- On the “Muslim Game of Thrones” series Atif Baloch, DW
- Why secession, separatism, and disunion are the most American of values Rebecca Onion, Slate
- A history of America’s exceptional idea Jonathan Leaf, Modern Age
- Populism is a feature of globalization, not a bug Angelos Chryssogelos, Noema
Democracy was once viewed as a counterweight to despotism. Democracy was also once more exclusionary, too.
However, once democratic regimes in North America and France were established in the late 18th century, despotism flourished. How to deal with democratic despotism is at the heart of the conservative-liberal split (socialists embrace democratic despotism).
Conservatives believe a stronger executive “branch” will temper democracy’s excesses, while liberals believe a stronger judicial apparatus will do a better job of keeping democratic despotism at bay. (By “liberals” I mean libertarians.)
Thus Hamilton and Trump argue for a stronger executive branch. Thus Madison and Hayek argue for a stronger judicial branch. Thus Marx and Sanders argue for more power to the people. This is at the heart of all political disagreement, and not just in the United States. Indeed, it’s at the heart of politics itself. Discuss.
I was hanging out in my daughter’s room the other day and noticed a new picture of her on the wall. My daughter is nearly 3 now, but that photo showed to me a person who will someday be a young girl, a woman, a daughter-in-law, a college student, a worker, and, if all goes accordingly, a grandmother or at least a sassy old lady who plays too much bingo down at the local Methodist church.
A little later on that same night, after the kids were tucked in and sleeping and I was on this damned computer doing NOL stuff, I thought about liberty and what it might mean to my daughter, and also about how the meaning of liberty has changed over time in my own mind.
For starters, “liberty” is kind of a corny term now. It’s becoming archaic. “Freedom” has started to become a corny word, too. (Its cause is not helped by American politicians using the term “freedom” to describe Washington’s overseas ambitions.)
Knowing what I know now about the libertarian movement in the United States, I don’t think I will introduce my daughter to the formal movement. No summer seminars, no Reason subscription, no Ayn Rand moment where I hand her Atlas Shrugged and tell her how much that book has changed my life.
I think a better avenue for discovering her freedom will be to encourage her to go to the best college she can get in to (sorry Rick), figure out a way to be grateful for employment, and read plenty of literature and science fiction.
The formal libertarian atmosphere probably won’t be around in the same way it was for us. Will it be more decentralized or more centralized? I don’t know how academic it will be, either. I hope it’s somewhat academic, with more of an emphasis on history and culture rather than economics and philosophy. The think tanks and foundations will still be around. They’ll still be dirty and they’ll still better than the alternatives. We had FEE and IHS. FEE has already fallen off the map. IHS might still be around, but it will have plenty of competition.
What if my daughter discovers my notes on liberty? Will she be proud? Will she giggle? Or worse: Will she be embarrassed? Will she become a libertarian if she stumbles across my writings? It’s too early to say. That photo, though, of a little human being smiling back at me in black-and-white, was profound. She is my daughter, sure, but she is someone different than me. She is her own self.
I think he’s wrong, of course. He’s not wrong about China’s continuing troubles (I agree with him that things will only get worse), but on how these troubles will really begin to flare up. I don’t see class as the major issue, I see nationalism as China’s biggest fault line (and have since at least 2013).
Here’s how I’ve laid it out in my head. Think of Hong Kong and Taiwan, two places that are Chinese but not part of the People’s Republic. Beijing has lots of problems with both polities. Is class or nation a better gauge to use here? Nation! Nobody in Beijing is harping on the riches accrued by democratic Chinese polities. The Communists are drumming up nationalistic furor instead. Nationalism is the better tool to use to understand contemporary China.
Here’s the kicker, though. In order to drum up nationalistic furor, you’ve got have a nation, correct? The problem for China is that it has several dozen nations within its borders (here’s that 2013 post again), and nationalism in China favors the Han ethnic group over the others. The harder Beijing leans on nationalism, then, the more it squeezes out non-Han ethnic groups from its coalition of the willing. And Beijing is leaning hard on nationalism. It’s going to have to lean harder, too, since liberty is apparently not on the table.
Jack Curtis is the latest to submit a piece for NOL‘s “Be Our Guest” feature. A slice:
We will compare China, Russia and the United States. China is a post-communist police state that has never experienced democracy. Russia is a post-communist, quasi democratic republic devolving back into a police state. And the United States is a traditionally democratic republic. Excepting the vagaries of disparate cultures, their three governments seem increasingly similar, revising themselves to adopt the new technology. However, these revisions have not originated only within governments; they also reflect the gradual confluence of the underlying societies.
Do read the rest, and I must point out that Jack has been a long time reader of NOL. For that I am personally grateful. It’s nice to be able to link up and collaborate like this.
Submit your own thoughts to us. Be our guest. Tell your friends, too.
There are some certain incredibly rare constellations of time and space which result in one of a kind decades. The peak of Greek civilization from 5th to 4th century BC, the Californian Gold Rush from 1848–1855 and the Fin de Siecle from 1890-1920. The latter one is of specific interest to me for a long time. Some of the most worlds most famous painters (Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka), philosophers (Ludwig Wittgenstein, Karl Popper, Edmund Husserl) or authors (Georg Trakl, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Arthur Schnitzler) coined the decade. Even more intriguing for me is that the Viennese intellectual live happened in very close circles. All intellectuals being witnesses of the downfall of one of the greatest empires of the 19th century, each discipline coped with this fate in their very own way. Especially if one compares the movements of that time in literature and economics, it becomes clear that the self-imposed demands of the authors and scientists on their science differ considerably.
The Wiener Moderne: Flight into the irrational
Driven by the predictable crumbling of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the anticipated increasing tensions in the multi-ethnic empire and the threating of financial recession, the civil society was teetering on an abyssal edge. Furthermore, the Halleyscher comet was predicted to “destroy” the world in 1910, the titanic sunk in 1912, a European war was lingering just around the corner. Concerning the breakdown of stable order, people sought a way out of ruins of what once has been a stable authoritarian order. When existential threats become more and more realistic, one would expect cultural life to totally drain or at least decrease sufficiently. However, the complete opposite was the case.
At first, art merely revolted against the prevailing naturalism. Why would anybody need a detailed, accurate depiction of reality if reality itself is flawed with incomprehension, irrationality and impenetrability? Missing a stable external framework, many writers turned the back against their environment and focused on the Ego. To express the inner tensions of most contemporary people, many authors sought to dive deep into the human consciousness. Inspired by the psychoanalytical insights provided by Sigmund Freund, who had vivid relationships with many important authors such as Arthur Schnitzler, human behaviour and especially human decision making became a topic of increasing interest. Therefore, news ways of narrating such as interior monologue were founded.
Many writers such as Albert Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Georg Trakl found in transcendence a necessary counterbalance to supra-rational society. Reality and dream blurred into a foggy haze; rational preferences gave way to impulsive needs; time horizons shortened, emotions overcame facts. The individual was portrayed without any responsibility towards society, their family or other institutions. In the Dream Story (By far my favourite book) by Arthur Schnitzler, the successful doctor Ferdinand risks his marriage and his family to pursue subconscious, mysterious sexual needs. If you have the time, check out the movie based on the novel “Eyes Wide Shut” by Stanley Kubrick, truly a cinematic masterpiece.
Karl Kraus, on the other hand, founded the satirical newspaper “The Torch” in 1899 and offered often frequented point of contact for aspiring young talented writers. The content was mostly dominated by craggy, harsh satirical observations of the everyday life which sought to convince the public of the predictable mayhem caused by currents politics. Franz Wedekind, Adolf Loos and Else Lasker-Schüler could use the torch as a stepping stone for their further careers.
What they have in common is their understanding of their craftmanship: It is not of the concern of art to save civilization or to convince us to be better humans, but to describe, document and in a way aestheticize human behaviour. This does by no way means that the Viennese authors of the early 20th century were not politically or socially involved: Antisemitism (Karl Kraus & Arthur Schnitzler), Free Press (Karl Kraus), Sexuality (Franz Wedekind and Arthur Schnitzler) were, for example, reoccurring themes. However, in most works, the protagonist struggles with these problems on an individual level, without addressing the problem as a social problem. Also, the authors seemed to lack the entire puzzle picture: Although many individual pieces were criticized, the obvious final picture was rarely recognized (Especially Schnitzler).
Economics – Role of the scientist in society
Meanwhile in economics another exciting clash of ideas took place: The second wave of the Historical School economist, mainly Gustav Schmoller, Karl Büchner and Adolph Wagner, were waging a war against Austrian School of Economics, mainly Carl Menger. The Historical School sought to identify the patterns in history through which one could deduce certain principles of economics. Individual preferences are not the result of personal desires, but rather the sum of social forces acting on the individual depending on space and time, they asserted. Thus, instead of methodological individualism, methodological collectivism must be used to conduct economic research. To determine the historical-temporal circumstances, one must first collect an enormous amount of empirical material, based on which one could formulate a theory. Austrian Economists, in turn, claim that individual preferences stem from personal desires. Although the Austrian emphasize the constraints emerging from interpersonal interactions, they rejected the idea, that free individuals are confined in their will through culture and norms. Thus, economics is a science of aggregated individual preferences and must be studied through the lens of methodological individualism.
As Erwin Dekker (Dekker 2016) has argued, the works of Austrian Economists must be seen as an endeavour to understand society and civilization in the first place. One must carefully study human interaction and acknowledge the ridiculously small amount of knowledge we actually possess about the mechanism of a complex society before one can “cure” the many ills of humankind. With the socialist calculation debate, Austrian Economist tried to convince other academics of the impossibility of economic calculation in the absence of prices.
Apart from their academic debates, they were very much concerned with the development of common society: Authoritarian proposal, the constant erosion of norms as a foundation for civil society, the increasing overall hostility lead them to the decision to leave the ivory tower of economics and argue for their ideas in public discourse. “The road to serfdom” is THE peak of this development. Hayek impressively explains to the general public the fragility of liberal democratic order and how far-reaching even well-intended governmental interferences can eventually be. Joined by Karl Popper’s masterpiece “The open society and its enemies”, Austrian Economist were now defending the achievements of liberal democracy more vigorously than ever.
It would be exaggerated to claim that the literary-historical “flight into the irrational” had excessive influence on the economic debate between the historical school and the Austrian school. Nevertheless, it has already been proven that intellectual Viennese life took place in a few closely networked interdisciplinary circles. There is no direct connection between the Viennese literary circles and famous contemporary economic circles such as the Mises-Kreis. However, the intellectual breadth of contributions and the interwoven relationships of many contributors became an important point of study in recent years (See: Dekker 2014). Especially Sigmund Freud could have been a “middle man” between Austrians (especially Hayek) and the authors of the Wiener Moderne (especially Schnitzler).
What definitely is remarkable is how different the various scientists and artist reacted to the existential threats of the early 20th century.
Resignation? Internal Exile? Counterattack? There were many options on the table.
The “flight into the irrational” pursued by many, by far not all, authors of Wiener Moderne was a return to surreality, irrationality and individualism. Austrian Economist, however, went from individualism to social responsibility. According to them, scientists had an obligation to preserve that kind of liberal democratic system, which fosters peaceful human cooperation. To achieve this shared goal, many Austrian Economists left the ivory tower of academic debates, where they also fought for the same purpose, and temporarily became public intellectuals; starting a much more active defence of liberal democracy.
The French-Algerian author and philosopher Albert Camus is unarguably one of the most read and thought-provoking intellectuals of the 20th century. Although he mainly gained attention through his philosophical theory of the absurd, which he carefully and subconsciously embedded in his novels, Camus also decisively contributed significant ideas and thoughts to the development of freedom in the post Second World War era. That is why I want to present you five little known things we still can learn from Albert Camus’ political legacy.
Oppose every form of totalitarianism
After the Second World War, socialism spread across Eastern Europe and was proclaimed the alternative draft to capitalism, which was regarded to be one of the reasons for the rise of fascism in Germany. On the other side, socialism was believed to bring about freedom for everybody in the end. Even though many intellectuals at first were attracted by the socialist ideology, Camus instantly saw the dangers of its predominant “the ends justify the means” narrative. He justifiably considered the vicious suppression of opposing views in order to obtain total freedom in the future as an early shibboleth for totalitarianism.
To achieve self-realization, an individual needs personal freedom, which is one of the first victims of totalitarian despotism. Thus, Camus vigorously fought against right or left authoritarian proposals – and for individual liberty, which lead to his conclusion: “None of the evils that totalitarianism claims to cure is worse than totalitarianism itself”.
A diverse Europe
If one thing is for sure, then it is Camus’ unbroken love for Europe. However, his conception of Europe does not portray the continent as a possible source for collectively controlled industry, military or thoughts. In contrast, he depicts Europe as an exciting intellectual battlefield of ideas, in which for 20 centuries people revolted “against the world, against the gods, and against themselves.” Thus, European people are unified through shared ideas and values rather than divided by borders.
That is why he forecasts the emergence of an unideological Europe populated by free people and based on unity and diversity already in 1957. Although he felt a strong love for his homeland France, he notes that an expansion of the realm he defines as “home” does not necessarily affects his love in a negative way. That is why he later on even argued for the “United States of the world.”
Nihilism is not a solution
In “A letter to a German friend” Camus remarks certain similarities between him and the Nazis regarding their philosophical starting point. They both reject any intrinsic, predetermined meaning in this world. However, the Nazis derive an arbitrariness of defining moral categories such as “good” and “evil” as well as a human subjugation to their animal instincts from this perception. Thus, it is allowed to murder on behalf of an inhuman ideology.
Contrary, Camus insisted that this nihilism leads to self-abandonment of humanity. In turn, he argues that we must fight against the unfairness of the world by creating our own meaning of life in order to achieve happiness. If there is no deeper meaning in our existence, every person has to seek happiness in his or her own way. When we accept our destiny, even if it devastating at first glance as he describes it in “The myth of Sisyphus”, we can pursue our own goals and therefore fulfil our personal meaning of life.
Total artistic freedom
Considering his artistic background, Camus’ conception of the value of freedom is quite interesting. Classical liberalist such as Locke and Mill regard freedom as the state of nature: The man is born free and thus freedom is the natural state of any person. Liberty for Camus instead is a necessary condition to fulfil every personal perception of the meaning of life. That is why he particularly emphasizes the invaluable worth of liberty for humanity: When people are not free, they cannot pursue their own meaning of life and thus achieve happiness in an unfair world.
Considering the immense value art personally has for Camus, it certainly reflects a major component in his personal equation towards fulfilment, alongside other interests such as sports and love. Hence, it is not surprising that he was a lifelong supporter of total artistic freedom, which prevents nobody from obtaining happiness through individual perceptions of art. That is why he famously concludes “Without freedom, no art; art lives only on the restraints it imposes on itself and dies of all others.”
Abrogate the death penalty
In the chilling essay “reflections on the Guillotine” Camus insists on the abolishment of the death penalty. Apart from different scientific arguments such as low efficiency and a non-existing deterrence-effect, Camus also points out the general moral fragility of the death penalty: He is deeply worried by the state privilege of deciding over life and death. This privilege is exploited through the death penalty, which solely is a form of revenge. On the contrary, it is only triggering an unbearable spiral of violence instead of preventing it. Alternatively, he argues for being set at labour for life as maximal punishment.
Albert Camus was not an Anarcho-capitalist nor was he a libertarian. Nevertheless, he regarded individual freedom as an essential element of society and examined the inseparable relation between freedom and art. Every true work of art increased the inner freedom of its admirer and thus free art gives scope for individual happiness. One can never solely serve the other – they presuppose each other. Because of his artistic and philosophical roots, Camus provides an unusual moral argument for individual liberty, which makes him worth reading even today.
We tend to think of global migration and the problem of which legal rights people enjoy as they cross borders as modern phenomena. They are not. The question of emigrant rights was one of the foundational issues in what can be called the constitution of the English empire at the beginning of transatlantic colonization in the seventeenth century. This essay analyzes one strand of this constitutionalism, a strand captured by the resonant term, ‘the liberties and privileges of Englishmen’. Almost every colonial grant – whether corporate charter, royal charter, or proprietary grant – for roughly two dozen imagined, projected, failed, and realized overseas ventures contained a clause stating that the emigrants would enjoy the liberties, privileges and immunities of English subjects. The clause was not invented for transatlantic colonization. Instead, it had medieval roots. Accordingly, royal drafters, colonial grantees, and settlers penned and read these guarantees against the background of traditional interpretations about what they meant.
Soon, however, the language of English liberties and privileges escaped the founding documents, and contests over these keywords permeated legal debates on the meaning and effects of colonization. Just as the formula of English liberties and privileges became a cornerstone of England’s constitutional monarchy, it also became a foundation of the imperial constitution. As English people brought the formula west, they gave it new meanings, and then they returned with it to England and created entirely new problems.
This is from Daniel J. Hulsebosch, a historian at NYU’s Law School. Here is a link.
This is a very rough work in progress continuing on from my recent post on ‘Law, Judgement, Republicanism’.
The problems with a free and open political and judicial culture were diagnosed by Max Weber in his discussion of bureaucracy, which itself draws directly and indirectly on various accounts of the problems of bureaucratisation and administration of the social world (which itself began in the 18th century, at least in terms of explicit discussion of bureaucracy). Wilhelm von Humboldt’s comments on bureaucracy in Limits of State Action is, as far as I can see, the first clear instance. Before that, the closest precedents are, I believe, in comments on the rigidity of Roman law in Montesquieu, which may have been at least in part against the laws and legal institutions of France in his own time.
Bureaucratisation and an administered world can themselves be seen as resting on the necessity of an integrated, hierarchical, rigid, and institutionalised legal system of a ‘Roman’ model, which is true even when thinking of ‘common law’ jurisdiction in England and its off-shoots (England, not Britain, because Scotland has its own more Roman system, and differences between English and Scottish legal institutions survived political union). This process, described in various ways by Weber, Schmitt and Foucault, Austrian school liberals and Frankfurt School Marxists, also rested on the simultaneous formation of commercial society and national economy described by Arendt. Arendt’s account is particularly enriched by comparison with Foucault on the emergence of the art of government.
The consequences of these legal, administrative, governmental, and economic processes is that the political sphere is deprived of content as a means for addressing the community as a community of judging, reflective individuals. Politics becomes competition for control of administration and the distribution of economic benefits that come with with this control. The political world is influenced by a drive to the kind of homogenisation favoured by the world of administration and positive law, which turns into struggles about identity and ‘political correctness’. That is, the struggle to define the dominant identity, with claims to a pluralist position still governed by the wish to establish the dominating identity as more tolerant (which can happen in a ‘progressive’ manner), as in a community seen as a community of communities or a ‘conservative’ manner, where there are distinct communities tied to nations or possibly non-interacting historical communities within nations.
Arendt suggests a perspective aristocratic contest in politics taken from Greek antiquity, particularly Athens, as the antidote to the above. Foucault also has a perspective taken from Greek antiquity, of care of the self, which can also be understood as aesthetic techne, in which our capacity for self-affection is developed in self-creation and recreation, though not as a purely aesthetic play. Machiavelli was in some respects the advocate of the modern integrated state, of sovereignty concentrated in an individual who integrates society through the power of his political skill and creation of a dominating rhetoric or symbolism. In Machiavelli, though, we can also see much that comes from Ancient republicanism filtered through the republicanism of the late medieval city states of northern Italy.
There is not just the remnants of ancient republicanism but its transformation in a world where the state is increasingly invested in territorial control, distinct from the personalised nature of the state as understood before (either in the person of the monarch or the persons making up a republic). The ‘cynicism’ of Machiavelli has its starting point in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, where reason is applied to speech in public places, particularly the courts of law and the political assembly. Though Aristotle distinguishes between the rhetoric of courts and assemblies, he does show a commitment to the idea that they belong to a common world of persuasive speech. Rhetoric appeals to the less deductive parts of human judgement, even the parts of human judgement which come from immediate emotional reactions, but never just that.
The prince who is human and animal, moral and self interested, is also the strong lion and the cunning fox, within his animal self. There is a sense of the total possibility: symbolism and self invention of individuals engaged in the political world. The judicial connection with politics and the social world for whom law is in some sense dead, an accumulated wisdom from the ancients now codified and open to commentary, but not part of political life except in the administrative and governmental roles that Machiavelli himself had for a while on the basis of his legal training, mingled with humanistic (Latinate and literary) education.
Even so, we can see some ideas lingering in Machiavelli of the importance of law in political life, so that it is the ‘parlements’, partly independent and locally representative law courts, of France which gives its monarchy some of the liberty of a republic. In The Prince it is the case that the energy of the people defending its state and its liberties, where they have some history, outweighs the power of the princely ruler, so that classical Polybian republicanism of the Discourses is never completely absent from The Prince.
Most significantly, Machiavelli leaves a legacy which can be seen behind the 20th century attempts to find an alternative to an administered social world. There is the charismatic leader in Weber, the agonistic aspects of politics in Arendt, and the ethics of self-creation and transformation of the self in Foucault. The charismatic leader in Weber should not be understood as a dictator or a person above politics, but as the way in which legally and formally constrained politics can still engage with the social world and the free judgements of individuals. The agonistic politics in Arendt is not just nostalgia for Athens, but an account of what it is to have individual goals and public awareness in a political community. Ethics in Foucault is not just self-creation out of nothing or a non-political playfulness, it is about how we can have free judgement in politics and law. The glory the prince seeks in Machiavelli, and by the citizens of a republic, is a way of seeing that politics combines autonomy and prestige as driving forces in a historically located and contingent political community. Machiavelli anticipates the ways that Arendt understands political freedom to be related to a Homeric culture of seeking fame in public life.
An interesting exchange has occurred between Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center and Ilya Somin writing for the Washington Post on the issue of the influence of libertarianism over the modern Republican Party’s erosion of liberal democratic norms. In his initial piece, Wilkinson seemed to argue that the Libertarian view of absolutism in regards to property rights which was a way to offer an emotionally gratifying alternative to socialist redistribution was responsible for the Right’s adoption of a populist outlook which eroded democratic norms, for example, policies like Voter ID and Gerrymandering. Ilya Somin responded by pointing out that the libertarian “absolutist” conception of property rights had next to nothing to do with why many libertarians Wilkinson cites are skeptical of democracy. Wilkinson responded by saying his initial argument was confusingly stated, not that absolutist property rights is driving democratic erosion on the part of the right, by trying to clarify his distinction between “libertarian” and “classical liberal.” Somin pointed out that this response undermines the force of Wilkinson’s initial argument and took issue with some of his other points.
I wish to contribute to this debate because, even though Somin is largely right that Wilkinson’s argument is weakened by his clarification, I think both have missed that Wilkinson has fundamentally misunderstood what right-wing populism is and why it is a threat to democracy. Modern right-wing populism does not try to erode majoritarian democracy, even if it erodes some of the institutional norms which make it possible for modern liberal democracy to function. Rather, populism, in its many forms, weaponizes democratic rhetoric which is premised on the very notions which libertarians and classical liberals critical of democracy seek to challenge. Attempts to tie such criticisms to the modern right is absurd and distracts us from confronting those aspects which are actually threatening about the right’s pathologies. Afterwards, I will comment on some of the other minor confusions into which I believe Wilkinson falls.
Populism and Folk Democratic Intuitions
In Wilkinson’s genealogy, the root of modern libertarianism is an attempt to weaponize classical liberalism’s defense of property against the desire for socialist redistribution. As he tells it, classical liberals like Hayek and Buchanan sought to put trigger locks on democracy in the form of constitutional constraints on majority rule whereas radical libertarians like Rand, Nozick, and Rothbard sought to disarm democracy altogether from violating property rights. This conception leaves no room for any analysis of or support for democratic decision-making. Since the end of the Cold War, the right has continued to believe this absolutist property rights argument was extremely important even after the Red Menace had been slain and so is willing to do anything, including throwing democracy under the bus, to defend property rights. As Wilkinson puts it:
And that’s why ideological free-market conservatives tend to be so accommodating to, if not exactly comfortable with, populist white identity politics. In their minds, mundane left-right differences about tax rates and the generosity of the welfare state are recast as a Manichean clash between the light of free enterprise and the darkness of socialist expropriation. This, in turn, has made it seem morally okay, maybe even urgently necessary, to do whatever it takes—bunking down with racists, aggressively redistricting, inventing paper-thin pretexts for voting rules that disproportionately hurt Democrats, whatever—to prevent majorities from voting themselves a bigger slice of the pie.
In his follow up, after Somin pointed out that irrational factors like partisanship are more likely to influence a voter’s decision than complicated moral theories such as property rights, Wilkinson attempted to make this argument more plausible by giving the hypothetical example of a white working-class republican voter who, while not fully libertarian, uses his thin knowledge of libertarian property rights absolutism as a form of motivated reasoning justifying his erosion of democratic norms:
Burt is a moderately politically engaged mechanical engineer with ordinary civics-class ideas about democracy, as well as a strong distaste for paying his taxes. (He wants to buy a boat.) One day Burt picks up Atlas Shrugged on the recommendation of a friend, likes it a lot, and spends a few weeks poking around libertarian precincts of the Internet, where he encounters a number of libertarian arguments, like Rand’s, that say that taxation violates a basic, morally inviolable right. Burt happens to find these arguments extremely convincing, especially if he’s been idly shopping for boats online. Moreover, these arguments strongly suggest to Burt that democracy is a dangerous institution by which parasitic slackers steal things from hyper-competent hard workers, like Burt.
Now, none of this leads Burt to think of himself as a “libertarian.” He thinks of himself as a Lutheran, a moderate Republican, and a very serious Whovian. He’s suspicious of “free trade.” He’s “tough on crime.” Burt would never disrespect “our troops” by opposing a war, and he thinks legalizing drugs is bananas. Make no mistake: Burt is not a libertarian. But selective, motivated exposure to a small handful of libertarian arguments has left Burt even more indignant about taxes, and a bit sour on democracy—an altogether new attitude that makes him feel naughtily iconoclastic and a wee bit brave. Over time, the details of these arguments have faded for Burt, but the sentiments around taxation, redistribution, and democracy have stuck.
Ayn Rand and the other libertarian thinkers Burt encountered in his brief flush of post-Atlas Shrugged enthusiasm wanted him to be indignant about redistribution and wanted him to be sour on democracy. He drew the inferences their arguments were designed to elicit. The fact that he’s positively hostile to other elements of the libertarian package can’t mean he hasn’t been influenced by libertarian ideas.
Let’s suppose that, a few years later, a voter-ID ballot initiative comes up in Burt’s state. The local news tells Burt that this will likely make it harder for Democrats to win by keeping poorer people without IDs away from the polls. Burt rightly surmises that these folks are likely to vote, if they can, to take even more of his money in taxes. A policy that would make it less likely for those people to cast a ballot sounds great to Burt. Then it occurs to him, with a mild pang of Christian guilt, that this is a pretty selfish attitude. But then Burt remembers those very convincing arguments about the wickedness of democratic redistribution, and it makes him feel better about supporting the voter-ID requirement. Besides, he gives at church. So he votes for the initiative come election day.
That’s influence. And it’s not trifling, if there are a lot of Burts. I think there are a lot of Burts. Even if the partisan desire to stick it to Democrats is doing most of the work in driving Burt’s policy preference, the bit of lightly-held libertarian property rights absolutism that got into Burt’s system can still be decisive. If it gives him moral permission to act on partisan or racial or pecuniary motives that he might otherwise suppress, the influence might not be so small.
The problem here is not just, as Somin says, that this dances around the issue that people like Burt have become less libertarian over time and so it seems silly to blame libertarianism for his actions. It sounds as if Wilkinson has never actually talked to a populist-leaning voter like Burt. If you do, you will not find that Burt is skeptical of democracy or sees himself as defending some important ideal of laissez-faire capitalism against irrational socialist voters who are using democracy to destroy it. It is more likely that you will find that Burt sees himself as defending the “silent majority” who democracy should rightly represent from evil liberal, socialist and “cultural Marxist” elites who are undermining democracy, and how Trump will stop all the elitist liberals in the courts and media from alienating the common man with common sense by “draining the swamp.”
Read, for example, Rothbard’s original call for libertarians to ally with nationalist right-wing populists. In it, you’ll find no mention of how small “d” democracy attacks property rights because voters are rationally ignorant, and you won’t find, to quote Wilkinson, skepticism towards “a perspective that bestows dignity upon democracy and the common citizen’s democratic role.” Instead, you’ll find that the “grassroots” of the right-wing common man like the secessionists and neo-confederates who are defending property rights against the “socialist tyranny” of the “beltway elites,” Clintons, and the Federal Reserve. Modern adherents to this Rothbardian populist strategy define populism as “a political strategy that aims to mobilize a largely alienated base of the populace against out-of-control elites.” It sounds more like a radically majoritarian, Jacksonian screed about how the voice of the people needs to be truly represented.
Importantly, what the libertarian populists are trying to do is take the folk democratic intuitions which populist right-wingers have, intuitions upon which most peoples’ beliefs in the legitimacy of democracy rely, and channel those intuitions in a more thinly “libertarian” direction. Unfortunately, this is why many modern right-libertarians in the style of Ron Paul are impotent against white supremacists and often try to cozy up to them: because an important part of their strategy is to regurgitate the vulgar democratic rhetoric in which populists believe.
By contrast, modern skeptics of democracy in libertarian circles (or “classical liberal” or “cultural libertarian,” whichever semantic game Wilkinson wants to play to make his argument coherent), such as Ilya Somin, Bryan Caplan, and Jason Brennan, fundamentally undermine those folk democratic intuitions. While right-wing populists believe that the “common man” with his “common sense” knows better how the world works than the evil conniving academic elite does, the libertarian skeptic of democracy points out that the majority of voters know next to nothing and fail to be competent voters due to their rational ignorance. While populist voters believe that the voice of the majority should rule our governing structure, public choice tells us that “majority will” is mostly an illusionary concept. While populist voters believe that the “trigger locks” like courts are evil impediments to the people’s will and regularly attack them, libertarian skeptics of democracy view such institutions as the last line of defense against the irrational and ignorant mob of hooligan voters.
In fact, if people listened to folks like Somin and Brennan, populism of the sort that we’ve seen on the right would be an impossible position to maintain. This is partially why Rothbard largely rejected the public-choice analysis on which scholarship like Somin’s depends.
To try to link modern public choice-inspired skepticism of democracy with populism of any form, even in its most pseudo-libertarian form of the late Rothbard, is to grossly misunderstand populism, classical liberalism, and libertarianism. It seems rather odd to blame Somin and company for the rise of a political ideology which their arguments render incoherent. A Nancy MacLean-like conspiracy to undermine majority rule doesn’t have much of anything to do with the modern right when they think they are the majority who’s being oppressed by elites.
Neither is this some trivial matter of simply assigning blame incorrectly. The problem with populism on the right which has eroded American democracy is not that it thinks democracy is wrong, most populists naively have a lot of folk intuitions which imply some sort of vague proceduralist justification of strongly majority rule. Rather, they’ve taken the majoritarian, quasi-Jacksonian rhetoric (rhetoric to which libertarians other than Rothbard and classical liberals alike have mostly been opposed) which democrats often use and weaponized it in a manner that undermines the non-majoritarian norms on which liberal democracy is dependent for functioning. For someone like Wilkinson, who defends liberal democracy vigorously, misunderstanding the very nature of the threat seems like a particularly grave error as it renders his arguments impotent against it.
Democratic Majoritarianism versus Democratic Norms
In part, I think Wilkinson falls for this trap because he makes a conceptual confusion between the non-majoritarian liberal ideals on which democracy depends—towards which most libertarians are sympathetic—and democracy’s institutional form as majority rule. I’ve described this as a distinction between “institutional democracy” and “philosophical democracy” in the past, and have argued that one can uphold philosophical democratic norms while being skeptical of the current institutions in which they are embedded. Wilkinson argues, citing an article by Samuel Freeman, that libertarian absolutist conception of property is inherently illiberal as it implies a sort of propertarian, feudalist order. Of course, Wilkinson neglects to mention a response to Freeman by Peter Boettke and Rosolino Candela claiming that Freeman misunderstands the role property rights play in libertarian theory.
I am not an absolutist natural property rights-oriented libertarian at all, however in their defense, it is wrong for Wilkinson to think that belief in absolutist property rights—even to the point that one becomes an anarchist like Rothbard—means one is necessarily willing to do anything to undermine democracy to defend property rights. As Somin mentions, not all libertarian absolutists in property completely disbelieved in government like Nozick, but more importantly one can be an anarchist who is strongly skeptical of democracy for largely propertarian reasons but still believes, given that we have democracy, certain norms need to be upheld.
Norms such as equality before the law, equal footing in public elections (which Gerrymandering violates), and equal access to political power (which Voter ID laws violate). Just because one believes neo-Lockean arguments about property rights are valid does not mean one cannot coherently also endorse broadly Hayekian accounts of non-majoritarian liberal norms which make it possible for democracies to function (what Wilkinson calls “trigger locks”), even if in particular instances it might result in some property rights violations.
In other words, one can be skeptical that institutional democracy is moral for libertarian reasons while still embracing a broadly philosophically democratic outlook, or simply believe it is preferable to keep some democratic norms intact given that we have a democracy as an nth best possible solution.
What Wilkinson takes issue with is how the modern right attacks the sort of norms which make democracy work, norms with which no libertarian ought to take issue with given that we have a democracy as they are precisely the “trigger locks” which Hayek called for (even if libertarians want much stronger trigger locks to the point of effectively disarming governments). To think these norms are identical with how many libertarians think the specific voting mechanisms which democracy features are flawed is a conceptual confusion.
An Alternative Account of the Relationship between Libertarianism and the Right’s Pathologies
To me, it seems that Wilkinson’s attempt to shoehorn the somewhat nuanced (by the standards of electoral politics, if not by the standards of academic philosophical argumentation) philosophical arguments of Nozick and Rothbard into an account of the rise of Trumpian politics seems fundamentally inconsistent with the way we know voters act. Even if voters sometimes use indirect intellectual influences as a way to reason about their voting preferences in a motivated manner likes Wilkinson imagines, it’s not really explaining why they need to use such motivated reasoning in the first place. Here’s an alternative account:
During the Cold War, as Wilkinson notes, libertarians and conservatives had a common enemy in communism and socialism. As a result, fusionism happened and libertarians and conservatives started cheering for the same political team. After the end of the cold war, fusionism continued and libertarians found it hard to stop cheering for the “red” team for the same tribalist reasons we know non-libertarian irrational voters remain fiercely loyal to their political parties. Today, even though the GOP is becoming extremely less libertarian, some libertarians find it hard to stop cheering for the GOP for the same reasons New England Patriots fans still cheer for Tom Brady after the deflation scandal: old tribalist affiliations are hard to break.
The only real link between libertarians and modern right-wing pathologies are that some voters who have vaguely libertarian ideas still cheer for populist right-wingers in the GOP because they’re irrational hooligans who hate the left for tribalist reasons. This accords better with the fact voters aren’t all that ideological, that they (unlike Burt who’s interested in just lowering his own taxes selfishly) vote based off of perceived national interest more than self-interest, and how we know generally voters behave in partisan tribalist patterns. But this doesn’t make libertarianism any more culpable for the rise of the modern right’s erosion of democratic norms any more than (and probably less than given its limited influence) any other ideological current which has swayed the right to any degree.
How does this make sense of Wilkinson’s only real, non-hypothetical evidence of libertarian influence on the modern GOP, that some right wing politicians like Paul Ryan and Rand Paul sometimes cite Ayn Rand and Rothbard? Politicians sometimes use intellectual influences haphazardly to engage in certain sorts of motivated-reasoning to cater to subsets of voters, even though they overwhelmingly disagree with those thinkers. This why Paul Ryan first praised Ayn Rand, to get some voters who like Rand, and then later emphasized how much he rejected Rand. This is why Rand Paul cites libertarians simply to virtue-signal to some subset of libertarianish voters while constantly supporting extremely un-libertarian policies. Ted Cruz has said that conservatives “should talk about policy with a Rawlsian lens,” but nobody thinks that Rawls has been particularly influential over Cruz’s policy decisions. All politicians do when they cite an intellectual influence is try to play to cater to the tribalist, pseudo-intellectual inklings of some nerdy voters (“I read the same guys as you do, therefore I’m on your team”), it usually doesn’t mean they really were deeply influenced by or even understand the thinker they cite.
Libertarians and Classical Liberals
Let me conclude this article by addressing a side-issue of how to parse out the distinction between classical liberals and libertarians. One of Wilkinson’s ways of clarifying his disagreement with Somin was by claiming that there is something fundamentally different between “libertarianism” and “classical liberalism.” As Wilkinson puts it:
Absolutist rights-based libertarianism isn’t really part of this conversation at all. It’s effectively an argument against liberalism and the legitimacy of liberal political institutions, which is why it’s so confusing that the folk taxonomy lumps libertarianism and classical liberalism together, and sets them against standard left-liberalism. The dispute between liberalism and hardcore libertarianism concerns whether it’s possible to justify democratic political authority at all. The dispute within liberalism, about the status of economic rights and the legitimate scope of democratic decision-making, is much smaller than that.
Thus, Wilkinson seems to think that libertarians think political authority can’t be justified given that property rights are absolute and that classical liberals just think economic liberties should be included as liberal liberties. However, in my view this taxonomy of ideologies is still confused. Many who typically count as “libertarians” do not fit neatly into such a schema and need to be ignored.
You need to ignore significant portions of libertarians who still endorse property rights but think they are insufficient to a full conception of liberty and endorse other liberal freedoms, like the aforementioned Peter Boettke paper. You need to ignore intuitionist libertarians who do not endorse an absolutist conception of property rights but still dispute that political authority is justified at all, like Mike Huemer. You need to ignore consequentialists who do not embrace absolutist property rights as a philosophical position but think some sort of absolutist property-based anarchist society is desirable against liberal democracy, like David Friedman and Don Lavoie’s students. You need to ignore “thick” left libertarians like Charles Johnson and Gary Chartier who endorse libertarian views of rights yet think they imply far more egalitarian leftist positions. Further, you’d need to claim that most people the public readily identifies as some of the most influential libertarians of all time, like Hayek and Milton Friedman, are not actually libertarian which obscures rather than clarifies communication. Basically, the distinction is only useful if you’re trying to narrowly clarify disagreements between someone like JS Mill and someone like Rothbard.
I agree that there are distinctions between “libertarians” and “classical liberals” that can be drawn and the folk taxonomy that treats them creates a lot of confusion. However, it seems obvious if one talks to most libertarians, there is more going on in their ideology than just “property rights are absolute” and that there is a strong intermingled influence between even the most radical of anarchist libertarians and classical liberals. It is also true that there are a small minority of libertarians who are thoroughly illiberal (like Hoppe), but it seems better to just call such odd illiberal aberrations “propertarian” and still treat most libertarians as a particularly radical subset of classical liberals.
Ultimately, however, I think this taxonomical dispute, while interesting, isn’t particularly closely related to the problem at hand: the relationship between right-wing populism and libertarianism.
The author points out that our culture teaches girls to be afraid. Girls are warned to be careful at the playground while boys are expected… to be boys. Over time we’re left with a huge plurality of our population hobbled.
It’s clear that this is a costly feature of our culture. So why do we teach girls to be scared? Is there an alternative? This cultural meme may have made sense long ago, but society wouldn’t collapse if it were to disappear.
Culture is a way of passing knowledge from generation to generation. It’s not as precise as science (another way of passing on knowledge), but it’s indispensable. Over time a cultural repertoire changes and develops in response to the conditions of the people in that group. Routines, including attitudes, that help the group succeed and that are incentive-compatible with those people will persist. When groups are competing for resources, these routines may turn out to be very important.
It’s plausible that in early societies tribes had to worry about neighboring tribes stealing their women. For the tribe to persist, there needs to be enough people, and there needs to be fertile women and men. The narrower window for women’s productivity mean that men are more replaceable in such a setting. So tribes that are protective of women (and particularly young women and girls) would have an cultural-evolutionary advantage. Maybe Brandon can tell us something about the archaeological record to shed some light on this particular hypothesis.
But culture will be slower to get rid of wasteful routines, once they catch on. For this story to work, people can’t be on the razor’s edge of survival; they have to be wealthy enough that they can afford to waste small amounts of resources on the off-chance that it actually helped. Without the ability to run randomized control trials (with many permutations of the variables at hand) we can never be truly sure which routines are productive and which aren’t. The best we can do is to try bundles of them all together and try to figure out which ones are especially good or bad.
So culture, an inherently persistent thing, will pick up all sorts of good and bad habits, but it will gradually plod on, adapting to an ever-changing, ever evolving ecosystem of competing and cooperating cultures.
So should we still teach our girls to be scared? I’d argue no.* Economics tells us that being awesome is great, but in a free society** it’s also great when other people are awesome. Those awesome people cure diseases and make art. They give you life and make life worth living.
Bringing women and minorities into the workplace has been a boon for productivity and therefore wealth (not without problems, but that’s how it goes). Empowering women in particular, will be a boon for the frontiers of economic, scientific, technical, and cultural evolution to the extent women are able to share new view points and different ways of thinking.
And therein lies the rub… treating girls like boys empowers them, but also changes them. So how do we navigate this tension? The only tool the universe has given us to explore a range of possibilities we cannot comprehend in its entirety: trial and error.
We can’t run controlled experiments, so we need to run uncontrolled experiments. And we need to try many things quickly. How quickly depends on a lot of things and few trials will be done “right.” But with a broader context of freedom and a culture of inquiry, our knowledge can grow while our culture is enriched. I think it’s worth making the bet that brave women will make that reality better.
* But also, besides what I think, if I told parents how to act… if I made all of them follow my sensible advice, I’d be denying diversity of thought to future generations. That diversity is an essential ingredient, both because it allows greater differences in comparative advantage, but also because it allows more novel combinations of ideas for greater potential innovation in the future.
** And here’s the real big question: “What does it mean for a society to be free?” In the case of culture it’s pretty easy to say we want free speech, but it runs up against boundaries when you start exploring the issue. And with billions of people and hundreds (hopefully thousands) of years we’re looking at a thousand-monkey’s scenario on steroids… and that pill from Flowers for Algernon.
There’s copyright which makes it harder to stand on the shoulders of giants, but might be justified if it helps make free speech an economically sustainable reality. There’s the issue of yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater, and the question of how far that restriction can be stretched before political dissent is being restricted. We might not know where the line should be drawn, but given enough time we know that someone will cross it.
And the issue goes into due process and business regulation, and any area of governance at all. We can’t be free to harm others, but some harms are weird and counter-intuitive. If businesses can’t harm one another through competition then our economy would have a hard time growing at all. Efficiency would grow only slowly tying up resources and preventing innovation. Just as there’s an inherent tension in the idea of freedom between permissiveness and protection, there’s a similar tension in the interdependence of cooperation and competition for any but the very smallest groups.
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.