Friday, January 11, 2008

Whom to Cast Out and Why

Tim Sandefur says the time has come for libertarians as a group to excommunicate the racist-paleoconservatives among us – especially those associated with Lew Rockwell and the (criminally misnamed) Mises Institute.
[W]e need to face up to the serious conflict within our ranks, between the neo-Confederates at the Mises Institute on one hand, and what James Kirchik calls “the urbane libertarians who staff the Cato Institute or the libertines at Reason magazine” on the other. … I would like to see the libertarian community as a body repudiate the Lew Rockwellers entirely. They are not libertarians, they are paleo-conservatives who do not share our primary concern with individual liberty and constitutionalism. Ultimately they lack a grounded perspective on what liberty means and why it is important. Their moral and cultural relativism, their traditionalism and their alliances (both intellectual and strategic) with southern-style paleo-cons have misled them in many ways.
I am inclined to agree. While I generally favor a big-tent approach to libertarianism, and I think internecine squabbles have damaged the movement, there are some alliances just not worth making. Tolerating racists only poisons the cause.

We should recognize, however, that not everyone associated with the Mises Institute is a horrible person, just a number of bad seeds like Rockwell and Hans-Hermann Hoppe who unfortunately wield a great deal of influence. So we should be careful in how we word our denunciations.

Sandefur also delves into why we haven’t removed this tumor already, and here I think he goes astray. He essentially lays the blame at the feet of the consequentialist/utilitarian strain of libertarian thought:
Pragmatism—that is, the consequentialism of which Mises is the most obvious spokesman—was designed exactly to avoid these questions, because they lead to such conflict. We’ll just create a wertfrei [value-free] libertarianism, Mises thought, and then we can avoid all this morality stuff and just get to designing a free society. The upside? You can convert people of different moral backgrounds to libertarianism. The downside? It collapses at the touch of those who take relativism seriously, and [who] reject the practical arguments for liberty because they’re concerned more with their allegedly moral vision of a totalitarian state. … And then there’s the orneriness—the libertarians who think they’re special because they reject all those old-fashioned moralizers like Rand and Jefferson and whatnot. They’re much too sophisticated and mature, you know, for discussions over morality and objectivity and deontology and whatnot, and if you suggest that there’s something wrong with a libertarianism that is not grounded in ethics, you’re just, like, totally lame.
This is almost exactly backward. I’m pretty sure that if you did a quick poll, you’d discover that Cato and Reason are where you’ll find the most consequentialist and pragmatic libertarians, and the Mises Institute is where you’ll find the most deontologists. It’s the Rockwell-types who constantly claim their positions are objectively true and follow directly from a prior reasoning. Now, I’m not claiming there’s a causal connection between deontology and racism/paleoconservatism; it’s only a correlation. But the correlation runs exactly opposite to that posited by Sandefur.

The Mises name is a source of confusion here, because Ludwig von Mises stood on both sides of the divide. On the one hand, he was an a priori economic theorist. But he was also an adamant utilitarian consequentialist, something the Mises Institute folks prefer to ignore. More importantly, Mises was at his core a cosmopolitan, not a nativist. Mises’s views were in this respect diametrically opposed to those held by certain unsavory inhabitants of the Institute that bears his name.


Kevin B. O'Reilly said...

One of the many reasons I've always preferred big-tentism is because it didn't strike me as terribly obvious where you could draw the lines. I'm not a Randian or a Rockwellian, but it seemed silly to be tussling with them when compared to the rest of the political universe we were virtually compadres.

And then there is the question who gets to do the casting out? How do they do so? At what point do debates over minor heresies start distracting from meaningful internal debates or external outreach?

But this Ron Paul newsletter affair in a way is a clarifying moment for libertarians. It is a concrete controversy centered on a candidate for office and his associates. One either does or does not vote for a candidate; one either does or does not defend his handling of the situation.

In a sense, calling out Ron Paul on this is the easy part. Going forward, it will be harder. And yet, the Paul phenomenon shows why drawing the right lines about who should be welcomed within the movement is absolutely necessary.

Gil said...

As Kevin indicated, it's not clear exactly how this casting out happens.

I've never felt aligned with Rockwell, but I can't keep him from calling himself a libertarian.

There isn't an official libertarian seal of approval, and I don't think there should be.

I guess we could try to add a section to the Wikipedia page, write a bunch of blog posts and include the clear distancing to our elevator speeches, but otherwise I don't know what it means to cast a group out of the movement.

Anonymous said...

So let me get ths straight. Glen wants to "cast out" of his big libertarian tent Lew Rockwell and other "unsavory characters" at the Mises Institute, who from the beginning have stood steadfastly against the Iraq War and American imperialism, for purportedly SAYING nasty things about black people. In this, he agrees with one Tim Sandefur, a Lincoln Fellow of the neocon Claremeont Institute which just gave its "Statesman of the Year" award to Donald Rumsfeld who executed the war that has KILLED hundreds of thousands of brown people. Just whose tent are you in, Glen?

Bruce said...

I'll betray my ignorance on the matter, but how precisely is the Mises Institute racist? Is it due to their stance on immigration? It would be nice if characterizations would be followed by clarifications (just a request, not a critcism!).

Glen Whitman said...

Bruce -- for a short summary, check out this post by Tim Lee, which links to a number of posts in which Tom Palmer documents the bigotry of certain residents of the Mises Institute. I should emphasize, again, that not everyone associated with MI is a bigot. But the founder, Lew Rockwell, assuredly is.

Of course, the impetus for the current discussion is this TNR article, which exposes lots of pretty damning stuff in Ron Paul's old newsletters. Ron Paul denies writing the material in question and blames it on a ghost writer. Although he has declined to name the writer, it's very likely that the writer is Lew Rockwell.

Glen Whitman said...

Oh, and about the anti-immigration stuff: While I strongly disagree with the stance of the MI/Rockwell-types on this issue, I don't think that alone would be sufficient to excommunicate them. I do think their position on immigration hints at their underlying bigoted attitudes, however.

TGGP said...

Sandefur's support for the Iraq war makes him more excommunicable than the most bigoted paleo (provided they are antiwar) in my opinion, but I still wouldn't favor kicking him off the bus. Libertarianism is too fringe an ideology to be selective and there's always another day when the issues of the present seem inconsequential.

charlie said...


I've grown increasingly disillusioned with the Lew Rockwell-crowd myself, particularly Mr. Rockwell's silence on the Ron Paul newsletter scandal, but I think the attacks from the likes of Tom Palmer are just a little bit too cynical and disingenuous for my tastes. Palmer and the more radical, Rothbardian libertarians have been fighting for well over 20 years (check out this from 1982:, so I question Palmer's liberal use of the bigotry charge when describing his enemies. Now I've disagreed with plenty of stuff I've found at the Mises Institute and LRC, but I've never seen anything racist. All Palmer can seem to find is that some writers have published some pretty hateful things -- on other sites. I think it's telling that the most damning quotes he can find were not published by Lew Rockwell, and that Rockwell apparently removed articles when it became clear that an author was a bigot. To Palmer that is seen as an admission of sort of guilt, but can we not allow the possibility that maybe Rockwell wasn't aware of some of the more unsavory views of his writers? I've seen him publish everything from Ted Rall to Pat Buchanan -- there couldn't be more distance between the two ideologically-speaking, but Rockwell links to the stuff he agrees with or finds interesting. I don't think it's fair to say he would endorse the full beliefs of either writer, which is why he doesn't link to all of their pieces.

Also, does it not strike you as a bit odd that the loudest critics of the MI/LRC invariably supported the Iraq war? Their major beef with LRC seems not to be their alleged bigotry, but their outspoken opposition to empire. If it wasn't the racism charge, the Tom Palmer's of the world would find something else to smear MI/LRC with because when it comes down to it, their dispute is ideological in nature.

But while we're excommunicating people from the libertarian movement, why not include Palmer and his associates at CATO? After all, many of them endorsed the concept of preemptive war, which last time I checked violates oh, the entire philosophical underpinning of libertarianism. And it is CATO that is chiefly responsible for the view that libertarians are mere apologists for Big Business. Why? Because CATO is just an apologist for Big Business. Just consider this quote from Daniel Mitchell, a senior fellow at CATO:
"Corporations don’t have that much power in Washington. They tend to be ineffective, especially on the big-picture issues. They might be able to get a little special loophole in some bill, or a special handout in another bill. But especially in a globalized economy, where you have foreign companies penetrating the U.S. market, U.S. companies are probably the most helpless entities out there."

By all means, lets cleanup the libertarian tent -- but lets make sure we're thorough when we do it.

Noah "Nog" M. said...

Perhaps we should ask "Is there some fundamental disagreement in core principles about what libertarianism (f/k/a liberalism) is?"

I would think that ends are the deciding factor. If some group advocates lax firearms restrictions so that they can acquire guns to oppress others later, I wouldn't say that that group would, at least in this respect, fit in the "libertarian tent".

Gil said...

See? This is what I was afraid of.

I disagree with much of what Charlie wrote (about Tom Palmer, war-favoring libertarians, CATO).

First, we try to cast out people who express bigotry in their writing; next we cast out people on the "wrong" side of the war debate, and finally we'll be casting out everybody who has a different strategy for privatizing the roads.

I agree that it's important to be clear that racism is not part of libertarianism (which is concerned with individual liberty; not collective discrimination).

But, if we're going to try to eject everybody with stupid ideas, there are going to be very few of us left.

Anonymous said...

Ads a matter of fact, some people are associated with both Mises and Cato, mostly older people who I suspect got into the libertarian movement when it was so small that it was just inevitable that the tend had to be a little bigger. There is also some overlap between Mises and the Independent Institute in Oakland, which is more radical and anarchist-leaning than Cato, but much more agreeable as a matter of style than Mises and less prone to zealous cultism and a little more nuanced about the civil war (Robert Higgs doesn't like the civil war but he's more careful not to associate to openly with people who agree with him on that for the wrong reasons) etc.

Anonymous said...

By the way, I think that Glen is right about the sort of lines that need to be drawn. The border that needs to be clear is the border with hateful ideologies where some people happen to think they'd be more free to practice their hatefulness in a freer society, even if that would be true. This would include radical racism, homophobia, etc.

The borders that there is no particularly good reason to solidify, and that in fact I think need to remain fluid for the benefit of open and honest critical debate are the borders between libertarianism and liberalism (can we or can we not tolerate handing some tax money to the poor, which e.g. Hayek had no beef with?) and even reasoned cultural conservatism à la Francis Fukuyama (do we or do we not have a lot to fear from the unintended consequences of cultural changes, including the ones that might result from technical innovations such as birth control?). These are positions that you can think are wrong, but that reasonable people can disagree about—unlike racism. They need to be engaged, not ostracized. Note that there is one libertarian institution that has a tendency to ostracize them and blame any deviation from strict Rothbardianism on evil hidden motives... the Mises Institute.

Anonymous said...

Oh, and "why not Palmer?"

Let me offer a very simple and clear reason for "why not Palmer."

Palmer is a workaholic genius in the service of spreading libertarian ideas across the world. He does little else but sleep and work and is extremely effective at what he does. He is an extremely friendly and personable and helpful man who reserves his hostility for people that he has very good reason to be hostile to, usually because they have personally and intentionally offended him.

That's why not Palmer.

George Phillies said...

For another take on this question, consider the following, edited slightly from my MLK Day press release:

Libertarian Presidential Candidate George Phillies on Martin Luther King Jr.'s Legacy

Jan 20: Speaking in Worcester, Massachusetts, Libertarian Presidential candidate George Phillies said for Martin Luther King day "It was Martin Luther King's great triumph to fulfill the promise of the 14th Amendment. The end of the Civil War brought to Americans the promise 'No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States'. It took the Freedom Marches and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to make that promise real.

"The American Civil Rights Movement began over two hundred years, ago with many events in my home state of Massachusetts," Phillies continued, recalling his recent speech at the Fresno City College Presidential forum. "In 1775, the American Revolution began at Concord. In 1780, Massachusetts became the first state to abolish slavery. In a splendid piece of judicial activism, Chief Justice William Cushing interpreted our State Constitution's statement 'all men are born free and equal' to mean 'slavery is inconsistent with our...Constitution.'

Then, in 1861, the southern slaveholders rebelled," he continued. "Thousands of Massachusetts men -- and, as we now know, more than a few women -- flocked to the colors to defend our country. They waged the sacred crusade that ended the abomination of slavery.

"Americans can be proud of that achievement of our forefathers. Our forefathers quashed the rebellion of the slaveholders. Then, in 1868, the 13th Amendment washed away the blot of slavery. The 14th Amendment crushed the racist 'States Rights' doctrine that states have the power to take away a person's rights and liberties. But it was not until Martin Luther King's great crusade almost a full century later that this Constitutional promise became a reality.

"Sometimes I'm asked whether it is worthwhile to run as a third party candidate. I am immediately reminded of another third party. The anti-slavery Liberty Party of 170 years ago never elected a President. In the end, their abolitionist doctrines were gloriously triumphant. However, third parties do not always lose. After all, two of our original major parties were the Federalists and the Whigs. The Whigs and Federalists are as extinct as the woolly mammoth. They were replaced by the 'third' parties who my Libertarian Party now aims to replace."

For more info:
Carolyn Marbry, Press Director
(510) 276-3216