Social Libertarianism

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [sic.] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men [sic.], deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

– Thomas Jefferson, United States Declaration of Independence


Madison was a conservative of his time, fearful that the toiling masses would take up arms against privilege, power, and authority.  On September 4, 1789, the Senate voted to change the language of the Second Amendment by removing the definition of militia and striking the conscientious objector clause.  On September 9, it was edited again, and on September 21, it was edited for the last time, to read:

This is the infamous Second Amendment.  Interpreting “libertarianism” has been incredibly inconsistent historically, for American individualist libertarians and Spanish libertarian communists.  While they may have some “anti-authoritarian” sentiments in common, some strategic and visionary differences are very obvious, distinguishing the two as historic enemies on very principled matters—from free association, to property, to sexual rights, to disenfranchised minorities.  

Social Libertarianism & The Post-Revolutionary Years in America

  States began imposing delinquent taxes upon debts due by poor rural American farmers who had spent the recent years fighting in the War, instead of farming.  Then, many states began repossessing these farmers’ machinery, homes, and farms to pay this debt. (Although, populist and libertarian Governor John Hancock refused to conduct such activities.)  Farmers began protesting and rebelling, and leading organizers were arrested. 

  At this time, no standing army actually existed in the US, and former Continental Army General Benjamin Lincoln was requested by the State of Massachusetts to solicit rich private financiers to develop an army to defeat these farmers, quell the rebellion, retain the State’s right to repossess land, teach a lesson about the state, and teach the poor a lesson about who’s discipline and order they lived under. 


The most social libertarian view in Revolutionary America was spelled out by Thomas Paine, in his famous pamphlets “Common Sense” and later in “Rights of Man.” While many associates of the Federalist movement and later, the Federalist Party, had hardly veiled their disdain for common people, the writings of Paine empowered many with the notion that people can have collective demands, and that they should make the decisions that effect their lives. During the American Revolution, most of the founding fathers had a very uneasy relationship with Paine. While they appreciated that his rhetoric inspired people to fight the British, they were worried that the rhetoric might be taken seriously.

            When the elite began to write their own pamphlets to challenge Paine’s popular view that a constitution should be a charter that is “the act of all and not one” subject to “periodical review and democratic amendment,” radicals showed their disapproval, often in a militant fashion. When an anonymous author wrote a pamphlet titled “The Deceiver Unmasked; or Loyalty and Interest United: In Answer to a Pamphlet Entitled Common Sense,” the New York Mechanics Committee demanded to know who the author was and called for the immediate cessation of its production. When the printer refused, committee members confiscated the print run, and then burned the entire stock. Other cities saw similar displays of collective action against counter-revolutionary propaganda.

            In the next several decades after the revolution, many people were under-whelmed with post-revolution America. They included farmers who lost their farms to speculators, republicans who wished the French Jacobins victory, progressive minded citizens who called for a comprehensive public education, and “levelers” who wanted to remove all honorary distinctions and lingering aristocratic elements.  Although a diverse crowd with wide-ranging interest, they seemed to always espouse a common them—that the new government was indifferent to the governed. These “self created societies” as they were called by George Washington primarily involved themselves in writing letters, holding discussion groups, and attempting to pressure those in power to implement favorable policies.

             The democratic societies in Pennsylvania seemed to be particularly active and well known. Their rhetoric and actions deeply trouble the Federalists in power as well as the new Democratic-Republican Party of Jefferson and Madison. Although President Washington could find no legal justification to forcibly prevent the societies from existing, he issued statements to the press, and even spoke in front of Congress about the danger of such permanent organizations.

             Although the societies had caught the attention of the ruling party, they posed very little threat to the established government and economy until George Washington implemented a regressive whiskey tax in 1791. The plan was designed by Alexander Hamilton to raise revenue in order to pay off debt incurred during the Revolution through an excise tax on grain distilled as whiskey. The tax led to Pennsylvanian farmers and distillers entering into the democratic groups, and they demanded action. Although, the governing officials attempted to dismiss their protest as petty, the small scale farmers and distillers in western Pennsylvania depended on the sale of whiskey due to their inability to easily transport grain in any other form over the mountains and to the East. The sale of whiskey happened to also be the means through which these rural farmers obtained federally recognized currency- a commodity which the region was desperate for and also the only means by which the tax could be paid.

            Despite their opposition, the tax was implemented, however the farmers insisted on continuous resistance. Tax collectors were tarred and feathered, and even consenting distillers saw the same fate. The Mingo Creek society was particularly ambitious. They formed militias after confiscating guns from armories, formed their own court systems, made foreclosures illegal, and forgave debtors. To George Washington and his allies, this experiment in self-rule was deemed insurrection, and Washington reacted by personally leading conscripted troops into battle against the citizen militias of the democratic societies.

            Recognizing their inability to take on the federal government in combat, the militias laid down their arms. Washington had not only defeated the democratic societies militarily, but had crushed their morale as well as their standing in public opinion. Membership dramatically dropped, and most societies ceased to meet entirely. However, the conditions that drove motivated men and women into action in the years after the Revolution continued to produce the same effect throughout the 19th century as well.

            Washington and the US federal government’s response exhibits how capitalist states protect property—on the base of individual, not social freedom.  In a socially free society, early American rebellions, like Shays’s and the Whiskey Rebellion, would have never been crushed.  Property would have become socially owned, not individually.  The distinction of social and individual libertarianism is essential to tease out the differences between principled libertarian socialism, and haphazardly articulated anti-authoritarian criticisms and strategies.  These differences are perhaps most pronounced in the history of the 2nd Amendment. 

Libertarianism and the Second Amendment



  His argument here was very evident of his own ideological inconsistencies; if his quotes about the Second Amendment were applied outside of the context of the Cruikshank court case, African-Americans would have probably obtained social freedom much faster.)  


Libertarianism and Other Social Issues

            So, it is not enough to say we are for freedom, liberties, or even in favor of libertarians.  Simply preceding these statements by “individual” is not enough either, because the individual liberties of many may require social liberties that trump the liberties of 1% of other individuals. For example, an individual freely associating her/himself with certain ideas on a jobsite would be best defended by freely associating the workers on the jobsite into a union, allowing them to be organized to protect every individuals’ right to freely associate with these ideas.  The question of whose freedoms we are protecting is essential. 

  However, this individual “freedom” trumps the majority and drastically impacts them.  To understand Ron Paul, the Libertarian Party, the ACLU, Hugh Hefner, or the NRA as friends of libertarian socialists is counter-intuitive to anti-capitalist strategy.  Left libertarians in America would be better to learn from the lessons of Daniel Shays, Thomas Paine, Herman Presser and his socialist militia (Lehr und Wehr Verein), Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, and the Spanish CNT-FAI.   Their ideas are irreconcilable with those of the individualist libertarians in history. 


Andy Lucker and Travis Albert are members of Autonomy Alliance. 
To contact them, email [email protected]

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