- Holy shit! (great news)
- Hayek’s rapid rise to stardom | misunderstanding Hayek
- great write-up on Catalonia | a philosophical case for secession
- if colonialism was the apocalypse, what comes next? | should UNM replace its seal?
- do trees fall in cyberspace? | how to use Facebook better
- a pretty shallow deep throat | vulvæ in pornography and culture
Common people and even reputed scientists, such as Stephen Hawking, have been worrying about the very menace of machines provided with Artificial Intelligence that could rule the whole human genre in detriment of our liberty and welfare. This fear has two inner components: the first one, that the Artificial Intelligence will outshine human intellectual capabilities; and the second one, that the Intelligent Machines will be endowed with their own volition.
Obviously, it would be an evil volition or, at least, a very egotistic one. Or maybe the Intelligent Machines will not necessarily be evil or egotistic, but only as fearful of humans as they are of machines – although more powerful. Moreover, depending on their morality on a multiplicity of reasonings we cannot grasp, we could not ascertain whether their superior intelligence (as we suppose the feared machines would be enabled with) is good or evil, or just more complex than ours.
Nevertheless, there is still a additional third assumption which accompanies all the warnings about the perils of thinking machines: that they are a physical shell inhabited by an Artificial Intelligence. Inspired by Gilbert Ryle’s critique of Cartesian Dualism, we can state that the belief of Intelligent Machines provided with an autonomous volition rests upon the said assumption of an intelligence independent from its physical body: a self-conscious being whose thoughts are fully independent from the sensory apparatus of its body and whose sensations are fully independent from the abstract classification which its mind operates by.
The word “machine” evokes a physical device. However, a machine might as well be an abstract one. Abstract Machines are thought experiments compounded by algorithms which delivers an output from an input of information which, in turn, could be used as an input for another circuit. Theses algorithms can emulate a decision making process, providing a set of consequences for a given set of antecedents.
In fact, all recent cybernetic innovations are the result of the merging of abstract machines with physical ones: machines that play chess, drive cars, recognize faces, etc.. Since they do not have an autonomous will and the sensory data they produce are determined by their algorithms, whose output, in turn, depends on the limitation of their hardware, people are reluctant to call their capabilities “real intelligence.” Perhaps the reason of that reluctance is that people are expecting automata which accomplish the Cartesian Dualism paradigm of a thinking being.
But what if an automaton enabled with an intelligence superior to ours has already existed and is ruling at least part of our lives? We do not know of any being of that kind, if for a ruling intelligent machine we regard a self-conscious and will-driven one. But the ones who are acquainted with the notion of law as a spontaneous and abstract order will not find any major difficulty to grasp the analogy between the algorithms that form an abstract machine and general and abstract laws that compound a legal system.
The first volume of Law, Legislation, and Liberty by Friedrich A. Hayek, subtitled “Norms [Rules] and Order” (1973), is until today the most complete account of the law seen as an autonomous system, which adapts itself to the changes in its environment through a process of negative feedback that brings about marginal changes in its structure. Abstract and general notions of rights and duties are well-known by the agents of the system and that allows to everyone to form expectations about the behaviour of each other. When a conflict between two agents arises, a judge establishes the correct content of the law to be applied to the given case.
Notwithstanding our human intelligence -using its knowledge about the law- is capable of determining the right decision to each concrete controversy between two given agents, the system of the law as whole achieves a higher degree of complexity than any human mind might reach. Whereas our knowledge of a given case depends on acquiring more and more concrete data, our knowledge of the law as a whole is related to more and more abstract degrees of classifications. Thus, we cannot fully predict the complete chain of consequences of a singular decision upon the legal system as a whole. This last characteristic of the law does not mean its power of coercion is arbitrary. As individuals, we are enabled with enough information about the legal system to design our own plans and to form correct expectations about other people’s behaviour. Thus, legal constraints do not interfere with individual liberty.
On the other hand, the absolute boundary to the knowledge of the legal system as a whole works as a limitation to the political power over the law and, thence, over individuals. But, after all, that is what the concept of rule of law is about: we are much better off being ruled by an abstract and impersonal entity, more complex than the human mind, than by the self-conscious -but discretional- rule of man. Perhaps, law is not at all an automaton which rules our lives, but we can ascertain that law -as a spontaneous order- prevents other men from doing so.
Once, in another place, I had pointed out the misunderstandings of the common interpretation of Hayek’s road to serfdom thesis. This was not an unintended process by which government intervention on markets inevitably leads to further and increasing interventions. That might be Ludwig v. Mises’ thesis, but not Hayek’s.
What Hayek stated in The Road to Serfdom was that the checks- and-balances system of modern constitutionalism appears as an obstacle to the quick achievement of the concrete ends that an interventionist policy aims for. Thus, the road to serfdom is an unintended process by which legal constitutional processes are eroded by decisions based on expediency.
On that occasion it was left pending to solve the question of where the confusion on the central thesis of “The Road to Serfdom” came from.
The source of the answer to this question is yet Ludwig v. Mises. The Road to Serfdom was first published in 1944, but, previously, in essays published in 1935, we find Hayek, still heavily influenced by L. v. Mises, stating opinions that are very similar to the common confusion about the meaning of the road to serfdom: “In fact, however, if by planning is meant the actual direction of productive activity by authoritative prescription to be used, or the prices to be fixed, it can be easily shown, not that such a thing is impossible, but that any isolated measure of this sort will cause reactions which will defeat its own end, and that any attempt to act consistently will necessitate further and further measures of control until all economic activity is brought under one central authority” (“Socialist Calculation I: The Nature and History of the Problem”, first published in Collectivist Economic Planning, London, 1935, and reprinted in Individualism and Economic Order, Chicago, 1948).
F. A. Hayek did not change his opinions of 1935 in The Road to Serfdom (1944), he just shifted the realm of his inquiry from economics to political philosophy. Nevertheless, it would be a crass error to judge Hayek’s political and legal theory -for good or for bad- using his former opinions as an economist.
A few days ago, controversy exploded in the world of academic philosophy as a new article, published in the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia, earned itself a letter calling for retraction by over eight hundred scholars on the basis that its availability “causes harm.”
Rebecca Tuvel’s article, “In Defense of Transracialism,” argues that the same sort of theoretical support used to justify transgender persons entails, logically, support of the transracial individuals. Tuvel details the claims of Rachel Dolezal, who made major news last year, as a woman “presenting as a black woman for some years [though] her parents are in fact white” (Tuvel, 263). She posits sensible criteria that seem essential to a “successful identity transformation”: self-identification and the willingness of society to accept an identification. Then, she covers literature from biology, neuroscience, and critical race and feminist theory, to ultimately present the idea that, potentially, a concept of racial identity could turn on those criteria rather than notions like ancestry due to exclusionary concerns, a “normativity problem” (274).
The paper is about what our acceptance entails. Although it is entirely about furthering tolerance, the treatment of Tuvel online has been egregious. Some of it can be found on Twitter. One of the more extreme takes, by Nora Berenstain (archived here), outright accuses Tuvel of violence. In a response, Tuvel says she has received hate mail, but that few online have actually dealt with the questions of her article. Brian Leiter even offered to set up a fundraising endeavor if Tuvel decides to seek legal reparation for the defamation circulating online, as it could causes issues with her professorship. Hypatia released a statement apologizing for the article, saying now they understand it was “unacceptable.”
Why was the feminist philosophy community so upset?
Daily Nous, a philosophy blog, has outlined the reasons the writers of the open letter gave for retracting Tuvel’s essay, and the shortcomings and incoherence of those reasons. Upon reading her essay, one finds that Tuvel is empathetic to trans causes, is entrenched in critical and queer literature, and genuinely only wants to explore some philosophical issues raised by Dolezal’s claims. Some of her offenses, according to Berenstain and the open letter, were deadnaming (using a transgender person’s previous name), using terminology like “transgenderism,” discussing biological sex, and not citing sources by black authors.
These particular misdeeds ran the gamut on social media. The open letter accused Tuvel of some academic concerns like mischaracterization and unpopular vocabulary. Critics on Twitter were more concerned with focusing on Tuvel as a “cishetero white wom[an refusing] to listen to cis black women and trans folks,” committing “cis white bullshit.” Noah Berlatsky wrote a shallow criticism that spends most of its time discussing how the article will be used against transpeople, and the other large bulk on Tuvel’s ignorance of history — as if history is somehow relevant to the logical consequences of a few philosophical commitments. He, again, fails to engage with it academically. It’s true that Tuvel could have incorporated more work on trans history; it’s also true that it in no way effects her basic argument.
Some responses revealed the ideological reasons for opposing Tuvel’s research. Dianna E. Anderson writes, “my problem as a philosophy undergrad… [was that] philosophy seems to separate itself out into a moral vacuum where every question is ‘just asking’ … there has to be a moral framework guiding which questions you’re asking and why … that’s why I grounded my higher education in Women’s Studies, where moral parameters are drawn around questions.” Incidentally, this is one of the two reasons the Church censored Galileo: first, it thought Galileo to be factually inaccurate; second, it had a boundary — theology of the Bible — past which speculation could not take place; cosmological and astronomical theorizing were not to transgress this line. Anderson commits herself to Women’s Studies as a place where stifling zones are set up; dogmas that may not be passed. (Funny enough, the first reason the Church employed censorship has not been picked up by Tuvel’s opposition.)
The non-scholarly attacks on Tuvel don’t hold water, which a short turn to the essay reveals. Daily Nous covered most of those points, and Jesse Singal at NY Mag addressed, again, the extent to which the criticisms avoided a critical look at the actual arguments contained within. Tuvel is not a transmisogynist. For some people outside of feminist academic philosophy, she would probably even seem like a caricature of an “ultra-leftist.” The attacks on her are antithetical to academic humility: among them ad hominems, appeals to authority, slippery slopes and strawmen. The academic environment necessary for such an unscholarly attack on a philosopher for not being aligned enough with the contemporary orthodoxy — and that is all it seems to boil down to — is very unnerving to those acquainted with the historical censorship of ideas. Adding to this, Hypatia is named for Hypatia of Alexandria — a female Greek philosopher murdered for inciting controversy. The irony seems to be lost on everyone.
The reasons given in the open letter to retract the article seem to merit, at most, a slight semantic revision. The scholars, among them Judith Butler, instead want a full apology and censorship. So then, what remains is to ask about the environment of philosophy that enabled this. Hypatia identifies itself as a “forum for cutting-edge work in feminist philosophy” … it also states that “feminist philosophy arises out of diverse traditions and methods within philosophy,” and commits to engage and uplift diversity within the field. Diversity in a continental philosophy journal might mean pluralistic methodology, e.g., hermeneutics, phenomenology, deconstrucion, dialectics, etc. Here, instead, the emphasis is on diversity of identity, which is seen as the foundation of “lived experience” (per the apology), which, it is conferred, provides access to enriched understanding.
Viewpoints from identities outside the mean are given an authority justified by conditions of their birth, rather than the authority of sound argumentation. What is important is some sort of status possessed. There’s an analogue available from another field in humanities: F. A. Hayek was opposed to the Nobel Prize in economics on the argument that no economist should be given so much power: the award “confers on an individual an authority which in economics no man ought to possess… the influence of an economist that mainly matters is an influence over laymen: politicians, journalists, civil servants and the public generally.” In essence, the argument becomes lost; the audience awards merit and attention based on something other than good reasons. In the case of Hypatia‘s readership, the audience seems to award attention based on identity.
It is, however, truly naïve to think the history of philosophy is the prevailing of logic over fallacy; that schools become popular because of their intrinsic validity, that logos always triumphs over our other baser means of evaluation. All sorts of humanistic factors, like creativity, freshness, propaganda, aesthetic appeal and explanatory power serve to elevate certain philosophies or cosmologies over others. This multiplicity of influences, however, doesn’t mean that reason as a guiding principle should be explicitly subsumed under the authority of influences like pathos or ethos, or skin color.
“In Defense of Transracialism” used argument to attempt to unravel some ongoing mysteries about gender and race. Tuvel approached the question of transracialism from a commitment to other philosophical commitments about gender and sexual identification. It was a question about what follows from our beliefs. Per Plato, philosophy begins in wonder: the critical endeavor to evaluate even our most cherished opinions, explore the incomprehensible world, and examine what incongruities appear in our web of belief.
Because of this, her essay was decisively feminist, in that it examined natural consequences of feminist theory while retaining some basic tenets (like the validity of transpeople, and, maybe, racial social constructivism). Combined with her level of analysis, there’s no question that it could only belong to a feminist philosophy journal. And it does belong.
Her article was criticized not for failing to reach sufficient level of rigor in analysis, but for insensitivity in dealing with touchy subjects. Imagine if Frank Jackson had never published his thought experiment on Mary’s Room, about the experience of the color red, for fear of offending the colorblind. Or if Descartes never released his Meditations, for fear the wax example would offend vegans that don’t eat honey.
In fact, returning to the 17th century, the Tuvel situation is reminiscent of Descartes’ reluctance to publish on the heliocentric universe, after the Inquisition’s treatment of Galileo a few years earlier. When professors in the academic philosophy community, like Nora Berenstain, condemn Rebecca Tuvel for “discursive violence” for publishing an article, and call for retraction rather than debate, it aligns Tuvel with Hypatia of Alexandria, Boethius, von Hochheim, Galileo, Łyszczyński and others as victims of orthodoxical demands for acculturation and censorship in their honest pursuit of advancing understanding.
Berenstain would have been better to react as Tolosani did against Copernicus, attempting to use philosophy and scientific data to dismantle the latter’s controversial viewpoints. Instead, Tuvel’s apparent lack of citations for black or trans authors (though there are plenty of nonwhite philosophers — Quayshawn Spencer, Charles Mills, Meena Krishnamurthy, Esa Diaz-Leon (detailed here) — who have entertained the idea that Dolezal could be transracial) was like a crime to a community not concerned with analysis, as analytic philosophy is supposed to be, but a bizarre appeal toward identitarian ethos. Tuvel says “Calls for intellectual engagement are also being shut down because they ‘dignify’ the article.”
By acquiescing to the complaint, Hypatia has allowed for the possibility of a “chilling effect” on speech in academia: authors may self-censor to fit orthodoxy or risk the hate mail and potential threats to tenure Rebecca Tuvel now faces. This is disastrous for the institution of knowledge and a culture that used to be centered around expression. In the words of Greg Lukianoff, free speech is a cultural value, not just something on the Bill of Rights. “Free speech is the antithesis of violence”: it was created, as an innovation, so that we wouldn’t need the threat of force to settle issues.
Tuvel’s conclusion — “that society should accept such an individual’s decision to change race the same way it should accept an individual’s decision to change sex” (275) — is not violent, nor are her premises or methodology. Censorship in philosophy mirrors censorship on campuses: much like protestors disrupted Charles Murray without engaging with his research (and possibly completely misunderstanding it), philosophers chastised Tuvel for minor semantic offenses or lack of adherence to certain trends; each offender expressed heterodoxy where only homogeneity was desired.
The path of philosophy, from Plato to Putnam, has always been controversial. Race and gender, multicultural studies professors always declare, are exceedingly difficult to talk about: therefore, they are perfect fodder for philosophical exploration. To deal with these concepts, one does not have to be black, white, male, female, cis, trans or non-binary — one must only desire honest discovery, and proceed with argument in a way that is open to debate. The last established orthodoxy in philosophy was Stalin’s enforcement of dialectical materialism in the Soviet Union, when laws of statistics, Einstein’s theories of relativity, evolutionary biology and non-Pavlovian psychology were dismissed as pseudoscience. In a free society, the best way to deal with unfamiliar opinions is to debate them, not to call for censorship.
There are only two ways an argument can be wrong: the premises are false, or the conclusion does not follow. The attacks on Tuvel showed an unwillingness to examine either. Without willingness to argue, philosophy — and clarification on these important, mysterious issues — will suffer.
I have spent a couple of posts addressing various spurious economic and fiscal arguments against looser immigration restrictions. But, as Brandon pointed out recently, these aren’t really the most powerful arguments for immigration restrictions. Most of Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric revolves around strictly alleged cultural costs of immigration. I agree that for all the economic rhetoric used in these debates, it is fear of the culturally unfamiliar that is driving the opposition. However, I still think the tools of economics that are used to address whether immigration negatively impacts wages, welfare, and unemployment can be used to address the question of whether immigrants impact our culture negatively.
One of the greatest fears that conservatives tend to have of immigration is the resulting cultural diversity will cause harmful change in society. The argument goes that the immigrant will bring “their” customs from other countries that might do damage to “our” supposedly superior customs and practices, and the result will be a damage to “our” long-held traditions and institutions that make “our” society “great.” These fears include, for example, lower income immigrants causing higher divorce rates spurring disintegration of the family, possible violence coming from cultural differences, or immigrants voting in ways that are not conducive to what conservatives tend to call “the founding principles of the republic.” Thanks to this insight, it is argued, we should restrict immigration or at least force prospective immigrants to hop through bureaucracy so they may have training on “our” republican principles before becoming citizens.
There are a number of ways one may address this argument. First, one could point out that immigrants face robust incentives to assimilate into American culture without needing to be forced to by restrictive immigration policies. One of the main reasons why immigrants come to the United States is for better economic opportunity. However, when immigrants are extremely socially distant from much of the native population, there a tendency for natives to trust them less in market exchange. As a result, it is in the best interest of the immigrant to adopt some of the customs of his/her new home in order to reduce the social distance to maximize the number of trades. (A more detailed version of this type of argument, in application to social and cultural differences in anarchy, can be found in Pete Leeson’s paper Social Distance and Self-Enforcing Exchange).
The main moral of the story is that peaceable assimilation and social cohesion comes about through non-governmental mechanisms far more easily than is commonly assumed. In other words, “our” cultural values are likely not in as much danger as conservatives would have you think.
Another powerful way of addressing this claim is to ask why should we assume that “our” ways of doing things is any better than the immigrant’s home country’s practices? Why is it that we should be so resistant to the possibility that culture might change thanks to immigration and cultural diversity?
It is tempting for conservatives to respond that the immigrant is coming here and leaving his/her home, thus obviously there is something “better” about “our” cultural practices. However, to do so is to somewhat oversimplify why people immigrate. Though it might be true that, on net, they anticipate life in their new home to be better and that might largely be because “our” institutions and cultural practices are on net better, it is a composition fallacy to claim that it follows from this that all our institutions are better. There still might be some cultural practices that immigrants would want to keep thanks to his/her subjective value preferences from his or her country, and those practices very well might be a more beneficial. This is not to say our cultural practices are inherently worse, or that they are in every instance equal, just that we have no way of evaluating the relative value of cultural practices ex ante.
The lesson here is that we should apply FA Hayek’s insights from the knowledge problem to the evolution of cultural practices in much the way conservatives are willing to apply it to immigration. There is no reason to assume that “our” cultural practices are better than foreign ones; they may or may not be, but it is a pretense of knowledge to attempt to use state coercion to centrally plan culture just as it is a pretense of knowledge to attempt to centrally plan economic production.
Instead of viewing immigration as a necessary drain on culture, it may be viewed as a potential means of improving culture through the free exchange of cultural values and practices. In the market, individuals are permitted to experiment with new inventions and methods of production because this innovation and risk can lead to better ways of doing things. Therefore, entrepreneurship is commonly called a “discovery process;” it is how humanity may ‘discover’ newer, more efficient economic production techniques and products.
Why is cosmopolitan diversity not to be thought of as such a discovery process in the realm of culture? Just as competition between firms without barriers to entry brings economic innovation, competition between cultural practices without the barrier to entry of immigration laws may be a means of bettering culture. When thought of in that light, the fact that our cultural traditions may change is not so daunting. Just as there is “creative destruction” of firms in the marketplace, there is creative destruction of cultural practices.
Conservative critics of immigration may object that such cultural diversity may cause society to evolve in negative ways, or else they may object and claim that I am not valuing traditions highly enough. For the first claim, there is an epistemic problem here on how we may know which cultural practices are “better.” We may have our opinions, based on micro-level experience, on which cultural practices are better, and we have every right to promote those in non-governmental ways and continue to practice them in our lives. Tolerance for such diversity is what allows the cultural discovery process to happen in the first place. However, there is no reason to assume that our sentiments towards our tradition constitute objective knowledge of cultural practices on the macro-level; on the contrary, the key insight of Hayek is it is a fatal conceit to assume such knowledge.
As Hayek said in his famous essay Why I’m Not a Conservative:
As has often been acknowledged by conservative writers, one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such, while the liberal position is based on courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead. There would not be much to object to if the conservatives merely disliked too rapid change in institutions and public policy; here the case for caution and slow process is indeed strong. But the conservatives are inclined to use the powers of government to prevent change or to limit its rate to whatever appeals to the more timid mind. In looking forward, they lack the faith in the spontaneous forces of adjustment which makes the liberal accept changes without apprehension, even though he does not know how the necessary adaptations will be brought about. It is, indeed, part of the liberal attitude to assume that, especially in the economic field, the self-regulating forces of the market will somehow bring about the required adjustments to new conditions, although no one can foretell how they will do this in a particular instance.
As for the latter objection that I’m not valuing tradition, what is at the core of disagreement is not the value of traditions. Traditions are highly valuable: they are the cultural culmination of all the tacit knowledge of the extended order of society and have withstood the test of time. The disagreement here is what principles we ought to employ when evaluating how a tradition should evolve. The principle I’m expressing is that when a tradition must be forced on society through state coercion and planning, perhaps it is not worth keeping.
Far from destroying culture, the free mobility of individuals through immigration enables spontaneous order to work in ways which improve culture. Immigration, tolerance, and cultural diversity are vital to a free society because it allows the evolution and discovery of better cultural practices. Individual freedom and communal values are not in opposition to each other, instead the only way to improve communal values is through the free mobility of individuals and voluntary exchange.
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.
Over at The Liberty Conservative (which is, in my opinion, something of an oxymoronic name), Alex Witoslawski of the Leadership Institute recently wrote an article defending populism as a strategy for libertarian activists to embrace. I am going to disagree with Alex at almost every turn, but it should be known that I am friends with Alex and mean no ill-will towards him. In fact, he privately asked me for my input and asked that I publish my criticisms publicly.
Alex defines populism as “a political strategy that aims to mobilize a largely alienated base of the populace against out-of-control elites.” In order for a movement to be populist, Alex claims it must use four distinguishing factors:
Messaging: the central message obviously has to revolve around the theme of populism – “the people versus the privileged elites”
Strategy: put simply, the central strategy of populism is to bypass the ruling class – academia, mainstream media, and political establishment – in order to get the message out directly to the masses
Tactics: in order to achieve the strategic goal of bypassing the ruling class, populist candidates and organizations must make use of grassroots organizing, events, digital communication (social media and email), and the alt-media to communicate directly with the masses
Issues: the message of “the people vs. the elites” is closely adhered to on every single issue advocated; in addition to this, the policies advocated for must be sufficiently radical to inspire a core base of supporters who will passionately support the populist campaign/organization as donors and activists.
To cite reasons why libertarians should embrace this populist ethos, Alex cites the recent surprising election of Donald Trump and the relatively successful Ron Paul primary campaigns of 2008 and 2012, and gives the example of Lew Rockwell’s and Murray Rothbard’s infamous paleolibertarian phase in the late eighties and early nineties for inspiration. Let me give eight reasons why principled libertarians–and classical liberals–neither can be nor should be populists:
1. Is Populism even Necessary for Electoral Victory?
It’s not even apparent that populism is always and everywhere the best electoral strategy in the first place. The three best turnouts, for example, in LP history for president were the decidedly non-populist Gary Johnson campaigns and the non-populist, left-leaning Ed Clark/David Koch 1980 campaign, ranking much lower with less than half the votes of Clark/Koch was the much more populist Ron Paul 1988 campaign. For further evidence, there were many similarities between populists and progressive parties in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, one of the few major differences were the degree of technocracy and even outright elitism that progressives embraced (populists were more Jacksonian, progressives Wilsonian). Which parties and candidates were more popular at polls? Progressives. All this is, of course, anecdotal and casual historical evidence from which no necessary causality can be established, but so are the examples of Trump vs. Cruz and Rand vs. Ron that Alex gives. There’s likely an empirical political science literature on the electoral effectiveness of populist messaging that might shed light on this question, one with which I am admittedly ignorant, but, at any rate, this is an antecedent point to my main argument.
2. The Narrow Focus on Electoral Politics
Even if populism does win elections, it’s not even clear that’s a good goal. As any good anarchist will tell you, electoral victories are not the only, or even a particularly good, measure of a political movement’s accomplishments. Who can cater to a rationally ignorant and irrational voting population has little to do with whether your ideology is actually improving anyone’s lives. In fact, for reasons I’ll get to in a later, if all you’re doing is winning elections, there’s a fair chance you’re making people’s lives worse. The goal should be to minimize the real world importance of elections, to get politics out of people’s lives, not to make electoral politics the end goal. Consistent libertarianism is (or at least should be), in fact, not really a political movement at all; it seeks the abolition of politics to begin with.
3. Populism’s Democratic Ethos Leads to Support for Bad Policies
Even if you manage to get a majority of voters to vote for ostensibly libertarian politicians, the question of how to implement those principles in real-world policy is much more complex. Populists, because the goal is to “tear down the establishment,” are likely to call for haphazard, potentially dangerous policies which democratize institutions that shouldn’t be controlled by the people (eg., courts, central banks, etc.) and make currently controlled democratic institutions more democratic. It goes without saying that putting coercive institutions in control of rationally ignorant and irrational political actors is pretty rash–be they “elites” like politicians and bankers or “the little guy” like supposedly disenfranchised voters.
Examples of such bad ideas supported by populist libertarians include congressional term limits or auditing the fed. Those policies may have libertarian normative goals, but it requires working technical economics and institutional analysis to know if they’re the best way to work towards those goals. For reasons anyone who knows the first thing about public choice can tell you, the masses will never have such knowledge. In fact, the populist attacks on “the elites” are likely to lead people to detest those who do have such knowledge, exacerbating the Dunning-Kruger effect. (Call me an elitist, but I’d go far as to say that populism of any form is just the political manifestation of the Dunning-Kruger effect.)
4. Populism will Likely 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 psuedo-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 (Steffan 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).
The irrationality of the masses makes it hard for them to have any principles–libertarian or not–for very long. Indeed, even the examples Alex gives are pretty bad examples of libertarians. Rothbard and Rockwell, of course, embraced outright racist and homophobic nonsense to appeal to their culturally conservative base (sometimes using Ron Paul’s name), which is antithetical to the classically liberal ethos of libertarianism which values reducing all forms of coercion–be it through casual institutional forms of oppression or statist coercion.
5. Populism’s Demand for Immediate Change is Likely to Cause Unforeseen Harm
Unlike other methods Alex mentions, populism is a form of immediatism. It really is just a post-enlightenment, first-world, institutionally democratic form of revolution. It’s no coincidence that most populist movements, from Bernie Sanders to Ron Paul rely on the language of revolution to further their appeal. However, there is good reason to be skeptical of any accelerated method of political change–be it “the masses” taking over and overhauling the errors of “the elites,” or violent revolutions like those in late eighteenth century France or early twentieth century Russia.
Institutions and policies often serve tacit functions in society of which we aren’t even focally aware. We are in a radical position of ignorance about what the effects of sudden change that populism demands, such as swapping out entirely who’s in power and changing all policies to the whims of “the masses,” whether those whims are libertarian principles or not. In sum, ironically given the name of the site Alex writes for, populism can never really even be conservative–not in the bastardized tea party or paleo sense, but in the principled Burkean sense. Even if I agree with the ends any political movement aims for, epistemic humility necessitates far more gradualism than populist rhetorical strategy can possibly accommodate.
6. Populism Leads to a Breakdown in Discourse and Awful Praxis
Whether you’re a conservative, libertarian, or liberal, if you are existing in a democracy the main thing you should strive for is to be understood by others. In fact, the alleged raison être for democracy–though famously fails at in its present institutional form–is aiming at better forms of government through arriving at some sort of consensus through open and honest public discourse. In order to have any sort of functional democracy in this sense–which, again, we are already woefully lacking in existing democracies–fulfill the primary function of speech, which is understanding. In order to do this, a necessary norm for discourse to function is the assumption of the good will of all participants in discourse.
The first assumption of populism, much like most crude forms of Marxism, is a violation of what is necessary for such discourse. It assumes, after all, that “the elites” are just an out-of-touch, greedy, mean group of people that “the masses” must depose and everything they’ve done is wrong and must be replaced with the vox populi. Anyone, then, who disagrees–even those within populist movements–is liable of being charged with being “one of the elites” (not unlike accusations of being “bourgeoisie” and “counter-revolutionary” after Lenin’s Vanguard Party took control), and ignored, leading to a communicative breakdown. Discussion is shut off, possible perspectives and principles that could improve the state of affairs are ignored if they bear any even superficial affinity to “the elites,” and one of the few sets of norms–those of communicative action taken from the lifeworld–that make existing democracy at least quasi-functional is replaced with simple partisan hackery. Try talking to your standard dogmatic Trump, Bernie, or even Ron Paul supporter (or really any overly partisan hack, including dogmatic Clinton supporters), and you’ll see exactly what I mean.
7. Populism is Inherently Illiberal and Opposed to Liberty
Populism tells us the problem is that “the elites are in power” and demands that the elites be deposed and replaced with “the masses.” But libertarians say the problem isn’t the fact that the wrong people are in power, the problem is that anyone is in power in the first place. As a consequence, classical liberals have always with good reason been very skeptical of the wisdom of the masses, and have had an ambivalent relationship towards any form of democracy. The radically Jacksonian democratic demeanor of populism, which asserts the masses are equipped to use coercive political institutions, is fundamentally at odds with classical liberalism’s value placed on individual liberty–which asserts that nobody is equipped to use coercive institutions. That’s a fine distinction populist rhetoric necessarily blurs, and you can’t expect “the masses” to understand.
Even if you say you’re just using populist rhetoric to depose those in power, the populist faction of our movement (once “the elites” are out of power) are going to ask, “What’s next?” and are liable to be upset when you say “nothing.” As Hayek tells us, one of the main reasons people get so heavily involved in the political process is that they want to be in charge, that’s true of “the masses” as it is “the elites.”
8. Populist Alliances Often lead to the Destruction of Libertarian Values
Alex mentions the rise of the religious right and other right-wing populist movements as possible fruitful avenues for libertarians to ally with and pursue. However, I’m of the opinion that any sort of fusionism is probably a really bad idea. Not just because many on the religious right want to be unfathomably cruel to me because I’m gay, but because libertarians have philosophical, fundamental disagreements with the people in those movements that cannot be bridged. It is simply not true that the religious right and nationalists are “anti-statist in their nature,” the fact that he cites “forced integration” from immigration supported by nationalists (derived from an infamously bad argument by Hoppe) as common ground is telling. Indeed, if you press most “fusionist” “conservatarians” (including paleos) or “liberaltarians” very far, you’ll find that outside of a few superficial single issues on which they agree with some libertarians, they do not even remotely understand or apply the principles very widely at all. If your movement is composed of walking Dunning-Krugers who do not really understand the extent to which coercive is possible and are not able to engage in constructive dialogue and you’re relying on rhetoric of “take power from the elites” to motivate them, you’re probably not going to have a very libertarian movement.
To illustrate, there’s no reason why “populism” needs to take on a right-wing flair for libertarians at all. In Rothbard’s young years, for example, he attempted to ally with left-wing populist progressives from the anti-war movement. Today, I could say, libertarians should ally with left-wing Sanders supporters. They, after all, share a skepticism towards foreign policy intervention, attacks on social freedom for religious freedom, and corporatist crony capitalism. In fact, there’s a case to be made that Sanders’ supporters are more libertarian than Trump’s, though I don’t necessarily agree with it. Regardless, it is worth noting libertarians have philosophically more in common with those on ‘the left’ in general, but that’s, again, an antecedent point.
Alex would probably reply “But Sanders supporters are socialists, and are fundamentally opposed to libertarians.” Ignoring the fact that neither Sanders nor most of his supporters are really socialists, he’d mostly be right that they are fundamentally opposed libertarianism. Regardless, Trump supporters are nationalist–which Hayek famously called “the twin brother of socialism”–and are fundamentally opposed to libertarians. Alex might reply, correctly, that some right-wingers can become libertarians by engaging with the populist movement, but so can Sanders supporters. All that point establishes is libertarians should communicate with non-libertarians, and work with non-libertarians on single-issues with which we agree, that need not take on a populist flavor.
If we’re going to forego a focus on electoral politics, and not to populism, what should we replace it with? Alex mentions two possible alternatives:
Hayekian educationism, named after Friedrich Hayek’s theory of social change expounded in his essay “The Intellectuals and Socialism,” relies first on persuading a core group of intellectuals to adopt libertarian ideas. Then, according to Hayek’s model, those intellectuals persuade a growing number of what Hayek calls “second-hand dealers in ideas” like journalists, teachers, and politicians to propagate their ideas among the general populace.
Fabian incrementalism, named after the Fabian socialists of late 19th century Britain, relies on a similar group of individuals – intellectuals, journalists, and policy wonks – to persuade government bureaucrats and politicians to adopt gradual changes in policy. This, performed consistently over a long period of time will, theoretically, lead to the adoption of long-term social changes that the reformers set out to achieve.
First of all, Alex misunderstands Hayek’s theory of social change. The claim is n’t that you “persuade a core group of intellectuals to adopt libertarian ideas,” and completely ignore political actors and everyday people, the idea is that ideas coming from intellectuals filter down into the extended order of society and eventually become actualized. It’s not as if you just convince a bunch of professors and philosopher kings that you’re right and they’ll create a libertarian utopia, it’s that you put the ideas out there and they eventually filter down, a messy process which takes an extremely long time (possibly centuries), and one which libertarians have really only barely started.
A necessary thing that must occur before they actually become actualized is that the general population is at least subsidiarily aware of the ideas, which requires communicating with the general population in some form (which can and should include what Alex calls “grassroots organizing,” like engaging with them through the electronic forms and the alt-media). But that communication cannot take on the populist message for reasons given, it requires education and dialogue, it requires populizers–which can include educators, journalists, communicators, activists, and even to some extent politicians (though they are not acting qua politicians in the ideal typical capacity used in the model when doing this) to communicate with the masses. Contra Rothbard, it’s not about convincing the “ruling class,” it’s about overcoming them.
Regardless, I will agree that the method some beltway libertarians, unfortunately, take from Hayek’s theory of just writing academic journals and white papers is incomplete. You do need to communicate with the masses, but I am heavily skeptical that this communication needs to be political in nature. Alex’s narrow focus on elections leads him to neglect other, possibly more fruitful, methods of social change. You can engage in direct action, agorism, or entrepreneurial action (eg., what Zak Slayback, et. al. talk about in “Freedom Without Permission“). In these forms, it requires actively defending the masses (in direct action), spreading ideas by improving the lives of real people by providing alternatives (agorism and entrepreneurial action), and making the effects of state intervention felt on people (eg., when entrepreneurial innovations, like Uber and Lyft, are taken away, the hypocrisy of regulation is made clear). They all accomplish the goal of making the ideas known, even if tacitly, among the masses, while adding bonuses of actually doing things that improve their lives without the riskiness inherent in using coercive institutions like elections to do so.
Though those aren’t necessarily at odds with populism (or Hayekian educationalism for that matter; in fact, I think it’s an inherent part of Hayek’s theory of social change), I put far more faith in these than in elections in which irrational, ignorant people only legitimize the state. Socio-political change happens at the micro-level, through everyday social interactions, through lived real-world experiences, through you reading this article, through good discourse and conversation. If you want to change, you need to alter the lifeworld in which individuals live, just focusing on getting “the masses” to turn out the polls is insufficient. Political activism can only get you so far.