Welcome to Reason's Debate Issue: 'You're All a Bunch of Socialists!'

How to disagree with other libertarians


In Milton Friedman's memoir, written with his wife and partner Rose, he recounts the story of the founding of the Mont Pelerin Society in the late 1940s. "Although all of the participants shared the same basic values," Friedman writes of a crew that included Friedrich Hayek, Henry Hazlitt, and Karl Popper, "they were by no means agreed on how to counter the attack on those values, or on the politics required to implement them." This disagreement culminated in a particularly touchy meeting where the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, frustrated with the direction of the conversation, stood up, declared "You're all a bunch of socialists!" and stomped out of the room.

If that is what happens when the gods gather at Olympus, what hope is there for peace among mere mortals?

This story comes up with astonishing frequency whenever a group of libertarians assembles. (What is the collective noun for libertarians, anyway? If it's a herd of cows and a murder of crows, is it a solo of libertarians? A prickle?) The story is typically presented as a fable, a cautionary tale about hot-tempered absolutism. And once someone gets rolling on the oral history of Mont Pelerin, the phrase "herding cats" is rarely far behind (perhaps libertarians could borrow from the cats and use clowder for their collective noun).

To be fair, it isn't hard to draw a dotted line between an individualistic, anti-authoritarian ideology and a distaste for being told to sit down and shut up at a conference. The implied conclusion is fatalistic: Libertarians are uniquely doomed to struggle against our natural extremism, factionalism, standoffishness. Our inability to face the same direction and march together is an inextricable part of our characters and will always spell our defeat against our collectivist enemies.

At least in my experience, however, there's nothing uniquely feline about fans of free markets. Instead, humans everywhere are fractious beasts. PTA meetings and church youth groups can be indistinguishable in tone from the most contentious libertarian gathering. In fact, the situation in the PTA meeting is often worse, because there aren't shared principles to appeal to for resolution. Certainly any colhose of communists (why do they get their own collective noun?) will report similar woes—except, of course, in communist states where dissent means death. And sometimes even then.

What distinguishes libertarians is not the existence of fervent intramural disagreement. But libertarians do have an edge when it comes to finding a way out of conflict. It's a lot easier to solve problems when you aren't trying to get everyone on the same page at the point of a gun. If you don't think there's one right way to live or think or speak, but instead want to build a society where people can make their own choices, form their own institutions, and live as free as possible from coercion, that opens up a larger, clearer space for debate and persuasion without fear.

Reason is, and has long been, a big tent project. Even in the early Objectivist-inflected days, the crew producing the publication could best be described as motley. Reason is the unlikely lovechild of a philosopher, a lawyer, and an engineer (Tibor Machan, Manny Klausner, and Robert Poole, respectively). All three of those paternal lines weave through this issue, which grapples with the abstract (consequentialism or deontology?), the legalistic (is baking a cake speech?), and the practical (how much should we worry about corporate data collection?).

But Reason has been running point/counterpoint articles for its entire history. In the 1970s, the magazine hosted debates over the goals of the Libertarian Party. In 2005, Reason ran a face-off between semiconductor magnate T.J. Rodgers, Whole Foods founder John Mackey, and Uncle Milton himself; Rodgers out-Friedmanned Friedman on the question of whether "the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits," while Mackey articulated a view that went on to form the basis of his "conscious capitalism" philosophy. In 2016, we published a heated debate over immigration between two immigrants, Shikha Dalmia and Harvard economist George Borjas.

Political disagreements can often be sorted into two types: "Where are we going?" and "How are we going to get there?" At some point, of course, some people's answers to "Where are we going?" get far enough apart that they must splinter away. The historical alliance between libertarians and conservatives (especially William F. Buckley's carefully curated National Review variant of intellectual fusionist conservatism) started to decay over the draft and the counterculture, then crumbled at the end of the Cold War, when "We're going to defeat communism" was no longer a useful answer to that question. More recently, some people who once called themselves libertarians departed the movement to pursue a politics based on racial identity and nationalism. When an already-small movement loses members or allies, it's a good time to reflect on what it means to be a libertarian. But it isn't always a crisis—it may even be a good thing.

I don't know whether free speech and open inquiry necessarily lead to the right answers on either type of political question. In fact, I'm skeptical of the idea that enough hollering at each other will eventually hoist us all up to a higher plane of human understanding somehow. But institutions that enable debate do pretty clearly produce higher quality arguments. Airing disagreements requires everyone to strengthen their cases.

If the place you're headed is a world characterized by free minds and free markets, there will always be a place in Reason's pages to hash out the question of how to get there and room for plenty of different responses. (And not just in our print pages: Check out reason.com for several additional debates.)

Latter-day Misesians are often quick to contest the traditional story of what went down in that fateful mid-century Mont Pelerin meeting. They think Friedman's version of events makes their guy look bad; they prefer to cast Mises as a defender of ideological integrity in the face of a pernicious pre-emptive watering down of principle. In his account, Friedman dryly notes that by his lights the assembly "contained not a single person who, by even the loosest standards, could be called a socialist," which seems undeniably true in hindsight. But the specific point of disagreement that drove Mises from the room in anger—the "appropriateness of government action to affect the distribution of income"—remains unresolved in libertarian circles.

Sometimes the questions we argue about are pure déjà vu. The cover of one of the very first issues of Reason asks the question: "The Cops: Heroes or Villains?" That's a topic on which one could easily hold a debate today at any libertarian gathering and find robust disagreement.

The fact that many of these debates may never be resolved once and for all is no excuse not to have them. Mises and Friedman may not have been able to agree on everything, but they—along with other powerhouse brainiacs before and since—became pillars in a movement that has valiantly kept a crucial strain of pro-freedom ideology alive in even the most dire political conditions. Engagement with people who argue in good faith from outside of libertarianism is both inevitable and desirable. But internal debates are just as important to figuring out how to make the world free. This issue of Reason is our latest installment in five decades of contributing to that project.