Slightly more than a month ago, Will Wilkinson published an article on the website of the Niskanen Center that I liked a lot: How Libertarian Democracy Skepticism Infected the American Right. It engendered a debate, among others with Ilya Somin, and Wilkinson then replied to that: Libertarian Origins, Libertarian Influence, and the Ruling American Right.
In this post, I would like to explain why Will Wilkinson’s article resonated with me. He put his finger on something that I have felt for quite some time. I don’t think he has the complete answer, and I am dubious about some claims, eg. how far the libertarian influence reaches. Surely, many people have read Ayn Rand when they were young. But how much does that show? Also Hillary Clinton confessed to it. Still I am hard pressed to see her as a closet libertarian.
Wilkinson’s article is not the complete answer in my view. But sometimes it is important to ask the right question first and start a debate whereever that may lead. While I have a high regard for Ilya Somin and think he is a brilliant thinker, his reply engaged too little with the question for my taste and spent too much time on parsing specific claims. Fair enough:
Are libertarians mostly responsible for what has happened on the American Right as it may sound?
I don’t think so. There are many other contributions: the social conservative culture war mentality, paleo-conservatives like Pat Buchanan, the network of John Tanton (CIS, VDARE, FAIR), but also obsessive attention-seekers like Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos. I can hear echoes of Ross Perot, and even more distant ones from the first half of the 20th and even from the 19th century: the eugenics movement and racial theories, often channeled and updated by Richard Lynn, “America First” isolationism, a shot of Darwinism where the fittest men have to fight it out and get all the women as a reward, which will then stem the “demographic bust,” old European reactionary thought from Germany and France warmed over by Alexandr Dugin, and, yes, also our friends in the Kremlin want to have a say. No one represents this confused and explosive mix better than Trumps’s court “intellectual” Steve Bannon.
And yet, it is undeniable that there has also been a noticeable input from libertarianism. Some of it is shallow and only rhetorical, but I think much of it runs deeper. In my view, it has helped to prepare the ground for what has happened. I find it also obvious that there is a pipeline from libertarianism to the alt-right. I understand Wilkinson’s point as the question: Why did that happen and what in libertarianism facilitated it? And that is what attracted me to his article perhaps more than his answers because I think these questions need to be asked.
Does this mean that I think all libertarians are responsible for what has happened? By no means, not even most. I see the failure on the social, not the individual level. Ilya Somin is an excellent example here: He has spoken out for free migration over the years. He has also challenged the isolationist orthodoxy in the libertarian movement that fancies itself as “non-interventionism.” He has a good grasp of what Putin’s regime is and how much destruction it works. If he has written a book that highlights the shortcomings of democratic processes, did that spirit the alt-right forward? No, I would guess hardly anyone of them has read it. The influence should be marginal at best.
Still, I think there is a connection here that is more indirect. Many libertarians are eager to hear about the messiness of the political process. It explains for them why they have little direct influence: You are up against an entrenched establishment, “Washington” is filled with lobbyists, crony capitalism, the swamp, and all that. If you cannot see the pipeline to Trump, I see it. That is not to say there is not a lot of truth in this, and a libertarian conclusion should perhaps be that you’d want stricter limits on what the government does. That’s Ilya Somin’s take. I think it has merit. But then it can easily flip, and someone wants a savior who just burns the federal government down. That’s Pat Buchanan then who sees himself leading a mob with pitchforks who drive the insiders out. Or Donald Trump.
The books by Ilya Somin, Bryan Caplan or Jason Brennan are not the cause, they are in my view a symptom of the priorities many libertarians have. It is no contradiction that populism poses as a Rousseauean hyper-democratic movement that will hand the power back to the people who will then rule happily ever after. The enemy of populists is representative democracy, which is portrayed as a failed system. And I would see a lot of overlap with the thinking of many libertarians.
Over this year, I have followed many people across the political spectrum, from progressives over liberals to conservatives, and I don’t mean that in the new sense of the word. I have seen many who stand up to defend democracy in the sense of representative government, separation of powers, the rule of law, a liberal order and an open society. I have great respect for that although I may have my points of contention. My frustration is that on the whole — and I will grant many exceptions here — the libertarian movement has failed in this regard. Perhaps this is my vantage point and I am unfair. I have seen good critiques of specific policies, eg. regarding immigration, trade, drug policy and so forth. But deep at heart I would think that many if not most libertarians share the view that representative democracy is a failed system.
They have often propagated this view for years and are dissatisfied that things have now taken an unexpected turn. No “libertarian moment.” Quite a few understand that other systems are worse although I am often not sure. But then some upheaval is not seldom greeted as an opportunity: The masses will turn out to be libertarian because the economic and social forces want it so, the Gillespie-Welch version of historical materialism. The bottom line is that there are in my view almost no intellectual resources in the libertarian movement to defend representative democracy against an onslaught. The question for me therefore is: Why is that so and what has gone wrong in libertarianism?
I will not try to answer these questions here, I have no grand explanation, only fragments that I will explore in further posts. But I can already announce the main thrust:
Libertarianism has always been weak when it comes to defending representative democracy and a liberal order that is not strictly a libertarian order in the narrow sense of some axiomatic specification. As long as others did that for libertarians, it was not a problem. The weakness was only latent, but now it shows.
In my view, Will Wilkinson’s critique does not go too far, but not far enough. This is not limited to absolutist propertarianism à la Rothbard and Rand. You can already see it with the founding fathers: Mises and Hayek had a few things to say about representative government and a liberal order not strictly their own, but not much. And I would even trace this back to classical liberalism to some extent.
However, and here I agree with Wilkinson, libertarianism is distinct from classical liberalism. Libertarians tend to view classical liberals as inconsistent libertarians who did not think their principles through. Especially Rothbard has had a huge role in elaborating this type of revisionism. But it were libertarians who forgot what many classical liberals had understood, namely that they had to argue the case for representative government and a liberal order. John Stuart Mill immediately comes to mind here. And yet, also classical liberals had their problems, and that explains often eerily similar phenomena like a “pipeline to the alt-right,” and their weakness when it came to defending representative democracy and a liberal order.