It is easy for libertarians to lose sight of the international nature of freedom. ‘Libertarianism in one country’ is insufficient, for it adds a nationalistic character to a philosophy that is supposed to be truly universal. While foreign intervention is rejected by most libertarians for good enough reasons, the discourse surrounding events in other nations is where the problem lies.
Too often, have I seen libertarians (especially American) declare that they do not care how free foreign societies are. Or, they complain about the toll a foreign war has taken on the American economy, rather than the destruction it brought to that foreign society. Another major problem is that some Americans tie their libertarianism to the U.S. Constitution, which creates the impression that if the Constitution was more of a socialistic document, many would not be libertarians.
There is an often unspoken assumption in (libertarian) political and philosophical circles that is uncomfortable to many of us in Africa, South America, Asia and Europe. We are forced to deal with it at every turn while we are attempting to convince our peers of the moral and effective superiority of the philosophy of freedom. The assumption is that libertarianism itself is American or Americo-centric in its very nature.
I will address two facets of this Americo-centrism: the rule of law, and the language of liberty.
The rule of law and the U.S. Constitution
The ‘rule of law’ is a popular principle for many non-anarchist libertarians. Briefly, the rule of law is the opposite of the rule of man, meaning that the governing of a nation should not be subject to the arbitrary discretion of rulers; rather, a nation should be governed by law – especially a justiciable constitution. Some of the usual tenets of the rule of law, for example, are equal application, due process and constitutional rigidity.
However, there’s a big assumption underlying the rule of law: it is based, largely, on American law. It is true that the U.S. Constitution codifies many libertarian legal principles, but we must not forget that the Constitution itself replaced what many consider to have been a more libertarian document called the Articles of Confederation. The current U.S Constitution should not be treated as some kind of manifesto or bible of libertarianism.
The U.S. Constitution is an American statute. It is what is called ‘positive law’ – man-made law – as opposed to natural law. Natural law is what underlies libertarianism as a philosophy, not specific statutes enacted by historical legislatures made up of politicians. Americans attempt to defend their ownership and usage of guns with reference to the Second Amendment, rather than their inalienable right to property and their natural right to self-defense. There is a grave error in using positive law to justify a natural right.
South Africa has a constitution and our government, generally, has been acting in accordance with it. International legal scholars agree that South Africa’s post-liberal constitution is one of the best in the world, and that South Africa itself adheres to the rule of law as a principle. But South Africa is not a libertarian society. Our legal grundnorm is not the same as the American one: we do not have a constitutional right to bear arms (ours is a statutory right), nor is our right to free speech pre-eminent, as it is in the United States.
Therefore, as a South African libertarian, the concept of the rule of law is relatively useless to me in my activism for liberty. The rule of law depends too much on a Western, moreover American, context.
The language of liberty
The language of libertarianism is an American language. Here I am not referring to specific words, grammar or spelling, but to the undertone. When libertarians talk about having the rule of law respected in their nations, or abroad, they have the template of the U.S. Constitution and the ideas of the Founding Fathers in mind. When we call for personal liberty, we present it in an American context.
This is perfectly natural given that the vast majority of libertarian literature, mostly in the twentieth century, has been written by Americans. The person we call “Mister Libertarian,” Murray Rothbard, was an American. Nearly all of the libertarian think tanks and policy institutes worth noting are based in America. But it is a fact we need to be conscious of, and one we must confront.
Professor George Ayittey, a Ghanaian economist currently teaching at the American University, provides a good template to follow for international libertarians. In critiquing Leon Louw and Frances Kendall’s book, South Africa: The Solution, Ayittey disagreed with the authors recommending the Swiss canton system for post-Apartheid South Africa. A strong believer in individual rights, free markets and private property, Ayittey said instead that pre-colonial Africa was a free society before the Europeans arrived, and thus believes the answer to Africa’s issues of governance lay in going back (so to speak) to the free society of our past. Many European systems, most notably socialism, have been tried and tested in Africa, and failed.
We should make a point to not use the United States as a template of liberty. The American experiment of freedom was largely successful, but as a matter of perception, we cannot make libertarianism seem like a product to be imported from America. Our philosophical basis is that freedom is natural, and that as individuals, we have an inalienable right to do as we please while respecting the same right of others.