Nietzschean Libertarianism


Ernest Jones, a biographer of the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, said of Nietzsche that he “had more penetrating knowledge of himself than any other man who ever lived or was ever likely to live”. I find it difficult to categorize Nietzsche sometimes because he was so decidedly anti-system and went out of his way to not create a philosophical system. His approach to epistemology has sometimes been described as perspectivism, a sort of philosophical safeguard to protect against philosophic system-building and dogma.

It is safe to say the Nietzsche was one of the most creative and sharp minds in the history of philosophy. I was just sixteen when I first began studying his writings. Like many youths seduced by Nietzsche’s philosophy, I admired his übermencsh (neither a master, nor a slave) in Thus Spake Zarathrustra, his attacks upon authority, slave morality, religious superstition, and his harsh sarcastic tone. He seemed to prick the surreptitious bubbles of the status quo in a way that is so appealing to rebellious youth.

His ideas were so prescient, so pregnant, too. His epistemological perspectivism foreshadowed so much of epiphenomenalism. I can see his criticisms of moral systems in Daybreak giving birth to moral nihilists and his conception of will as prior to consciousness/ego, akin to the flowstate of Csikszentmihalyi. His understanding of the problems inherent in subject-predicate grammar precedes the brilliant contributions of both Wittgenstein and Korzybski. Nietzsche is deep with a passionate rhetorical style, plus his mustache was absolutely epic.

That said, Nietzsche is also one of the most maligned, misinterpreted, and misunderstood philosophers of all time, first manipulated by his Nazi sympathizing sister, then maligned and slandered by those that thought incorrectly that he was anti-semitic. There has been a lot of besmirching stuff written against him, largely due to his sister’s tweaking his writings post-humously to help her proto-Nazi husband. Nietzsche himself was vehemently anti-Nazi, even leaving his publisher over it.

“Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche edited her brother’s writings after his mental breakdown in 1889 and quickly began to add, remove and change passages to align his philosophy with her own beliefs and those of her virulent anti-Semite husband Bernhard Förster.”

“Along with her husband, she founded a Utopian ‘Aryan’ colony in the Paraguyan jungle called Nueva Germania in 1887. It was a disaster: her husband committed suicide in 1889 and Förster-Nietzsche returned to Germany. When she died in 1935, Hitler attended her funeral.

“While it has been known to Nietzsche scholars that Förster-Nietzsche meddled with her brother’s work, particular after his death, the new encyclopedia – consisting of entries by about 150 scholars – shows the sheer breadth and depth of her forgeries as never before.”

The Nazis hated him and slandered him; then the Nazis tried to appropriate his thought against his wishes by having his sister forge his works, so then, he got further smeared as anti-semitic. This is particularly unfortunate since a quick reading of his work published before his sister’s forgeries prove this. Some of the slander was just nasty, even claiming he died of syphilis.

Nietzsche scholars welcomed the new findings and said that they would help in the rehabilitation of the philosopher. “Nietzsche was not anti-semitic or a nationalist, and hated the herd mentality,” said Prof Stephen Houlgate, a Nietzsche scholar at Warwick University. “If this new research gets rid of another misconception about him, I’m delighted.”

Nietzsche was also anti-state, even writing in Thus Spake Zarathustra, “Everything the State says is a lie, and everything it has it has stolen.” But hell-bent on being paradoxical as he was, he was also very critical of the anarchists of his time—Nietzsche even labels them “anarchist dogs” in In Beyond Good and Evil (6.2:126). Libertarian curmudgeon H.L. Mencken wrote an entire book on him and his work, saying “Nietzsche was an anarchist—in the true meaning of that much-bespattered word—just as Herbert Spencer and Arthur Schopenhauer were anarchists before him.” There is also a spirited debate as to how much the egoist anarchist Max Stirner influenced Nietzsche’s work. He is often claimed by anarchists because he was anti-state and yearned for an Übermensch that was neither master nor slave. One thing that isn’t really all that debatable is that Nietzsche was very anti-socialist.

But was Nietzsche Anarchist?

I think the most accurate short answer is “no.” But he wasn’t a Marxist, Nazi, Fascist, or Objectivist either. Because of his decidedly anti-system aims, Nietzsche was a bit of a Rorschach Test. It seems he has been both claimed by and disparaged by all of the aforementioned philosophical systems. The idea of liberty has often been explained in terms of positive liberty vs. negative liberty. Most libertarians/classical liberals agree with the negative conception of liberty where individuals should be free from harm directly caused by other individuals (for example, violence and theft), while most modern progressive liberals and Welfare Statists endorse the positive conception of liberty where individuals should be free from harm in general (for example, hunger and illness, in addition to being free from violence and theft). So, here we see how the definition of “liberty” separates classical liberals from their progressive liberal counterparts.

The negative liberty of Hobbes was not enough for Nietzsche, however. He sought to define a positive idea of freedom, which essentially boiled down to the freedom to create and innovate. In this way, I can see how Ayn Rand was influenced by Nietzsche—she believes man should be unfettered to “produce,” not “create” as Nietzsche might insist, but that is largely semantic, perhaps even pendantic—even Mises approved of Rand. Ever maintaining his credibility as an asystemic philosopher, he is often perceived as a very illiberal liberal. Contemporary enemies of both Nietzsche and libertarianism also see their affinity but, unfortunately, often due to naïve assumptions based upon misconstrued notions as mentioned above. Recently, Corey Robin wrote a piece critical of Nietzsche and libertarianism for The Nation entitled “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children”; he describes the piece this way:

Nietzsche’s Marginal Children” juxtaposes Nietzsche’s critique of the idea of objective value with the turn to subjective theories of value in economics, first among the early marginalists of the 1870s and later, and more important for my purposes, in the Austrian School coming out of the work of Carl Menger. Describing the relationship between Nietzsche’s philosophy and Austrian economics as one of elective affinity, I draw out deep structural similarities between two ways of thinking (about value, elitism, and the role of struggle and sacrifice in the creation or definition of value) that are seldom put in dialogue with each other.

I actually like Corey’s assertions and would like to see a research program where academics suss out this relationship, since I don’t think Corey is quite up to the task. He seems determined to make Nietzsche and libertarianism look bad, despite any facts to the contrary, instead of seeking to understand them. To begin with, Corey misses the well-understood point that Nietzsche criticized morality without offering a replacement while going on and on about how Hayek sought to replace morality with market forces and seems to conflate various meanings of “value” in a weak effort to aid his cause. Perhaps, he could make a stronger argument if he scrutinized Nietzsche’s problems with language and how that influenced Wittgenstein and perhaps Wittgenstein’s cousin Hayek, but instead, it seems Corey may be falling prey to the Discordian notion of the Aneristic Principle—that is, Corey is seeing an apparent order when there isn’t one. While I appreciate Corey’s deep reading of Nietzsche and libertarian political theory, sadly, it may be as unproductive as Leopold and Loeb’s interpretation.

The bottom line is this: mostly because of Nietzsche’s deliberate obfuscations and anti-systemic approach, perhaps it is best to describe Nietzsche’s political perspective as Discordian Libertarianism? In his Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche bifurcates reality into the Apollonian and Dionysian perspectives where reality is either ordered or disordered, as any Discordian might. We know of Nietzsche’s appreciation of Dionysus, and the fact that Dionysus eventually morphed into Liber (the “Free One”) and Eleutherios (the “Liberator”) of Roman mythology, seems all the more apropos. Hail Eris!


About Author

Jake Shannon

Jake Shannon (1973 - ) was born in Colorado and has worked in a hodgepodge of professions including "Quant" (i.e., financial mathematician), serial entrepreneur, Discordian Pope, radio talk show host, Chairman of the Libertarian Party of Utah, Luchador (i.e., mexican wrestler), and Comedy Hypnotist before settling upon pursuing an unwitting vow of poverty as an independent writer, practical magician (Chaos Magick) and more importantly, as a stay-at-home dad (his greatest accomplishment by far). He currently lives in Salt Lake City, Utah (which still surprises him) with his lovely wife, three bright children and three loyal dogs.