The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Sociology and Libertarianism

Sociology, properly defined, is the analytical, comparative, and historical study of societies. As such, it is an essential part of a libertarian’s education because it can provide an empirical basis for assessing the kinds of institutional arrangements that allow liberty to flourish in contrast to those institutions that are inimical to its development. Whereas an economist or a philosopher might reasonably predict on a priori grounds that liberty is not going to thrive in a socialist society where all productive property is owned collectively (whether by the state or cooperatives), a sociologist can confirm that by direct observation of a large number of socialist and capitalist societies. “Compare, compare, compare”—that is the basis of a sound sociology.

It is immediately evident that capitalism is a necessary, although not sufficient, condition for the existence and exercise of liberty. The more socialist a state is, the less liberty its people enjoy. In the most extreme cases, such as the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and communist Ethiopia and Cambodia, millions of people were deliberately slaughtered for no other reason than the social position they or their ancestors held. Socialism is affirmative action through main force. It was enough to have been the son or daughter of a prosperous peasant, to wear spectacles, or to collect foreign stamps to be killed. Socialism is the antithesis of what libertarianism stands for. The core of libertarianism is the right to live free of the state; socialism, at least in its most virulent form, commonly involves death at the hands of the state. Traditional authoritarian societies also are known for their capacity for brutal murder, but rarely on that scale or extended to people other than political opponents of the government. The other cases of that kind of mass murder in the 20th century have occurred for the most part in countries such as National Socialist Germany or Ba’athist socialist Iraq, which also combined stratification by party with a zeal for social transformation. The wages of socialism are death. Sociology can tell us why, ironically enough, because of that same obsession with stratification that has distorted sociologists’ perceptions of how capitalist societies work.

Sociology enables us to understand the malign consequences of a socialistic society that is stratified in terms of differential access to the coercive powers of the state, rather than by differences in income, wealth, or social status. All societies are stratified; the question is how. In the libertarian evolutionary sociology of Herbert Spencer, societies based on the free market and on contract were praised because they superseded earlier military societies stratified by ownership of or access to the means of force, a power then also used to enforce social distinctions that had some of the qualities of a caste. Spencer dominated late 19th-century thinking in the English-speaking countries and particularly the United States because of the wealth of empirical and historical data he brought to the justification of liberty. Those who are libertarians as a matter of absolute principle may feel uneasy at seeing liberty justified in utilitarian terms, but in a pragmatic world the tradition established by Spencer is vital. It enables us to understand the modern version of closed stratification, stratification by party that is the essence of socialism and the antithesis of a libertarian capitalist society. It also explains other restrictions on freedom to be found in socialist societies, such as the exceptionally savage persecution of male homosexuals in the former Soviet Union, Maoist China, or Cuba. Such persecution is an inevitable outgrowth of a society in which the dominant institution is a party hierarchy subject to strict central control and fearful of any independent links between its members (particularly those at different levels in the chain of command) or between its members and outsiders that it cannot control.

It has to be said that most of the sociologists of the last half of the 20th century neither appreciated nor propagated these essential insights into how society works. There are few libertarian sociologists, and most sociologists are, either directly or indirectly, hostile to individual liberty. In socialist societies, they were often servants of the state and may have adhered to the ruling ideology because of the psychological as well as material rewards that brings. Such a state can, after all, provide them a privileged position as prophets of an inevitably triumphant socialist future or participants in the great plan. In a milder version, the same is true of many sociologists in Western societies because the state offers them privileged positions, funds their ideologically loaded research, and allows them the satisfying delusion that they are molding society. Self-interest goes some way toward explaining why so many sociologists fear the contraction and diminishment of state power and state intervention. Social democracy often means jobs in the public sector for sociologists who would otherwise be unemployable. Sociologists opposed to liberty employed in education, race relations, welfare, or criminology have exercised great influence in free-market-based societies and have inflicted great damage on those societies.

However, the main reason that so many sociologists in free societies are hostile to libertarianism and unable to appreciate either its virtues or benefits is because they are committed egalitarians. For many reasons, societies based on freedom of speech, freedom to own property, freedom of contract, free trade, and a free labor market tend to produce marked inequalities of outcome. Some individuals are far more successful than others. Although there are high rates of individual social mobility in capitalist societies, it is in the nature of things that the inheritance of property, skills, contacts, a work ethic, and indeed general intelligence and specific talents mean that the children of the successful are more likely to succeed. It is a society that is unequal, but on the whole fair. As such, it is anathema to the professional egalitarians who dominate the ranks of the sociologists and who support massive state intervention that curbs liberty with the aim of producing greater equality of outcome as well as of opportunity. For the same reasons, modern sociologists typically resent and distance themselves from psychology and economics, both of which demonstrate that inequality is often a natural condition. The central theme of sociology is the denial of these realities; they must be denied, hidden, and suppressed by state action.

Sociologists in Western societies are often to be found in opposition to the very societies that grant them freedom of speech, subsidize their research, and employ them in sinecures. One could say that taxpayers are paying for the rope that will be used to hang them. Marxism appeals to sociologists (even after the collapse or transformation of the major socialist economies), and Marxist works, as David Marsland has pointed out, often dominate their college reading lists. By contrast, few of them read, or encourage their students to read, the founding father of sociology, Adam Smith, who recognized that market forces lead to social and economic progress, a progress that cannot be attained in any other way. Sociology lost that insight when increasing specialization cut it loose from economics and indeed psychology, which emphasize individual human autonomy and responsibility.

Most sociologists have no knowledge of either neoclassical or Austrian economics. Instead of cooperating with economists to solve the sociological problems highlighted by economic analysis, they sit on the margins and grumble about equality. Libertarians may be divided over the uses of the nation state and its armed forces, but they are likely to sympathize with the economist’s demonstration of the superiority of a volunteer over a conscript army. Those sociologists who accept the need for armies typically also advocate compulsion and conscription because it equalizes the chances of being shot at. The sociologists’ response to the marked rise in living standards and indeed in longevity in capitalist societies has been to invent the concepts of permanent poverty and relative deprivation and accordingly to demand ever greater state intervention. Most sociologists have become openly hostile to freedom. Even when they appear to be libertarians as, say, when they favor the legal sale of recreational drugs, they only do so because those who use and trade them are seen as underprivileged. They are quite unable to see that high taxes on tobacco—imposed in the name of coercive health improvement—are an infringement of freedom and an incitement to smuggling, illicit trading, and organized crime in exactly the same way as restrictions on other recreational drugs. The central weakness of sociology is the unwillingness of sociologists to understand the importance of prices and to work with them in the way economists do.

There is a broader relationship between deviant behavior and social change that sociologists refuse to acknowledge. During the late 19th century, the era of the growth of mutual aid organizations and stable families, the incidence of both violent and acquisitive crimes fell to low levels in most Western societies. Individuals chose not to attack the persons and property of others not because the state prevented them, but because this spontaneous order created by free individuals had a law-abiding ethos. The massive rise in crime of all kinds that has come to be seen as a general characteristic of modern societies only began in the mid-1950s after the establishment of the welfare state. It is what a libertarian would expect but is utterly contrary to the predictions of sociological collectivism. In the light of such contrary evidence, many sociologists have begun a long retreat away from their claim to be scientists into the vacuousness of postmodernism; if we can’t be right, then nobody can be.

The tragedy of sociology is that it began with Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer, and William Graham Sumner as a vehicle for libertarian thought. The discipline was then captured by socialists and collectivists, often followers of Comtean and Marxist authoritarian traditions. In America, Britain, and Europe today there are many libertarian economists, legal scholars, psychologists, historians, and philosophers, but libertarian sociologists are rare indeed, and this lack of ideological diversity within the discipline has rendered it futile. I have tried above to interpret sociology from a libertarian perspective and to describe the state of the discipline. The challenge for libertarians is to change it.


Further Readings

Andreski, Stanislav. The Uses of Comparative Sociology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965.

Davies, Christie. The Strange Death of Moral Britain. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 2004.

Marsland, David. Seeds of Bankruptcy: Sociological Bias against Business and Freedom. London: Claridge, 1988.

Rummel, R. J. Death by Government. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1994.

———. Lethal Politics: Soviet Genocide and Mass Murder since 1917. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1990.

Saunders, Peter. Unequal but Fair? London: I.E.A., 1996.

Smith, Adam. An Enquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1981 [1776].

Spencer, Herbert. The Man versus the State with Six Essays on Government, Society and Freedom. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1992 [1884].

———. Principles of Sociology. Abridged ed. Stanislav Andreski, ed. London: Macmillan, 1969 [1876–1896].

Sumner, William Graham. On Liberty, Society and Politics, the Essential Essays of William Graham Sumner. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Classics, 1992.

Originally published .