Libertarians against freedom

In recent years I have often referred to the conflict between libertarians – believers in a philosophy of individual freedom and human flourishing – and “libertarians” – those who appropriate the name for an agenda of conspiracy theories, racism and authoritarianism. Last week, that conflict erupted into the open in a fight for control of the Libertarian Party in the United States.

It wasn’t even close. The enemies of freedom had a majority of about two to one, and took over the party, with an explicit agenda of reorienting it to appeal to bigots and cranks. Brian Doherty at Reason magazine has a full report.

To understand the philosophical background, go back and read this 2014 piece from Jeffrey Tucker, in which he distinguishes between “humanist” and “brutalist” libertarians. The two differ not in their specific policies (although differences always appear there in the end), but in their fundamental motivations:

Thus do the brutalists assert the right to be racist, the right to be a misogynist, the right to hate Jews or foreigners, the right to ignore civil standards of social engagement, the right to be uncivilized, to be rude and crude. …

These kinds of arguments make the libertarian humanitarians deeply uncomfortable since they are narrowly true as regards pure theory but miss the bigger point of human liberty, which is not to make the world more divided and miserable but to enable human flourishing in peace and prosperity.

Almost five years later another libertarian, James Peron, claimed the mantle of humanism for the movement and dismissed the brutalists as a small and irrelevant minority:

There was very little support for the bigoted big government polices of Trump outside hangers on at the conservative Mises Institute—where they try to merge policies Mises repudiated—anarchism, social conservatism and intolerance—into a toxic mix falsely called libertarianism. In truth they remain a small fringe with the broader libertarian movement.

But the fringe was bigger than Peron admitted. Last week the new majority in the Libertarian Party was organised as the “Mises caucus”, taking its name from the Mises Institute and traducing the memory of Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973), an Austrian scholar and economist who would be horrified at what is being done in his name. As Peron put it, Mises “and his wife fled Austria to escape the Nazis — they didn’t invite them to join them at dinner.”

The Libertarian Party, as well as the broader movement, has been here before. Back in the 1980s (when I was a party member), the veteran left-libertarian Murray Rothbard, who had been a student of Mises, changed tack and tried to take the party to the right, in association with its 1988 presidential candidate Ron Paul. The idea was to try to appeal to “cultural conservatives” who would otherwise support the Republican Party; in practice, it amounted to giving free rein to racists and misogynists.

Rothbard died in 1995 and Paul returned to the Republican Party, where he mounted quixotic campaigns for the presidential nomination in 2008 and 2012. The Libertarian Party dropped even further from the limelight, but returned to relevance in 2012 when it nominated a moderate former Republican governor, Gary Johnson, as its candidate. Running again in 2016, against Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump Johnson managed 3.3%, or almost four and a half million votes – three times the party’s previous best effort.

It was this embrace of the mainstream that seemed to particularly enrage the “libertarians”, and they set about trying to reshape the party. Out would go its traditional commitments to such things as reproductive freedom and open borders; in would come the sensibility of, in Doherty’s words, “online youths into edgy comedic podcasts.” Last week their efforts were crowned with success.

The party’s new leaders still pay lip service to liberty, but their inspiration is clearly brutalist rather than humanist. Jason Wilson pointed out a few years ago the way that “troll culture became a way for fascism to hide in plain sight,” and there’s little doubt that the memes and edgy comedy act as a gateway drug to full-blown authoritarianism. The new party platform omits a sentence that previously condemned bigotry as “irrational and repugnant”, apparently not wishing to offend new allies.

That’s not to say that this alt-right version of “libertarianism” actually reflects the majority of the libertarian movement. Such organisations as the Cato Institute and Reason itself remain largely immune to it (whatever their other faults), and even some that I would tag as “libertarians” are uncomfortable with the barely disguised racism of the Mises folk.

But the fact remains that a party with a proud if sometimes confused history of fighting for liberty over half a century has fallen into the hands of the authoritarian right – an unmistakable echo of what has happened on a much larger scale to the Republican Party (and, in Australia, to the Liberal Party). Dark days indeed.

PS: There’s now a good report on the takeover by Jeet Heer at the Nation.

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