible to place much democratic control in the hands of the people. Hamilton and other federalists believed the country should be ruled by the economic ruling class – the elite, the educated and the privileged. Federalist John Jay put it as bluntly as possible: “Those who own the country ought to govern it.” They favored a strong national government, a broad interpretation of the constitution and put national unity above individualism and states rights. Their economic model, of course, was centrally planned with strict regulation of state economies (the first national bank – which later dissolved – was established by Hamilton as well).
Jefferson was just the opposite and today is a favorite of the US liberty movement. Jefferson believed that an informed public would be able to make wise decisions in national policy. He favored a more open and democratic government and rather disagreed that the elite should rule. He favored a close to nature, close to our neighbors idealism for the United States and sought states rights over federal rights while advocating for a strict interpretation of the constitution.
I understand the sentiment that Thomas Jefferson had it right (though I have no problem noting that Jefferson himself was a member of the elite and was rather hypocritical in many regards to his thoughts on liberty). As a libertarian I believe that in a truly free society we would all be owners of property, as a left-libertarian I believe that some of this property could also be commonly owned. I champion the ideas of independence and self-reliance instead of being subject to the wishes and demands of large bureaucratic institutions. It is the opposite of being a free human being when one is dependent on centralized institutions. I agree with the notion that Jefferson had it more right than Hamilton – and I would emphasize the community driven nature of the States that he argued for.
Like Thomas Jefferson, the transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau idealized a close to nature, communitarian approach to life and economics. Thoreau, an agrarian anarchist, also greatly championed individualism, as evident in his Resistance to Civil Government:
That government is best which governs not at all; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have.
Moving into the 20th and 21st centuries there are other libertarian thinkers that champion a more natural approach to social structure and economics, with emphasis on individualism and ones role in the community. Wendell Berry comes to mind. An agrarian from Kentucky, Berry has long mistrusted the government and has made his case against centralized power for a long time now – especially in regards to Appalachian coal mining and industrial agriculture. He is an out spoken critic of the heavy government subsidies the industries receive and how these industries divorce human beings from their cultural and natural heritage. In The Long Legged House Berry writes:
Since there is no government of which the concern or the discipline is primarily the health either of households or the Earth, since it is the nature of any state to be concerned first of all with its own preservation and only second to the cost, the dependable, clear response to mans moral circumstance is not of law but of conscience. The highest moral behavior is not obedience to law, but obedience to the informed conscience even in spite of law.
Perhaps one of the most overlooked voices of the modern liberty movement is Edward Abbey. Abbey, an environmentalist, is also an anarchist. In 1989 Abbey wrote:
Anarchism is not a romantic fable but the hardheaded realization, based on five thousand years of experience, that we cannot entrust the management of our lives to kings, priests, politicians, generals, and county commissioners…Anarchism is founded on the observation that since few men are wise enough to rule themselves, even fewer are wise enough to rule others… A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.
To Abbey, country is much more than nationalism, and it is defiantly not allegiance to government – or any large institution. He found that in all developed hierarchies, the larger an institution became the more oppressive it would be. Abbey instead advocated that country was the wilderness, the places that have not yet been exploited for consumption. He believed that there were “holy” and “wild” experiences for all of us out there, and that to deprive ourselves and future generations of them would be a great tragedy. Abbey also noted that community, and more importantly, the individual’s role in the community was also very important. Though he had great distrust for large institutions, he believed greatly in family, friendship, fellowship and human labor. To him “America” was not the government or government sanctioned economic activity, but it was land, wild spaces, individuals and communities.
Karl Hess, in his talk Tools to Dismantle the State, also shares this notion. In this talk Hess says “to truly love your country you must loathe the nation.” To libertarians the state is an outside force. It weighs down on our creative labor, it wishes to regulate the spontaneous order of markets and it wishes to execute authority over all aspects of liberty. As an environmentalist and a libertarian I also see that it creeps into the natural world, our wild open spaces as well.
Beyond the federal governments giant grab of “public lands” it also supports large financial institutions and global corporations. So as the government “manages public lands” (read allows public property to be used by industry) it also champions consumption. Corporate logos are well-known across the states (and the world for that matter). Much fewer people can identify rocks or trees or land-plants – the very resources we are dependent upon for our survival. Is this liberating? I would argue not. I would argue this is designed, this is manufactured consent and that we are manipulated. I believe in a truly free market setting there would be more advocacy for wild places, for life experiences, for liberated time and less emphasis on consumption, debt and materialism. We would care much more about country in a liberated society.
Environment and the State
There is a common sentiment among movement libertarians that one cannot be a libertarian and an environmentalist because environmentalism requires the state. I do not find this to be the case and argue that libertarianism should engage the environmental movement – and the environmental movement needs to adopt libertarianism.
I will start with the National Forest Service and the National Park Service (favorites of environmentalists and many Americans) because they are, unfortunately, very much under the influence of commercial interests. Concessions in parks, hotel lodging, loggers, fish stockers and miners in national forests all encroach on wilderness – the very thing these institutions are charged to protect. Though parks and national forest lands are championed as safe havens for wildlife (and understandably so, they are the best hope for wilderness in this country) there is a tendency in these “safe havens” state environmentalists tend to forget – the tendency to build facilities and roads in the parks and to open up our forests to industrial/commercial exploitation.
Environmentalists are often at odds with the state. There is a continual process of compromise between conservationists, big business and government courts that results in ever more encroachment on wilderness. Every time industry gets a new piece of the landscape it is because environmentalists have had to sacrifice lands or waters they cared about in the name of compromise. Government and industry continually sacrifice natural lands for development, which fuels our consumption, which makes it necessary for state and industry to sacrifice more natural areas. In short, whatever the state has done to preserve natural areas it has done even more to help industry exploit them.
Is the biggest threat to our environment is the extraction/production/use of fossil fuels? Politicos seem to focus on energy consumption at home and abroad as the reason to champion “green” industries. What is often overlooked in this dialogue is war. War is waged (or just carried out without declaration) by states, for states. War is carried out to expand state power and to obtain more natural resources. War is the health of the state and war is dependent on fossil fuel extraction – no matter how cherished, sacred or endangered the landscape is that holds these resources. Any statist intervention on behalf of the environment will fail in comparison to the states lust for war. For libertarians, championing the environmental cause will help build the movement against the state.
State environmentalists are short sighted for a number of reasons, but perhaps the greatest is their reliance on bureaucracy. The bureaucracy is undying. Empowering the state bureaucracy to manage our natural resources will only make matters worse as the state seeks health for one thing only: the state. The greatest hurdles for environmentalists to overcome are government hurdles – which is why “paper wrenching” has become such a vital tactic for the environmental movement. The permitting process for fossil harvesting, weak environmental legislation (which is interpreted by the whims of whoever holds office) and mountains of bureaucratic paperwork rubber stamp big industry projects and serve only to benefit big industry. Paper wrenching has been an effective tactic because as community members learn the law, they can begin slowing this process. States wish to centralize power and economic activity, not empower communities and social movements. Direct action, empowered communities and legal action all serve to challenge state power – this bureaucracy should be torn asunder, not empowered.
Environmentalists should abandon state actions and adopt markets because social movements shape markets. In free(d) markets and vast areas of wilderness would truly be protected because industry would not have the capability of such exploitation. Libertarians should support the environment because true conservation would prevent state monopoly on currency and violence.