One of my friends likes to tell a story about how a lesbian couple opened his eyes to the idea that gender can be a barrier even in a homosexual relationship. That point is the story, of course – he mentioned something to one member of the couple about how it must be nice not to have to communicate with her partner across the sex barrier, and she turned it back on him by asking why he thought that just because the two had the same plumbing that they also shared exactly the same gender?
I have no idea how general that feeling is among lesbian couples, but I frequently feel something like that about libertarians. Discuss politics long enough, and rather than shedding light on why there’s left and right and what the difference even is, it just gets more baffling. All you can really say is that there is a left-right divide, people on either side of it argue very differently, and which side you’re on seems to be an almost inherited trait. Arnold Kling has tried to claim that it’s more about argument framing than anything of substance, and I think he’s right.
One of the things you look forward to when you become a Libertarian is relief from all the mind-battering talking-past-each-other that goes on in the mainstream. But it doesn’t take you long to learn, to your dismay, that those divisions are recreated here too. Maybe they’re not as accute, but there’s definitely a left-right divide among libertarians, and as someone born with the right-leaning gene, I find it really hard to trust left-leaning libertarians a lot of the time.
A case in point is this essay by Jacob Levy. It’s called Black Liberty Matters, and although it contains a lot of important and insightful points, it just seems so wilfully uncharitable throughout that I can’t bring myself to believe that Levy is arguing in good faith.
It takes as its jumping off point the recent controversy about Nancy MacLean’s book on James Buchanan, which I’ve written a little about. In that book, MacLean argues, more or less, that Buchanan was part of a kind of conspiracy to promote a political agenda of free-market individualism even if it meant (a) actively deceiving voters about what they were up to and (b) leveraging segregationists to do it. Levy’s argument is that while MacLean doesn’t seem to have made her case about Buchanan, she’s not necessarily wrong in general about Libertarians.
Right out of the gate, though, Levy’s essay is making ahistorical claims that are obviously wrong to anyone with a good internet connection.
Sometimes Americans like to tell ourselves that the revolutionary idea of liberty is what finally made abolition possible two generations later, but that sidesteps the paradox that the U.S. was one of the last countries to abolish slavery, and did so only after a decades-long expansion.
Except, the US wasn’t "one of the last countries to abolish slavery." It was among the first, especially if you factor out the South. By the time the UK banned slavery in its colonies in 1833 (or 1841, depending on how you count it), nearly all northern states had already done so. The US banned the international slave trade at roughly the same time Britain did, and ahead of Spain, the Netherlands, and several others. It’s true that a large and important region of the US was deeply committed to ensuring the institution’s longevity, but you don’t get to characterize a country by only part of it. What should the rest of the US have done to satisfy Levy that there was an important strain of US thought very much opposed to slavery? Start a war and force the other half to free its slaves? They did that. By the time all that was over in 1865, most of the rest of the world still had slavery. So, historically speaking, this characterization is inaccurate.
When the FHA was insisting that neighborhoods be segregated in order to be eligible for mortgage or building subsidies, it contributed a great deal to the racial wealth gap that persists to this day. No free-marketeers of the era felt the need to engage in brave, politically incorrect inquiries into the lower intelligence of new white homeowners that might explain their long-term dependence. But once the imagined typical welfare recipient was a black mother, welfare became a matter not just of economic or constitutional concern but of moral panic about parasites, fraud, and the long-term collapse of self-reliance.
This is only true by virtue of the fact that it wasn’t politically incorrect, at the time, to talk about genetic and cognitive deficiencies that might lead someone to be dependent on the state. People at the time very much did raise a moral panic about "parasites, fraud, and the long-term collapse of self-reliance." Has Levy read even a single speech made by a New Deal opponent?
Think about the different ways that market liberals and libertarians talk about “welfare” from how they talk about other kinds of government redistribution. There’s no talk of the culture of dependence among farmers, although they receive far more government aid per capita than do the urban poor.
I have thought about it, and it’s sort of obvious to me where it comes from: personal welfare pays a pittance and corporate welfare doesn’t. It is possible to get actually rich off of corporate welfare, and so market liberals prefer to talk about this in terms of "rent-seeking," since that’s what it is. You can’t exactly "rent-seek" on personal welfare, since you can’t live large on it. But of course it also simply isn’t true that market liberals never make the point that corporate welfare leads to dependence. Virtually any public choice tract starts and ends with that point. Public Choice theorists frequently point out the trap that even well-intentioned, economically targeted subsidies can lead to a cycle of dependence where it gets less expensive for a company to lobby for more subsidies than to innovate and solve the problems they were initially intended to address. Which is exactly the dependence argument Levy claims they hever make.
The particular fascination with Abraham Lincoln’s (genuine but far from unique) violations of civil liberties
Again, nope. There is plenty of fascination with FDR’s and Woodrow Wilson’s violations of civil liberties as well, as anyone with even a passing acquaintance with libertarianism knows. If you hear a little bit less of it with Wilson recently it’s because progressives have largely backed off of defending his legacy. FDR is still a folk hero, and libertarians are still happy to remind everyone that he had a dark side too, just as they are with Lincoln.
Levy’s opening argument is similar. He starts with a paradox pointed out by Samuel Johnson, that it’s noteworthy that the Americans who bang on so loudly about liberty are also some of the most enthusiastic slavers. Levy speculates that the paradox might answer itself: you learn the value of a thing primarily from its opposite. So, if you’re daily confronted with the misery of slavery, you appreciate personal liberty all the more. That’s plausible, of course, but it’s so easy to come up with counterexamples that it’s hard to take it too seriously. It’s not as thought Ottoman Turkey is a great beacon of liberty in world history, for example, and yet slavery was a characteristic feature of that empire. The slave trade was nowhere more active than in Africa, and yet there is no African Federalist Papers. Socialism wasn’t born in India, even though India has the most codified and stratified class system in the world. There are obviously a lot of cases where confrontation with a thing’s opposite fails to make you cherish the thing more, and Levy’s missing some steps in his argument. More to the point, though, it isn’t clear at all that the same Americans who were the most enthusiastic slavers were also the ones crying out the most about liberty. The people invoking the Declaration of Indepenence and the Bill of Rights in their arguments at the time Johnson was writing were disproportionately from the abolitionist North, and were largely abolitionists themselves.
But my biggest problem with his article is the way he smuggles in leftist perspectives without crediting why libertarians don’t share them.
The white welfare state of the 1930s-60s that channeled government support for, e.g., housing, urban development, and higher education through segregated institutions has a way of disappearing from the historical memory; the degrees earned and homes bought get remembered as hard work contributing to the American dream. But too many libertarians and their market-oriented allies among postwar conservatives treated the more racially inclusive welfare state of the 1960s and 70s as different in kind.
Can Levy honestly not think of a single reason outside of race why this might be? I guess I can’t speak for all libertarians, but speaking for myself, the difference is that the 1960s represent the moment we lost the war against the welfare state. In the 1930s, welfare policies were sold as a necessary response to a national emergency. Free marketers pushed back, but people were desperate, and we understood that the deck was stacked against us in that context. "Just wait and the market will recover," while factually correct, is not going to win anyone votes. In the 1950s, the programs were sold as a postwar settlement. We needed high taxes and regulation, we were told, to pay back soldiers, to maintain preparedness in the Cold War, and to pay down the debts of WWII. Again, while we free market true believers might not have agreed, it was at least easy to see where people were coming from. By the 1960s, when the country was more prosperous than it, or any other country on earth before it, had ever been, we weren’t prepared to buy the arguments for welfare anymore. We’d paid down the war debt, dealt with the Depression, compensated our soldiers, and gained the upper hand in the Cold War. Arguments for the welfare state that made sense to libertarians were exhausted. Johnson’s Great Society was everything we’re against: government interfering for the naked social engineeering of it. Of course we were more opposed to the Great Society than any other scheme before it. You can’t really do otherwise and call yourself a libertarian.
That is not to say that people who talk about freedom in American politics have nothing to say about the crises of mass incarceration and of violent, invasive, and militarized policing. American libertarians have always rejected the drug war that contributed so much to these crises. And libertarians have been happy enough to note the disproportionate impact of the drug war on African-Americans and Hispanics. But we have too often treated this as a rhetorical bonus on top of a pre-existing objection to the drug war.
That’s because that’s what it is. Libertarians are not opposed to the drug war primarily because it disproportionately affects blacks and hispanics, we’re opposed to it primarily because it is an unacceptable breach of individual liberty. We would feel the same way about it if it disproportionately affected whites … and indeed we are: witness that we haven’t changed our tune on the drug war one bit now that the crack era is behind us and the primary problem demographic of drug use is increasingly becoming rural whites on meth. Indicting us for not having left wing identity politics reasons for opposing the drug war is just telling us what we already know: we’re not into identity politics. We consider identity politics congenitally racist – likely to exacerbate the racial differences it claims to want to ameliorate. Identity politics are inherently counterproductive from a libertarian perspective, and so there is nothing hypocritical about libertarians declining to embrace them.
As has so often been true, racism was a cause of the expansion of American state power, a cause of unfreedom. The centuries-old appropriation of the language of liberty by the defenders of white supremacy obscures this, over and over again.
OK, but how is that a libertarian problem? Libertarians have always pointed out that racism is a form of collectivism that has never done anything but motivate loss of individual liberty, and we’ve always been happy to note the racist origins of a lot of statist policies. I’m not really sure what Levy wants from us here. Should we stop pointing out that racism is used to justify expansions of government power and stop opposing it on that basis?
Reimagining libertarian politics in light of the truth that black liberty matters will take a lot of intellectual and moral work.
It really won’t. Libertarianism has always defended black liberty as equal to all other kinds of liberty, and it will continue to do so.
Levy makes two good points. First, that some prominent libertarians have at least flirted with overt racism (Murray Rothbard, Ron Paul and Lew Rockwell). Second, that a large number of alt-righters are former libertarians.
As to the first, he answers it himself:
Now, libertarian, individualist, and market-liberal ideas, concepts, slogans, and advocates aren’t alone in having a history that is entangled with white supremacy. Hardly any set of social ideas in American intellectual history lacks such an entanglement.
For pretty much any political movement anywhere in the world you can parse the founders’ notes and find some things that have become more unsavory in the meantime than they were when written. Unless we’re hardcore committed to falling prey to the genetic fallacy, we shouldn’t worry too much about this. Progressives aren’t going to stop supporting the income tax just because Woodrow Wilson was an avowed racist, and by the same token there’s no need for libertarians to embrace affirmative action just because Lew Rockwell is a "race realist." If Levy – or anyone, really – wants libertarians to embrace some progressive race-based wealth redistributionist policies, I’m afraid he’s going to have to argue for them on their own merits.
As for the second, it’s a very interesting point, observably true, and it’s worth investigation. Maybe it will turn up some reason to believe that there’s racism at the core of libertarian philosophy, but I doubt it, and in any case it’s a point that needs to be demonstrated; the conjecture itself doesn’t make the case. I’m no expert on this, but my own experience with reading alt-right blogs and comments online makes it pretty clear that the ex-libertarian alt-righters have by and large lost any sympathy for libertarianism and now explicitly disavow it as harmful. Moreover, a lot of them disavow it specifically because of its support for what they call "civic nationalism" – the idea that one can form a nation composed of the ethnically diverse and promote its interests. Which is to say, what they’re specifically rejecting about libertarianism is its anti-racism. These are not fellow travellers, in other words, and it’s not a small step from libertarianism to right-wing populism, but a giant, back-turning leap.
Levy raises some interesting points, but like with Will Wilkinson, it’s difficult to trust him. I would like to know what the path from libertarianism to the alt-right is, since there seems to be one. But I also want someone else asking the question. Levy can’t seem to talk about it without cherry-picking his history, making obviously flawed rationalist arguments and covertly blaming libertarians for not being progressives. This panel needs another moderator.