Tag Archives: libertarianism

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.

When Hayek Met Pinochet

18 Jul


In case you missed my five-part series on Hayek in Chile, here are the links:

  1. Hayek von Pinochet: In which we learn what our protagonist had to say about one of history’s tyrants.
  2. But wait, there’s more: Hayek von Pinochet, Part 2: In which we learn what our protagonist had to say about South Africa and what Ludwig von Mises had to say about fascism.
  3. Friedrich del Mar: In which we ask the question: Did Hayek make the decision to convene a meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in Viña del Mar?
  4. The Road to Viña del Mar: In which we answer the question: Did Hayek make the decision to convene a meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in Viña del Mar?
  5. Viña del Mar: A Veritable International of the Free-Market Counterrevolution: In which we learn what Hayek’s associates had to say about Pinochet’s Chile and its lessons for Reagan’s America.

Or, as the song says:

When an irresistible force such as you
Meets and old immovable object like me
You can bet as sure as you live
Something’s gotta give, something’s gotta give,
Something’s gotta give.

When an irrepressible smile such as yours
Warms an old implacable heart such as mine
Don’t say no because I insist.
Somewhere, somehow,
Someone’s gonna be kissed.

So en garde who knows what the fates have in store
From their vast mysterious sky?
I’ll try hard ignoring those lips I adore
But how long can anyone try?

Fight, fight, fight, fight, fight it with all of our might,
Chances are some heavenly star spangled night
We’ll find out as sure as we live
Something’s gotta give, something’s gotta give,
Something’s gotta give.

Postscript: Jesse Walker, an editor at Reason, is one of the few libertarians to grapple with some of this material. Have a read. And, in case you missed it, here’s Greg Grandin on Allende, explaining what the right thought was so dangerous about the democratically elected Marxist president of Chile.

Is That All There Is?

19 Mar

I was a little underwhelmed by Julian Sanchez’s response to my post about his thoughts on the Cato-Koch affair.


Julie London, Political Theorist

29 Feb

Megan McArdle‘s not what you would call a bleeding heart libertarian. When she’s not trying to put obstacles in the way of women getting an abortion, she tends not to shed too many tears for the poor, the working class, or even the middle class.  But when it comes to the rich, she manages to finds deep and unexpected wells of empathy. Not sure what there is to say about all this that wasn’t said by that noted political theorist Julie London in 1955.


Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t*

25 Feb

A propos our discussion of libertarianism, birth control, and women’s autonomy, this, from Benjamin Franklin (A Conversation About Slavery), seems relevant:

You Americans make a great Clamour upon every little imaginary Infringement of what you take to be your Liberties; and yet there are no People upon Earth such Enemies to Liberty, such absolute Tyrants, where you have the Opportunity, as you yourselves are.

It’s hardly unprecedented in the American experience for the greatest cries of liberty to be heard among those who would most deny it to others.

*Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t is the title of a wonderful book about jazz and the civil rights movement by my friend Scott Saul. It’s got no real connection to the theme of this post; I just liked the title and wanted to plug Scott’s book. And plug Scott, too: he’s currently working on a biography of Richard Pryor, which is going to blow your mind. If you want to get a taste of Scott’s writing, check out this essay he did in Book Forum on the Jonestown tragedy in Guyana in 1979. I’ve read it about ten times; every time, I see something in it I hadn’t seen before.

Love for Sale: Birth Control from Marx to Mises

15 Feb

From Marx…

In On the Jewish Question, Marx famously critiques liberal theorists of religious freedom on the grounds that they merely wish to emancipate the state from religion. Assuming—wrongly, it turns out—that the 19th century state, or at least the American state, had indeed been fully emancipated from religion (e.g., there was no official state religion, no specific confessional requirement for the exercise of political rights, etc.), Marx notes that the American people are nevertheless quite religious. This leads him to the observation that “to be politically emancipated from religion is not to be finally and completely emancipated from religion, because political emancipation is not the final and absolute form of human emancipation.” We may be free of religion at the level of the state, but we are not free of it in our everyday life (like most Enlightenment thinkers, Marx thinks of religion as a defect). To be truly free of it, we need to emancipate ourselves from religion, to shift our focus from the state to society itself, to get past the distinction between our public lives and private selves. Not just in matters of religion, as it turns out, but in other areas as well.

President Obama’s recent “compromise” over contraception—where religious-based employers like Catholic universities and hospitals are required to provide insurance coverage that includes free birth control but are not required to pay for it, leaving insurers to eat the costs; churches and other explicitly religious institutions will remain exempt from the provision—makes me wonder if we’re not moving in the reverse direction.

98% of sexually active Catholic women essentially reject the Church’s position on contraception. In this respect at least, society has emancipated itself from religion. Even so, the state allows its policies to be dictated by the Church elders. And judging by the growing Republican discontent with even this compromise, the state’s capitulation to religion and religious sensibilities could get worse. Keep in mind, as Katha Pollitt points out, that we are not talking about isolated sects like the Amish, which don’t depend on all manner of tax subsidies and public monies for their operations; these are large-scale institutions that would not exist in their current form were it not for the state’s ongoing support.

…to Mises

Speaking of conservatives, the birth control debate recently led Mike Konczal back to Ludwig von Mises’ classic 1922 text Socialism. Mises was a pioneering economist of the Austrian School, whose political writings have inspired multiple generations of libertarian activists in America and elsewhere. Mike took a special interest in the fourth chapter of Socialism, “The Social Order and the Family,” in which Mises has some retrograde things to say about women and feminism. This led Mike to conclude prematurely that Mises was against birth control, which he wasn’t, but as I make clear in the comments thread, Mike’s larger point—that Mises was not in favor of women’s sexual autonomy; nor, for that matter, was he in favor of other kinds of autonomy that would free women from the dominion of their husbands—still stands.

All this back and forth about the text prompted Brian Doherty, author of a wonderful history of libertarianism, to waspishly comment that, well, who really gives a shit what Mises may or may not have thought about women and birth control. Libertarians care about liberty; all the rest is commentary.

Mises does go on to address “natural barriers” that socialists want to overturn, and doubtless some of his own personal opinions about what those natural barriers might be would differ from moderns, liberal or conservative, which is exactly why [Konczal’s] entire implied point doesn’t make any sense to begin with. Those concerns are far more matters of opinion, not political philosophy, and in no sense should bind even those who have sworn fealty to Mises’ general views on economics and liberty. (For example, I’m quite the Misesian in most questions of politics and economics, but can imagine an intelligent conservative argument that the “rationalization of the sexual passions” is in some sense harmed by birth control, though not in the specific procreational sense he is addressing specifically.)

But let’s address the larger point, if there is one, besides that atop all of our heads for even talking about this: That polemical points can rightly be earned laying some judgment, whether real or imagined, of an intellectual founding father or influence on a political movement or tendency on to the backs of its younger followers–either to mock them or to insist that, no, this is really what their intellectual mission is: not to promote liberty, but to work for whatever Ludwig Von Mises liked or didn’t like.

It is interesting, for those interested in intellectual history, that Mises saw free love as part of some larger socialist mission to destroy the family. But for the libertarian the relevant question is, is this voluntary or not, does this infringe on anyone’s life, liberty, or property or not? “Anything that’s peaceful,” baby, as Leonard Read, one of Mises’ great popular disciples in America, wrote.

Thus, there’s a libertarian case to be made against forcing anyone to cover any specific medical care, birth control or whatever, in the insurance deals they make with their clients. But it has nothing to do with whether Ludwig von Mises was comfortable with free love, or birth control, or with catheters, or blood transfusions, or any other specific medical procedure that might or might not become a political controversy when the government tried to force people to sell insurance only on the condition that that insurance cover that procedure or medication’s use.

Set aside the strangeness of someone who’s written—for what were obviously more than antiquarian reasons—one of the best intellectual histories of libertarianism, in which Mises plays a not insignificant role, telling us that intellectual history, and Mises’s role in it, doesn’t much matter.

Also set aside Doherty’s declaration by fiat that Mises’s views on women are just “matters of opinion,” which can be discarded as so much ancient prejudice, rather than genuine “political philosophy.” (This chapter on Robert Nozick in Susan Okin’s Justice, Gender, and the Family should make any reasonably literate political writer leery of the notion that a libertarian’s views on women are somehow contingent or incidental and separable from their larger worldview. In Mises’s case, it’s doubly important to remember that he saw his chapter on women as one part of his campaign against socialism, an effort in which he styled himself the lonely leader of a small, heterodox band.

Socialism is the watchword and the catchword of our day. The socialist idea dominates the modern spirit. The masses prove of it. It expresses the thoughts and feelings of all; it has set its seal upon our time. When history comes to tell our story it will write above the chapter “The Epoch of Socialism.”

Mises did not think his views on women were refractions of the age; he thought they were the dissonant wisdom of someone who had thought long and hard, against the dominant view, about such issues. And given that many socialists were making feminist arguments and gaining ground across Europe—Remember Red Vienna? It wasn’t all economics, you know—I’m not sure Mises was entirely wrong in his self-understanding.)

Finally set aside, as one commenter on Mike’s thread pointed out, the fact that many of Mises’s views persist in later libertarian arguments.

The real reason Mises’s arguments about women are so relevant, it seems to me, is that in the course of making them he reveals something larger about the libertarian worldview: libertarianism is not about liberty at all, or at least not about liberty for everyone. In fact, it’s the opposite.

Here’s Mises describing the socialist program of “free love”:

Free love is the socialists’ radical solution for sexual problems. The socialistic society abolishes the economic dependence of woman which results from the fact that woman is dependent on the income of her husband. Man and woman have the same economic rights and the same duties, as far as motherhood does not demand special consideration for the women. Public funds provide for the maintenance and education of the children, which are no longer the affairs of the parents but of society. Thus the relations between the sexes are no longer influenced by social and economic conditions….The family disappears and society is confronted with separate individuals only. Choice in love becomes completely free.

Sounds like a libertarian paradise, right? Society is dissolved into atomistic individuals, obstacles to our free choices are removed, everyone has the same rights and duties. But Mises is not celebrating this ideal; he’s criticizing it.  Not because it makes people unfree but because it makes people—specifically, women—free. The problem with liberating women from the constraints of “social and economic conditions” is that…women are liberated from the constraints of social and economic conditions.

Now Doherty will reply, well, that’s just Mises’s view of feminism, who cares, we libertarians stand for freedom. But the underlying logic of Mises’s argument—in which the redistributive state is criticized not for making men and women slaves or equals but for making them free—cannot be so easily contained. It can easily be applied to other realms of social policy—labor unions, universal health care, robust public schools, unemployment benefits, and the like, which the left has always seen as the vital prerequisites of universal freedom—suggesting that the real target of the libertarian critique may be the proposition that Mises articulates here so well: that all men—not just the rich or the well born—and all women will in fact be liberated from the constraints of their “social and economic conditions.”


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