It’s always an interesting experience when one of your favorite writers gets stuck into another of your favorite writers. You might wish they could get along better, but you’ll probably learn something valuable from the clash.
And so it was last month, with Democrat Jon Chait and libertarian James Peron.
Chait, as part of his continuing mission to expose insanity in the Republican Party, wrote a column highlighting the work of the soft-libertarian Niskanen Center, which he described as having “developed something that for more than a generation has been almost totally nonexistent in American politics: a right-of-center program that is detached from the conservative movement.”
I don’t agree with every detail of either Niskanen’s analysis or Chait’s account of it, but I think they’re both on pretty much the right track. In particular, I don’t think you can dispute Chait’s point that “The pathological character of the Republican Party is the most important problem in American politics.”
I doubt that Peron disputes that either. But he took issue with Chait’s air of surprise at finding anti-Trump libertarians, and in particular his remark that Niskanen’s ideas “are frontal assaults on the basic orientation of the libertarian political project.”
On the contrary, says Peron, libertarianism is the original anti-Trumpism. Chait “is confusing what conservatives and conservatarians call libertarianism with the actual tradition.”
And although Chait doesn’t mention Ayn Rand in this column, Peron seized on his previous attempts to fix her with a large part of the responsibility for the Republican Party’s plight:
But Chait is so incredibly ignorant of libertarianism he wrote a piece absurdly headlined: Donald Trump’s Presidency Is the Libertarian Moment [here]. Equally absurd is his claim that the Republican Party is a “synthesis or libertarian ends and authoritarian means.” And then for good measure he trashes Ayn Rand, yet again proving his ignorance of her actual views. He claimed the Trump campaign “is a perfectly predictable outgrowth of an Rand-infected movement.”
Now it’s true that Rand is in many ways an unlikely hero for the modern American right. She repudiated conservatives and hated racism with a passion; she was a committed atheist, opposed to conscription and censorship, strongly pro-choice, and she had rather a soft spot for trade unions. Many of the villains in her books are not politicians or bureaucrats but crony capitalists.
Peron’s protests, however, overstate the case. Yes, Chait is clearly ignorant about Rand’s actual views. But the fact that numerous Republicans, most of them loyal to Donald Trump, profess themselves to be devotees of Rand is not some figment of Chait’s imagination.
As anyone who’s actually read her will realise, Rand did not say the crazy things that Chait and Paul Ryan both think she said. But she did say plenty of other weird stuff, and the idea that a Randian society would give short shrift to the poor and disadvantaged is certainly not without foundation.
And the moral is a broader one. I much prefer Peron’s characterisation of libertarianism to that of his opponents in the Mises Institute (“the clowns from Auburn,” as he calls them). But I don’t think the latter are as much a “small fringe” as he makes out.
Many people have come to libertarianism not from some disinterested philosophical choice but because they believe (wrongly, on Peron’s account) that it serves the interests of the rich and powerful. At some point that perception may become – or may already have become – the reality.
So, there are many who call themselves “libertarians” and have a serious pedigree in the movement who have supported key aspects of Trumpism, and often Trump himself. And it’s only so long that you can keep blaming this on misunderstanding by the media. (I’ve written about this a number of times: see here, here and here for examples.)
For all his occasional carelessness, Chait sees something that more nuanced observers might miss: there is a real problem within libertarianism, with a cancer of authoritarian attitudes eating away at its vital organs.
Some are doing sterling work to fight it, Peron among them. But I think he should be more honest about the size of the threat.