What the Alt-Right Gets Wrong
Libertarians should reject right-wing populism in all its forms.
Some news outlets have claimed that there's a troubling "pipeline" from libertarianism to the most revolting corners of the alt-right movement.
Their evidence is that white supremacist Christopher Cantwell, the star of a Vice documentary about the racist, tiki torch-wielding Charlottesville mob, was once a figure in the libertarian Free State project, and alt-right icon and white nationalist Richard Spencer himself was once a Ron Paul supporter and self-identified as a libertarian.
Anyone who claims to care about individual liberty should reject the overt racism in Charlottesville, the broadly defined alt-right and the watered down "alt-lite" variants represented by provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulous and YouTube personalities Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern, as well as the right-wing nationalism pushed by recently fired White House strategist Steve Bannon.
These expressions of right-wing populism are the antithesis of libertarianism, and they collapse under their own logic.
The alt right claims to be the savior of Western Civilization, which apparently is on the brink of collapse because Muslims and Mexicans are invading our society.
Members of the alt-right often point to the sizable influx of immigrants to Europe in the wake of destabilizing Middle Eastern wars. But America isn't Europe, which is one problem with this framing of "the West" as some sort of monolith.
Here's a straighforward look at immigrants as a percentage of the U.S. population:
Yes, there's an upswing since around the end of the Vietnam War, but, really, it's a return to the historical average.
And what was going on in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as immigrants flooded in? The Second Industrial Revolution! Cars! Steel! Electricity! Telecommunication! And America's rise as a global economic superpower.
Want to Make America Great Again? Maybe free-flowing immigration combined with with an open marketplace is the winning formula.
But let's get back to those "Western values."
America's founders based their ideas on Enlightenment values such as individual property rights and free trade, as articulated by philosophers like John Locke and Adam Smith. Whom did they build their ideas in opposition to? Mercantilists, protectionists, or what today we'd call "economic nationalists."
Post Charlottesville, Trump's recently fired chief strategist Steve Bannon told a reporter that white ethno-nationalists are "losers" and "clowns," and then he made a case for closing the U.S. off to the rest of the world.
President Trump is right when he claims that free trade isn't always a two-way street. But as Nobel prize-winning economist Milton Friedman explained, "Any individual country, on average, benefits from free trade."
Don't believe him? Recent polling finds that the majority of economists agree that free trade is a net benefit, and empirical studies show a correlation between fewer trade barriers and higher per capita GDP.
One study compared countries that opened up trade and cut tariffs to ones that didn't, finding that citizens in the freer trade countries saw their incomes increase by an average of 20 percent more than in closed economies. Through international trade, middle-income consumers have seen their purchasing power grow by close to 30 percent, and low-income consumers benefit roughly twice as much.
Just like the progressive left, the alt-right wants to empower the federal government, just as long as the right people are in power doling out benefits to their favorite constituencies.
This is why you'll hear alt-right leaders speaking favorably of single-payer healthcare. Before he was ejected from the White House, Steve Bannon attempted to talk Trump into boosting income taxes to fund his nationalist agenda. Some right-wing populists have even advocated using the power of the state to force private tech companies to be run like quasi-governmental public utilities.
The right may be in for the same sort of harsh lesson as the left about what happens when you opportunistically increase the power of a government you're certain to lose hold of one day.
So why does a philosophy so at odds with its core values attract any defectors from the libertarian movement? What's most appealing are the alt-right's opposition to foreign wars, its nominal defense to free speech, and a valid-sounding critique of PC excess. After all, Milo Yiannopoulis made a name for himself as a provocateur on campus.
But the truth is that the alt-right's commitment to free speech runs about an inch deep.
Many have engaged in similar behaviors as the politically correct progressives they decry, forming online mobs and boycotts to encourage private entities to fire commentators like Kathy Griffin and Reza Aslan for political speech deemed offensive. And they've shut down modernized stagings of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar for the offense of depicting the assassination of a Trump-like character. They've cheered a sitting president's threats to sue publications that criticize him and his willingness to shut out journalists whose coverage he doesn't like.
You can fight for free speech and oppose political correctness without subscribing to this flawed ideology. Libertarians have your back on that. As do many traditional conservatives and some liberals, like Jonathan Rauch, the Brookings Insitution scholar who literally wrote the book on the topic in 1995.
The alt-right's "America First" nationalism engenders a skepticism of foreign military intervention that's sorely lacking in Washington, DC. And this is what's most compelling about the alt-right and the political realignment it's forced, with former conservative hawks like Ann Coulter calling out Trump for troop surges in the Middle East.
But even this anti-interventionism is soft ground because, if you delve into the mind of a figure like Steve Bannon, you'll uncover a nightmare vision of a world already engaged in global, civilizational warfare. And the alt-right's focus on nationalism and racial and ethnic identity doesn't bode well for a more peaceful future if the 20th century is any guide.
The alt-right ultimately amounts to a backwards-looking movement, and that's what's most concerning.
It's telling that their beloved slogan, "Make America Great Again" both harkens back to a mythical time that never existed and was ripped off from Ronald Reagan.
The alt-right is about recapturing a nonexistent past through vague but misleading appeals to Western values.
Libertarians are the true defenders of the Enlightenment and present a forward-looking vision that centers on the power of individuals to create their own experiences, make their own choices, and foster a more peaceful world.
If that's not for you, stick with the alt-right or its spin-offs. Just know what you're signing up for.
Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Graphics by Brett Raney. Music by Kai Engel.