Libertarians as Useful Idiots

[This is another installment in an ongoing series where I reflect on what has gone wrong with libertarianism. I pursue different directions that are only loosely related, but in my view form part of a larger picture. So if you are interested, the first two posts, which are rather independent, are available here: “Libertarianism and Representative Democracy” and “The 19th Century Also Provides Some Lessons.”]

Recently the European Values Thinktank had a very interesting analysis: ”The Kremlin’s Platform for ‘Useful Idiots’ in the West: An Overview of RT’s Editorial Strategy and Evidence of Impact”. Part of it is a guest list of 2,326 “persons of public significance” who have appeared on various RT programs. You can find it if you scroll down a little. When you download the Excel file, don’t miss that it has sheets for different categories like “US Politicians,” “Academics, Researchers, Think-Tank Experts and Legal Professionals” or “Celebrities.”

Note that the list is not exhaustive. It is only based on programs that ran on RT, not its local affiliates like RT America. Not all shows were analyzed, and the time frame is rather short. If I eyeball it correctly, perhaps four years back from April 2017, sometimes less, in one case more. I have no idea what the criterion was for viewing someone as a “person of public significance.” I can imagine that it was a somewhat subjective choice and that some people did not make the cut whom I would want to see included. I was particularly interested in libertarians in a broad sense: Libertarian party, libertarian lower case, self-identified or libertarian-leaning in my view. I may miss a few where I cannot make the connection.

Some of it was all too expected. In the list for US politicians, Ron Paul wins the silver medal with 26 appearances (remember: this is not exhaustive, it was probably far more, YouTube is chockfull with him on RT). Jesse Ventura, hard to pin down, also a conspiracy theorist, but outspoken in his support for libertarian candidates, wins a respectable 4th place with 19 appearances. Also high up is Austin Petersen, who failed to win the presidential nomination of the Libertarian Party in 2016, with nine appearances. Perhaps not widely known: Dana Rohrabacher started out as a libertarian, but is perhaps no longer one. He appeared four times. In the category “also-rans” we have: Gary Johnson with two appearances.

To put this into perspective: Jesse Ventura and Austin Petersen play in the same league as Jill Stein (14 appearances) or Ralph Nader (10 appearances). Bernie Sanders appeared five times and Michael Flynn three times, Carter Page and Donald Trump each twice. The list of people with only one appearance is broad and seems rather random. You can find some unexpected names there like Michelle Obama or John McCain. I miss Rand Paul who I know was on RT, but what I could find on YouTube was earlier.

On the sheet for “Writers, Journalists, …” we find Peter Schiff in second place with 41 appearances. He is perhaps not an official liberarian, but as far as I know quite outspoken about his views. John McAfee, who also failed to win the Libertarian nomination, had nine appearances to show for. Julian Assange calls himself a libertarian whatever you make of it. He had four appearances, but also his own show on RT. Larry Elder comes in with two appearances, Brian Doherty with one.

Now for the “Academics, Researchers, Think-Tank Experts and Legal Professionals” category: EconLog is well-represented here with Bryan Caplan who appeared nine times, Scott Sumner seven times, David Henderson six times, and former contributor Arnold Kling four times. Then we have Don Boudreaux with three appearances and Alex Tabarrok with two. On the other sheets I have found self-identified libertarian Edward Snowden with one appearance and Jimmy Wales also with one. As fas as I know, Robert Redford has made some libertarian remarks, he appeared twice.

What to make of this?

Let me start with the perspective of RT. Obviously, their program is not purely libertarian, but it features libertarians to a much larger extent than other channels do. That is an editorial choice and not random. Some in the libertarian spectrum seem to be veritable darlings: Ron Paul, Peter Schiff, Jesse Ventura, Austin Petersen, Bryan Caplan, Scott Sumner, and David Henderson.

On a personal note: I came across RT for the first time around 2012 on YouTube when I followed the presidential campaigns and that with a libertarian slant. I was a little baffled why they so often featured libertarians on their shows, before all Ron Paul. In retrospect, I vastly underestimated Putin’s Russia as an evil force, but I was not so stupid to get the sign wrong. And hence it seemed odd to me why an authoritarian regime would help libertarians gain an audience. If I was not yet suspicious enough, after skimming through their website a little, I found a page with the “Greatest Russians.” Predictably, Vladimir Putin was among them, but also Josef Stalin. Now, he was a Georgian? But anyway.

I will recount in other posts how I figured out what was going on around the time. My mistake was to miss the big picture and how serious this was, but not what they were up to. My conclusion was: Libertarians are great on several grounds. RT features them for a reason.

Especially American libertarians are isolationists to a man, with a few exceptions. They will also see problems with American foreign policy with a microscope. So you can use them as experts that make Putin’s aggressive policies look comparably moderate. But not only foreign policy, also libertarian takes on how bad it is in the US are welcome to show that it is everywhere bad, perfect material for whataboutisms. And then the shows are, of course, not for a Russian, but an American audience. The underlying assumption must be that libertarians help to undermine the political order in the US.

Another reason, I think libertarians are welcome: You can seem neutral and even-handed, you can also appeal to audiences who rarely see their views on TV. Gary Johnson was desperate to get any attention in 2012, so he went on RT as often as he could. I found that somewhat understandable although I also found it very bad judgment already at the time. During the campaign in 2016, his running mate Bill Weld told him off and made it clear Johnson should not go on RT because it was propaganda. Kudos to Weld for getting this right before it was cool. I think Johnson still appeared, but not again in the RT debate for third-party candidates as in 2012.

Then RT has also understood one thing: Politics in the US is celebrated more like sports or even the WWF. You want to see two teams clash, and libertarians with their views can add to the drama. It is not just libertarians, but also far left, Green Party, far right (more so in Europe than in the US), conspiracy theorists, the whole Trump cabal before they got on our nerves 24/7, and what have you.

Also valuable for RT: A roster of political views can help you sneak propaganda in. People assume that it has to be as subtle as the frontpage of “Pravda” or “Neues Deutschland” used to be: 100% open and blunt garbage. But that would not work even with a very naive audience. If you did that, they would perhaps notice something. However, if you mix it in, it can work.

Basically, you have some view that is totally worthless and should have 0% share of your attention. However, if you assign it like 10% or 20% or in a confrontational setting even 50%, it can get through. One side speaks out for the annexation of Crimea, the other against. On the merits, you should only listen to the latter, but now you also absorb the former. I will explain the use of this in another post. Basically, it is that people learn the propaganda view. They do not have to accept it, just learn it. Later some flip, and they flip to what they have learned.

So to have libertarians on their shows can serve many purposes for RT and their backers. I would recommend you read what European Values has to say about their strategy (cf. the link above). One mistake is to overestimate them, the other to underestimate them. And let me also say that I agree with the European Values report that those who participate in the RT circus are indeed “useful idiots,” which brings me to the perspective of the guests.

Not to be misunderstood: I think everybody can do what they want, also go on RT. This is not a free speech issue. I will not kill, maim, threaten or even only harrass anyone for it. However, free speech also means that I can say that you are a “useful idiot.” And I think you are. Now, I would like to differentiate this somewhat. Most people had their guard down for a long time. I was perhaps not that naive, but also naive. If someone appeared one or two times on RT, I would say in German “einmal ist keinmal” (one time is no time) or “Schwamm drüber” (go over it with a sponge).

What I cannot understand is if you appear over and over on RT and never ask yourself the obvious question what they expect to gain from your contribution. It is not enough to reply that you have not changed your views and also will not change them because of it. I assume that is understood. But then, this cannot be the whole reply. Please explain what you believe your role is in all this. RT is financed by the Russian government with a lot of money. They do this for a reason, and what is that reason? Why are they so keen to have you on?

One reply might be: I don’t care about that. If I can reach an audience for my view that is a positive. Yes, but then do also a cost-benefit analysis and look at the costs. I have a huge problem with Ayn Rand and her “philosophy.” But I think she got one thing right although I do not agree with her application of the principle: If you associate with certain people, you give them a sanction in their and even more so in the view of others. Basically you make it known: Those are people who are decent, act in good faith and with whom you can reasonably disagree. But then I think you must disagree with RT and their backers, however, they are not decent and they act in bad faith. And you bring in your prestige to bolster theirs? If you find that unfair of me, here is my reply: I will not change my mind and that is your cost.

Apart from this, it is the question whether you want to participate in a charade where an authoritarian regime tries to create a public aura of openness and liberty, a regime that literally murders its critics, be they journalists or people who oppose the government. If you call youself a libertarian, and you can’t see my point, I wonder what it means that you call yourself a libertarian.

You also validate the propaganda they mix in even if you do not do it yourself. And then I think it is also worth thinking about that their purpose is to undermine free countries. They spend money on it because they think you are of help in achieving their goal. Do you really believe that just because you blank that out, they get it wrong? What if you help to undermine your own country and its liberty? Would that not count as a cost that has to be counted against any vague benefits you see?

To answer these questions for myself: I don’t want to have anything to do with RT. I will not sacrifice my good name to be a cog in their machine. I bear no grudge against anyone who in the past appeared on RT, but I will adjust my opinion downwards if you continue to collaborate with them. If you think you are smart and can play an expert on TV, show it to me that you can think this through. It is not that hard.

As I have alluded to, this topic has more in it that I can explore in this post. I will get back to it later.