I wanted to address a recent article in The Daily Beast, written by their token conservative, Matt Lewis, and entitled “The Insidious Libertarian-to-Alt-Right Pipeline.”
Lewis’ thesis is that “a disproportionate number of today’s prominent alt-righters began as libertarians.” Lewis talked to various libertarians for the article, including The Cato Institute’s David Boaz, who told him, “People change ideologies all the time… Jason Kessler apparently was in Occupy Wall Street before he became an alt-right leader. The original neocons were leftists first. Hillary was a Goldwater Girl.” Boaz also said: “Some people may become libertarians because they’re angry… For a while, it’s enough to be angry at the government. But ultimately libertarianism is about peaceful cooperation―markets, civil society, global trade, peace―so it just isn’t angry enough for some people. Racial intolerance is a way to be angry at the whole world. And I think you hear that in some of the alt-right types.” Lewis also quoted Steve Horwitz of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians site, who points out: “The paleo-libertarian seed that Ron Paul, Murray Rothbard, and Lew Rockwell planted in the 1990s has come to bear some really ugly fruit in the last couple of years as elements of the alt-right have made appearances in various libertarian organizations and venues”.
Nick Gillespie of Reason magazine, who was interviewed for this piece, nevertheless responded to it, saying “there is no “pipeline” between libertarianism and the alt-right. The alt-right—and Trumpism, too, to the extent that it has any coherence—is an explicit rejection of foundational libertarian beliefs in “free trade and free migration” along with experiments in living that make a mess of rigid categories that appeal to racists, sexists, protectionists, and other reactionaries. In that sense, the call by Hot Air‘s Taylor Millard for libertarians to purge white supremacists, anti-Semites, and living, breathing Nazis from our movement is misdirected since such people by definition are not libertarian.”
I personally think Gillespie protests too much, because there are clearly a lot of un-libertarian right-wingers who nevertheless identify themselves to the public as libertarians. But we do need to state why libertarianism itself is not the issue.
Broadly, part of the issue is that leftists aren’t the only ones who have the wrong idea about libertarianism. It is no longer worth recounting the number of people I’ve seen on social media yapping that “libertarians are just Republicans who like dope” as though that were an original or profound observation. Unfortunately I’m coming to think that liberals have lost the ability to come up with original observations on this subject or any other.
But certainly it’s true that many people have the wrong idea. It stands to reason if the libertarian virtue can be broadly defined as “freedom” or individualism. But that leads to a herding-cats problem where you have to get a bunch of declared individualists to get on the same page with something. In particular, it comes down to whether the virtue of freedom for oneself as an individual is an ethic that can be applied universally to other people. It’s insufficient for libertarianism to be reduced to “I don’t want the government telling ME what to do.” Because that attitude is something that everyone has at some point in life. The rich guy doesn’t want to pay taxes. The woman doesn’t want to be forced to carry a pregnancy. If libertarianism is going to expand beyond its current following, it should promote a broader and more challenging ethic. Such as: Do I want the government telling everyone else what to do?
And this is where we come to the issue of the Right having the wrong idea about libertarianism.
So much of leftist criticism of libertarianism comes down to a perception that rights (especially property rights) only apply to “me.” Unfortunately there are a lot of people who justify their bigotry on exactly those grounds. In the article, Lewis gives the example of Christopher Cantwell (aka ‘Crying Nazi‘ ). On his blog, Cantwell mentioned the influence of Lew Rockwell and Hans Hermann Hoppe, and from these concluded “that the libertine (sic) vision of a free society was quite distorted. The society we sought actually would provide far more order and control than [would] modern democratic governments. It would encourage more socially conservative behavior and less compulsory association. Just when I thought I had everything figured out, I was once again reminded of my naivety (sic).” Similarly the sudden fashion in Confederacy apologism actually has its roots in a perception that a government more oriented around the states than a central authority is more conducive to liberty, and these advocates point out, accurately, that the policy of Republican President Abraham Lincoln was a great leap in the promotion of a big nationalist government over one that recognized its limits and the sovereignty of states. (Which makes their current devotion to ‘small-government’ Republicans that much more odd.) As the phrase goes, before the Civil War, Americans would say “the United States are…” and afterward we said “The United States IS.”
It’s just that such a perception also ignores the central contradiction in upholding a state’s “right” to legalize slavery while also declaring that “all men are created equal.” In his blog, Cantwell also said ““People should be free to exercise complete control over their own person and property. If blacks are committing crimes, or Jews are spreading communism, discriminating against them is the right of any property owner. The fact that he may or may not miss out on good blacks or Jews is a risk he takes, and the merit of his decisions will be proven out by the market. Since a libertarian society would permit this, it seemed foolish that I should be compelled to support a democratic government policy which did not”. Again, the concept of “people” seems to specifically exclude blacks and Jews where Cantwell is concerned. But to uphold a value, especially in politics, is to say it applies outside oneself. By contrast, Ayn Rand once wrote: “Since Man has inalienable individual rights, this means that the same rights are held, individually, by every man, by all men, at all times. Therefore, the rights of one man cannot and must not violate the rights of another. For instance: a man has the right to live, but he has no right to take the life of another. He has the right to be free, but no right to enslave another. He has the right to choose his own happiness, but no right to decide that his happiness lies in the misery (or murder or robbery or enslavement) of another. The very right upon which he acts defines the same right of another man, and serves as a guide to tell him what he may or may not do.” (emphasis added)
The danger (to both libertarianism and conservatism) is that disregard for ethics serves to undermine once-valid principles of individual liberty, and political concepts like “states’ rights” (which are at the core of the federal system of government but are undermined by racist arguments). Indeed, many of the “Big Government” expansions we have seen in the last one hundred years, such as the Civil Rights Act, gained support precisely because individual liberty (for blacks and other minorities) was being undermined by arguments ostensibly in defense of liberty (for whites who already held power). Rand opposed the Civil Rights Act for the same reason that Barry Goldwater did: it attempted to legislate not only states’ rights but voluntary association in places like restaurants. But this argument eventually became the basis for the “Southern Strategy” in which the Republican “Party of Lincoln” increasingly shifted its pitch to Southern states, including those that voted Barry Goldwater for President in 1964, even though he also opposed segregation. Which in turn made it that much easier for the Left spectrum to claim that Goldwater in particular and the Right in general were on board with racism. This is only one example of how apparent attachment to principle disregards the moral objective and allows the Left to shape the debate to the general public in ways that their own propaganda cannot achieve.
In any case a lot of right-wingers don’t even have Goldwater’s real (if problematic) level of principle. In Lewis’ article, he references another Bleeding Heart Libertarians blogger, Kevin Vallier, who writes: “So what’s wrong with us? What’s our problem? My answer: the contrarian trap.
“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.”
And Gillespie told Lewis, “It’s ironic that some of these people start off calling themselves libertarian, but they are the antithesis of everything that the libertarian project stands for—which is cosmopolitanism versus parochialism, individualism vs. group identity, and libertarianism or autonomy versus authoritarianism”.
So basically you have a group of people who glommed onto the libertarian label without deep analysis for the sake of being contrarian and used it to promote a tribalist, illiberal and authoritarian politics totally at odds with what the term actually means.
You know, the same way they also call themselves “Christians.”
I need to return to my theory on “polarization” in American politics because this is important. Polarization in America doesn’t work the way people assume it does, where the Democrats become more extreme-Left and the Republicans become more extreme-Right. No. The way it’s turned out in practice is that the Republican Right has become more obsessed with ideological purity as attempts to get things done through the system are stymied not only by Democrats but by moderate “RINOs” and “cucks.” Not only does that mean that the “leftist” agenda of the Democratic Party is muddied by a bunch of center-to-right people who really don’t belong there but no longer have a home in the Republican Party either, it means that the “mainstream” Republican Party becomes more attractive to a certain group. People who are not merely contrarian but angry and intolerant, as Boaz implies. The libertarian movement is not what these people are looking for. Moreover, if being an unpopular third-party movement gives libertarians the freedom to endorse unpopular policies, we also have freedom in that we have no fear of losing votes that we don’t have in the first place. But what party has a chance of changing the laws, enforcing policy on undesirables, and is actively recruiting people with a desire to turn the government into an instrument of right-wing culture war? And what party needs those people to win elections on turnout when they will never appeal to a majority? The Republicans.
Lewis holds that libertarianism is an insidious pipeline to reactionary belief on the Right. The truth turns out to be more insidious: Reactionary thought has built a pipeline to mainstream conservatism.
Lewis concludes his piece by saying that libertarians need to focus on purging the white supremacists from the movement. And that is excellent advice. The problem is that given the much broader following and influence of (what was) mainstream conservatism, it is a lesson that applies much more strongly to conservatives and the Republican Party. And it’s not as though they were not once aware of this. When William F. Buckley sought to forge conservatism as a philosophy that was actually fit to challenge the dominant New Deal liberalism, he and his editors at National Review deliberately sought to frame the definitions of the conservative movement, including a purge of right-wingers like the extremist John Birch Society and the philosopher Ayn Rand (whose main sin was thinking that altruist Christianity was incompatible with capitalism). Eventually National Review came to oppose contemporary segregation – after Buckley had endorsed it. So it’s not like conservatism was a philosophy where people were incapable of reason or unable to change their minds after review of facts. Indeed, that was the reputation for intellect that Buckley and his magazine had built- and it is the reputation that has since been trashed by Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes and the school that holds politics to be less about serious policy and more about stirring up grievances for profit.
What is the difference between that conservative movement and the contemporary one? One example may illustrate.
Austin Gillespie, who legally changed his name to Augustus Sol Invictus, a follower of Aleister Crowley’s Thelemite philosophy who was kicked out of the Ordo Templi Orientis, admits to animal sacrifice, and had run for US Senate in Florida last year as a Libertarian, causing the state party chairman to resign in protest, mainly over his (alleged) support for eugenics. After losing the Libertarian state primary (by 50 points), Invictus identified himself as a reactionary, and in July 13, 2017, changed his party registration to Republican to run as that party’s nominee in the 2018 Senate race.
So any liberals or conservatives who are concern-trolling on the bad influence of reactionaries on the libertarian movement, please consider that “Augustus Sol Invictus” had to change his party registration to Republican because the Libertarian Party didn’t want to be associated with radical fringe weirdos.
In any case the official Libertarian Party is already aware of the problem. In response to the Charlottesville riots, on August 15, National Committee Executive Director Wes Benedict released the following statement: https://www.lp.org/libertarians-condemn-bigotry-irrational-repugnant/
“The Libertarian Party condemns bigotry as irrational and repugnant, and offers its condolences to the family of the woman killed in Charlottesville, Va.
There is no room for racists and bigots in the Libertarian Party. If there are white nationalists who — inappropriately — are members of the Libertarian Party, I ask them to submit their resignations today. We don’t want them to associate with the Libertarian Party, and we don’t want their money. I’m not expecting many resignations, because our membership already knows this well.
The Libertarian Party Platform states, “We condemn bigotry as irrational and repugnant. Government should neither deny nor abridge any individual’s human right based upon sex, wealth, ethnicity, creed, age, national origin, personal habits, political preference, or sexual orientation.”
The Libertarian Party is tolerant and accepting, supporting civil liberties, gay marriage, and freedom of religion for all, including Jews, Muslims, Christians, and atheists. The Libertarian Party supports open borders, civil liberties, racial diversity, and free trade — things that white nationalists abhor.”
Given the influence of libertarianism on the alt-right (or vice versa) Benedict’s warning is probably not enough. But it is unequivocal, and it is clear in stating that racists are not welcome in his Party. That is a lot more than the institutional Republican Party has dared to do.
Which implies that one party is more scared of losing racist votes than the other.