Paleolibertarian: Understand the Basics of the Paleolibertarian Strand of Libertarianism

By | Updated September 1st, 2021

No political movement is a monolith. Political movements have their own sub-sects and factions within them. Libertarianism has been no exception to this rule. One variety of libertarianism that stands out is paleolibertarianism.

The paleolibertarian strand of libertarianism fuses traditional cultural values and philosophical values with the standard libertarian antipathy of government intervention into private affairs.

The Etymology of Paleolibertarianism

Paleolibertarian thought emerged out of a well-established classical liberal tradition that put private property and market activity on a pedestal. The “paleo” qualifier is used due to how the paleo libertarian ideology has its origins in classical right-wing thought.

19th century classical liberalism and the Old Right largely influenced paleos. British historian Lord Acton is among the most prominent intellectual role models for paleos due to his opposition to centralized state power. This tradition of pro-small government views would be maintained by the Old Right in the first half of the 20th century. It became known for its opposition to the centralized managerial state and the missionary foreign policy the U.S. adopted since World War I. 

Several politicians such as Howard Buffett and Senator Robert Taft  and writers such as Garet Garret and Albert Jay Nock espoused these principles. Paleos would later champion the aforementioned figures’ ideas. 

Many proto-libertarian pundits and theorists started to gain notoriety during the New Deal. Although she was no libertarian, the Objectivist author Ayn Rand would also be a major source of inspiration for many paleos. Her free market beliefs made her popular across the majority of libertarian sects.

The Rothbard/Rockwell Duo

Figures such as the historian Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell, the founder of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, were instrumental in developing this segment of libertarianism. Both men were influenced by the Austrian school of economics and were actively involved in the advocacy  of anarcho-capitalism. 

Their compilation of essays in the Rothbard-Rockwell report became the main guide for spreading Rothbard’s message of free markets, private property, and traditional western culture in the 1990s. Although the paleo movement is not exclusively anarcho-capitalist, its undeniable that pro-capitalist strains of anarchism have largely shaped its overall ideology. 

The Schisms Within Libertarianism

The libertarian movement experienced a significant rise in the 1970s and quickly witnessed the Libertarian Party emerge as America’s leading third party. The Koch brothers, Charles and David, helped form the Cato Institute along with Murray Rothbard in 1977 –– signaling a promising new age for libertarians. However, it was not able to keep itself together for very long. Infighting due to disagreements on strategy and philosophical differences caused the movement to fissure. One of the most infamous splits was the Koch-Rothbard split in the 1980s. 

In large part due to differences regarding libertarian strategy, Rothbard began to clash with his fellow Cato board members and eventually criticized the 1980s Libertarian Party presidential ticket of Ed Clark and David Koch for not taking radical stances on the issue of taxation. This led to Rothbard’s expulsion from the Cato Institute in 1981

From there, Rothbard teamed up with Lew Rockwell, Ron Paul’s former Chief of Staff, to form the Mises Institute. Even after Rothbard’s death in 1995, the paleo sect continued to remain a force within libertarianism. Rockwell’s website, which was founded in 1999, has been the hub of paleolibertarian discourse. It features notable writers such as Karen de Coster, Thomas DiLorenzo, and Tom Woods, among others.

The Paleo’s Break From Conservatism

The Cold War temporarily united libertarianism with conservatism through the “fusionist” movement, which coalesced around the issue of preserving a market-based economy and resisting a totalitarian state. However, once the Soviet Union collapsed, this alliance started to gradually collapse. 

Many libertarians became skeptical of the Right’s interventionist streak that came about with the rise of the neoconservatives. Additionally, conservative’s inability to roll back the administrative state made libertarians realize that this movement was not following through with its rhetoric. In light of this, a number of  libertarians became convinced that aligning themselves with the acceptable Right and neocon adjacent groups was no longer a fruitful strategy.

The Paleo Alliance

Paleocons are not as hostile towards economic interventionism and in fact favor protectionist measures such as tariffs. Additionally, some paleocons favor using the state to break up major companies that hold excessive market power and provide subsidies to promote family formation. Paleocons are not afraid to use the state to proactively push forward their traditional values. 

The Paleo Philosophy

Paleolibertarians oppose the initiation of force, both in the private and public sphere. The latter is of the utmost importance since the state is perceived as the biggest source of aggression and violator of property rights. 

At the heart of the case for paleolibertarianism, is a full-throated opposition to the welfare state, central banking, and foreign policy interventionism. Libertarians of all stripes view the state in a negative light. However, paleolibertarians believe that the state is an inherently evil institution and a mechanism of perpetual mischief. 

Further, market interactions and voluntary activity are seen as morally superior forms of activity. Private property would be a crucial pillar of this system and is viewed as a hallmark of a civilized society.

In addition, paleos view the church, communities, the family and other mediating institutions as building blocks of a healthy civil society that maintains social order. Additionally, these mediating institutions protect individuals from state encroachments.  

Critiques 

Paleos are often attacked for their supposedly conservative values, in addition to the typical critiques libertarians receive for their pro-market beliefs.

Many libertarians of the Cato Institute and the broader fold of left-libertarianism tend to hold cultural views that align more with the contemporary American Left. As a result, their belief on issues such as abortion, drugs, gay marriage, and immigration will butt heads with so-called “Beltway” or Zeitgeist libertarians.  

The Cato Institute is much more focused on catering to the D.C. establishment and the mainstream political parties. In a similar vein, Cato prides itself on its cosmopolitan ethos and tends to follow mainstream cultural trends. Renowned outlets such as Reason magazine have led this push by supporting LGBT causes, mass migration, and pro-choice policies. By contrast, paleolibertarians hold more traditionalist beliefs on social issues, albeit with an emphasis on civil society and non-state entities regulating social behavior. 

Mainstream libertarians have no problem with the civil rights revolution and the legislation that has fundamentally transformed social relations among the races and sexes since that period. Some mainstream libertarians have views that match the neocon consensus on foreign policy and support certain interventions and regime change efforts abroad.

The Traditionalist Tendency

At a more fundamental level, paleolibertarians reject the egalitarian zeal of contemporary liberalism. Paleos believe in natural order and the natural aristocracy that it often produces. For them, egalitarianism is a revolt against human nature. The desire to make society egalitarian is often done through state means that desecrate property rights and transgress on people’s right to freely associate with others.

The paleos do have differing views with mainstream libertarians on social issues. For example, on homosexual marriage and abortion, paleos would express their personal disapproval with such practices. Instead of using the state to police such practices, they would opt to use social pressure to discourage abortion and push for marriage privatization. At the end of the day, paleos would not use the state to coercively impose their social views.

Nevertheless, the views paleos hold often earn them the ire of more socially liberal libertarians who generally agree with gay marriage and abortion. This is part of a broader culture war taking place in Western politics where traditionalist political instincts clash with the prevailing liberal order. 

The Paleolibertarian View on Immigration

One idiosyncrasy of the paleos is their skepticism towards mass migration. Similar to their other controversial cultural views, paleos do not believe that the state should take activist steps in fully regulating immigratiom. That said, they believe that private property holders can regulate the movement of people and exclude migrants as they see fit on the basis of voluntary association. 

The economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe has made the case for a private property approach to handling immigratinon. In Hoppe’s view, the current open border’s system is an assault on private property and acts as a form of forced integration given the presence of anti-discrimintion laws and the inability for bands of private property holders to exclude migrants from their communities as they see fit.  

Ultimately, paleos desire privatized borders that are created through the norms established by property owners. Any migrant that becomes a financial burden to the community he resides in can be expelled according to paleo principles. Hoppe’s Property and Freedom Society espouses such right-libertarian ideas and serves as a firm defender of western culture against the onslaught of mass migration, political correctness, and the administrative state. 

The Sympathy Towards Nationalism

Paleolibs do demonstrate nationalist tendencies or at least sympathies towards national populist movements. These kinds of libertarians are not ecstatic about the concept of the nation-state, but they do see them as entities that can serve as checks against supranational entities such as the European Union and other efforts to create global governance. Many saw Brexit as a golden opportunity for political decentralization to become a worldwide trend. 

In a world of imperfect governing bodies, a smaller political unit that is closer to the people being governed is generally preferable.

Breaking From Mainstream Conservatives 

Rockwell and his paleo cadre did maintain distance from the mainline conservative movement. The typical conservative tends to favor using state action to promote social conservatism and generally ended up supporting the neocon establishment. Many paleo-minded libertarians worked within the Republican Party out of sheer pragmatism. They still clashed with neocons on issues regarding foreign policy and the mass surveillance state.

Texas Congressman Ron Paul, a libertarian exemplar, brought together a number of libertarians through his presidential runs in 2008 and 2012. However, Paul’s departure from politics has resulted in a number of libertarians leaving politics altogether and focusing on other projects that build up other free-market orgs outside of the two-party system.

Where Libertarianism Stands Today

Libertarianism is no longer as coherent largely due to the changing landscape that has emerged with the populist insurgency of the 2010s. As a result, many libertarians have sought refuge within globalist parties and institutions that champion issues such as free trade and immigration.

For many traditionally-minded libertarians, the Libertarian Party is a watered-down vehicle for political correctness given its positions on immigration, political correctness, and Big Tech censorship. On the other hand, paleolibertarian figures such as South African author Ilana Mercer have aligned themselves with politicians like Donald Trump and the greater populist movement sweeping across the West. 

Final Thoughts

Libertarianism in the United States has generally peaked. Ever since Ron Paul left Congress, the movement has slowly withered away. A few elected officials such as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul have slightly preserved this legacy of free markets and being hostile towards increases in state power. 

Now, however, is the era of populism. Bolstered by middle classes who feel that they’ve received the short end of the stick from the D.C consensus on free trade and mass migration, populism is America’s most dynamic political force. 

The paleolibertarian movement won’t completely die, but it’s likely that it will not become mainstream in the United States. Perhaps it will latch onto the broader right-wing populist surge taking place across the West.

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