Who Is Matt Welch?

April 02, 2008

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Who Is Matt Welch?

How did Matt Welch, who knows nothing about libertarianism, ever get in the position of becoming editor of Reason, the emblematic libertarian magazine? It is a position, after all, that has a bit of history to it, one that covers the life span of the modern libertarian movement from its very inception. It is a position, therefore, of some honor, one that has been a bit tarnished in recent years, and yet not indelibly damaged until recently. Surely Welch has accomplished exactly this, however, with his laughably ignorant attempt to slander Lew Rockwell and Ron Paul as “racists” – and not only that, but to discredit an entire argument and way of looking at race relations and politics that differs significantly from his culturally leftish version of political correctness.


Welch, of course, has been in the vanguard of the neocon-led smear campaign against Ron Paul from the very beginning. He and his magazine have been on a jihad against Paul and his circle ever since The New Republic made them an issue, albeit a minor one that had no effect on the campaign—newsletters that, read in context, are merely reflective of the typical conservative Republican view of the world, circa 1980-something. I’ve debunked the left-neocon Jamie Kirchick’s interpretation here. Now Welch has come up with the Right-neocon version, a clueless and embarrassing jeremiad, seemingly written by someone utterly unfamiliar with libertarianism.

He mocks Paul for refusing to vote to make Martin Luther King’s birthday a national holiday, whilst, two decades later, calling him a “hero” for his strategy of nonviolent resistance against state oppression. Yet anyone even vaguely familiar with libertarianism can see why Welch’s mockery is misplaced.

King was the leading advocate of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbade “discrimination” based on race, gender, religion—and the list gets longer with the years, as the politically correct lawyers discover new victim groups to “protect.” Libertarians oppose these laws because they violate property rights—and anyway, as Richard Epstein pointed out in an extensive interview in Reason magazine, the alleged beneficiaries gain nothing from the passage of such legislation. I might add that the interviewer at no time challenged Epstein, or accused him of harboring racist sympathies, even though he (Epstein) was advocating the repeal of Martin Luther King’s life work. Apparently the MLK standard of value, wherein one’s attitude to the slain civil rights leader and plagiarist is the moral and ideological yardstick that measures one’s degree (or lack) of “racism,” is selectively applied.

When it comes to Epstein, and his scholarly and somewhat abstract analysis of the very real harm done by anti-discrimination laws and other “civil rights” legislation, the editors of Reason have been willing to allow discussion, and, more than that, challenge liberal orthodoxy on this question. And I have to say that, having been a reader of Reason since the beginning, I can recall no sympathy for King and his cause while he was still alive. Now we are told that to question or in any way acknowledge the flaws of a complex man—his close association with known Communist Party members, his naïve and quite mistaken economic views, his philandering, deviancy, and human failings—is tantamount to “racism” and “appealing to white resentment.”

What sanctimonious baloney. Reason is constantly polemicizing against drug laws, quite rightly claiming that their enforcement victimizes blacks and other minorities disproportionately: it’s okay to appeal to black racial resentment—or, rather, white “latte liberal” racial resentment on behalf of blacks—but the reverse is not true. It’s not okay to appeal to white resentment of, say, affirmative action or to debunk the idea of “civil rights” by pointing out that King’s legislative monument, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, was a massive violation of property rights—precisely the sort of big government scheme one would expect the editor of the premier libertarian magazine to oppose.


On the other hand, Paul’s characterization of King as heroic is not a contradiction, because King himself was contradictory. It is perfectly proper, from a libertarian perspective, to admire the methods of a movement such as, say, Gandhi’s or King’s, without giving unqualified support to the movement’s specific political goals. Yet ideologically, King, like Gandhi, was a mixed bag. Quite aside from campaigning for the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he fought against state-enforced segregation, which regulated private property according to racist strictures – and denied blacks equal access to taxpayer-funded public facilities, including the voting booth.

Welch falsely claims that Murray Rothbard held up David Duke as an “exemplar”— an outright lie. He furthermore conflates a speech Rothbard gave to the John Randolph Club with one of Ron Paul’s newsletters. But never mind the details: the point is that neither Rothbard, Paul, or Lew Rockwell held up Duke as an “exemplar” of anything but demagoguery and racial collectivism. What the author of the newsletter in question was saying, as I pointed out here, is that there is some reason why Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, nearly clinched the Republican nomination for governor of Louisiana back in 1991, one that—from a libertarian perspective—was and is entirely legitimate. As many commentators pointed out at the time, the bulk of Duke’s support at the polls came from “protest” votes, and did not constitute endorsement of his racist views. What were these voters protesting? Didn’t they have some legitimate grievances against a system that penalized their sons and daughters in the name of “redressing past injustice”?


The 1992 Los Angeles riots over the Rodney King incident sparked a bout of racial and ideological polarization: the “Great Society” had spawned a culture of entitlement in the black inner cities and the rioters, instead of being universally and roundly condemned, were catered to by the liberal elites, and even excused by black polticians. Duke, who, the Ron Paul newsletter averred, lacked “a consistent package of freedom,” was successful because because he spoke to these concerns—while no other politician dared.

The Rothbard-paleo strategy for the Right, cited by Welch, had nothing to do with “playing on white fears of black criminality,” and everything to do with playing on the fear of law-abiding non-rioters who saw criminality being pandered to and legitimized. As white motorists were dragged out of their cars in Los Angeles, where was the outrage? Imagine, for a moment, the reverse scenario: black drivers being hauled out of their automobiles and stomped half to death on the streets of, say, Alabama. The Matt Welchs of this world would have demanded that the cops shoot the rioters on sight: yet Welch is horrified that Rothbard called for similar “street justice” when the lives and property of the Korean community of Los Angeles were threatened by racist mobs of looters. Apparently, Korean storekeepers do not qualify as an officially-recognized victim group.

What is striking about Welch’s polemic is its utter hypocrisy: on the one hand, Reason magazine has devoted many pages to explaining just why so-called civil right legislation is wrong, counter-productive, and the cause of social tensions. On the other hand, we are supposed to worship at the altar of Martin Luther King—and, furthermore, it is forbidden for any libertarian political figure to actually raise these issues in the public arena. That is the exclusive domain of theoreticians like Epstein and others. In short, as long as libertarianism is consigned to the role of an entertaining intellectual parlor game, talking about these kinds of issues is permitted. But as soon as some libertarian political figure challenges the paradigm—say, by refusing to give millions of federal and state employees a paid holiday in honor of King’s ambiguous legacy—that’s another matter entirely.

Welch’s favorite rhetorical trick is context-dropping, and so you’ll note that he never quotes more than a single word or isolated phrase of Rothbard’s “Strategy for the Right.” As a typical liberal, he blanches at the sight of Joe McCarthy’s name and never addresses what Rothbard actually says about Tail-Gunner Joe. Rothbard is chiefly concerned, in his peroration, with the phenomenon of McCarthyism as a populist, anti-government movement that threatened the liberal elites, and which, for just that reason, was hated by the liberal intellectuals and academicians, and the future neoconservatives, who were then the liberal mandarins of the postwar consensus.


As the wartime era drew to a close, and the long shadow of Franklin Delano Roosevelt began to recede, the McCarthy movement was the long-suffering right-wing’s revenge against the pinko New Dealers who had called for sedition trials against opponents of the war, smeared FDR”s enemies as “traitors,” and apologized and covered up for the internment of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps. For a while, these “liberals”—of a decidedly illiberal sort—ruled the roost, and took every opportunity to persecute their enemies and drive them out of public life. With the rise of McCarthy and the anti-communist movement, the shoe was suddenly on the other foot.

Rothbard came of political age during the McCarthy era, and saw the pro-McCarthy movement from the inside. Indeed, he was the author of a wonderful speech delivered by George Reisman (now a prominent libertarian economist) to a large McCarthyite rally in which he asked: what was the real reason for the intensity of the hatred directed at McCarthy, Roy Cohn, et al?

The Rothbardian answer: an assault on domestic Reds in the federal government represented a direct threat to “the Socialists and the New Dealers, who have been running our political life for the last twenty-five years, and are still running it!” The crowd of some 1,500—gathered in the Hotel Astor on July 28, 1954, in defense of McCarthy aide Roy Cohn, the only gay AIDs victim in history who is vilified to this day—went wild. Reisman-Rothbard continued:

“As the Chicago Tribune aptly put it, the Case of Roy Cohn is the American Dreyfus case. As Dreyfus was redeemed, so will Roy Cohn when the American people have taken back their government from the criminal alliance of Communists, Socialists, New Dealers, and Eisenhower-Dewey Republicans.”

In those days, when Daniel Bell was proclaiming “the end of ideology,” and the social democratic notions of the New York intellectuals were the unchallenged ideological and political status quo, “there was a vital need to appeal directly to the masses, emotionally, even demagogically, over the heads of the Establishment of the Ivy League, the mass media, the liberal intellectuals, of the Republican-Democrat political machine”—and McCarthy fit the bill.

Anyone who bothers to read Rothbard’s “Strategy for the Right” with some modicum of understanding realizes that he is not saying McCarthy was a libertarian, or that his ends were admirable.

“The unique and the glorious thing about McCarthy was not his goals or his ideology but precisely his radical, populist means. For McCarthy was able, for a few years, to short-circuit the intense opposition of all the elites in American life: from the Eisenhower-Rockefeller administration to the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex to liberal and left media and academic elites – to overcome all that opposition and reach and inspire the masses directly. And he did it through television, and without any real movement behind him.”


The neocons – who were then in the Hubert Humphrey-Scoop Jackson phase of their ideological hegira – immediately took out after McCarthy and the McCarthyites. As Peter Viereck, the pet “conservative” of the New York intellectuals, said of the Reisman-Rothbard speech at the Hotel Astor, it was “an outburst of direct democracy,” which “comes straight from the leftist rhetoric of the old Populists and Progressives, a rhetoric forever urging the People to take back ‘their’ government from the conspiring Powers That Be.”

“Take back America” is the slogan of yet another movement of the Right that Señor Welch finds unwholesome, as he berates Rothbard and the paleos for having “rallied around Pitchfork Pat Buchanan for president in 1992.” Curiously, he never mentions the main reason for the Rothbard-Buchanan alliance, which was a mutual agreement on the key issue of foreign policy. With the Cold War over, Buchanan and his fellow paleoconservatives began moving in the direction of a consistent anti-interventionism. Buchanan took on the neocons, almost alone, during the (brief) debate over Gulf War I, which turned out to be a dress rehearsal for the invasion and occupation of Iraq by Bush II. As such, he was way ahead of his time, and so was Rothbard, who foresaw that, with the implosion of Communism, a large section of the right could and would abandon militarism and join with libertarians in urging “Come home, America.”

Welch doesn’t mention this, and for the very good reason that his own foreign-policy views are far from libertarian. In his essay, he says that, as the cold war came to an end, “I was more interested in poking through the rubble of communism abroad.” Which raises the question: who the hell is Welch, anyway?

I had never heard of him until he became known as one of the ill-fated “warbloggers” who arose in the wake of 9/11 to vent their rage at all things Muslim and berate liberal-lefties like Susan Sontag for supposedly “blaming America” for the attacks. (Like Ron Paul and Michael Scheuer, Sontag saw 9/11 as “blowback” from our history of supporting tyrants and otherwise intervening in the Middle East, which is another reason—albeit unadmitted—that Welch has led the charge against Paul and the antiwar paleo-libertarians such as Rockwell).

I see here that Welch was the editor of a magazine published in Prague called Prognosis. While conservatives like Buchanan were discovering that our foreign policy of relentless aggression had a down side, Welch was unearthing new rationales for U.S. military intervention in Central Europe:

“I don’t claim to be an expert on anything, but I can talk pretty confidently about Central Europe from 1990-98, and especially the expansion of NATO and U.S. involvement in the Balkans (both of which I wrote and edited about extensively). And in those cases where my limited knowledge has brushed up against the party line of the Chomskyite Left’s foreign policy views, I have been appalled. For example, I’ve received more than a dozen e-mails from people quoting Chomsky while citing Kosovo as yet another example of empire-extending, militaryindustrialcomplex bloodlust on the part of a hypocritical U.S. This is so wrong, words are hard to come by. (To be an equal opportunity Left-basher, let me also say that Christopher Hitchens is chock full of shit when he implies – as he did in ‘No One Left To Lie To,’ that Clinton’s expansion of NATO was A) wrong, and B) done primarily to “furnish a sales market for those in ‘the contractor community’”). Such explanations (especially Chomsky’s) deny even the existence of Wilsonian diplomacy, or Vaclav Havel’s forceful arguments & access to Clinton’s ear, or of the sea change in U.S. policy that came about when a child of the Munich sellout (Madeleine Albright) took the reigns [sic] of the State Department. It also seems, to my ears, almost oblivious to how the horrifying Balkan slaughter of 1991-94 damaged the collective psyches of diplomats and citizens of West Europe and America. For starters, that period exposed just how not-ready-for-prime-time the idea of collective European defense was, which was yet another argument for expanding NATO.

According to Welch, in this convoluted text, NATO expansion is a good thing. Chomsky is a monster for suggesting otherwise, and for opposing our attack on a nation – Yugoslavia—which never posed a threat to us. No mention is made of the 5,000 of its citizens we killed in the process. One of the few times Christopher Hitchens has ever been right about anything is the occasion for Welch’s condemnation: how wrong—and unlibertarian—could somebody possibly be?

Clinton’s war, in Welch’s view, was glorious: Mad Madeleine Albright is valorized as “the child of the Munich sellout.” U.S. sock puppet Vaclav Havel—how could this saint and his “powerful arguments” ever be wrong? And how about that “Wilsonian diplomacy”—you know, the sort with bombs attached? Of course, you can’t argue with that

Is this guy for real?

What kind of a “libertarian” is it who lauds war—especially one which led to the creation of a gangster state in Kosovo, where the “Kosovo Liberation Army” has driven out the Serbs except in a small northern enclave and rules the state by means of violence and intimidation? Perhaps he’s attracted to their penchant for burning down churches: now there’s a program (or is that pogrom?) Welch and his fellow “cultural libertarians” can get behind!

Welch now claims he took no position on the Iraq war, yet he spent the run-up to the invasion disdaining antiwar commentary, touting his fellow anti-“Islamofascist” “liberals” like David Rieff for supporting the invasion in the name of “modernity,” denying the atmosphere of intellectual intimidation that made the march to war with Iraq nearly inevitable, and trying vainly to prove that the sanctions imposed on Iraq since the Bush I era only killed a few thousand people, instead of the hundreds of thousands claimed by several experts—and that it was all Saddam’s fault, anyway, for trying to defy the American hegemon.

Is Welch a libertarian? Certainly not—by his own admission:

“I’m a liberal. I take liberalism to mean a belief in policy geared toward easing poverty, extending rights to every walking human who hasn’t utterly forfeited them, getting the government out of the morality business, regulating markets judiciously, ensuring the pervasive yet hopefully efficient delivery of non-market goods such as education, health care and national defense, and otherwise having the sense to let the private sector handle private concerns. What makes me not “liberal” in the way that people who call themselves ‘progressives’ are seen as “liberal,” is that I don’t think the U.S. is the primary fount of global wickedness, I am heartily in favor of the war against Al-Qaeda,” (Emphasis in original)

Welch isn’t just a liberal, he’s a boringly typical representative of the species who responds with knee-jerk irrationality when confronted with people like Joe McCarthy, Pat Buchanan, and anyone who might be characterized as a right-wing populist. He feigns support for the Paul campaign, in spite of the fact that it sprang from – and owes its success to—this very same right-wing populist sentiment, which has always been the core of Paul’s national constituency.

Welch hates Paul—and McCarthy, and Buchanan—for the same reasons the neocons hate populism in all its forms: it’s those right-wing yahoos making trouble again, disturbing the placid waters of the Washington Consensus. The neocons like to have faux-“libertarians” of Welch’s (and Nick Gillespie’s) ilk around, much as royal personages keep court jesters: to entertain them with displays of libertarianism as an intellectual game, and not a serious political philosophy with real roots in the country. That’s why Paul has built a genuine mass movement, and Reason magazine has well under 50,000 subscribers—and can’t get along without massive subsidies from numerous neocon foundations.

I once complained to a Reason staff member that I found it inexplicable the editors of the magazine would find the Iraq war debatable, giving war proponents a platform to air their views, while they wouldn’t extend the same courtesy to advocates of the “war on drugs”—and was told that the funders of the magazine would never allow it to take an unambiguously antiwar position. Welch, whose cowardly—and, in retrospect, downright stupid—refusal to take a clear position one way or the other (all the while encouraging the pro-war crowd, and displaying his contempt for those who warned of the impending disaster) made him a perfect fit for the editorship of Reason, once they got rid of Virginia “More Dynamic Than Thou” Postrel.

Welch’s first editorial for Reason is a blot on the magazine’s once-proud history, and an indication that worse is yet to come. One awaits the Reason cover story on “How To Regulate Markets Judiciously” with bated breath.


Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of Antiwar.com and author of the soon-to-be reissued Reclaiming the American Right.

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