On Libertarian Factionalism, Our Critics, Conservative Associations and State Power

The generation of libertarians seen in such outfits as SFL excites and encourages me. I especially approve its efforts to cleanse the movement of the type of bigotry that emerged after years of the libertarian movement’s circumstantial alliance with conservatives to battle against New Deal liberalism. Finally, young libertarians seem poised to differentiate themselves entirely from rightwing mythology and error.

I worry, however, that many of the young libertarians, particularly centered around the DC institutions, might lose sight of the importance of radical anti-statism. This all relates to something I can best explain by way of a little autobiography.

I was always a cosmopolitan libertarian. Although I had my origins on the right, I have favored gay marriage and open borders since I was in junior high in the mid-1990s. I have always disliked the notion that white upper middle class men were somehow the most persecuted minority. I have always seen law enforcement’s treatment of people of color as one of the greatest problems in American culture. I have, with varying degrees of intensity, long been sympathetic to such leftish concerns as feminism and the need for the poorest to be liberated from the state infrastructure that keeps them down.

There are many like me who in the 1990s tended to see our values most represented in institutions like CATO and Reason, and who were suspicious of the seemingly conservative tendencies of other libertarians, such as those associated with Ron Paul.

The main reason so many of us were repelled by these cosmo groups and attracted to the paleos in the following decade was simple: 9/11 and the following response by the government seemed to illustrate that we were wrong to assume that CATO-style libertarians were more “liberal” than the paleos. Cato took years to seriously confront the issue of torture. Whereas many libertarians in the beltway began equivocating on border issues just when they got even more important, the paleos, in contrast, began rethinking their earlier skepticism of immigration in the age of Bush. On the police state, the paleos became abolitionists and radicals just as other libertarians became defenders of the FBI and CIA. In the last decade, it was the Rothbardians that radicalized the movement on police abolition, IP abolition, and military abolition.

The most dangerous form of bigotry in American culture from 2001 on, at least at first, seemed to be Islamophobia, and the Randians and mainstream libertarians went soft just as the state was rounding up innocent people and throwing them in dungeons such as at Guantánamo. Starting in the Bush administration, a CATO scholar started defending the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping and John Stossel publicly defended it on the Colbert Report. Efforts to reach out to liberals during the second Bush term often came from the very cosmo libertarians who were for the Iraq war, and who, for what it’s worth, tended to equivocate on abortion rights and immigration as well.

On what I consider the number one issue of the last decade and a half—war and militarism—the cosmo libertarians dropped the ball, time and again: on torture, on bombing Afghanistan, on the timetable in Iraq, on detention policy, on surveillance, on military recruiters on college campuses, on the warfare state as such.

Everyone realizes finally that the war on terror has become the biggest single threat to our liberty, the method by which the state has finally virtually destroyed privacy altogether, the main engine of government growth, the main fuel of the lawless presidency, the reason we have cops with tanks and battle rifles even in small towns. And directly and indirectly, the most bigoted policies in the last generation have been advanced in the name of a cause that too many libertarians have been at best ambivalent on. The war in Afghanistan today seems obviously horrible to almost everyone, but when it most mattered—when we had a chance to stop the bloodshed and the inevitable cascade of unending conflict and death that bombing and invasion would inaugurate—the whole mainstream libertarian movement was busy rubbing shoulders with the most corrupt Republicans since the Nixon administration.

The Rothbardians, even the socially conservative Rothbardians, were always right about these, some of the very biggest issues of our day. They also opened the door to other forms of radicalism, and, indirectly at least, Ron Paul activism has appeared to vastly radicalized the movement and brought in far more women and minorities. The radical anti-state, war-hating, peace-loving, establishment-condemning message of Rothbardian-Paulianism has, in its own way, made the movement far more cosmopolitan. Indeed, I think the welcome change in libertarian demographics to better represent the general population has many roots in Ron Paul activism.

At the same time, fringe cultural conservatives, in all their reactionary quirkiness, can be found in the “respectable” libertarian factions as well. There are famous race realists who hang out with the think tankers. I’ve seen Christian Reconstructionists tabling at a regional SFL event. The Birchers and Patriot types have as much a grip on libertarian activism in the west as in the South. And of course, the Republican impulses of many factions of the movement—even those enlightened enough to support gay marriage—have long tainted the movement with corporate apologia and, by proxy, rightwing culture warring. Before the NYT attacked libertarians for ties to neoconfederates, the New Yorker attacked us for ties to the Koch Brothers, and you had better believe that progressives will remember that exposé long after they forget about the NYT one.

The New Yorker attack was unfair, and brought on a wave of progressive conspiracy theorizing about how libertarians were allying with Republicans to abolish the state according to the philosophical platform of pacifist Robert LeFevre. My point is, we will always be attacked, our unsavory associations will always be cited but they are rarely necessary, most of our enemies hate libertarianism in its pure form more than they have conservatism, and practically every faction of our movement is vulnerable.

I have become far more ecumenical over the last couple years. I have taken a lesson from my model of a libertarian scholar, Robert Higgs. This ecumenicism might lose me some friends, but I don’t want to have any more enemies among libertarians. I see great value in much of what many of these organizations do, and I think there are very important issues on which my biggest allies over the last decade or so aren’t the most correct.

But I do want the younger libertarians to understand something: the mainstream libertarian organs, as great as they are—and they are great—have also made bad associations and have failed to uphold our values as times. Some of them won’t admit it, but many of them were wrong about what became the most pressing issues of our day.

The truth is not to be found in sectarianism. Please consider that.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Signed up to comment. Will not be back as I do not want to remember a preset password and apparently the 2 word with caps and lower case letters and six digit number I chose is too ‘weak’ of a password for a blog. Thanks for allowing me freedom of choice.!

    • Me thinks you don’t fully understand the role of freedom in libertarianism. In any case, I’ve loosened the password requirement.

  • I’ve always found one of the biggest things holding the libertarian movement back was itself. The various flavors of libertarianism at times seem more interested in proving which brand is the most libertarian and most correct than at allowing the differences to co-exist and ‘preach’ the greater message.

  • I would have written this if I were as good a writer as you. I thought it. It is entirely correct.

  • Whence comes the infighting? I used to read the Rockwell site, and they were constantly attacking Cato (“Stato”) and Reason. But I never see anything on the Cato site critical of Mises Institute or Rockwell. They don’t respond to the attacks, they just ignore Rockwell et al. Shouldn’t people call out the Mises people for being the chief attackers of other libertarians?

    • Are the stances taken by Cato and Reason worthy of being attacked? Yes. Homosexual “marriage” is an absolute joke of an issue. It has nothing to do with equal protection and everything to do with social engineering. This is the exact opposite of what the libertarian position should be. The libertarian position should be for government to get out of the business of regulating marriage altogether. If Cato and Reason advocate for these positions, then they don’t really understand what libertarianism means and deserve whatever criticism comes their way.

  • While I agree wholeheartedly with what you say here, Anthony, I also suspect that some of the (apparently) recent bickering is an inevitable result of the presence of social media and what I call “the amazingly low barrier to entry on the Internet.” Many, if not most, if not all, the attacks and discussions on places like Facebook amount to little more than cliques debating which girl is the biggest whore. It’s just worse because supposedly smart people are leading these vapid debates. Libertarianism does appear to attract weirdos, because we don’t really care about arbitrary bullshit as long as one follows the NAP. (At least that’s the theory!) It’s not about an ostensible “big tent” per se. It’s just the natural effect of accepting people based upon morals and equality versus arbitrary distinctions like religion and race. I do tire of the incessant one-true-Scotsman-ship, but some people apparently feel better about themselves when they can attack others. That’s not a flaw in libertarianism. That’s a result of weak egos. We have plenty of those too, like most “movements” composed of people.

    • To Wilton Alston:

      I might begin my reply as you started your own comment, “While I agree…”

      While I do certainly agree with what you’ve said there, I do think it’s completely fine that people debate on sites like Facebook n other social media.

      I’ve had my own period of wanting to debate all the time, but have since moved away from doing it, but I do think it can be fruitful to have debates or heated discussions on libertarian issues, like determining just how libertarian X position, candidate, etc. is.

      People just need to be more tactful and less egotistical while doing this. Far too often I see debates degenerate into ad hominems, people totally unwilling to back down from a position or give any concession to the other side. These are things I’ve noticed that I do but that many others do not, especially on social media.

      I think the reduction in hard-headedness and stubbornness might allow for fruitful and heated debate within our own circles (inside baseball, so to speak), but also could allow us to make alliances with people, positions, and groups who we might not agree with 100% on any given issue.

      It’s kinda dire, we absolutely have to start making these kind of alliances. Rothbard was totally on the right track in his activism. Even if we ally on only single issues, like anti-war, anti-police oppression, anti-welfare, etc., it is essential that we do so.

      Some libertarians seem to be under the impression that some day all human beings will be pure Rothbardians or something, like they think that we won’t ever have to align ourselves with lefties or conservatives to push toward the libertarian goal. I simply think this is stubbornly naive. I’m fully willing to stand with even dirty commies if it means we’ll have more significant weight behind our cause!

      Just my thoughts, cheers yall!

  • Oh and just a general comment here as well, I couldn’t agree more on what Anthony said about the importance of radical anti-statism as well as a sorta “cosmopolitan” stance on various social issues.

    One need not be any kind of “left libertarian”, I think personal preferences on bigotry and equality n stuff can be kept separate from one’s views on political philosophy, like stuff concerning rights.

    I turn 21 this month, so I think I’m certainly a part of this new generation of SFL-like libertarians. I personally don’t yet associate with any kinda group like that (not that I don’t want to, though), but I fall into that age-group.

    But I definitely think it’s highly important to stress that radical opposition to the state goes hand-in-hand with some more “left” kinda values, like concern for the poor and downtrodden.

    Recognizing the economic side of things, that governments always destroy wealth and impoverish society through war and “welfare” is significant, but also the more social side of things, stressing how spontaneous, organic order is the only way to solve the problems of bigotry and intolerance.

    Societies’ greatest problems spur forth from the state, whether directly or indirectly. States shape civilization in ways which are hard, if not impossible, to detect. As Thomas Paine talks about, a giant complicated governmental system makes it incredibly difficult for “political physicians” to diagnose, let alone cure, a social malady.