On January 11, 2023, Michael Malice hosted a debate on his podcast “Your Welcome” between Curtis Yarvin and Dave Smith. The subject of the debate was Libertarianism. Smith argued for and Yarvin argued against. I found the debate very thought-provoking, especially given that Yarvin has the perspective of being a former Libertarian himself. I’m not sure which side “won” the debate, but that isn’t my primary interest. As a Libertarian, I was curious to see what arguments Yarvin would bring against his former ideology, and possibl even some insight as to what led him to ultimately abandon it. As much as I enjoyed hearing Yarvin’s perspective, his argument is flawed. As will be shown, he is tacitly relying on the very foundation of liberty that he is arguing against. Perhaps he still has more Libertarian left in him then he even knows.
If you haven’t listened to the debate already, I recommend that you do so before continuing. I always believe it is best to hear or read the arguments of individuals in their own words rather than second-hand (other than in studying philosophy, but that’s another matter).. That being said, I will briefly recap Yarvin’s arguments as I understand them. Yarvin first concedes that Libertarianism as a philosophy is logically consistent and intellectually attractive. However, the problem as he sees it is not in the ideas, but in the execution. Libertarianism simply cannot be applied in all scenarios and all societies. It is simply too idealistic. In order for individuals to truly exercise their freedom, there must first be order. Even if you are “free” in a superficial political sense, that really doesn’t mean much if there is no structure of society for you to act within. Without some degree of confidence that your property will not be stolen, for instance, it is almost impossible to meaningfully plan for the future. For society to function, a baseline of order is absolutely necessary. It is only within this context that individuals can have and enjoy their liberty.
The specific analogy that Yarvin employed to describe this relationship is Newtonian vs Einsteinian physics. For most intents and purposes, you can utilize Newtonian physics in your experiments and yield the correct answers. However, Newtonian physics does not apply everywhere. For a general theory that can explain everything, you need Einsteinian physics. In Yarvin’s view, Libertarianism is a nice theory that shows us the optimal arrangement of human interrelations, but it simply doesn’t apply in all circumstances. It is Newtonian physics, the supplement for which is Einsteinian physics, which Yarvin is here to deliver unto us.
Prima facie, this argument immediately has a problem. What exactly is meant by “order”? It is the cornerstone of his argument, but Yarvin does not give a clear definition of this crucial term. He leaves it up to us to the listener to discern exactly what this is supposed to mean. While we understand the word in a colloquial sense, we still need a proper definition to fully grasp Yarvin’s argument. After all, not all order is created equal. The world described by George Orwell in 1984 appears very “orderly”, but it is not a world in which we would want to live!
A vague concept such as “order” is difficult to precisely define, which might be why Yarvin did not elaborate more on what he meant by it in the first place. Nevertheless, I will offer the following definition, which while still vague, will suffice for a proper definition: order are those features and structures of society necessary to promote human flourishing and prosperity. These terms include the basic aspects of society that we are all accustomed to, such as law, ethical norms, etc. It is only in a society with these present that chaos and calamity can be minimized, which is the only kind of society that maximizes our potential for happiness and flourishing.
Of course, the specifics of these institutions vary depending on who you ask. What Curtis Yarvin would view as the proper structures to create order is very different from Slavoj Zizek. Regardless of one’s preferred flavor of “order”, an important question still looms: how is this order to be brought about? How can we practically implement the kinds of institutions — whatever they may be — to create and preserve order? While this superficially presents itself as only a question of specifics and details, it is significantly more difficult in practice.
For instance, let us imagine for a moment that Curtis Yarvin is made king over an independent nation. The population of this nation is filled with everyone who subscribes to his Substack. In this nation, he is an absolute monarch. His word is law and he can create or destroy any institutions that he wants. If he were to use his newly-acquired power to manifest his vision of an ordered society, he would probably be successful, as his subjects would ideologically agree with the majority of this vision. If he declared that immigration into the country would be highly restricted, the population would agree and it would be done. Similarly, if he declared that his kingdom should remain a monarchy and eschew and democratic principles, the people would cheer this on as well.
Let’s imagine, however, that he is instead made king of San Francisco. If he were to attempt to execute the same vision for an ordered society here, he would be met with resistance from his subjects and it would almost certainly end in failure. Unlike in his substack-kingdom, the population of San Francisco would completely reject his view of order. For instance, if he attempted to ban abortion, he would be deposed by the end of the day! No matter how badly he might wish to bring order and structure (in his eyes) to his subjects, they would firmly reject his efforts.
King Yarvin’s success in implementing his view of order is absolutely contingent on the willingness of his subjects to acquiesce to that view. If they reject his planned social order, then it is doomed to failure. A sovereign (or any other type of state) cannot violently impose order from the top down. If you try to force a foreign and unwanted ideology on a population, they will resist. If you persist in your efforts, they will revolt. For a social order to exist, individuals must be willing to participate in that order. If they do not perceive that order as being ethically legitimate, then they will replace it with another.
This necessary condition of consent implies that a social order only exists because those within it voluntarily uphold it. However, this fact alone undermines Yarvin’s case for the primacy of order over liberty. It is true that order is necessary for society to function, but order cannot be established outside of the voluntary interactions of individuals. Any attempt to forcibly impose an undesired order from above will be met with the same fate as King Yarvin compelling the citizens of San Francisco to bend to his will. This is true for all order-creators, whether they be democratic, communist, theocratic, or anarchist.
We can even see this foundational aspect of voluntary consent in the most authoritarian societies, such as the aforementioned 1984. The only reason that “Big Brother” is able to maintain its iron grasp of control over the population is not because of the power that they wield, but because of the propaganda endlessly directed at the people convincing them that they are worthy of holding this power. Even here, in one of the most oppressive orders imaginable, the consent of the people is still the basis of the order in which they live.
Make no mistake, this is not an argument against order. Without order in society, it would be impossible to live happy or fulfilling lives. However, order is not the bedrock of society. Order can also exist insofar as freely acting individuals are able to come together and interact with one another. They decide for themselves the order that they wish to structure their lives around. People must be free to create order, not be ordered in order to deserve their freedom.
While Yarvin and the “Neo-Reactionary/NRx” movement is thoroughly modern, I am far from the first Libertarian to respond to such arguments. This case was first recognized by Benjamin Tucker, the great 19th century Individualist Anarchist. He worked for many years as the editor for “Liberty”, one of the most influential libertarian/anarchist publications in North America. At the top of every front page under the title, read the following tagline: “Not the daughter, but the mother of order”.