The Volokh Conspiracy

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Volokh Conspiracy

Does libertarianism have an alt-right problem?


Writing in the Daily Beast, Matt Lewis suggests a disproportionate number of alt-right leaders claim to be former libertarians. Exploring why this might be, he identifies several possibilities, and in the process gives libertarians some things to think about.

Among other things, Lewis notes that the Ron Paul campaign and movement was heavily influenced by "paleo-libertarian" types, such as Lew Rockwell, who have long been critical of immigration and multi-culturalism. It's worth remembering that Rockwell's circle eagerly embraced Pat Buchanan's first presidential run in 1992 and stayed the course even after Buchanan turned away from antiwar and anti-government themes and began stressing cultural issues. For some self-described libertarians, Buchanan's embrace of the culture war was a feature, not a bug, for (in their view) one problem with big government is that it tends to help the "wrong" people.

Lewis also considers whether some folks who are predisposed to find libertarianism attractive are also predisposed to be seduced by the alt-right. For such folks libertarianism may lose its appeal when they discover the alt-right offers an angrier or more outrageous ideology to embrace.

One factor I'd add (and that we've discussed on Volokh before) is the misplaced affinity for the Confederacy among some libertarians. War tends to increase the growth of government, and some libertarians note that the federal government grew during the Civil War. This leads some to the (terribly mistaken) conclusion that the Confederacy was somehow the more libertarian side in that conflict. This idea is reinforced by revisionist historical accounts that try to claim the war was really over tariffs (a claim which used to be taught in some high school textbooks, especially in the South), or that President Abraham Lincoln had a particularly monstrous record on civil liberties. Neither claim is true. The South explicitly seceded over slavery, and however bad Lincoln's civil liberties records was, the South's was far worse (and was worse even when one tries to discount slavery). [For more on the problem of misplaced Confederate sympathies among libertarians, I recommend this 2013 BHL post by Jacob Levy.]

Lewis closes by suggesting that libertarians (and conservatives) become more vigilant about associations with white supremacists. He's right. I would also suggest that conservatives and libertarians rethink their embrace of controversialists, particularly on college campuses, as this feeds the alt-right beast. Libertarianism may not be responsible for the alt-right, but it's fair to ask whether enough libertarians have done enough to fight it within their own ranks.