Peter Schiff’s Authoritarian Libertarianism

“I begin by proposing unlimited freedom, but end in absolute despotism.”

-Dostoevsky

Libertarianism, so say its supporters is about freedom. The argument seems to go that people can determine best what they need for their own happiness and/or flourishing on their own. (Libertarians: feel free to correct me on this point, but I think this is a fair representation of what you’re saying.) When governments or other outside bodies excessively get in the way of individual lives, they will mess things up. Individuals, or free associations of individuals working together voluntarily (whether in business, religion or some sort of eleemosynary organization) get better results. To the extent there has to be some kind of government (or else you get Mogadishu), it needs to be constrained to a very limited role (usually in libertarian theory this is confined to common defence, policing, and the enforcement of contracts).

But wait, what if you need an authoritarian state to enforce libertarian principles? Peter Schiff, a free market advocate and one-time Ron Paul adviser seems to think this is the case. When asked about China’s political future, he said this:

“I think there will ultimately be more freedom than there is today. Will China ever become a one man, one vote democracy? Hopefully not, for the sake of the Chinese. Doing so has certainly not served our interest. We enjoyed a lot more freedom and prosperity when we were less democratic. In the 19th century we were quite undemocratic in the way government ran, and we benefited from that lack of democracy. But as we became more democratic, we grew less free and therefore less prosperous. If they’re wise, the Chinese won’t follow that example. They’ll try to model their government after what America used to be, before we screwed it up.”

There’s a lot to say about that quote. It seems clear to me that Schiff has a pretty interesting view of “freedom” here. It would have been nice if he had elaborated on what he meant by “19th century” America being more free than today. I have a hypothesis about why he thinks that and there are a lot of counter-arguments to that kind of assertion. Does Schiff think that giving people more democratic freedoms somehow makes them less free? Is he aware that one of the best ways to make money China is to get into government? (Yes you can have lucrative government careers in many places, but few are the scale of senior Party officials in China.) With no democratic checks on the powerful, it’s not clear how Schiff would plan to redress such things.

If the ideal “libertarian” form of government is some kind of autocratic system then it seems that libertarianism is not so much about maximizing human freedom than it is about guaranteeing a particular kind of economic system. Thoughts?