Libertarianism’s Divergent Roads

June 11, 2008

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Libertarianism’s Divergent Roads

The history of libertarianism as a doctrine and an organized political movement is of interest these days on account of all the attention garnered by Rep. Ron Paul, the Texas congressman known as “Dr. No,” in his quixotic yet attention-getting and surprisingly successful campaign for the GOP presidential nomination. Where do these libertarian types come from, and where are they going? Is their bid to restore respect for the Constitution in American political culture a passing phase, or a portent of things to come? Whether Dr. Paul fought a rear-guard action, or in fact launched the first wave of a continuing assault on the Welfare-Warfare Sate remains to be seen, but if the GOP is dragged down to a crushing defeat by the neocons’ war and its economic consequences, then the Paulistas might have a fighting chance of taking back the Republican party for the heirs of Robert A. Taft and the Old Right.

Yet the Paul campaign wasn’t received with universal hosannas within the libertarian movement. While the great majority of the freedom movement’s rank-and-file were wildly enthusiastic about the Texas troublemaker, a group of self-styled libertarian “leaders”-namely, the infamously smug and self-satisfied minions of Charles Koch and Ed Crane over at the Cato Institute and the editors of the Koch-funded Reason magazine-sneered and sniffed at the culturally conservative, pro-life Paul and wondered aloud if he wasn’t a bit of an embarrassment. In a war of words reported by The Nation, the two wings of the libertarian movement squared off and fired shots. Christopher Hayes reported this eye-popping denunciation of Rep. Paul by the unbearably pompous Brink Lindsey, a Cato Institute “scholar” and recently appointed vice president for research,

“He doesn’t strike me as the kind of person that’s tapping into those elements of American public opinion that might lead towards a sustainable move in the libertarian direction.”

Here’s a new logical fallacy: the argument from snobbery. He isn’t our “kind of person.” What kind of person might that be? Well, it’s not at all clear. What is clear, however, is who isn’t “our kind of person.” As Senor Lindsey puts it:

“You have this weird group of people. You’ve got libertarians, you’ve got antiwar types and you’ve got nationalists and xenophobes. I’m not sure that is leading anywhere. I think he’s a sui generis type of guy who’s cobbling together some irreconcilable constituencies, many of which are backward-looking rather than forward-looking.”

Oh, those backwoods anti-IRS hicks, with necks redder than the reddest state, hopeless Neanderthals who would never read Lindsey’s book, The Age of Abundance, wherein he describes the supposedly “libertarian” utopia being ushered in by “the sexual revolution, environmentalism and feminism, the fitness and health care boom and the opening of the gay closet, the withering of censorship and the rise of a ‘creative class’ of ‘knowledge workers.’”

It sounds like a Georgetown cocktail party, rather than a political or ideological movement, but there you have it. Lindsey and his fellow creative geniuses are too good for the poor untutored hoi polloi who don’t go to the gym four days a week and are neither feminists nor gay. In Lindsey’s lexicon, “Forward-looking” means “people like me,” and “backward-looking” stands for non-feminist non-gay non-gym-going proles, who don’t count anyway.

In any case, sneers Lindsey, Paul “comes from a different part of the libertarian universe than I do.” Yes, you bet he does.

I had to laugh when I read how Hayes demarcates the pro-Paul “populist” libertarians from the anti-Paul crowd-the latter are deemed the “cosmopolitan” faction! Yeah, as in Cosmo magazine.

Lindsey’s haughtiness is really a joke, especially when it’s married to his clueless political analysis: who are these “xenophobes” he talks about - the overwhelming majority of Americans who don’t support his “open the borders” position. And as for these alleged “nationalists” flocking to the Paulian cause: I guess this means they’re attracted to Ron’s questioning of why we’re going to war on account of UN resolutions and entangling alliances. Otherwise, I can’t imagine a less “nationalistic” candidate, in the modern sense of aggressive expansionism - which is a term surely better suited to Lindsey’s own position in favor the “liberation” of the Middle East.

Indeed, Lindsey’s whole critique of Paul is really rooted in Lindsey’s pro-war position. He argued in favor of the Iraq war in a piece for Reason, basically making the neocon “weapons of mass destruction-they’ll-greet-us-as-liberators” argument, while Paul, of course, was against the war from the beginning. Having abandoned the core libertarian stance - opposition to mass murder by the State - Lindsey and his ilk are on their way out of libertarianism, as I’ve explained elsewhere, while Paul and his “backward-looking” brethren represent the future of the movement.

The Cato/Reason crowd is motivated by a different energy than that which fuels the Paulian cause. They represent an entirely different outlook from the one advanced by the Good Doctor, and his intellectual allies and influences, and this is just the latest chapter in the long history of two contending tendencies in the long, tortuous story of the fight for human liberty.

From the very beginning, the laissez-faire movement was beset by the thrilling but utterly mistaken idea that progress toward liberty is inevitable, a long, slow, steady process that coincides with the march of modernity. The rise of the movement for personal liberty and economic freedom was coincident with the growth and development of industrial civilization: as the standard of living rose, so did the advocates of laissez faire gain intellectual and political traction. Yet none of this was inevitable.

In a series of revolutions that rocked Europe and much of the world, laissez-faire liberalism overthrew the Old Order, and yet, as Murray Rothbard pointed out, there was a fatal flaw in the classical liberalism of the 19th century, an “inner rot,” as he put it, that ate away at the ideological core of libertarianism even as the movement began to achieve some of its goals. The flaw was made manifest in the abandonment of natural rights philosophy, and a strategic timidity-one seemed to follow from the other-that reverted to a defense of the status quo.

Secondly, liberalism was lulled to sleep with the seductive lure of evolutionism-the doctrine of Social Darwinism, which saw history as an ever-ascending spiral of progress. According to this theory, the triumph of liberty is inevitable because Reason, Science, and Enlightened Thinking are on our side. The history of the 20th century would soon refute this, but at the time it seemed, well, reasonable: after all, society was progressing, peoples were freeing themselves from the yoke of feudalism and mercantilism, and it looked-if only for a moment-that the cause of liberty might triumph, however long it took.

This Pollyanna-ism was swept aside with the advent of the 20th century and the rise of the totalitarian ideologies-liberalism’s darkest hour. Yet, as proof that no error is ever finally refuted, we see its echo, today, in the abstruse theories of certain Beltway Deep Thinkers who seem to believe that because they’re getting richer, so is everybody else-and that rising income means the increase of freedom. But of course the business cycle is alive and well-thanks to the persistence of fiat money and the central banks-as we are beginning to rediscover. Also raising its ugly head is the specter of constant warfare, the favorite pastime of empires, and this, too, threatens our liberties as well as our lives.

If the 19th century saw the rise of a worldwide movement toward liberty, the 20th saw the progress that had been made repealed and the clock turned back: in the world of ideas, political absolutism ruled the day, and all around the world, the inevitability of socialism was simply assumed. In the U.S., the Great Depression brought about the utter collapse of the old Spencerian illusion that liberty would triumph simply on account of some mechanism inherent in the nature of things. Two world wars shattered the fragile shell of constitutional government in America and opened the door to the demise of our old Republic.

The remnants of classical liberalism went virtually underground; the tides of public and intellectual opinion were running so heavily against them that their ideas were not even considered. The old-time liberals-such as John T. Flynn-were simply out of the running. Park Avenue Bolsheviks such as James Burnham were confidently proclaiming the demise of capitalism and the rise of the “managerial” class of bureaucrats and steely-eyed men in spectacles who would soon put society to rights. Socialism, Leninism, fascism, and all sorts of idiosyncratic social movements and sects sprang up, like mushrooms after a heavy rain, as the Great Depression wreaked havoc on people’s hopes.

Arrayed against these overwhelming currents, a valiant band of counter-revolutionaries fought a heroic rear-guard action: these were the men and women of the Old Right. Forged in the flames of a world at war, the loosely aligned political leaders, resident intellectuals, and publicists who made up this movement began to cohere a fairly consistent set of ideas:

That war breeds tyranny and subverts republican forms of government; that we were fighting national socialism overseas only to witness its triumph on the home front; and, central to it all, an acute consciousness of America’s tragic destiny as an (anti-)imperial power, doomed, like all the others, to degenerate into a parody of itself.

Forced underground in the wake of Pearl Harbor, the Old Right persisted-in the voluminous private correspondence of that tireless letter-writer, Rose Wilder Lane. In scattered circles of like-minded individualists, and a few organizations and one-man propaganda outfits, libertarianism persisted, like a subterranean river periodically bursting up to the surface and disrupting the socialist-interventionist consensus. Such stalwarts as John T. Flynn, who continued his radio program well into the late 1940s, and churned out books at a record rate, kept up the fight. In the dark days of postwar America, when the socialist-interventionist consensus was virtually unanimous, a young Murray Rothbard regularly tuned in to Flynn’s broadcasts.

A student of the famed Ludwig von Mises, whose economic theories are the foundation stones of today’s Austrian school of economics, Rothbard is the bridge between the Old Right of the 1940s and the libertarian movement as it exists today. I’ve told Murray’s story in my book, An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard, in which I perhaps overemphasize his role as a political activist at the expense of his monumental achievements as a scholar. I took this tack, I can see now, because Rothbard’s life and career is really a narrative account of the decline and rebirth of the organized libertarian movement, a history spanning the period from the 1940s to the 1990s.

Rothbard wrote for National Review, where he was restricted to the economics beat, but in private there was conflict: in an exchange of letters with Buckley, Rothbard dissented from the cold warrior fanaticism that animated the Buckleyite right. He was eventually convinced that the NR crowd pined for a third world war in which they wouldn’t hesitate to use nuclear weapons-in which case, we were all cooked. Rothbard had thoroughly absorbed the so-called “isolationism” of Flynn and the old America Firsters, and had developed early on a libertarian perspective on the foreign-policy question that was a logical extension of the non-coercion principle.

Just as state violence against its own citizens was to be limited as much as possible, so it is desirable-from a libertarian perspective-to limit, isolate, and restrict states from engaging in coercion beyond their own borders. War, in the words of Randolph Bourne, is the health of the state, and the limited government and free market economics that are supposed to be the cardinal principles of American conservatism have been time and again betrayed on account of their worship of the War God, to whom they owe their primary loyalty.

Rothbard’s break with the conservative movement, and his sojourn into the New Left, occurred at a crucial juncture in our history: the tumultuous 1960s, when war and repression of protest movements were the key issues of the day. A day not unlike our own, at least in certain respects. The Vietnam War was the focus of the national debate, and the rising youth revolution coincided with this development, giving libertarians an opportunity to bring the message of freedom to a wider audience than ever before. The war provided an opening for Rothbard and his growing circle to make an appeal to the left, and their journal, Left and Right, introduced the classics of the Old Right, such as the essays of Garet Garrett, to a whole generation of SDSers-the main youth protest movement with chapters on hundreds of campuses.

The effort had an effect on the more intelligent SDS leaders, such as Carl Oglesby, the group’s first elected leader who later quoted Garet Garrett and favorably cited the Old Right’s anti-imperialism in his book, Containment and Change. By that time, however, he had been purged from the group he had been instrumental in founding for the crime of “right-wing deviationism.”

SDS and the anti-war movement had by then gone into their ultra-Left phase, and went out in a blaze of botched bombings and self-destructive melodrama. Also, at this point, the movement that gathered regularly in Rothbard’s living room had grown too large to fit into that small space, and the first libertarian activist conferences were being held, and the libertarian press was developing apace. Aside Rothbard’s own Libertarian Forum, there was Reason magazine, which started out as a stapled-together 12-page fanzine.

It was only a matter of time until a Libertarian Party was founded, and that occurred in 1972. The LP has been the battlefield on which the whole question of how to function as an organized political movement has been fought, and as such its history provides us with a rich source of material for our speculations as to the future of libertarianism, be it dark or bright.

The party grew, the movement grew, and, by the late 1970s, Rothbard and his associates took it to the next level-with the help of a generous benefactor, whose largess made possible a great leap forward in the pace and quality of libertarian activism.

Let us go back to the year 1978, and look at what had happened to the organized libertarian movement. Suddenly there sprang up the Cato Institute, along with an array of satellite organizations including a student group and the Libertarian Party itself, which became a cog in what we used to call the Koch Machine.

This mighty ideological center was made possible by the largesse of Charles G. Koch, an heir to the Koch family fortune, and Koch Industries, one of the largest privately-owned companies in the U.S.: the father, Fred C. Koch, had made his money in oil, engineering, and cattle, and passed on his fortune to his sons, at least two of whom-Charles and David-shared his libertarian beliefs.

From the outside looking in, all was well: magazine and newspaper articles hailed libertarianism as the Next Big Thing, and profiles of the Institute and its spin-off groups published in the mainstream media glowed with admiration for their organization and enthusiasm, if not praise for their ideas. In the mid-1970s, when Charles Koch contacted Rothbard about what he could do to advance the movement’s goals, the late great libertarian theorist wrote a long memo that projected the creation of a mighty apparatus of libertarian cadre organizing in virtually every arena of American political and intellectual life.

Koch had the money, and Rothbard had the vision. At the core of it all was Rothbard’s conception of the Cato Institute-which, by the way, he came up with the name for-as a thinktank devoted to the development, spread, and popularization of the Austrian school of economics, free market solutions to social problems on the home front, a devotion to the preservation and expansion of civil liberties, and a consistent opposition to U.S. imperialism.

The split between Rothbard and the Institute he had inspired and essentially founded, was occasioned by the presidential campaign of 1980, which Rothbard was most unhappy with. In an incident that has become legendary in LP circles, the party’s candidate, Edward Clark, an oil company lawyer, went on national television to explain to interviewer Ted Koppel that libertarianism was basically just “low-tax liberalism.”

This outraged Rothbard for any number of very good reasons, not the least of which was its strategic wrongheadedness.

The Cato Institute strategy was to target the elites, especially in the media, but also in the two major political parties and government circles. Rothbard, on the other hand, took the diametrically opposite view: he envision a populist revolt against the elites, who profit from the maintenance and growth of State power. Libertarians, he believed, must make their appeal to ordinary people. Instead of aspiring to a position at court in the hope of whispering advice in the king’s ear, it is necessary to appeal to the great masses of Americans, so that libertarianism would become a living and vital political movement, and not just an intellectual parlor game.

When Clark, under the tutelage of the Cato high command, refused to come out for the abolition of the income tax, on the grounds that this constituted an unacceptable radicalism, Rothbard essentially broke with Cato, although the formal divorce didn’t come until a bit later, at the Libertarian Party’s 1983 national convention. Rothbard attacked the Clark campaign in a series of articles that mocked the campaign’s timidity and its rather pathetic appeal to the narrow interests of “low-tax liberals” of a certain class and age.

Rothbard’s erstwhile followers in the Cato group made their appeal to influential sympathizers who must be kept blissfully ignorant of the more controversial aspects of libertarian theory. This was symbolized by their move to Washington, where they built themselves a glass and steel headquarters and set up shop as resident libertarians in the corridors of power.

Rothbard, on the other hand, pursued the path of populism. He insisted that libertarian political action must be directed at the majority of the American people, and not tailored to suit the cultural prejudices and ideological idiosyncrasies of New York Times-reading white-wine-and brie liberals.

Rothbard and Cato went their separate ways, and so did the two wings of the movement-one gravitating in the direction of Washington DC, and the other concentrated in the hinterlands, especially in the West, where a wave of right-wing populism was beginning to rise up in opposition to a regnant liberalism. The Beltway faction of the libertarian movement adapted itself to its surroundings with chameleon-like instincts, while Rothbard and his supporters organized in the countryside, so to speak, planning a guerrilla insurgency and cultivating conservatives who were beginning to resent the incursion of the neocons-invaders from the Left-and the effective takeover of the official conservative movement by former leftists and right-wing Social Democrats.

The Rothbard-Cato split has sundered the libertarian movement to this day, and that was certainly underscored by the response of the Beltway libertarians to the unprecedented success of the Paul campaign. As the Good Doctor began to garner a fair share of media attention, and his polls numbers began to rise, the Beltway crowd sneered that he was too old-fashioned, too culturally conservative, and not likely to make any headway. When he did make headway, and was addressing crowds of many thousands at rallies across the country, and the record campaign contributions began to get the campaign noticed, the Beltway crowd - most notably, the editors and writers at Reason, a Koch-funded enterprise that styles itself the leading libertarian magazine - began to back off, and offer their reluctant (although still condescending) support. But not for long.

The Koch machine was merely revving up its motors for a smear campaign of unparalleled viciousness. Just as the Paul campaign was beginning to break through the wall of silence and liberal media bias, the New Republic magazine came out with a piece by one Jamie Kirchick that accused the Paul campaign and Ron himself of appealing to thinly-disguised racism. In particular, the target of Kirchick’s scrutiny was a series of Ron Paul newsletters written during the early 1990s that violated the canons of political correctness as much for the style they were written in as their contents.  The Reason crowd immediately took up the cry of “racism!” and devoted endless articles and blog entries to the ensuing controversy, as the Beltway “libertarians” crowd gleefully prepared for a righteous purge.

Writing in the online edition of Reason, David Weigel and Julian Sanchez (the latter of the Cato Institute) claimed that the whole episode was rooted in a “strategy” enunciated by the late Murray N. Rothbard, the economist and author, and Llewellyn H. Rockwell Jr., founder and president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, designed to appeal to those dreaded “right-wing populists.”::

“During the period when the most incendiary items appeared-roughly 1989 to 1994-Rockwell and the prominent libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard championed an open strategy of exploiting racial and class resentment to build a coalition with populist “paleoconservatives,” producing a flurry of articles and manifestos whose racially charged talking points and vocabulary mirrored the controversial Paul newsletters recently unearthed by The New Republic.

“….The most detailed description of the strategy came in an essay Rothbard wrote for the January 1992 Rothbard-Rockwell Report, titled “Right-Wing Populism: A Strategy for the Paleo Movement.” Lamenting that mainstream intellectuals and opinion leaders were too invested in the status quo to be brought around to a libertarian view, Rothbard pointed to David Duke and Joseph McCarthy as models for an “Outreach to the Rednecks,” which would fashion a broad libertarian/paleoconservative coalition by targeting the disaffected working and middle classes. (Duke, a former Klansman, was discussed in strikingly similar terms in a 1990 Ron Paul Political Report.) These groups could be mobilized to oppose an expansive state, Rothbard posited, by exposing an “unholy alliance of ‘corporate liberal’ Big Business and media elites, who, through big government, have privileged and caused to rise up a parasitic Underclass, who, among them all, are looting and oppressing the bulk of the middle and working classes in America.”

Reason, of course, in it’s new incarnation as the official organ of the libertarian movement’s aging hipsters and would-be “cool kids,” vehemently opposes reaching out to middle and working class Americans: that is far too “square” for the black-leather-jacket-wearing Nick Gillespie, and his successor, Matt Welch. Right-wing populism? As far as the Reason crowd is concerned, one might as well tout the appeal of “right-wing botulism.” Libertarianism, as understood by the editors of Reason, is all about legalizing methamphetamine, having endless “hook-ups,” and giving mega-corporations tax breaks (so Reason can keep scarfing up those big corporate contributors). The decidedly “square” Dr. Paul-a ten-term Republican congressman from Texas, no less, and a pro-life country doctor of decidedly conservative social views-was and is anathema to Team Reason.

This railing against populism-that is, against any appeal to ordinary Americans-is part and parcel of the Beltway’s perversion of libertarianism, which relegates its pet libertarian ideologues to the role of court jesters, whose intellectual preoccupations-the legalization of drugs, and the celebration of cultural libertinism-are considered amusing and mostly harmless.

In considering the future of libertarianism, one has to imagine at least two futures: one for the kept intellectuals of the Beltway set, and the other for the populist grassroots movement that roiled the American hinterlands with its radical opposition to imperialist wars and fiat money.

The former will persist as long as its subsidies continue, but the so-called Orange Line Mafia has discredited itself with its vicious hostility directed at Ron Paul, which was on display long before the newsletter controversy broke out. On the other hand, the Paul wing of the movement has all the energy, the vitality, and the staying power of a movement that really does have a future.

Foreign policy-the question of whether we’re going to be imperial or return to republicanism-is the overriding issue of our day, and anyone who abstains in this realm really ceases to be relevant. I find it odd, therefore, that the leading libertarian print magazine, Reason, took no editorial stance on the invasion of Iraq, but merely opened it up for “debate.” That’s funny, to these people, such issues as drug legalization and gay marriage are never debatable: the “correct” libertarian position is simply assumed. Yet when it comes to the question of mass murder-well, that’s just a matter of opinion.

The error made by the Cato crowd, especially after their fateful move to Washington, DC, is similar to that made by those French libertarian theorists, including the economist Fénelon, who hoped to persuade the French ruling class to give up its power over the economic life of the nation and inaugurate an era of peace and freedom. Their strategy was to tutor the Duke of Burgundy, second in line to succeed to the French throne, and ally themselves with the Burgundians at court. When the king’s first heir died, their hopes rose: these were dashed, however, as the Duke himself, and his entire family, took sick with the same illness, which likewise proved fatal-dealing a death blow to their plans to make France a laissez-faire paradise.

Writing of the tragic end of the Burgundians in his An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought, Rothbard was clearly addressing himself, at least in part, to his factional opponents in the libertarian movement, namely the Cato group, which had chosen the path of influencing the elites rather than making a populist appeal to ordinary Americans against the power elite:

“The tragic end of the Burgundy circle,” he writes, “illuminates a crucial strategic flaw in the plans, not only of the Burgundy circle, but also of the physiocrats, Turgot and other laissez faire thinkers of the later eighteenth centuryy. For their hopes and their strategic vision were invariably to work within the matrix of he monarchy and its virtually absolute rule. The idea, in short, was to get into court, influence the corridors of power, and induce the king to adopt libertarian ideas and impose a laissez-faire revolution.”

The Burgundy circle learned it couldn’t be done, but when it comes to libertarians, no strategic error is so egregious that it isn’t repeated at least once a generation, if not more-and always with the same results. The Beltway libertarians are, for the most part, pursuing the Burgundian course, and they will have no better results than Fénelon and Turgot.

On the other hand, the Paulistas-the radicalized, fully energized, and decidedly non-Beltway activists who were and are inspired by Ron Paul’s untrammeled vision of liberty-have had some success.

Surely, the Paul campaign has done more to popularize libertarianism than the combined efforts of the Koch-funded organizations have over the past two decades. 

It’s no accident that the Paul campaign springs from the radical Rothbardian wing of the movement. Populism-an appeal to the great majority of the American people-on behalf of liberty is no vice. And if that is extremism, then let the denizens of the Beltway make the most of it.

An early version of this essay was presented before the 2008 Future of Freedom conference, on June 7, 2008.

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