Using Negative Collectivist Generalities to Accuse Libertarians of Indulging Negative Collectivist Generalities
The Great Libertarianism/Racism Debate of 2017 takes some weird intellectual turns.
There has been a lot of talk during this long and dreary summer, here and elsewhere, about the connections (or lack thereof) between libertarianism and the alt-right. There have also been plenty of distancing exercises as well, most notably around these parts Zach Weissmueller's "What the Alt-Right Gets Wrong." The broader discussion is becoming its own literary micro-genre at this point, generating not only epic Twitter feuds (Tom Woods vs. Nicholas Sarwark!) and eloquent examinations of fringe movements, but arguably at least part of this summer's greatest academic/literary controversy.
I wish by no means to adjudicate the many ongoing disputes here, whether normie vs. libertarian, or paleo vs. cosmo (or even "Bionic Mosquito" vs. "Libertarian Neocons for McCain"!). But I do think it's worthwhile to point out an unhelpful argumentative tic running through a lot of the discussion, and that is this: In a debate ultimately centered around whether and how much libertarianism has midwifed a movement that nurtures generalized antipathies toward collective swaths of people, essayists are using negative generalizations toward collective swaths of libertarians.
One example this week comes from John Ganz, who wrote a widely shared Washington Post piece titled "Libertarians have more in common with the alt-right than they want you to think." Ganz mostly takes a tour through the grotesque (IMO) "Paleo" strategy of Murray Rothbard and Llewelyn Rockwell, Jr., of the late 1980s and early 1990s, drawing links to modern-day successors. Ganz knows enough about his subject to include the disclaimer, "Perhaps it's not fair to lay blame for Rothbard the heretic at the feet of the mainline libertarian church, which attempted to purge him," but ultimately he does not let such potential unfairness get in the way of a good generalization. Which is this:
The problem is that libertarian principles, which revolve [around] the abstract notion of self-interest, are really not principles at all; they have no content and allow anything to be attached to them. Abstract self-interest alone can provide no instructive rule of thought and can disqualify no particular course of action, because each person is free to concoct what is in their best interest, and because "aggression" can be and has been defined in a variety of spurious ways.
Step 1: Reduce all the various philosophical strands of libertarianism into a single vague thing.
Step 2: Declare that single small thing too simplistic and abstract.
Step 3: Confidently insert Mad-Libs phrases of ominous malevolence, such as, "It's a quick step from here to full-on white nationalism," and "the intellectual wasteland of libertarianism continues to provide a safe space for fascists."
While libertarians certainly over-index for interest in philosophy, celebrating such thinkers as John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, Rothbard, Milton Friedman, and Robert Nozick, among others, it's important to note that A) the aforementioned eggheads and their followers frequently disagreed with one another, often vehemently; and B) even a disproportionate interest in philosophy does not remotely translate into a majority of those who champion "Free Minds and Free Markets" anchoring their ideological identities onto a single declarative sentence.
So while there may be some people I've encountered who consciously tether their entire value systems to "the abstract notion of self-interest," I would bet real Bitcoin that that amounted to a sliver of the 15 percent or so of Americans who are broadly libertarian. In fact, most people who tell me libertarianism is all about self-interest tend to be anti-libertarians (and I tend to contest their reductivism). I am not philosophically inclined, but any shortlist of my own ideological values would include individualism, the pursuit of happiness, equality in front of the law, private markets instead of state capitalism, democratic elections, freedom, human flourishing, peace, and love (because: hippie). I may be a walking advertisement for intellectual waste, but there's zero wiggle room in even that brief list for anything resembling white nationalism or fascism.
As Ayn Rand perceptively wrote, "Like every other form of collectivism, racism is a quest for the unearned…It is a quest for automatic knowledge—for an automatic evaluation of men's characters that bypasses the responsibility of exercising rational or moral judgment." Collectivism, in other words, is not only wrong, it's wrong—it's both immoral and inaccurate. What's weird is to see such inaccuracy—or at least negative collective assertions unbacked by supporting evidence—being used by libertarians to damn libertarians for being insufficiently anti-racist. And yet here we are.
At the Niskanen Center, Jacob T. Levy (Reason archive here) this week gives a finger-wag to colorblind libertarians: "Not to put too fine a point on it," Levy writes, "those who proclaim their commitment to freedom have all too often assessed threats to freedom as if those facing African-Americans don't count —as if black liberty does not matter." Levy names the same villains Ganz does: Rockwell, Rothbard, the odious Ron Paul newsletters. Then he broadens the brief:
But there are ways to neglect black liberty that are subtler than the white nationalism of the Confederatistas. Think about the different ways that market liberals and libertarians talk about "welfare" from how they talk about other kinds of government redistribution. There's no talk of the culture of dependence among farmers, although they receive far more government aid per capita than do the urban poor. Libertarians absolutely and clearly oppose corporate welfare, but they don't do so in the paternalistic language that corporate welfare recipients are morally hurt by being on the dole. The white welfare state of the 1930s-60s that channeled government support for, e.g., housing, urban development, and higher education through segregated institutions has a way of disappearing from the historical memory; the degrees earned and homes bought get remembered as hard work contributing to the American dream. But too many libertarians and their market-oriented allies among postwar conservatives treated the more racially inclusive welfare state of the 1960s and 70s as different in kind. White recipients of housing subsidies hadn't been imagined to become dependent, non-autonomous, or unfree. When the FHA was insisting that neighborhoods be segregated in order to be eligible for mortgage or building subsidies, it contributed a great deal to the racial wealth gap that persists to this day. No free-marketeers of the era felt the need to engage in brave, politically incorrect inquiries into the lower intelligence of new white homeowners that might explain their long-term dependence. But once the imagined typical welfare recipient was a black mother, welfare became a matter not just of economic or constitutional concern but of moral panic about parasites, fraud, and the long-term collapse of self-reliance.
Tellingly, there are no hyperlinks in this generalization-strewn paragraph. Is there really "no talk" among libertarians about "the culture of dependence among farmers"? I found several Reason links to the contrary, including a 1990 article headlined "Cultivating Independence" and a 2001 article that began like this:
Why is there a stigma attached to using government-financed stamps to purchase food but no stigma attached to accepting government money to grow the food in the first place? American farm policy is filled with such stumpers.
Consider that federal cash payments to individuals—the program formerly known as Aid to Families with Dependent Children—were widely criticized for creating intergenerational dependency on the federal government and allowing people to maintain an idle lifestyle. Yet cash payments to American farmers are justified by some precisely because they promote intergenerational dependency on government and allow for an idle lifestyle.
"Libertarians absolutely and clearly oppose corporate welfare," Levy maintains, "but they don't do so in the paternalistic language that corporate welfare recipients are morally hurt by being on the dole." And yet the country's oldest and most successful libertarian magazine has long been deliberately inverting the old "welfare queen" language when it comes to recipients of government largesse. A small selection from the archive: "Confessions of a Welfare Queen," "Florida Finds That Not All Welfare Recipients Are Drug-Addled Pillbillies," "Billionaire Welfare-Queen Liars," "But These Welfare Queens Are Manly!," and so on and so forth. I have little doubt that there are some self-styled libertarians who engaged in race-selective moral panic about welfare recipients, but if so, surely they could be located and hyperlinked, in order to advance the conversation beyond the gross generalization that "market liberals and libertarians talk about 'welfare'" differently than "how they talk about other kinds of government redistribution."
The point here is not that there isn't fertile ground for self-examination about various libertarian intellectual variants, histories, and debates, particularly as regards race—there very much is, and below I list some links to a brief selection of the many such exercises in the Reason archive. But if we truly seek to broaden understanding (beginning with our own), rather than merely sort people into buckets marked "desirable" and "deplorable," the more specificity, the better.
* "Are Property Rights Enough? Should libertarians care about cultural values? A reason debate."
* "Racism, Civil Rights, and Libertarianism: Lessons from the Rand Paul controversy"
* "Libertarianism Is More Than Just Rejecting Force: The 'thick' and 'thin' of libertarian philosophy."
* "A Tale of Two Libertarianisms: The conflict between Murray Rothbard and F.A. Hayek highlights an enduring division in the libertarian world."