This weekend I attended the International Students for Liberty Conference in DC, the largest global meeting of libertarian students, professionals, and intellectuals. I was excited to meet a few friends I seldom get to see from across the world, listen to a few exciting talks by some of my favorite intellectual influences, such as Jonathan Haidt, Steve Horwitz, Edward Stringham, Sheldon Richman and the like. It was my third time attending the conference, and I always enjoy myself there.
However on Saturday afternoon, something that I did not want to see at all had reared its ugly face and even more hideous haircut: alt-right pseudo-intellectual think tank head and noted white nationalist blowhard Richard Spencer decided to come and troll us libertarians. I was just walking through the lobby when I looked over and saw him sitting at the hotel bar surrounded by a gang of ostensible thugs wearing “Make America Great Again” hats.
Now at this point, it is worth noting that Richard Spencer was in no way invited to this event by SFL in any official capacity. It is easy to be misled on this point as Spencer, being a complete fraud, had a sign next to him saying “Richard Spencer at ISFLC” as though he were invited. Immediately after seeing Spencer, I walked over to talk to some SFL staff who said he would not be allowed in the conference and, though he had every right to just hang out in a public space outside of the conference, he was in no way allowed in the conference itself.
Instead, Spencer was invited by a group calling themselves “The Hoppe Caucus,” named after noted bigot Hans-Hermann Hoppe. It is perhaps revealing that a bunch of students who want to invite a self-proclaimed white nationalist who does the Nazi salute to Trump and calls for “ethnic cleansing” of non-whites to a libertarian conference give themselves this name. The organizers were originally planning to invite Augustus Sol Invictus (the linked post was deleted) to do a similar event hijacking the conference, but were unable to pay for his travel. (The same Augustus Sol Invictus who was kicked out of a Libertarian Party Senate race for being a “neo-Nazi” who supports eugenics and participating in Satanic goat-sacrificing rituals.)
The “Hoppe Caucus” is nothing more than a Facebook page started by a couple of alt-right crypto-fascists masquerading as libertarians surrounding websites like the oxymoronically named The Liberty Conservative and the grossly misnamed trashy click-bait site Liberty Hangout. I do have the misfortune of knowing a couple of the people who were involved in organizing Spencer. Only one of whom at any point in any official capacity associated with SFL as a low-level campus coordinator, and is mostly associated with YAL as a state chair and various other alt-right blogs. He shall remain unnamed as, from what I’ve seen, he’s been too cowardly to explicitly associate himself with the group publicly. Notably, he also recently left SFL’s CC program after some SFL staffers were blocking him from bringing Augustus. Another is a former YAL chapter leader who is now doing work with a number of right-wing think tanks in the midwest and writes for the Liberty Conservative, whose name is Mitchell Steffen.
I stood around at a distance observing Richard Spencer and the growing crowd around him, it appeared to me to be fairly standard relatively boring tone of conversations that happen at the conference, just with the notable difference of a fair amount of complete bigotry and Nazism. I went downstairs and decided not to feed the trolls. But about a half an hour to forty minutes later, I heard that Jeffery Tucker of the Foundation for Economic Education, a conference speaker who was actually invited there, went upstairs to confront Richard Spencer. You can watch a recording of the exchange here. After the conversation got heated, hotel security intervened and kicked Spencer out of the venue. As Robby Soave notes in Reason, some have reported that Spencer requested for security to escort him out, though it is unclear if that is the case (there is at least one video, see around 40:33 which seems to suggest Spencer asked for security, though was being kicked out).
Now, to combat further misinformation put out by the same group of complete liars who brought Spencer at the Liberty Conservative: no, Richard Spencer did not “nearly start a riot.” Meanwhile in reality, while Tucker was visibly upset, he did not threaten nor engage in violence at all, nor did any other attendee at the conference. First, Spencer and Tucker talked for nearly twenty minutes without any physical altercation, and Tucker arrived after nearly an hour of peaceful discussion between Spencer and some students. You can watch the videos linked above for proof. If merely getting impassioned in a debate is “nearly a riot,” these Hoppe occultists are the true snowflakes who need a safe space.
Further, Tucker and the other attendees were not upset because Spencer “merely show[ed] up in the Hotel Bar.” We were upset because these frauds dishonestly put up a sign implying that Spencer was invited and was there in an official capacity. In order to attend, one needed to pay a registration fee for the conference, which Spencer didn’t, and needed to be invited to be a speaker, which he wasn’t. He was committing fraud and attempting to disrupt a peaceful private event, if he went unchallenged the press (like Liberty Conservative’s fact-free report implies) would assume he was invited there officially. Additionally, it is a complete lie to say that around fifty attendees was “one of the best attended breakouts” at the conference, of all the breakouts I attended the smallest was around 45 (Stringham’s lecture) and most were well above 150 (eg., Haidt’s lecture and Caplan and Wilkinson’s Basic Income debate). I know you alt-righters love your alternative facts, but just because you can put them on your dumpy little click-bait site doesn’t make them true.
Regardless of the reality of the situation, some pseudo-libertarians have rushed to Spencer’s defense saying Tucker reacted in a hyperbolic fashion and didn’t take Spencer’s right to free speech seriously. Some have even idiotically claimed that the “left libertarians” at SFL (I am one of the few, the majority of the conference attendees are not, by the way) used force to oust Richard Spencer. Somehow, when Tucker asserts the liberty and dignity of all human beings it’s some act of aggression because the fascist snowflakes didn’t like his tone, but if Hoppe fanboys demand that communists get thrown out helicopters and their homeboy Spencer demands the state ethnically cleanse black people, that’s hunky dory.
First, nobody from SFL ousted Spencer, he either left of his own accord because he couldn’t handle Tucker’s debate or the hotel kicked him out, which the hotel is well within its rights to do because of this thing these pseudo-libertarians have apparently forgotten called private property. Spencer intruded on a private event with the intention of misleading everyone about his involvement in it, Tucker cleared up Spencer’s and the Hoppe Caucus’ fraud, and the hotel kicked him off of their private property for trespassing. It’s amazing how these crypto-fascists think “free association” is primary if you’re a bigot who doesn’t want to serve a gay person a wedding cake, wants to “physically remove, so to speak” people they disagree with from society or is a racist who discriminates against black people. But when it comes to an actual libertarian not wanting a Nazi at their private event all of a sudden “free association” doesn’t matter because they can lazily caterwaul “free speech.” It’s almost like they don’t actually believe in free association unless you’re a white, straight Christian fascist like them.
Further, the idea that all ideas always get the same hearing is a gross misunderstanding of the point of free speech and the usefulness of public discourse in a liberal political order. The fact is, there is always an opportunity cost to inquiry. Racism, Nazism, white nationalism and the like were long ago proven to be continuously false and extremely dangerous, and it would be a misuse of intellectual resources to continually need to “engage with them.” This is for the same reason astronomers do not need to continually write academic papers disproving flat-earth conspiracy nutters, medical biologists do not need to continually refute anti-vaxxer cranks, and economists do not need to continually engage with erroneous labor theories of value in their original academic work. The intellectual resources of the community of inquiry can be better used by addressing new ideas that are actually relevant to our current situation, not by continually discussing with dogmatic cranks who spew pseudo-scientific lies about race.
Of course, it is arguable that this principle is not applicable in the current situation because ideas like Spencer’s have gained popularity, possibly in part because of a breakdown in discourse in the United States caused by some on the left refusing to engage in any serious discourse with anything they don’t agree with. This means one ought to write refutations of the odious seeds of the alt-right, like Tucker himself has done. But free speech, and even the necessity of engaging with an intellectual (or in this case, pseudo-intellectual) opponent does not mean you hand him the loudspeaker by inviting him to your conference, and it does not mean you let him defraud and defame you by pretending to be a part of a private event to which he was not invited. Just because a Nazi has the liberty right to free speech does not mean they have the claim right to oblige you to give them a platform for said speech. (The difference between claim-rights and liberty-rights is lost on both Hoppe fans and Hoppe himself.)
Even though I am happy that my libertarian peers stood up to Spencer at the conference, I think this is time for libertarians to engage in serious reflection. These weren’t just a group of odious, intellectually immature, adolescent edge-lords crashing an event. Though they were also that, this was a group of pugnacious kids who were to some extent legitimized by prominent student groups. One made it past the screening into SFL’s CC program, and while it is worth noting he’s one of a very few bad CC’s out of over a hundred across the country and is no longer a CC because SFL was stopping his excesses, the fact that he thought SFL would be a good platform for his nonsense and that he was a CC for this long (about six months) in the first place should cause some concern. Further, he and others involved are prominent in YAL, not only chapter presidents but even state chairs.
Why would a group of pretty overt fascists feel comfortable masquerading as libertarians and naming their fake news sites after the ideas of liberty? Why would they feel and think inviting a prominent neo-Nazi to a large libertarian event was a good idea in the first place? Why are pseudo-intellectual occultist hacks, snake-oil salesmen, bigots and conspiracy theorists like Milo, Molyneux, Cantwell, Hoppe, Alex Jones, and the like so revered by self-proclaimed “libertarians” in such large circles? Why, when I mention I’m a libertarian, do I feel the need to disassociate myself with so many other libertarian students who are newer to the movement? I think this points to a series of deep problems with the infrastructure of the “libertarian movement” as it exists, and I will chronicle them one by one: an overly intensive focus on activism, populism, a history of right-wing fusionism of various sorts, and immature contrarianism.
Activism is clearly something any political movement of any form is going to have to engage on at some level. By activism, here, I mean recruiting new people to your movement, spreading your ideas through popular culture, engaging a little in the political process and engaging in grass-roots movement building with activities like tabling, advertising for and organizing events, and the like. It’s something I’m admittedly not particularly good at nor do I enjoy doing it, so I do have reason to downgrade its importance on some personal level admittedly. However, I still believe that a number of student groups in the liberty movement–particularly YAL and to a lesser extent SFL–have put far more emphasis on it than is warranted, and I think it is doing legitimate damage to their cause.
Activism is all about the numbers–how many chapters did you start? how many emails did you get on your list from tabling? how many attendees do you have at your event? how many votes did your candidate get?–and not about the quality of participation or ideas–do your chapters actually do good work, if any at all? will the people you got on your email list ever actually engage with you? did your attendees at the event get anything meaningful or useful out of your event? did the voters actually vote for your candidate because he was good? Undoubtedly, the numbers are important–part of the reason why libertarianism was stifled for so long was high-quality white papers were just being written by think tanks and nobody would read them. However, lately numbers seem to be all that too many people in the development departments of political activist non-profits and think tanks and too many activists think about it alone. It’s all about quantity, not about quality.
YAL has next to no screening–at least that I’m aware of–for who can start a YAL chapter and who makes it up in their ranks. SFL, meanwhile, does have some screening and an application process for becoming a CC, but it’s still obviously pretty easy for alt-right entryists to make it pass that process. Because what seems to matter most to them–and all that seems to matter for YAL–is that they can brag that they have a hundred CCs and hundreds of YAL chapters. The result: you have a recently-resigned SFL campus coordinator and current YAL State Chair bringing a neo-Nazi to a prominent SFL event. Further, they train their activists to focus on these metrics and not metrics of quality (which they don’t even really provide often) for measuring their goals and success of their activism. The result: YAL presidents are trained not to worry that when they invited Milo to “#trigger” leftists that Milo said nothing even remotely related to libertarianism, or that the attendees of his event got nothing substantive out of it; all that mattered was that YAL scored a media-hit because their rabble were roused and their leftist ideological opponents were upset, and that they got a lot of attendees.
Now the reason for the focus on activism is understandable: it’s the easiest way to prove to your donors as an organization that their money is doable, and it is absolutely true that if you don’t have a readily available way to measure the success of your well-state goals means there’s no way to improve. Things like attendance numbers, number of email registrations, and number of chapters and media hits, are an easy way to do this. But when your activism has deteriorated in quality to the point that you have a bunch of entryist activists who are promoting ideas that are literally antithetical to your cause, when they–while representing your organization–are bringing Nazis to a libertarian event, maybe it’s time to reconsider the usefulness of your metrics. They are such a poor measure of quality and can easily be substituted for things like surveys of the attendees of the event for their perception on the event’s quality (IHS does this a lot, and I see SFL doing it more and more often). Further, why not train your activists not only to be activists but to be legitimately good ambassadors for your ideas, or even to be remotely familiar with the ideas they’re supposed to be promoting in the first place (which far too many activists are not beyond a very superficial level)?
Further, this activist mindset creates an in-your-face attitude almost akin to religious proselytizing. The activist thinks “I have the truth already and am now just looking to spread it” and uses in-your-face style evangelism to do so. That mindset is not likely to produce quality ideological ambassadors, but rather pugnacious little dogmatists. As my fellow Notewriter Brandon Christensen once noted in a Reason Papers article, it is at odds with the humility inherent in the libertarian ethos, but very much at home in morally chauvinist ideologies like fascism which Richard Spencer loves. It’s not surprising that YAL-style in-your-face activism is attracting the undesirables just because the type of social interaction it requires is not at home with the psychological mental state libertarianism requires, but is very at home with crypto-fascists like Hoppe.
I won’t spend a lot of time on this one since I spent ample time in an article on the dangers of populism to liberty last month. Suffice it to say, the events of this weekend reaffirms what I had to say in that article about how populism inherently will lack principles and turn into something nasty:
Because the main thing driving populist movements are “the people vs. the elites” rather than the core principles the movement tries to espouse, there’s good reason to think the base of that movement will abandon many of those principles as it grows simply on the basis that they have something similar to what “the elites” believe. It’s not surprising that many of the younger pseudo-libertarians who supported Ron Paul have since jumped on either the Trump or Sanders bandwagon, or, even worse, have defected into the crypto-fascist, dark corners of the alt-right (Stefan Molyneux and Chris Cantwell’s occultists are examples of this). Even left-wing populist movements often have abandoned leftist principles throughout history (the Jacobins in the French Revolution, for example).
Now add the pseudo-libertarians who have jumped on the Richard Spencer and Hans-Herman Hoppe bandwagon to the list of evidence for why populism is so toxic.
When libertarianism in its present form was first fomenting in the seventies, the biggest global conflict was between the communist Soviet Union and the United States. Further, at the time the biggest issues in domestic policy were about creeping state economic regulatory policy left over from the progressive era and social welfare programs with Johnson’s Great Society. All these were big issues for libertarian ideology so they formed a coalition with what was currently the biggest political opposition to those: the emerging post-war conservative movement. It was always an awkward marriage, with intellectuals lashing out against each other from both sides, and honestly both making good points about how libertarianism and conservatism were wholly incompatible. But the awkward coalition, it was argued, was necessary to resist the growing state at home and the specter of communism abroad (even though libertarians and conservatives at the time, obviously, deeply disagreed and fought about the Vietnam war and America’s militaristic impulse to resist the Soviets with foreign intervention).
Today, though, it is clear that this alliance is no longer working. The right in the United States, for one, has morphed into something even more incompatible with liberty than the old Buckley-Kirkian conservatism with which it was once awkward bedfellows with into an ultra-nationalistic program of protectionist economic planning, opposition to cultural pluralism, and hostility to religious liberty (for non-Christians).
If one knows the history of right-wing libertarian fusionism, it should surprise no one that modern ideological delinquent libertarians are are inviting a white nationalist to speak at your conference. There was, of course, the odious phase of “paleo-libertarianism” Rothbard and his cult tried to launch in the early nineties embracing Pat Buchanan like the Hoppe Caucus embraces Trump, the toxic fruit of which includes the infamous outright racist Ron Paul letters which read like some of Richard Spencer’s delusions. In fact, there is a direct line from this “paleo” poison and Hoppe himself to Richard Spencer, Spencer and another white nationalist Jared Taylor were invited to speak at Hoppe’s Property and Freedom Society Conference in 2010 and 2013 respectively on the alt-right and race relations. Hoppe started the Property and Freedom Society in 2006 after feeling that the old Mont Pelerin Society, started by Hayek and Friedman in the forties, wasn’t sufficiently racist-friendly for him.
Even one of my personal favorite libertarian thinkers, FA Hayek, fell for the fusionist vial of toxin in his uncomfortably close relationship with a certain Chilean fascist dictator (obviously not that this discredits his stellar academic work). The point is that even our best intellectuals, and obviously sophomoric college kids, wind up being more defined by what they oppose that they are willing to ally with anyone who’s an enemy of their enemy–including those most opposed to their ideas–at the expense of actually improving anyone’s lives when political alliance is valued over principle.
This does not mean we substitute right-wing fusionism with some left-wing fusionism where we let the likes of Elizabeth Warren get away with saying “The heart of progressivism is libertarianism” like Reagan did. This doesn’t mean we form an alliance with the left and pretend to be ideologically in the same place as politicians from major leftist political parties who poison our ideas by doing things that have nothing to do with our ideology. It would be a fool’s errand to institutionally ally ourselves on as many issues as we can with existing leftist institutions, like libertarians did with right-wing ones in the past. I much prefer the infuriatingly slow, though necessary, process of social and intellectual change through discourse, cultural engagement, entrepreneurship, and resisting state tyranny where we can. If need be, maybe ally with groups like the ACLU or Heritage on a single issue where we may agree with them. But don’t sit there and pretend that the alliance is anything more than a temporary, single-issue co-authorship for expedience. These little alliances should not make you delude yourself into thinking something like “liberaltarian” (in the American progressive sense of liberal) is anymore meaningful than the oxymoronic “conservatarian” and start bringing Stalinists to your conferences.
My point is that, obviously, fusionism has had a corrosive effect on libertarians to the point that it’s not even clear what self-identified libertarians believe at this point, if it claims to support liberty while its members feel comfortable giving a platform to white nationalist neo-Nazis. I understand the need for a movement to be big-tent and not fraction off with infighting, but when your movement includes people who work for self-identified white nationalists while everyone else is trying to claim something from the classical liberal tradition your big-tent is turning into a circus dominated by demented clowns.
This last point is something pointed out well by Kevin Vallier a few years ago in reaction to one of Hoppe’s more vitriolic racist screeds:
Libertarianism is an unpopular view. And it takes particular personality types to be open to taking unpopular views. Some of these personality types are people who are open to new experience, love the world of ideas and have a disposition for independent thought. However, some of these personality types simply enjoy holding outrageous and provocative views, who like to argue and fight with others, who like insult and and shock. The contrarian is someone of the latter type.
…The worst flaw in the contrarian trap is that it makes libertarians open to views that deserve to be unpopular and despised, including the thinly-veiled racism of the sort the Hans Hermann Hoppe trades in from time to time. The social democratic left can’t just be wrong about the state, they have to be wrong about everything, and obviously wrong at that.
And this applies not just to libertarians, but also to the edge-lord alt-righters who have now successfully co-opted a number of American conservative institutions. In reality, these are just people with the psychological composition and intellectual (im)maturity of a 14-year-old troll in his mommy’s basement posting nonsense on 4Chan who use cartoon frogs to try to thinly veil their odious ideology. They are just contrarians who never grew out of going “No” when their teacher told them to do something in high school, but instead of the teacher telling Pink to “eat your meat” it’s Jeffery Tucker saying “respect the basic liberties of other human beings.” The problem is because libertarianism is still somewhat on the fringe, but just mainstream enough for it to be popular among contrarians, it is attractive to people with that level of immaturity. This is exacerbated by the fact that, for the reasons listed above, the libertarian movement are giving these immature edge-lords a platform.
My main reason for making these points is that while SFL is completely justified in pointing out about how they had nothing to do with Spencer’s presence and opposed it, and libertarians should be happy that we stood up to a Nazi in our midst, we need to remember: not playing footsies with Nazis is the bare minimum for being ideologically tolerable, and not something to be celebrated. We need to recognize that the reason Spencer even felt comfortable showing up and the reason minor leaders in libertarian student organizations felt comfortable inviting him his a symptom of a deeper disease that’s been in the making for quite some time. I do not know exactly how to address this disease, but the first step to fixing a problem is admitting that we have one.