TGIF: Spinoza – A Man for Our Troubled Times

TGIF: Spinoza – A Man for Our Troubled Times

In these interesting times, we all need someone to admire. I have found such a one in Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677), the 17th-century rationalist liberal philosopher who advocated freedom of thought and expression, toleration, and simple kindness.

Spinoza lived in what at the time was the most liberal place on earth, the Dutch Republic, his Jewish Portuguese family having moved there after Portugal expelled its Jewish population in 1497. He seems to have been a free thinker at an early age, and it apparently got him into trouble with the Jewish community of Amsterdam. In 1656, at the tender age 23, his synagogue banned him for life from the community for “abominable heresies … and … monstrous deeds.” The excommunication decree — the charem — left no doubt about how the Jews of Amsterdam were to regard the young man:

By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, and in front of these holy scrolls with the 613 precepts which are written therein; cursing him with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho and with the curse which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the castigations which are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law. But you that cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day.

It ordered “that no one should communicate with him neither in writing nor accord him any favor nor stay with him under the same roof nor within four cubits [six feet] in his vicinity; nor shall he read any treatise composed or written by him.”

Spinoza was not upset with this development; he apparently thought his excommunication merely saved him the trouble of leaving the community on his own initiative. So he changed his name from the Hebrew word for blessed, Baruch,  to the Latin equivalent, Benedictus. However, he lived in a time and place in which being unaffiliated with any community had its disadvantages.

What had he done to deserve this treatment? No one is really sure because he had not yet written a word, and he would not publish a book for several years. But he must have been talking to friends about the philosophy he was formulating. If so, we should have no problem understanding why Spinoza would have outraged the Jewish authorities, who feared anything that might jeopardize the community’s relatively free status in the Protestant republic. His writings, published between those of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, would reject the immortality of the soul and the divine origin of the Bible, while arguing that God was nothing more than nature, or existence, itself without a consciousness or will with which to command, reward, punish, or listen to human beings. His famous phrase was Deus sive Natura, God or/as Nature. For Spinoza, nothing could be beyond nature and logic; thus, no supernatural being or realm existed.

When I (along with others) nominate Spinoza for hero status, I am thinking specifically of his political philosophy, which he expressed in his anonymously published A Theological-Political Treatise (1670), condemned as “a book forged in hell.” The authorship of the book soon became an open secret, and all but his book on Descartes were banned in the Dutch Republic and elsewhere. Spinoza also lived in interesting times, which were no doubt on his mind as he formulated his political philosophy: the Thirty Years’ War ended in 1648 and the English Civil War raged from 1642 to 1651.

As the libertarian philosopher Douglas Den Uyl notes in God, Man, and Well-Being: Spinoza’s Modern Humanism (2008), Spinoza was very much in the tradition of Greek philosophy, but he went the Greek thinkers one better by rejecting the state as a shaper of souls and promoter of virtue. What Spinoza called “blessedness” cannot be achieved through external forces but only through an internal process that individuals undertake. (Den Uyl reconciles seemingly contradictory liberal and authoritarian passages in his 1983 book on Spinoza, his doctoral dissertation, Power, State, and Freedom: An Interpretation of Spinoza’s Political Philosophy.)

For Spinoza (alas, no anarchist, but see Daniel Garber’s lecture at 44:00), the socially contracted democratic-republican state had one task: to produce security — full stop. Security enables individuals to 1) live in safety, 2) pursue understanding, which is the key to activeness, power in the sense of efficacy, virtue, and excellence, and 3) enjoy the benefits of cooperation with others through the division of labor. But, properly, number two is neither the state’s direct nor indirect goal. Against the claim that Spinoza looked to the state to promote virtue if only indirectly, Den Uyl refers to Spinoza’s unfinished Political Treatise, where he writes, “The best way to organize a state is easily discovered by considering the purpose of civil order, which is nothing other than peace and security of life.” Virtue is not even an indirect goal? No, because, Den Uyl points out, the failure of people to become more virtuous would not indicate a deficiency in the state. Virtue is a private internal matter.

As an aside, I note that for Spinoza, living actively according to reason (understanding), rather than passively according to appetites and (other) “external” forces, enables one to accomplish more than one’s own flourishing directly; it also encourages others to live according to reason, which in turn further promotes one’s own flourishing.

Another Spinoza scholar who finds this political philosophy especially worth studying today is Steven Nadler. In his 2016 Aeon article “Why Spinoza Still Matters” (from which many of the Spinoza quotes below are taken), Nadler writes:

At a time when Americans seem willing to bargain away their freedoms for security, when politicians talk of banning people of a certain faith from our shores, and when religious zealotry exercises greater influence on matters of law and public policy, Spinoza’s philosophy – especially his defence of democracy, liberty, secularity and toleration – has never been more timely. In his distress over the deteriorating political situation in the Dutch Republic, and despite the personal danger he faced, Spinoza did not hesitate to boldly defend the radical Enlightenment values that he, along with many of his compatriots, held dear. In Spinoza we can find inspiration for resistance to oppressive authority and a role model for intellectual opposition to those who, through the encouragement of irrational beliefs and the maintenance of ignorance, try to get citizens to act contrary to their own best interests….

The political ideal that Spinoza promotes in the Theological-Political Treatise is a secular, democratic commonwealth, one that is free from meddling by ecclesiastics. Spinoza is one of history’s most eloquent advocates for freedom and toleration.

In his treatise, Spinoza was quite clear: “The state can pursue no safer course than to regard piety and religion as consisting solely in the exercise of charity and just dealing, and that the right of the sovereign, both in religious and secular spheres, should be restricted to men’s actions, with everyone being allowed to think what he will and to say what he thinks.”

And: “Freedom to philosophise [on all things –SR] may not only be allowed without danger to piety and the stability of the republic, but that it cannot be refused without destroying the peace of the republic and piety itself.”

Further: “A government that attempts to control men’s minds is regarded as tyrannical, and a sovereign is thought to wrong his subjects and infringe their right when he seeks to prescribe for every man what he should accept as true and reject as false, and what are the beliefs that will inspire him with devotion to God. All these are matters belonging to individual right, which no man can surrender even if he should so wish.”

Nadler elaborates: “No matter what laws are enacted against speech and other means of expression, citizens will continue to say what they believe, only now they will do so in secret. Any attempt to suppress freedom of expression will, once again, only weaken the bonds of loyalty that unite subjects to sovereign. In Spinoza’s view, intolerant laws lead ultimately to anger, revenge and sedition.”

For Spinoza, it was not enough to have the freedom to think any thoughts. “The more difficult case,” Nadler writes, “concerns the liberty of citizens to express those beliefs, either in speech or in writing. And here Spinoza goes further than anyone else in the 17th century”:

Utter failure will attend any attempt in a commonwealth to force men to speak only as prescribed by the sovereign despite their different and opposing opinions.… The most tyrannical government will be one where the individual is denied the freedom to express and to communicate to others what he thinks, and a moderate government is one where this freedom is granted to every man.

Alas, Spinoza was not what we would call a modern libertarian, although (as Nadler emphasizes) he was a far better liberal than John Locke, whose Letter Concerning Toleration did not extend the courtesy to the beliefs, not to mention the public activities, of atheists and Catholics.

Spinoza thought one can be free “in any kind of state.” How so? The free person is guided by reason, he wrote, and reason favors peace; therefore, the reasonable person obeys the state’s laws because “peace … cannot be attained unless the general laws of the state be respected. Therefore the more he is free, the more constantly will he respect the laws of his country, and obey the commands of the sovereign power to which he is subject.” Now Spinoza might have been thinking of a commonwealth in which the laws are perfectly appropriate to rational persons — except that he says we can be free in any kind of state. Does it follow that ignoring unjust statutes really risks general civil strife? I think Spinoza would reply, in a Hobbesian way, that “justice is dependent on the laws of the authorities.” However, while civil strife is not conducive to the good life, neither are unjust statutes that prohibit or regulate peaceful conduct.

Spinoza drew a line between the expression of thoughts and actions. As Nadler points out (in this video), Spinoza thought the secular authority had a right to dictate how religion was publicly practiced in order to safeguard the peace. Practitioners of alternative religions should be free to think and say what they please, but their public rites were to be permitted only within prescribed limits. As one can see, Spinoza is in some respects a Hobbesian though he was more liberal because Hobbes, unlike Spinoza, had the sovereign serving as the arbiter of right opinion in religious and other matters — for the sake of civil peace, of course. The one time that Spinoza mentions Hobbes is in a note in his treatise: “Now reason (though Hobbes thinks otherwise) is always on the side of peace, which cannot be attained unless the general laws of the state be respected.”

Spinoza wrote:

The rites of religion and the outward observances of piety should be in accordance with the public peace and well-being, and should therefore be determined by the sovereign power alone. I speak here only of the outward observances of piety and the external rites of religion, not of piety, itself, nor of the inward worship of God, nor the means by which the mind is inwardly led to do homage to God in singleness of heart.

Moreover, Nadler says, “Spinoza does not support the absolute freedom of speech. He explicitly states that the expression of seditious ideas is not to be tolerated by the sovereign. There’s to be no protection for speech that advocates the overthrow of the government, disobedience to its laws, or harm to fellow citizens.”

Citizens should be free to argue for repeal of laws, but that’s about it; they may not rebel or even express ideas that implicitly call for rebellion because it would undermine the social contract and the peace. Nadler acknowledges that, despite Spinoza’s definition of seditious beliefs, the vagueness of that phrase and his notion of implicitly inciting rebellion properly trouble civil libertarians.

Nevertheless, Spinoza ends his treatise on a high note: “The safest way for a state is to lay down the rule that religion is comprised solely in the exercise of charity and justice, and that the rights of rulers in sacred, no less than in secular matters, should merely have to do with actions, but that every man should think what he likes and say what he thinks.” Not bad for 1670.

Spinoza knew he was not entirely politically safe in the world’s freest state. (Friends had been persecuted by the state for their ideas.) Besides not putting his name on the book, which was written in Latin rather than the vernacular, he wrote in his final paragraph:

It remains only to call attention to the fact that I have written nothing which I do not most willingly submit to the examination and approval of my country’s rulers; and that I am willing to retract anything which they shall decide to be repugnant to the laws, or prejudicial to the public good. I know that I am a man, and as a man liable to error, but against error I have taken scrupulous care, and have striven to keep in entire accordance with the laws of my country, with loyalty, and with morality.

Whatever his limits, we have much to learn from and admire about Spinoza, especially these days.

TGIF: Liberty, Democracy, and the Right

TGIF: Liberty, Democracy, and the Right

I am mystified by the claim that the long-standing libertarian critique of democracy furnishes aid and comfort to conservatives who display a taste for populist authoritarianism. Let me say at the outset that the libertarian critique has nothing to offer those who would impose legal or social disabilities on racial, ethnic, religious, and other minorities. If white supremacists see something helpful here, they are mere opportunists who would find something helpful to their cause in anything they looked at.

Right off the top we may ask where is this right-wing antipathy to democracy. On the contrary, I see a right-wing embrace of democracy even in the age of Trump. (Rush Limbaugh has long called himself the “doctor of democracy.”) Which branch of government have conservatives all of all stripes railed against most vigorously for decades? It’s the judiciary, especially the U.S. Supreme Court. And what have the courts done to make conservatives so angry? They have invalidated actions of legislators — the supposed elected representatives of the people. Robert Bork and Antonin Scalia were not the first conservatives to inveigh against unelected judges for vetoing the will of the people as expressed through the democratic branches of government. Bork, whose defeat at the hands of Democrats as Ronald Reagan’s nominee for the Supreme Court, energized conservatives with his articulate defense of — wait for it — majoritarianism. Libertarians opposed him for that reason. I once heard Scalia say his job was not to strike down legislative acts that were unconstitutional, just those that were “really unconstitutional.” (I did not add the emphasis.)

(We note here in passing that public choice analysis demonstrates that majority rule is in fact a chimera because special interests, as a result of collective-action problems among other things, are better positioned than the unorganized masses to achieve decisive clout over policymaking. Moreover, representative government was devised as a scam to defuse public opposition to what their rulers were doing.)

By pointing all this out, I do not deny the authoritarian element on the right, which Trump has brought to the forefront. There’s an unappreciated connection among democracy, populism, and authoritarianism, which Hayek noted in The Road to Serfdom. Democracy is inevitably slow and messy; it can bog down in endless debate and factionalism. Then, under certain circumstances, it can produce a strongman who condemns the dithering and promises swift action to carry out the “will of the people.”

In contrast to conservatives, so-called liberal Democrats typically applaud court interference with legislatures, including Congress. (Remember, among others, Brown v. Board of Education and Roe v. Wade.)

So who are the democrats and who are the anti-democrats? Are libertarians responsible for the Democratic Party’s support for judges who strike down democratically enacted laws?

To be sure, both “liberals” and conservatives are opportunists. They support judicial activism when it suits their agendas and oppose it when it does not. And, as Ilya Somin notes, each side tries to keep the other side’s supporters from expressing themselves democratically, for example, through gerrymandering. But neither has been influenced by the libertarian critique of democracy.

Still, it is conservatives who make opposition to the courts their signature issue — to the point of being willing to elect any Republican president on the grounds that judicial appointments matter above all else.

It is libertarians (such as Randy Barnett) who have consistently espoused “principled judicial activism” over the conservatives’ beloved “judicial restraint.” Principled judicial activism is the maxim that judges should refuse to defer to the people’s legislatures when freedom is at stake. It is otherwise known as the presumption of liberty.

More generally, progressives, such as those who dominate the Democrats today, have long favored anti-democratic entities like independent regulatory agencies, which have proliferated since before the Progressive Era. On the other hand, populists, in their anti-elitism, are more prefer rule by elected assemblies to rule by unelected experts.

Moving on, we must consider whether radical libertarianism provides ammunition to conservatives. Somin notes that the libertarian insistence on robust property rights cannot have emboldened the right because the right has become increasingly less interested in property rights. Oh sure, conservatives may invoke property when it lines up with their prejudices, but they are more than happy to jettison it in other issues close to their hearts. I’ve yet to hear an advocate of the planned wall along the Mexican border demand that it be built without eminent domain. The same goes for the various energy pipelines about which they are so excited. Property rights also don’t figure in their enthusiasm for cracking down on immigration, legal and illegal. (Why do I need government permission to hire, sell to, or rent to an immigrant?)

If conservatives have been inspired by the libertarian commitment to property rights, then they have badly misread the fundamental works of the most influential libertarians of our time.

A debate of sorts has opened between Somin and Will Wilkinson over whether property is at the heart of the libertarian critique of democracy. Wilkinson blames the “libertarian theory of ironclad ‘natural’ property rights” for bolstering the allegedly anti-democratic right. We’ve already seen the problem with that claim. Moreover, Somin correctly points out that much of the libertarian critique of democracy stems from other concerns, such as the Hayekian knowledge problem and public choice incentive problem. That’s true, but property rights remain a major objection to majority rule. What’s attractive about a system that permits a majority of voters to take someone’s justly acquired belongings or to anoint politicians who promise to do so? (Among the better motivations for the U.S. Constitution was the concern that unrestrained state legislatures could confiscate people’s land.)

Property, knowledge, and incentives aside, we have grounds to question the legitimacy of democracy the moment we encounter Bastiat’s insight that no group can have rights that are not possessed by the individual members. Since that is the case, no majority may impose anything on others that individuals may not impose on them. If that invalidates taxation and the state, so be it. Of course, this insight also invalidates the authoritarianism that the right wing seems more and more disposed to favor.

TGIF: The Liberal Spirit and Its Opposite, Alt-Rightism

TGIF: The Liberal Spirit and Its Opposite, Alt-Rightism

How ridiculous it is for Matt Lewis of The Daily Beast to write, “It seems observably true that libertarianism is disproportionately a gateway drug to the alt-right.”

To say the libertarian movement is a “gateway drug” is to say more than that some prominent members of the alt-right once called themselves libertarians. It’s also to say that alt-rightism provides a purer form of what those members had found in libertarianism (aka original liberalism, or simply liberalism).

A good measure of ignorance of liberalism is required to entertain this thought. Libertarianism is a more formal version of (classical) liberalism, the social philosophy that blossomed in the 18th century but had roots in previous ages. The liberal worldview was self-consciously universal, applicable to all people everywhere because all human beings had the same basic requirements for flourishing. Religion and culture mattered only because they might explain variations in the ways free people pursued the good life. But the basics were expected to be more or less the same because people are people, that is, “created” equal.

Liberalism has recognized the importance of respect for property to the quest for the good life. This is not difficult to fathom. How can one flourish in an environment in which one’s possessions are subject to confiscation by the state or freelance marauders? This point is reinforced when one remembers that plans can extend over many months and years. Who would delay consumption a long period without reasonable certainty of being able to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor and forbearance?

So, yes, private property is central to liberalism. But liberals have historically seen property as an institution engendering, not exclusion, but inclusion. Free trade and the widest possible division of labor have been just as dear to liberals as property rights — the connection is obvious. You see this clearly in Adam Smith and Ludwig von Mises. Mises in particular located the source of wider social living in the perceived potential for gains from trade and toleration. Liberals have seen the division of labor and free trade as indispensable to human flourishing, but those things cannot exist securely without mutual respect for every person’s title to their own stuff. As an institution, property was of a piece with cosmopolitanism and exchange of all kinds. That’s why a “pure” race or culture is as chimerical as a “pure” language.

Sure, property also authorizes owners to exclude from its use those they wish to exclude for whatever reason. But that hardly seems to have been the focus of liberals. Rather, property was about ever-greater opportunities for interaction, race, culture, and national borders notwithstanding.

The exclusionary side of property could explain why some individuals flirted with libertarianism before going on to circles of racial and religious bigotry. Perhaps those individuals were attracted to the exclusionary features of property but then got turned off when they saw the overriding lure of inclusion that property and trade present. So they moved on. Another explanation is that some people are attracted to a “fringe” movement not because of anything particular to it but because like the idea of being a big fish in a small pond. If for some reason one pond doesn’t suit, they may jump to another “fringier” pond.

No matter how hard one might try, it is impossible to twist libertarianism into something it is not. Property can be used to advance bigotry, but so can a printing press or a website. No one thinks this negative potential taints the ideas of free speech and free speech, which predominantly foster increased contact across former divides. Likewise, the wish of some to use property in the cause of bigotry does not detract from the institution’s monumental contribution to peace and harmony among diverse people.

Maybe a few self-described libertarians cling to the idea that property is essentially about exclusion, but they are fated to hit a wall: liberalism is a spirit as well as a set of ideas, and it cannot be turned against itself. It fosters human solidarity, not separation. Libertarianism, like its precursor, is an answer to the question: under what conditions do reasoning social animals best flourish?  In answering that question the way it has, liberalism offers no home to sowers of division.

This not to say that a few participants in the movement haven’t infamously pandered to alt-right types in search of donations and bodies for events. This has done the movement an injustice because it lets antagonists suggest some that substantive connection exists between liberalism and illiberalism.

Some libertarians have also encouraged the idea of a connection by their inept explanation of the libertarian position on public-accommodation and employment anti-discrimination laws. The libertarians I have in mind give only half the explanation when they insist that property owners have the right to exclude anyone they wish. That’s true, but libertarianism properly conceived goes further in light of the considerations outlined here. The rest of the answer is that even nonviolent bigotry is illiberal because its collectivist premise clashes with the firmest grounding of the case for individual liberty and is thus properly a matter of concern to libertarians as libertarians. (See “What Social Animals Owe to Each Other” and “Libertarianism = Anti-Racism.”) Therefore, when libertarians are asked if bigoted property owners should be free to discriminate, they should say, “Free of government force, yes, but not necessarily free from costs imposed by consumers.” In other words, bigotry should be fought without help from the state, where appropriate, through boycott, ostracism, and publicity.

Thus those who migrate from the libertarian movement to the alt-right have rejected the essence of the freedom movement and its philosophy. They are certainly not looking for a purer version of it.

Anarchism as Radical Liberalism: Radicalizing Markets, Radicalizing Democracy

Anarchism as Radical Liberalism: Radicalizing Markets, Radicalizing Democracy

This piece is the ninth essay in the June C4SS Mutual Exchange Symposium: “Anarchy and Democracy.”

 

Classical liberalism emerged as a radical ideology, challenging the status quo of monarchy, mercantilism, religious tyranny, and the ancien regime. The liberals promoted two ideals, markets and democracy, as alternatives to the old despotisms.

Yet markets and democracy seemed to be at odds, leaving liberals advocating a middle of the road compromise between the two. Left-liberals favored a broader role for democracy and a narrower role for markets, while right-liberals (more often called conservatives or libertarians) favored a broader role for markets and a narrower role for democracy. Across the spectrum, they agreed that democracy and markets were at odds to at least some extent.

This left an opening for radicals to propose radicalizing the commitment to one liberal ideal by abolishing the other. Most famously, socialists proposed abolishing the market and replacing it with radical democratic control over the economy. Anarchists joined in as well. Many anarcho-communists joined the call to embrace radical democracy by jettisoning markets. On the opposite extreme, many anarcho-capitalists proposed radicalizing our commitment to markets by abolishing democracy.

Tell me what democracy looks like

Economist Don Lavoie, in his essay “Democracy, Markets, and the Legal Order1,” proposes a different way of defining democracy and markets, so that they are complementary rather than at odds.

The tension between democracy and markets stems from viewing democracy as involving votes on either how a coercive government will be run or direct votes on social outcomes (such as resource distributions). When activities operate through the market, they are to some degree immunized from interference by democratic states, and they do not have their outcomes determined directly through votes by community members. Lavoie proposes an alternative definition, in which democracy is characterized by openness. Moreover, Lavoie proposes an approach that does not treat democracy as a centralized process. “Our politics needs to move beyond the model of the exercise of some kind of unified, conscious democratic will and understand democratic processes as distributed throughout the political culture,” he explains.

He argues that this definition more closely describes the celebrated features of glasnost that liberalized the Soviet Union towards the end of its reign. Pro-democracy activists in that context were not primarily fighting for electoral participation, but for openness. Lavoie writes:

“What I think we should mean by democracy is the distinctive kind of openness in society which the Soviet system crushed, and which began to recover under the banner of glasnost. Glasnost is the making public of things. The Russian word translates better into “openness” than it does into “democracy.” Some Western defenders of democratic governments have complained about the common translation into “democracy” on the grounds that openness is not the same thing as the holding of periodic elections, so that the glasnost movement should not be called a democratic movement at all. I suspect, on the contrary, that the movement captures the underlying essence of democracy better than our Western democratic institutions do.”

In a move that evokes the best of both F.A. Hayek and the Ostroms, Lavoie then argues that “Like the market, a democratic polity exhibits a kind of distributed intelligence, not representable by any single organization which may claim to act on society’s behalf.” The distinctive features of democracy are not embodied in “the conscious will of a representative organization that has been legitimated by the public,” but are instead characterized by “the discursive process of the distributed wills of the public itself.”

In Lavoie’s framework, democracy is not something expressed through a state with a monopoly on the use of force, or through elections to decide what such a state will do. Instead, democracy occurs through open discourse, debate, contestation, and interaction among citizens. To borrow a concept from the Ostroms, democracy rightly understood is polycentric rather than monocentric.

At protest marches, leftist activists often chant “Tell me what democracy looks like!” to which their comrades respond “This is what democracy looks like!” In a sense, they are right. Protests reflect people with various views expressing their opinions in the open. They reflect a society in which contestation is possible to at least some degree. And it is telling that even formally democratic states send police officers to bludgeon, beat, and otherwise violently repress protesters and the journalists who report on them.

If democracy is characterized by openness, then the ballot box is not the epitome of democracy. Instead, democracy is defined by those who, from the bottom up, contribute to an open society. People who film police and expose their crimes do this. Journalists who investigate powerful people, debate ideas, and keep the free press alive embody democracy. Tell me what democracy looks like? It looks like whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, John Kiriakou, and Daniel Ellsberg making the state’s previously secret crimes public.

Political Culture and Anarchism

Lavoie applied his understanding of democracy as openness to shed new light on the work of anarcho-capitalist theorists such as Murray Rothbard, David Friedman, and Bruce Benson. While these thinkers are correct to note that markets and other non-state institutions can provide law, the question of what sort of law will be provided depends upon the political culture. Questions of political culture have all too often been ignored by our fellow radical libertarians. As Lavoie writes:

“Liberals cannot resolve the issue of whether a legal system could be supplied by a free market because the issue depends on what is happening in the political culture, in the ongoing discourses about mutual rights and obligations, which individualist liberalism, in both limited-government and anarchist versions, utterly ignores. Radical liberals have been so intent on establishing a universal system of individual rights that they have failed to address the cultural conditions in which socialized individuals would demand this or that kind of legal services.

To say we should leave everything to be “decided by markets” does not, as radical liberals suppose, relieve liberalism of the need to deal with the whole realm of politics. And to severely limit or even abolish government does not necessarily remove the need for democratic processes in nongovernmental institutions.”

Lavoie makes an excellent point here, and one that underscores the need for what Charles W. Johnson has called “thick libertarianism2.” As Johnson notes, the thin core of libertarianism tells us something important: namely that aggression is wrong, and that force is only justified in defense of persons or property. But there are related “thick” commitments that are important for instantiating the non-aggression principle in the real world. Lavoie’s work shows us that some of these thick commitments are likely to relate to openness and political culture.

The anarchism I advocate entails abolishing the state. But that is not all it entails. Instead, my anarchism is a radicalization of liberalism: both liberalism’s commitment to markets and its commitment to democracy. Markets enable individuals to freely associate, provide incentives that align our self-interest with the interests of others, and coordinate social cooperation among diverse individuals with dispersed knowledge. Democracy, or a society characterized by openness, empowers individuals to debate, share their knowledge, persuade one another, and learn from one another. As Lavoie shows us, democracy and markets do not need to be at odds. Instead, they can represent two sides of the same coin, two mechanisms for a society to engage in decentralized processes of experimentation and error correction. Anarchism is democracy radicalized, not in the sense of direct democracy, federated worker cooperatives, or council communism, but in the sense of an open society freed from the shackles of the state.


References

(1) Lavoie, Don. “Democracy, Markets, and the Legal Order: Notes on the Nature of Politics in a Radically Liberal Society.” Social Philosophy and Policy 10, no. 2 (July 1993): 103–20. doi:10.1017/S0265052500004167.

(2) Johnson, Charles. “Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin.” Foundation for Economic Education, July 1, 2008. https://fee.org/articles/libertarianism-through-thick-and-thin/.


Mutual Exchange is C4SS’s goal in two senses: We favor a society rooted in peaceful, voluntary cooperation, and we seek to foster understanding through ongoing dialogue. Mutual Exchange will provide opportunities for conversation about issues that matter to C4SS’s audience.

Anarchism as Radical Liberalism: Radicalizing Markets, Radicalizing Democracy

Confessions of a Right-Wing Liberal

[This classic piece appeared in Ramparts, VI, 4, June 15, 1968. It was the fulfillment of an ideological trend that began a few years earlier when consistent libertarians, led by Rothbard, sensed an estrangement from the American right-wing due to its support of militarism, police power, and the corporate state. Here Rothbard presents a rationale for why he and others had, by 1968, largely given up on the Right as a viable reform movement toward liberty, realized that the Right was squarely on the side of power, and thereby developed an alternative intellectual historiography. The relevance of this essay in our own time hardly needs to be explained, given the record on liberty of the Republican president, congress, and judiciary, to say nothing of conservative and right-wing media.]

TWENTY YEARS AGO I was an extreme right-wing Republican, a young and lone “Neanderthal” (as the liberals used to call us) who believed, as one friend pungently put it, that “Senator Taft had sold out to the socialists.” Today, I am most likely to be called an extreme leftist, since I favor immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, denounce U.S. imperialism, advocate Black Power and have just joined the new Peace and Freedom Party. And yet my basic political views have not changed by a single iota in these two decades!

It is obvious that something is very wrong with the old labels, with the categories of “left” and “right,” and with the ways in which we customarily apply these categories to American political life. My personal odyssey is unimportant; the important point is that if I can move from “extreme right” to “extreme left” merely by standing in one place, drastic though unrecognized changes must have taken place throughout the American political spectrum over the last generation.

I joined the right-wing movement—to give a formal name to a very loose and informal set of associations—as a young graduate student shortly after the end of World War II. There was no question as to where the intellectual right of that day stood on militarism and conscription: it opposed them as instruments of mass slavery and mass murder. Conscription, indeed, was thought far worse than other forms of statist controls and incursions, for while these only appropriated part of the individual’s property, the draft, like slavery, took his most precious possession: his own person. Day after day the veteran publicist John T. Flynn—once praised as a liberal and then condemned as a reactionary, with little or no change in his views—inveighed implacably in print and over the radio against militarism and the draft. Even the Wall Street newspaper, the Commercial and Financial Chronicle, published a lengthy attack on the idea of conscription.

All of our political positions, from the free market in economics to opposing war and militarism, stemmed from our root belief in individual liberty and our opposition to the state. Simplistically, we adopted the standard view of the political spectrum: “left” meant socialism, or total power of the state; the further “right” one went the less government one favored. Hence, we called ourselves “extreme rightists.”

Originally, our historical heroes were such men as Jefferson, Paine, Cobden, Bright and Spencer; but as our views became purer and more consistent, we eagerly embraced such near-anarchists as the voluntarist, Auberon Herbert, and the American individualist-anarchists, Lysander Spooner and Benjamin R. Tucker. One of our great intellectual heroes was Henry David Thoreau, and his essay, “Civil Disobedience,” was one of our guiding stars. Right-wing theorist Frank Chodorov devoted an entire issue of his monthly, Analysis, to an appreciation of Thoreau.

In our relation to the remainder of the American political scene, we of course recognized that the extreme right of the Republican Party was not made up of individualist anti-statists, but they were close enough to our position to make us feel part of a quasi-libertarian united front. Enough of our views were present among the extreme members of the Taft wing of the Republican Party (much more so than in Taft himself, who was among the most liberal of that wing), and in such organs as the Chicago Tribune, to make us feel quite comfortable with this kind of alliance.

What is more, the right-wing Republicans were major opponents of the Cold War. Valiantly, the extreme rightist Republicans, who were particularly strong in the House, battled conscription, NATO and the Truman Doctrine. Consider, for example, Omaha’s Representative Howard Buffett, Senator Taft’s midwestern campaign manager in 1952. He was one of the most extreme of the extremists, once described by The Nation as “an able young man whose ideas have tragically fossilized.”

I came to know Buffett as a genuine and thoughtful libertarian. Attacking the Truman Doctrine on the floor of Congress, he declared: “Even if it were desirable, America is not strong enough to police the world by military force. If that attempt is made, the blessings of liberty will be replaced by coercion and tyranny at home. Our Christian ideals cannot be exported to other lands by dollars and guns.”

When the Korean War came, almost the entire old left, with the exception of the Communist Party, surrendered to the global mystique of the United Nations and “collective security against aggression,” and backed Truman’s imperialist aggression in that war. Even Corliss Lamont backed the American stand in Korea. Only the extreme rightist Republicans continued to battle U.S. imperialism. It was the last great political outburst of the old right of my youth.

Howard Buffett was convinced that the United States was largely responsible for the eruption of conflict in Korea; for the rest of his life he tried unsuccessfully to get the Senate Armed Services Committee to declassify the testimony of CIA head Admiral Hillenkoeter, which Buffett told me established American responsibility for the Korean outbreak. The last famous isolationist move came late in December 1950, after the Chinese forces had beaten the Americans out of North Korea. Joseph P. Kennedy and Herbert Hoover delivered two ringing speeches back-to-back calling for American evacuation of Korea. As Hoover put it, “To commit the sparse ground forces of the non-communist nations into a land war against this communist land mass [in Asia] would be a war without victory, a war without a successful political terminal . . . that would be the graveyard of millions of American boys” and the exhaustion of the United States. Joe Kennedy declared that “if portions of Europe or Asia wish to go communistic or even have communism thrust upon them, we cannot stop it.”

To this The Nation replied with typical liberal Red-baiting: “The line they are laying down for their country should set the bells ringing in the Kremlin as nothing has since the triumph of Stalingrad”; and the New Republic actually saw Stalin sweeping onwards “until the Stalinist caucus in the Tribune Tower would bring out in triumph the first communist edition of the Chicago Tribune.”

The main catalyst for transforming the mass base of the right wing from an isolationist and quasi-libertarian movement to an anti-communist one was probably “McCarthyism.” Before Senator Joe McCarthy launched his anti-communist crusade in February 1950, he had not been particularly associated with the right wing of the Republican Party; on the contrary, his record was liberal and centrist, statist rather than libertarian.

Furthermore, Red-baiting and anti-communist witch hunting were originally launched by liberals, and even after McCarthy the liberals were the most effective at this game. It was, after all, the liberal Roosevelt Administration which passed the Smith Act, first used against Trotskyites and isolationists during World War II and then against communists after the war; it was the liberal Truman Administration that instituted loyalty checks; it was the eminently liberal Hubert Humphrey who was a sponsor of the clause in the McCarran Act of 1950 threatening concentration camps for “subversives.”

McCarthy not only shifted the focus of the right to communist hunting, however. His crusade also brought into the right wing a new mass base. Before McCarthy, the rank-and-file of the right wing was the small-town, isolationist middle west. McCarthyism brought into the movement a mass of urban Catholics from the eastern seaboard, people whose outlook on individual liberty was, if anything, negative.

If McCarthy was the main catalyst for mobilizing the mass base of the new right, the major ideological instrument of the transformation was the blight of anti-communism, and the major carriers were Bill Buckley and National Review.

In the early days, young Bill Buckley often liked to refer to himself as an “individualist,” sometimes even as an “anarchist.” But all these libertarian ideals, he maintained, had to remain in total abeyance, fit only for parlor discussion, until the great crusade against the “international communist conspiracy” had been driven to a successful conclusion. Thus, as early as January 1952, I noted with disquiet an article that Buckley wrote for Commonweal, “A Young Republican’s View.”

He began the article in a splendid libertarian manner: our enemy, he affirmed, was the state, which, he quoted Spencer, was “begotten of aggression and by aggression.” But then came the worm in the apple: the anti-communist crusade had to be waged. Buckley went on to endorse “the extensive and productive tax laws that are needed to support a vigorous anti-communist foreign policy”; he declared that the “thus far invincible aggressiveness of the Soviet Union” imminently threatened American security, and that therefore “we have to accept Big Government for the duration—for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged . . . except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.” Therefore, he concluded—in the midst of the Korean War—we must all support “large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards and the attendant centralization of power in Washington.”

The right wing, never articulate, has not had many organs of opinion. Therefore, when Buckley founded National Review in late 1955, its erudite, witty and glib editorials and articles swiftly made it the only politically relevant journal for the American right. Immediately, the ideological line of the right began to change sharply.

One element that gave special fervor and expertise to the Red-baiting crusade was the prevalence of ex-communists, ex-fellow travelers and ex-Trotskyites among the writers whom National Review brought into prominence on the right-wing scene. These ex-leftists were consumed with an undying hatred for their former love, along with a passion for bestowing enormous importance upon their apparently wasted years. Almost the entire older generation of writers and editors for National Review had been prominent in the old left. Some names that come to mind are: Jim Burnham, John Chamberlain, Whittaker Chambers, Ralph DeToledano, Will Herberg, Eugene Lyons, J. B. Matthews, Frank S. Meyer, William S. Schlamm and Karl Wittfogel.

An insight into the state of mind of many of these people came in a recent letter to me from one of the most libertarian of this group; he admitted that my stand in opposition to the draft was the only one consistent with libertarian principles, but, he said, he can’t forget how nasty the communist cell in Time magazine was in the 1930’s. The world is falling apart and yet these people are still mired in the petty grievances of faction fights of long ago!

Anti-communism was the central root of the decay of the old libertarian right, but it was not the only one. In 1953, a big splash was made by the publication of Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. Before that, no one on the right regarded himself as a “conservative”; “conservative” was considered a left smear word. Now, suddenly, the right began to glory in the term “conservative,” and Kirk began to make speaking appearances, often in a kind of friendly “vital center” tandem with Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

This was to be the beginning of the burgeoning phenomenon of the friendly-though-critical dialogue between the liberal and conservative wings of the Great Patriotic American Consensus. A new, younger generation of rightists, of “conservatives,” began to emerge, who thought that the real problem of the modern world was nothing so ideological as the state vs. individual liberty or government intervention vs. the free market; the real problem, they declared, was the preservation of tradition, order, Christianity and good manners against the modern sins of reason, license, atheism and boorishness.

One of the first dominant thinkers of this new right was Buckley’s brother-in-law, L. Brent Bozell, who wrote fiery articles in National Review attacking liberty even as an abstract principle (and not just as something to be temporarily sacrificed for the benefit of the anti-communist emergency). The function of the state was to impose and enforce moral and religious principles.

Another repellent political theorist who made his mark in National Review was the late Willmoore Kendall, NR editor for many years. His great thrust was the right and the duty of the majority of the community—as embodied, say, in Congress—to suppress any individual who disturbs that community with radical doctrines. Socrates, opined Kendall, not only should have been killed by the Greek community, whom he offended by his subversive criticisms, but it was their moral duty to kill him.

The historical heroes of the new right were changing rapidly. Mencken, Nock, Thoreau, Jefferson, Paine—all these either dropped from sight or were soundly condemned as rationalists, atheists or anarchists. From Europe, the “in” people were now such despotic reactionaries as Burke, Metternich, DeMaistre; in the United States, Hamilton and Madison were “in,” with their stress on the imposition of order and a strong, elitist central government—which included the southern “slavocracy.”

For the first few years of its existence, I moved in National Review circles, attended its editorial luncheons, wrote articles and book reviews for the magazine; indeed, there was talk at one time of my joining the staff as an economics columnist.

I became increasingly alarmed, however, as NR and its friends grew in strength because I knew, from innumerable conversations with rightist intellectuals, what their foreign policy goal was. They never quite dared to state it publicly, although they would slyly imply it and would try to whip the public up to the fever pitch of demanding it. What they wanted—and still want—was nuclear annihilation of the Soviet Union. They want to drop that Bomb on Moscow. (Of course, on Peking and Hanoi too, but for your veteran anti-communist— especially back then—it is Russia which supplies the main focus of his venom.) A prominent editor of National Review once told me: “I have a vision, a great vision of the future: a totally devastated Soviet Union.” I knew that it was this vision that really animated the new conservatism.

In response to all this, and seeing peace as the crucial political issue, a few friends and I became Stevensonian Democrats in 1960. I watched with increasing horror as the right wing, led by National Review, continually grew in strength and moved ever closer to real political power.

Having broken emotionally with the right wing, our tiny group of libertarians began to rethink many of our old, unexamined premises. First, we restudied the origins of the Cold War, we read our D.F. Fleming and we concluded, to our considerable surprise, that the United States was solely at fault in the Cold War, and that Russia was the aggrieved party. And this meant that the great danger to the peace and freedom of the world came not from Moscow or “international communism,” but from the U.S. and its Empire stretching across and dominating the world.

And then we studied the foul European conservatism that had taken over the right wing; here we had statism in a virulent form, and yet no one could possibly think these conservatives to be “leftist.” But this meant that our simple “left/total government—right/no government” continuum was altogether wrong and that our whole identification of ourselves as “extreme rightists” must contain a basic flaw. Plunging back into history, we again concentrated on the reality that in the 19th century, laissez-faire liberals and radicals were on the extreme left and our ancient foes, the conservatives, on the right. My old friend and libertarian colleague Leonard Liggio then came up with the following analysis of the historical process.

First there was the old order, the ancien régime, the regime of caste and frozen status, of exploitation by a despotic ruling class, using the church to dupe the masses into accepting its rule. This was pure statism; this was the right wing. Then, in 17th and 18th century western Europe, a liberal and radical opposition movement arose, our heroes, who championed a popular revolutionary movement on behalf of rationalism, individual liberty, minimal government, free markets, international peace and separation of church and state, in opposition to throne and altar, to monarchy, the ruling class, theocracy and war. These—”our people”—were the left, and the purer their vision the more “extreme” they were.

So far so good; but what of socialism, which we had always considered the extreme left? Where did that fit in? Liggio analyzed socialism as a confused middle-of-the-road movement, influenced historically by both the libertarian left and the conservative right. From the individualist left the socialists took the goals of freedom: the withering away of the state, the replacement of the governing of men by the administration of things, opposition to the ruling class and a search for its overthrow, the desire to establish international peace, an advanced industrial economy and a high standard of living for the mass of the people. From the right the socialists adopted the means to achieve these goals—collectivism, state planning, community control of the individual. This put socialism in the middle of the ideological spectrum. It also meant that socialism was an unstable, self-contradictory doctrine bound to fly apart in the inner contradiction between its means and ends.

Our analysis was greatly bolstered by our becoming familiar with the new and exciting group of historians who studied under University of Wisconsin historian William Appleman Williams. From them we discovered that all of us free marketeers had erred in believing that somehow, down deep, Big Businessmen were really in favor of laissez-faire, and that their deviations from it, obviously clear and notorious in recent years, were either “sellouts” of principle to expediency or the result of astute maneuverings by liberal intellectuals.

This is the general view on the right; in the remarkable phrase of Ayn Rand, Big Business is “America’s most persecuted minority.” Persecuted minority, indeed! Sure, there were thrusts against Big Business in the old McCormick Chicago Tribune and in the writings of Albert Jay Nock; but it took the Williams-Kolko analysis to portray the true anatomy and physiology of the American scene.

As Kolko pointed out, all the various measures of federal regulation and welfare statism that left and right alike have always believed to be mass movements against Big Business are not only now backed to the hilt by Big Business, but were originated by it for the very purpose of shifting from a free market to a cartelized economy that would benefit it. Imperialistic foreign policy and the permanent garrison state originated in the Big Business drive for foreign investments and for war contracts at home.

The role of the liberal intellectuals is to serve as “corporate liberals,” weavers of sophisticated apologias to inform the masses that the heads of the American corporate state are ruling on behalf of the “common good” and the “general welfare”—like the priest in the Oriental despotism who convinced the masses that their emperor was all-wise and divine.

Since the early ’60s, as the National Review right has moved nearer to political power, it has jettisoned its old libertarian remnants and has drawn ever closer to the liberals of the Great American Consensus. Evidence of this abounds. There is Bill Buckley’s ever-widening popularity in the mass media and among liberal intellectuals, as well as widespread admiration on the intellectual right for people and groups it once despised: for the New Leader, for Irving Kristol, for the late Felix Frankfurter (who always opposed judicial restraint on government invasions of individual liberty), for Hannah Arendt and Sidney Hook. Despite occasional bows to the free market, conservatives have come to agree that economic issues are unimportant; they therefore accept—or at least do not worry about—the major outlines of the Keynesian welfare-warfare state of liberal corporatism.

On the domestic front, virtually the only conservative interests are to suppress Negroes (“shoot looters,” “crush those riots”), to call for more power for the police so as not to “shield the criminal” (i.e., not to protect his libertarian rights), to enforce prayer in the public schools, to put Reds and other subversives and “seditionists” in jail and to carry on the crusade for war abroad. There is little in the thrust of this program with which liberals can now disagree; any disagreements are tactical or matters of degree only. Even the Cold War—including the war in Vietnam—was begun and maintained and escalated by the liberals themselves.

No wonder that liberal Daniel Moynihan—a national board member of ADA incensed at the radicalism of the current anti-war and Black Power movements—should recently call for a formal alliance between liberals and conservatives, since after all they basically agree on these, the two crucial issues of our time! Even Barry Goldwater has gotten the message; in January 1968 in National Review, Goldwater concluded an article by affirming that he is not against liberals, that liberals are needed as a counterweight to conservatism, and that he had in mind a fine liberal like Max Lerner—Max Lerner, the epitome of the old left, the hated symbol of my youth!

In response to our isolation from the right, and noting the promising signs of libertarian attitudes in the emerging new left, a tiny band of us ex-rightist libertarians founded the “little journal,” Left and Right, in the spring of 1965. We had two major purposes: to make contact with libertarians already on the new left and to persuade the bulk of libertarians or quasi-libertarians who remained on the right to follow our example. We have been gratified in both directions: by the remarkable shift toward libertarian and anti-statist positions of the new left, and by the significant number of young people who have left the right-wing movement.

This left/right tendency has begun to be noticeable on the new left, praised and damned by those aware of the situation.(Our old colleague Ronald Hamowy, an historian at Stanford, set forth the left/right position in the New Republic collection, Thoughts of the Young Radicals (1966). We have received gratifying encouragement from Carl Oglesby who, in his Containment and Change (1967), advocated a coalition of new left and old right, and from the young scholars grouped around the unfortunately now defunct Studies on the Left. We’ve also been criticized, if indirectly, by Staughton Lynd, who worries because our ultimate goals—free market as against socialism—differ.

Finally, liberal historian Martin Duberman, in a recent issue of Partisan Review, sharply criticizes SNCC and CORE for being “anarchists,” for rejecting the authority of the state, for insisting that community be voluntary, and for stressing, along with SDS, participatory instead of representative democracy. Perceptively, if on the wrong side of the fence, Duberman then links SNCC and the new left with us old rightists: “SNCC and CORE, like the Anarchists, talk increasingly of the supreme importance of the individual. They do so, paradoxically, in a rhetoric strongly reminiscent of that long associated with the right. It could be Herbert Hoover . . . but it is in fact Rap Brown who now reiterates the Negro’s need to stand on his own two feet, to make his own decisions, to develop self-reliance and a sense of self-worth. SNCC may be scornful of present-day liberals and ‘statism,’ but it seems hardly to realize that the laissez-faire rhetoric it prefers derives almost verbatim from the classic liberalism of John Stuart Mill.” Tough. It could, I submit, do a lot worse.

I hope to have demonstrated why a few compatriots and I have shifted, or rather been shifted, from “extreme right” to “extreme left” in the past 20 years merely by staying in the same basic ideological place. The right wing, once in determined opposition to Big Government, has now become the conservative wing of the American corporate state and its foreign policy of expansionist imperialism. If we would salvage liberty from this deadening left/right fusion on the center, this needs be done through a counter-fusion of old right and new left.

James Burnham, an editor of National Review and its main strategic thinker in waging the “Third World War” (as he entitles his column), the prophet of the managerial state (in The Managerial Revolution), whose only hint of positive interest in liberty in a lifetime of political writing was a call for legalized firecrackers, recently attacked the dangerous trend among some young conservatives to make common cause with the left in opposing the draft. Burnham warned that he learned in his Trotskyite days that this would be an “unprincipled” coalition, and he warned that if one begins by being anti-draft one might wind up opposed to the war in Vietnam: “And I rather think that some of them are at heart, or are getting to be, against the war. Murray Rothbard has shown how right-wing libertarianism can lead to almost as anti-U.S. a position as left-wing libertarianism does. And a strain of isolationism has always been endemic in the American right.”

This passage symbolizes how deeply the whole thrust of the right wing has changed in the last two decades. Vestigial interest in liberty or in opposition to war and imperialism are now considered deviations to be stamped out without delay. There are millions of Americans, I am convinced, who are still devoted to individual liberty and opposition to the leviathan state at home and abroad, Americans who call themselves “conservatives” but feel that something has gone very wrong with the old anti-New Deal and anti-Fair Deal cause.

Something has gone wrong: the right wing has been captured and transformed by elitists and devotees of the European conservative ideals of order and militarism, by witch hunters and global crusaders, by statists who wish to coerce “morality” and suppress “sedition.”

America was born in a revolution against Western imperialism, born as a haven of freedom against the tyrannies and despotism, the wars and intrigues of the old world. Yet we have allowed ourselves to sacrifice the American ideals of peace and freedom and anti-colonialism on the altar of a crusade to kill communists throughout the world; we have surrendered our libertarian birthright into the hands of those who yearn to restore the Golden Age of the Holy Inquisition. It is about time that we wake up and rise up to restore our heritage.

Republished from the Mises Institute.

Anarchism as Radical Liberalism: Radicalizing Markets, Radicalizing Democracy

The Prehistory of the Alt-right

Reading “How I Left the Left” is a solid reminder that there’s not much intellectual heft remaining on that side of the fence. If an ideology sets out to isolate the locus of evil in people’s very identity, it is pretty well spent. This, in addition to the failure of the socialist model everywhere it has tried, explains why the Left has suffered so much at the polls and now faces a serious backlash in campus and public life.

With the failure of action comes reaction, and now the Western world is dealing with something far less familiar to most people: the rise of the alt-right as the alternative. It is attractive to some young people due to its taboo-breaking, rebel ethos that so easily inflames teachers and protectors of civic conventions.

The movement is more than that, however. It has a real philosophical and political history, one that stands in violent opposition to the idea of individual liberty. It has been largely suppressed since World War II and, because of that, most people assumed fascism (and its offshoots) was gone from the earth.

As a result, this generation has not been philosophically prepared to recognize the tradition, the signs, the implications, and the political application of the ideology so many are stumbling to embrace.

Here is a prehistory of what we call the alt-right today, which is probably better described as a 21st-century incarnation of what in the 19th century would have been called right-Hegelianism. I’m skipping over many political movements (in Spain, France, and Italy), and clownish leaders like George Lincoln Rockwell, Oswald Mosley, and Fr. Coughlin, to get right to the core ideas that form something like a school of thought which developed over a century. 

Here we have a lineage of non-Marxist, non-leftist brand of rightist but still totalitarian thinking, developed in fanatical opposition to bourgeois freedom.

1820: Georg Friedrich Hegel published Elements of the Philosophy of Right, which spelled out the political implications of his “dialectical idealism,” an outlook that departed dramatically from the liberal tradition by completely abstracting from human experience to posit warring life forces operating beyond anyone’s control to shape history. It turns out that the politics of this view amounted to “the state is the march of God through the world.” He looked forward to some age in the future that would realize the apotheosis of State control. The Hegelian view, according to a 1952 lecture by Ludwig von Mises, broke into Left and Right branches, depending on the attitude toward nationalism and religion (the right supported the Prussian state and church, whereas the left did not), and thereby “destroyed German thinking and German philosophy for more than a century, at least.”

1841: Thomas Carlyle published On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History, which popularized the “great man” theory of history. History is not about marginal improvements in living standards by using better tools, but rather about huge episodic shifts brought about through power. A champion of slavery and opponent of liberalism, Carlyle took aim at the rise of commercial society, praising Cromwell, Napoleon, and Rousseau, and rhapsodizing about the glories of power. “The Commander over Men; he to whose will our wills are to be subordinated, and loyally surrender themselves, and find their welfare in doing so, may be reckoned the most important of Great Men.” Carlyle’s target was Adam Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment generally. Hitler’s biographers agree that the words of Carlyle were the last he requested to be read to him before he died.

1841: On the continent, meanwhile, Friedrich List published The National System of Political Economy, celebrating protectionism, infrastructure spending, and government control and support of industry. Again, it was a direct attack on laissez faire and a celebration of the national unit as the only truly productive force in economic life. Steven Davies comments: “The most serious result of List’s ideas was a change in people’s thinking and perception. Instead of seeing trade as a cooperative process of mutual benefit, politicians and businessmen came to regard it as a struggle with winners and losers.” Today’s economic nationalists have nothing new to add to the edifice already constructive by List. 

1871: Charles Darwin left the realm of science briefly to enter sociological analysis with his book The Descent of Man. It is a fascinating work but tended to treat human society as a zoological rather than sociological and economic enterprise. It included an explosive paragraph (qualified and widely misread) that regretted how “we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment… Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.” At the very least, he suggested, we should stop the weak from marrying. This is the “one check” we have to keep society from being taken over by inferiors. Tragically, this passing comment fired up the eugenicists who immediately began to plot demographic planning schemes to avoid a terrifying biological slide to universal human degeneracy. 

1896: The American Economic Association published Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro by Frederick Hoffman. This monograph, one of many of the type, described blacks as intractable criminals who are both lazy and promiscuous, the influence of whom in national biology can only lead to a decline of the race. Their mere presence was considered an existential threat to “uncompromising virtues of the Aryan race.” Such views were embraced by Richard T. Ely, the founder of the American Economic Association, and came to dominate the academic journals of this period, providing academic cover for Jim Crow laws, state segregation, business regulation, and far worse. 

1904: The founder of the American eugenics society, Charles Davenport, established the Station for Experimental Evolution and worked to propagate eugenics from his perch as Professor of Zoology at Harvard University. He was hugely influential on an entire generation of scientists, political figures, economists, and public bureaucrats, and it was due largely to this influence that eugenics became such a central concern of American policies from this period until World War II, influencing the passage of wage legislation, immigration, marriage law, working hours legislation, and, of course, mandatory sterilizations.

At this point in history, all five pillars of fascist theory (historicist, nationalist, racist, protectionist, statist) were in place. It had a theory of history. It had a picture of hell, which is liberalism and uncontrolled commercial society. It had a picture of heaven, which was national societies run by great men inhabiting all-powerful States focused on heavy industry. It had a scientific rationale.

Above all, it had an agenda: to control society from the top down with the aim of managing every aspect of the demographic path of human society, which meant controlling human beings from cradle to grave to produce the most superior product, as well as industrial planning to replace the wiles of the market process. The idea of freedom itself, to this emergent school of thought, was a disaster for everyone everywhere.

All that was really necessary was popularization of its most incendiary ideas.

1916: Madison Grant, scholar of enormous prestige and elite connections, published The Passing of the Great Race. It was never a bestseller but it exercised enormous influence among the ruling elites, and made a famous appearance in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Grant, an early environmentalist, recommended mass sterilization of people as a “practical, merciful, and inevitable solution of the whole problem” that should be “applied to an ever-widening circle of social discards, beginning always with the criminal, the diseased, and the insane, and extending gradually to types which may be called weaklings rather than defectives, and perhaps ultimately to worthless race types.” Hitler loved the book and sent Grant a note praising the book as his personal bible.

1919: Following World War I, German historian Oswald Spengler published The Decline of the West, which met with huge popular acclaim for capturing the sense of the moment: the cash economy and liberalism were dead and could only be replaced by the rise of monolithic cultural forms that rally around blood and race as the source of meaning. Blood beats money all over the world, he argued. The interminable and foggy text broods with right-Hegelian speculations about the status of man and predicts the complete downfall of all lovely things unless the civilization of the West dispenses with its attachment to commercial norms and individualism and instead rallies to the cause of group identity. The book kicked off a decade of similar works and movements that declared freedom and democracy to be dead ideas: the only relevant battle was between the communist and fascist forms of state planning.

1932: Carl Schmitt published The Concept of the Political, a brutal attack on liberalism as the negation of the political. For Schmitt, the political was the essence of life, and the friend/enemy distinction is its most salient feature. Friends and enemies were to be defined by the State, and enemy-ness can only be fully instantiated in bloodshed, which should be real and present. Mises called him “the Nazi Jurist” for a reason: he was a party member and his ideas contributed mightily to the perception that mass death was not only moral, but essential to the preservation of the meaning of life itself.

1944: Allied troops discovered thousands of death camps strewn throughout Nazi-captured territories in Europe, created beginning in 1933 and continuing through the duration of the war, responsible for the imprisonment and death of upwards of 15 million people. The discovery shocked an entire generation at the most fundamental level, and the scramble was on to discover all sources of evil–political and ideological–that had led to such a gruesome reality. With the Nazi forces defeated and the Nuremberg trials underscoring the point, the advance of fascist dogma in all of its brooding, racist, statist, and historicist timbres, came to a screeching halt. Suppression of the ideas therein began in Europe, the United Kingdom, and the United States, creating the impression that right-Hegelianism was a mere flash in the pan that had been permanently doused by state power. 

The same year as the death-camp discovery began, F.A. Hayek published The Road to Serfdom, which emphasized that it was not enough to reject the labels, songs, slogans, and regimes of Nazism and fascism. Also necessary, said Hayek, was the rejection of the ideas of planning themselves, which even in a democracy necessarily led to the end of freedom and the rise of dictatorship. His book was met with critical acclaim among a small group of remaining classical liberals (many of whom were involved in the founding of FEE two years later) but was otherwise denounced and derided as paranoid and reactionary by many others.

For the duration of the ensuing Cold War, it was the fear of communism and not fascism/Nazism that would captivate the public mind. After all, the latter had been defeated on the battlefield, right? The genesis and development of rightest totalitarianism, despite the earnest pleadings of Hannah Arendt, fell away from public consciousness.

Liberalism Not Yet

The Cold War ended 25 years ago and the rise of digital technology has given liberal forms of political economy a gigantic presence in the world. Trade has never been more integrated. Human rights are on the march. Commercial life, and its underlying ideology of harmony and peace, is the prevailing aspiration of billions of people around the world. The failures of government planning are ever more obvious. And yet these trends alone do not seal the deal for the cause of liberty.

With left-Hegelianism now in disgrace, political movements around the world are rooting around in the pre-war history of totalitarian ideas to find alternatives. The suppression of these ideas did not work; in fact, they had the opposite effect of making them more popular to the point where they boiled up from below. The result is what we call the Alt-right in the US and goes by many other names in Europe and the UK. (The transition from the 1990s to the present will be the subject of another essay.)

Let us not be deceived. Whatever the flavor – whichever branch of Hegel we choose to follow – the cost of government control is human liberty, prosperity, and dignity. We choose mega-states, strongmen, national planning, or religious and racial homogeneity at our deep peril.

For the most part, the meme-posting trolls who favor stormfront-style profile pics on their social accounts, and the mass movements calling for strongmen to take control and cast the other from their midst, are clueless about the history and path they are following.

If you are feeling tempted toward the Alt-right, look at your progenitors: do you like what you see?

What is the alternative to right and left Hegelianism? It is found in the liberal tradition, summed up by Frederic Bastiat’s phrase “the harmony of interests.” Peace, prosperity, liberty, and community are possible. It is this tradition, and not one that posits intractable war between groups, that protects and expands human rights and human dignity, and creates the conditions that allow for the universal ennoblement of the human person. (For more on the history of despotic ideas in the 20th century, I suggest Mises’s epic 1947 book Planned Chaos, now available in epub.)

The last word on the correct (freedom-loving) path forward was framed by the great English historian Thomas Babington Macaulay in 1830, a statement that would be loathed by every fascist in history:

“It is not by the intermeddling of an omniscient and omnipotent State, but by the prudence and energy of the people, that England has hitherto been carried forward in civilization; and it is to the same prudence and the same energy that we now look with comfort and good hope. Our rulers will best promote the improvement of the nation by strictly confining themselves to their own legitimate duties, by leaving capital to find its most lucrative course, commodities their fair price, industry and intelligence their natural reward, idleness and folly their natural punishment, by maintaining peace, by defending property, by diminishing the price of law, and by observing strict economy in every department of the state. Let the Government do this: the People will assuredly do the rest.”

This article was originally published on FEE.org. Read the original article.

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