Tag Archives: libertarianism

When I draw comparisons between libertarians and slaveholders…

19 Oct

When I put libertarians and slaveholders in the same orbit, libertarians go ape-shit.

But when they do it

We treat John C. Calhoun as a precursor of modern public choice theory. Calhoun anticipates the doctrine of public choice contractarianism as developed by Buchanan and Tullock and expands this approach in original directions. We consider Calhoun’s theory of why democracy fails to preserve liberty and Calhoun’s suggested constitutional reform, rule by unanimity. We also draw out parallels between Calhoun and Hayek with regard to theories of social change and Hayek’s analysis of “why the worst get to the top.” The paper concludes with some remarks on problems in Calhoun’s theory.

—it’s all good.

Of course, it helps if you can resolve that pesky question of slavery like so:

Furthermore, Calhoun furnishes only weak ethical foundations for his advocacy of the concurrent majority…

This lack of ethical foundation shows up in Calhoun’s defense of slavery, which continues to hurt his reputation and draw attention from his more valid and interesting contributions.

H/t Suresh Naidu

The Limits of Libertarianism

12 Jul

If you ever needed a better example of Fear, American Style—or a demonstration of the limits of libertarianism—here’s an illustrative story out of Washington State. For years, activists—including, to their credit, libertarians—have been pushing for the legalization of marijuana. In 2012, Washington did it. This ensued:

The first person to legally purchase marijuana in the state of Washington was fired from his job as a security worker after he was spotted on television making the purchase.

At 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Mike Boyer was the first person in the door of the Spokane Green Leaf marijuana dispensary. He was captured on video by KXLY yelling, “Go Washington!” as he legally purchased four grams of Sour Kush.

The network then followed him home and filmed him smoking his legally purchased marijuana.

Boyer told The New York Daily News that a client of the security firm he formerly worked for saw him on the KXLY report and contacted his employer, who then asked Boyer to submit to a urinalysis test within 24 hours.

The test came back positive for THC, the mind-altering ingredient in marijuana.

“I’ve worked for them on and off for 12 years and several years ago, I signed a document that said I wouldn’t have [THC] in my system,” he said.

For years, libertarians have fought for the decriminalization of drugs in the name of freedom. Now, with pot in Washington (and Colorado), we have it. So what are libertarians going to do about this kind of firing? They need to come clean: either they really care about freedom, in which case they need to support the rights of workers in the workplace, or they should just admit that their real agenda is to strip the state of all of its functions, good or bad.

Update (1:15 pm)

Turns out, after this story was publicized and went viral, the security company that fired Boyer decided to hire him back. Said it was all a misunderstanding. Mistakes were made.

Libertarianism, the Confederacy, and Historical Memory

19 Jul

In the last few days libertarians have been debating the neo-Confederate sympathies of some in their movement. I don’t to wade into the discussion. Several voices in that tribe—including Jacob Levy, Jonathan Adler, and Ilya Somin—have been doing an excellent job. (This John Stuart Mill essay, which Somin cites, was an especially welcome reminder to me.)

But this post by Randy Barnett caught my eye.

I should preface this by saying that I think Barnett is one of the most interesting and thoughtful libertarians around. I’d happily read him on just about anything. He’s a forceful writer, who eschews jargon and actually seems to care about his readers. He’s also the architect of the nearly successful legal challenge to Obamacare, so we’re not talking about some academic outlier who gets trotted out, Potemkin-style, to serve as the kinder, gentler face of the movement.

What’s fascinating about his post is this:

I wish to add a few additional considerations that I have become aware of over the past several years as I have researched and written about “abolitionist constitutionalism” and the career of Salmon P. Chase.

What follows is a series of observations about the centrality of slavery and abolition to the origins of the Republican Party and the Confederacy and to the Civil War. Barnett, for example, says:

The Republican party was formed as the anti-slavery successor to the Liberty and Free Soil Parties.  It was the election of the presidential candidate of this party with its anti-slavery platform that precipitated the South’s initiation of force against federal troops and facilities — not a dispute over tariffs.  Slavery was deeply involved in both the formation of the Republican party, which supplanted the Whigs due to this issue, its election of a President on its second try, and the Southern reaction to this election, which directly precipitated the Civil War.

What’s striking about this set of observations is that with some minor exceptions it has been pretty much the historiographical consensus for decades. Indeed, I learned much of it in high school and in my sophomore year at college.  Yet Barnett, by his own admission, has only discovered it in recent years.

Let me be clear: I have no desire to impugn Barnett’s intelligence or learning, or to do that annoying academic thing of mocking someone for coming so late to the party. To the contrary: it’s because I have respect for Barnett that I am surprised. We’re not talking here about libertarianism’s Praetorian Guard. Barnett is a major scholar, who’s actually been thinking and writing about abolitionism and its constitutional vision for some time.

That a libertarian of such acuity and learning, of such range and appetite, would have come to these truths only recently and after intensive personal research tells you something about the sauce in which he and his brethren have been marinating all these years. In which the most delectable ingredient (don’t even try the rancid stuff) tastes something like this: “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Civil War was an unjust war on both sides.”

Never mind the formal and informal declarations of sympathy for the Confederacy that libertarians are currently debating. Barnett is grappling with a deeper kind of knowledge, or anti-knowledge, on the free-market right: the kind that Renan spoke of when he said that every nation is founded upon a forgetting. That forgetting—that deep historical error which held that the Civil War was a fight over tariffs or some other nonsense—lay for many years at the core of not only southern but also northern identity. It was not just the furniture of Jim Crow; it was the archive of American nationalism, the common sense of a country that was all too willing to deny basic rights, including voting rights, to African Americans. It was that forgetting that revisionist historians like Kenneth Stampp and C. Vann Woodward, with the Civil Rights Movement at their back, felt it necessary to take aim at. More than a half-century ago.

That Barnett—who’s been prodding libertarians on this issue for some time—has only recently gotten the news tells you much about his movement’s morning prayer, the sense of reality it brings to the table. The problem here isn’t merely that some, perhaps many, libertarians are overt fans of the Confederacy; it’s what the movement’s been reading in its afterglow, long after the light went out.

Update (5:15 pm)

So Randy Barnett and I have been emailing throughout the day, and it turns out there’s some misunderstanding here on my part, though as Barnett concedes in his clarifying post today, it’s not completely unwarranted. The misunderstanding, I mean.

Like Robin, I have been well aware of the consensus on these views since high school and college.  The point of my opening sentence, however, was to note that I have been studying this period seriously over the past several years as part of my research on the “constitutional abolitionists” and the career of Salmon P. Chase, and what followed was informed by that study and was not just repeating the conventional wisdom off the top of my head.  And, although my interest in abolitionist constitutionalism dates back to a lecture on Lysander Spooner’s theory of constitutional interpretation that I gave at McGeorge in 1996, my appreciation of these issues and their subtleties has been greatly enriched by my intensive reading of both secondary and primary sources in recent years as I broadened my focus well beyond Spooner.

The sentence that misled Robin was badly enough written to be misconstrued by him because it was written before the 6 bullet points that followed, which touched upon more than the role abolitionist constitutionalism played in the formation of the Republican party and the fear it engendered in the South, and because the misreading I now see is possible simply did not occur to me.

So that makes perfect sense. My apologies for the misreading.

Let me add two points. First, to Jacob Levy’s comments over at Crooked Timber. I haven’t read everything by Barnett, but I’ve read a fair amount (hence my admiration!) So I was fairly familiar with his background and interest in Spooner. I tried to telegraph that, however unsuccessfully, in two places in my post: “who’s actually been thinking and writing about abolitionism and its constitutional vision for some time” and “who’s been prodding libertarians on this issue for some time.” That said, Brad DeLong is right to point out in the CT comments that that anarcho-abolitionist view doesn’t necessarily take us very far from some of the underlying historical assumptions of the neo-Confederate position. To wit: the “it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the Civil War was an unjust war on both sides” claim, and all the associated historical baggage around it, that I cited in the OP.

Which leads to my second point. Whether or not I got Barnett wrong on the meaning of that sentence—and clearly I did—the larger question his post raised for me was about the historical common sense of the libertarian movement and its organic intellectuals. My impression—and it is just a impression, so take it for what it’s worth—is that the historical view of the Civil War (not the normative position in favor or against, but the analysis of the two sides) that I was challenging is not that marginal in the libertarian firmament. Part of why Levy et al’s posts are so important is not simply that they argue against a pro-Confederacy reading of US history but that they actually supply badly needed historical facts and awareness to the movement. Facts alone seldom change minds, but they are important. To the extent that I got Barnett’s back story wrong, my post adds nothing to what Jacob and others have written. But to the extent that the historical common sense I’m pointing to is held by more in the libertarian movement than the overt or covert sympathizers with the Confederacy—which was my real concern here—I think the post still stands.

By way of comparison: The left has its own version of this historical common sense: the dismissive wave of the Republicans as simply the party of Northern capitalism, and the Civil War as the radiating wave of that motive force, as if that were the beginning and end of the story. (This is not to say, of course, that the Republicans were not the party of Northern capitalism; it’s just to point out that that claim, like the party itself, contains multitudes, including radical abolition, and that those multitudes would eventually come to blows over just what that promise of abolition actually meant.) The difference on the left, I think, is that we have scholars like Eric Foner who’ve long parried that simplistic view and that the revisionism that began in the fifties has become as much a part of the historical common sense of the left as the older alternative view. If not more so.

But, again, this is impressionistic. I live in Brooklyn, after all.

The Leopold and Loeb of Modern Libertarianism

9 May

“Nathan Leopold is not the only boy who has read Nietzsche.” So said Clarence Darrow at the trial of Leopold and Loeb, the two University of Chicago law students who had murdered young Bobby Franks for no other reason than to prove that they were Nietzschean Supermen who could.

When I’m feeling mischievous, I think of using that line as an epigraph for an essay on Nietzsche and libertarianism. How many teenage boys, after all, have found their way into the free market via Nietzsche? None, one insider tells me; a lot, says another. My impression is that the latter is right, but good data is hard to come by.

Every ten years, Liberty Magazine polls its readers about their intellectual influences. The magazine draws up a list of candidates to vote on. Nietzsche is never on it. Even so, he gets written in each time by the readers. So much so that the editors have been forced to acknowledge on more than one occasion that should they put his name on the pre-approved list of possible influences he might draw more votes than some if not many of the others.

Ask any scholar about this connection between Nietzsche and libertarianism and she’ll tell you those teenage boys don’t know what they’re talking about. Nietzsche loathed capitalism almost as much as he loathed capitalists, whom he loathed almost as much as he loathed economists. Still I’ve wondered: Might there not be more than the misguided enthusiasm of adolescents connecting Nietzsche to the modern movement for free markets?

Today The Nation is publishing an essay by me—”Nietzsche’s Marginal Children“—that attempts to provide an answer. It’s long; I’ve been working on it for more than a year. But it’s my best guess as to what the connection might be.

As I make clear in the piece, it’s not a connection of influence: Though there’s been some claim that Friedrich von Wieser, who taught Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek, was taken by Nietzsche—and though Schumpeter, who plays an interesting supporting role in this story, was influenced by Nietzsche and Nietzschean theorists of elite politics—the evidence for claims of direct influence are thin.

No, the connection between Nietzsche and the free-market movement is one of elective affinity, at the level of deep grammar rather than public policy. It will not be found at the surface of their arguments but in the lower registers: in the startling symmetry between Nietzschean and marginal theories of value; in the hostility to labor as the source or measure of value; in the insistence that morals be forged in a crucible of constraint; in the vision of an idle class of taste-makers creating new values and beliefs.

Along the way, “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children” makes a number of other claims.

First, ever since Walter Kaufmann, writers and readers have been convinced that Nietzsche is an apolitical or anti-political thinker. Four decades of postmodern and post-structural Nietzsches have done little to dislodge this belief; indeed, in a curious way, they have only amplified it. As this piece makes clear, I don’t think that position tells the whole story. The Nietzsche that emerges in this essay cares much about the fate of high culture, absolutely, but he’s also attuned to need for creating a polity or politics that might protect high culture from the masses, who’d been growing increasingly agitated over the labor or the social question, as it was variously called. (The fear and loathing of various working-class movements is a critical point of contact between Nietzsche and the economists who helped inspire libertarianism.) As Don Dombowsky has argued, if there is one consistent political position in Nietzsche’s thought, it is his hostility to socialism. Far from being a simple knee-jerk reaction or peripheral concern, Nietzsche’s antipathy to socialism was symptomatic of—and grew out of—a range of ideas about value, work, appearance, and caste that were central to his cultural and political vision.

Second, it’s long been noted that fin-de-siècle Vienna was a crucible of modernism in the arts and humanities as well as in politics, on the left and the right. The dying Habsburg Empire gave us Wittgenstein, Hitler, and Freud. But while there is now an academic cottage industry devoted to this notion, few have noted that fin-de-siècle Vienna also gave us the Austrian School of economics—Wieser, Böhm-Bawerk, Mises, Hayek, Schumpeter (ish), and more—and that the Austrian economists have as much a claim to the modernist inheritance as Schoenberg or Klimt. “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children” seeks to put the Austrians back in Vienna, where Nietzsche was a presiding influence, and to read them as contemporaries of fascism and Freud. If nothing else, I hope my reading of the Austrians restores them to their rightful place in the modernist pantheon, and reveals the philosophical range and cultural significance of the questions they were raising. For the economic questions the Austrians were raising were are also very much cultural and philosophical questions of the sort that Nietzsche and his successors wrestled with.

Third, speaking of the F word, we know that many fascist intellectuals read or were influenced by Nietzsche. And while my piece takes that connection as a given—which is not the same, it should be noted, as saying that the fascist interpretation of Nietzsche is the only or correct one or that all of Nietzsche’s roads lead to fascism; empirically, we know, that’s not the case—it seeks to parse a different connection. Where one road from Nietzsche (I’m speaking figuratively) led to the fascist notion that heroic or high politics could be recreated in the modern world, another led down a different path: to the notion that heroic or high politics could not (and perhaps should not) be recreated but that it could be sublimated in the free market. Fascism and the free market, in other words, offered two distinctive answers to the labor question Nietzsche so acutely diagnosed. And while one answer would have a remarkably short shelf life, the other, well, we’re still living it.

Which brings me to the final point. While the disparity between the free-wheeling philosophy of the market and the reality of coercive capitalism has long been known, the last four decades have sharpened it. Partly because of the rise of an aggressive defense of untrammeled markets in the name of liberty, partly because of the assault on the welfare state and social democracy. For some on the left, today’s disparity between libertarian theories of the market and the reality of capitalism proves that the idea of the free market is a simple ideological mystification. “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children” takes a different tack: it tries to show that the practice is built into the theory, that it is not elided there but embraced.

In writing this piece, I hope  to begin—and this is really just the beginning of a long-term project on the political theory and cultural history of the free market—to make good on a promissory note in The Reactionary Mind, which is now available in paperback. There I briefly noted that the libertarian defense of the market—while often treated as a source of tension on the right because it conflicts with the conservative commitment to stability and tradition, virtue and glory—is in fact consistent with the right’s reactionary project of defending private hierarchies against democratic movements from below. But with the exception of a chapter on Ayn Rand, I didn’t really develop that argument. So I was often asked how Hayek and Mises and other libertarian thinkers fit in. Particularly since these thinkers seemed to voice a commitment to liberty that was out of synch with my portrait of the right’s commitment to domination and hierarchy, coercion and rule. So I’ve tried to show in “Nietzsche’s Marginal Children” what liberty means for the libertarian right, particularly for Hayek, and how consistent that vision is with a notion of aristocratic politics and rule.

I’m writing this post in Luxembourg, where I’m presenting at a conference in honor of European historian Arno Mayer. I’ve known Arno and his work since I was an undergraduate history major at Princeton. As I said in The Reactionary Mind, Arno (along with UCLA political scientist Karen Orren) was one of the two most important influences on my thinking about the right. And it was from Arno’s Persistence of the Old Regime that I first stumbled upon a way of thinking about Nietzscheanism as something more than the philosophy of and for apolitical aesthetes. So it’s fitting that I write this post here. For in Arno’s vision of an aristocracy that manages to persist long past its shelf date, in part through it capacity for reinvention, we see a glimpse of Nietzsche von Hayek and Mises von Nietzsche, the Leopold and Loeb of modern libertarianism.

The Libertarian Map of Freedom

28 Mar

The libertarian Mercatus Center, which is located at George Mason University, has issued its third edition of “Freedom in the 50 States.” It’s a color-coded map of how much freedom there is, state by state, in the US.  Its freedom index is based on what Mercatur says is a “combination of personal and economic freedoms.”

So here’s what you learn:

  1. North Dakota is the freest state in the union! (It’s also a state that has effectively banned all abortions.)
  2. Texas is the 14th freest state in the union! (It has also the fourth highest incarceration rate.)
  3. California is the 49th and New York is the 50th freest state in the union! In other words, the least free states. Which is why we’re color-coded black on the map. Like North Korea at night.

Libertarian freedom: no abortion, everyone in jail, and the lights are on all the time. Free at last, free at last.

Update (9:30 pm)

Someone in the comments thread pointed out to me that one of the measures on the freedom index—that is, how free a state is—is “Bachelor Party.” What the hell is that, you ask? According to our friends at Mercatus: “This user-created category combines a variety of laws including those on alcohol, marijuana, prostitution, and fireworks.” Right. So no measure for abortion because, as the print edition of the report makes clear (see pp. 5-6), it is a controversial issue about which reasonable people disagree. But prostitution? Part, apparently, of what Rawls would call our “overlapping consensus.”

There are no libertarians on flagpoles.

26 Nov

True story: A few years back, the libertarian magazine Liberty posed a thought experiment. I don’t remember all the details, but it went something like this. A man is on the top or near the top of a high-rise. He falls but catches himself on the flagpole of an apartment beneath him. The owner of the apartment, an enthusiast of the sort you might find in the comments section of many blogs, comes out, armed to the teeth, and tells the hapless man that the flagpole is private property and that he must therefore let go. Liberty polled its readers to ask them if they would comply. A majority, apparently, said they would not. Wouldn’t you just love to meet the minority who said that they would? Libertarians, incidentally, still debate the ethics and implications of this question.

Update (10:30 am)

Commenter Anwar kindly found the Liberty poll and the results. See “Problem 4.” The results are not quite as dramatic as I had remembered them. Unfortunately, I wish the question had been framed as one of obligation—”Are you obliged to comply with the owner’s demands?”—as opposed to how it is framed, which could suggest something more like, “What would you do?”

I’m a libertarian. Which is why I’m voting for Mitt Romney.

5 Nov

Randy Barnett is one of the most brilliant legal theorists on the right today. He’s also a libertarian. Ever since I came across his work in the course of my research on Justice Scalia, I’ve been fascinated by him. No matter what you think of his politics, he’s always worth reading.

“I am as libertarian today as I was” in 1975, writes Barnett in today’s Wall Street Journal [pdf of entire article here], when he attended his first Libertarian Party convention. And that is why he’s voting tomorrow for Mitt Romney. And urging other libertarians to do the same. Because a vote for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson is, well, I’ll just let Barnett explain it in his own words.

The Libertarian Party’s effort will, if effective, attract more libertarian voters away from the candidate who is marginally less hostile to liberty [Romney], and help hand the election to the candidate who is more hostile to liberty [Obama].

We often hear that libertarians care about much more than the rights of property and freedom of contract. They loathe the drug war, imperialism, and social conservatism, and are as far away from the Republicans as they are from the Democrats. They stand for a government of limited, federated, and separated powers because that is how personal liberty is best secured. Here’s how one of their most influential and important advocates thinks about these things.

Some libertarians continue to insist that, because the Republican and Democrats are equally bad for liberty, it makes no difference who gets elected. However true this once was, in recent years Republicans have been better for liberty and Democrats have been worse.

It was a Democratic Congress and president who gave us the federal takeover of the health-care industry that will bring us closer to a Western European-style social democracy. All four Democratic-appointed Supreme Court justices voted to uphold ObamaCare as constitutional, with four Republican-appointed dissenters.

Are Democrats better than Republicans on personal liberty? Neither has been great on that score, but Democrats have been the bigger disappointment. When I took the medical-marijuana case to the Supreme Court in 2004, I got zero votes from the left side of the court while garnering the votes of Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Clarence Thomas and Sandra Day O’Connor. And President Obama’s Justice Department has reneged on his campaign promise to refrain from going after medical-marijuana dispensaries.

Neither party wants to question the futile and destructive “war on drugs.” But Republicans have been much better on free speech in recent years. With respect to economic liberty, the Environmental Protection Agency has restricted land use throughout the nation and would do more if not stopped. Dodd-Frank has amped up restrictions on financial services.

Libertarians need to adjust their tactics to the current context. This year, their highest priority should be saving the country from fiscal ruin, arresting and reversing the enormous growth in federal power—beginning with repealing ObamaCare—and pursuing a judiciary who will actually enforce the Constitution. Which party is most likely to do these things in 2013?

Citing the Republican Congress under George W. Bush, some libertarians contend that divided government is best for liberty. Yes, divided government is good for stopping things (until some grand deal is made). But divided government won’t repeal ObamaCare and Dodd-Frank or give us better judges.

h/t Alex Gourevitch

Update (November 6, 7:45 am)

Mike Konczal writes on my FB page:

It’s hidden in the Barnett piece, but I read it as there’s been so much organizational effort and success in getting the GOP to adhere to far-right Supreme Court justices, that the best libertarian play is to try and Lochner-ize the Court (which it could do with two more votes). I think he’s right that that is their best play.


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