Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A Casting Out of Thousands

Well, see, here’s the danger in even suggesting ideological excommunication. From the comments on my prior post:
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. ... By all means, lets cleanup the libertarian tent -- but lets make sure we're thorough when we do it.
Look, if we start kicking people out every time we disagree with them on one issue or another, pretty soon it’ll be an empty tent. There are very few issues I would consider libertarian litmus tests, and almost none of them fall in the difficult realm of foreign policy. Yes, I think libertarians who supported the war made a big mistake. But there’s an awful lot of Monday-morning quarterbacking on this issue. I’m pleased with myself for having opposed the war in Iraq before it started, on grounds that it would lead to a quagmire and incite terrorism. But at the time, I confess that I considered it something of a close call, especially since I thought it likely Iraq actually did have WMDs (yes, I too was fooled).

I wouldn’t even categorically rule out preemptive attacks, although I think they’re generally a bad idea, as Iraq so aptly demonstrates. When I was in middle school and the target of multiple bullies, I remember a lesson my dad taught me: “Avoid a fight if you can,” he said, “but once you know it’s coming, it’s better to hit first than to go down before you get the chance to hit back.” To delve into libertarian theory just a tiny bit, libertarians say it’s wrong to initiate force or the threat of force against another. But threats aren’t always explicit and verbal, and some judgment is required to identify them.

Point being, there are plenty of debatable points within libertarianism. I’ve argued far more with libertarians than with any other ideological group, despite being a libertarian myself. If every one of these debates led to schism, there would be no libertarian movement left. And the problem gets even worse if excommunications are based on association with a particular organization, simply because someone there has taken a disagreeable position. Take Cato, for instance; the commenter quoted above says that “many” people there supported the Iraq war. It’s true, some Cato staff did support the war. But their actual foreign policy experts did not! Those who supported the war did so on their personal blogs and in other publications, and they spoke only for themselves. To excommunicate everyone at Cato based on the position taken by a few individuals would result in a pretty substantial error of over-inclusion.

So why have I taken a different stance with respect to the Mises Institute? First, I have been careful to distinguish between the Institute generally and the specific individuals responsible for the racist material in question. If the Institute deserves blame of a general nature, it is only because its founder and president is one of the more execrable people involved.

Second, I’m not actually proposing a policy-based litmus test. I’m not saying we should denounce these people for their position on, say, immigration (though I do strongly disagree with them on that issue). I’m saying we should denounce them for their racism, regardless of what policies it leads them to endorse. Even if their racism leads them to policy conclusions we find attractive on other grounds (like rolling back the welfare state), the racism itself is a problem. Why? Because racism is poison. Even just tolerating racists is a damn good way to make sure most decent people will never listen to you again.

Third, as commenter Gil says, “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.” So we’re not talking about actual censorship here. We can’t stop these people from blogging, writing newsletters, publishing papers, and calling themselves whatever they want. What we can do is refuse to associate with them, refuse to publish with them, refuse to acknowledge them as part of our community. Not because they have the wrong policy prescriptions – sometimes they are right – but because we find them unsavory, and because by allowing ourselves to be associated with them we run the risk of tainting our own views.


Steven Horwitz said...

File this post under "Posts I Wish I'd Written". Spot on Glen.

Anonymous said...

So, reasonable libertarians can disagree on the bombing, invasion, and occupation of another country -- to question the war is to engage in "Monday-morning quarterbacking" -- but reasonable libertarians cannot disagree on the appropriate degree of racial sensitivity.

If people like Glen Whitman and Steve Horwitz were the only libertarians, libertarianism would indeed be dead.

Anonymous said...

I agree on an intuitive level that libertarians damage their cause by associating with racists. I'm less clear about whether this is because racism is just inherently worse than many other policy-informing preferences, or if it's because of the particularly explosive history of race in this country. *If* the US had never experienced a major slavery/emancipation/Jim Crow/affirmative action trajectory in its history, would racist preferences still be *as* poisonous?

John Markley said...

I agree with anonymous. Racism is certainly corrosive to an individualist perspective, but associating with apologists for military aggression, mass murder, and the warfare state is a lot more likely to poison the soul of the libertarian movement than associating with people who don't like blacks.

I’m a big-tent sort, and I don’t think Sandefeur, Postrel, Lindsay, Palmer, et al. should be drummed out of libertarianism, but if I had to choose I’d throw them over the side a hell of a lot faster than I would Han-Hermann Hoppe or Lew Rockwell.

A lot of libertarians seem to be taking an essentially left-liberal view of political morality- racism is the sin of sins, and anyone tainted with it is beyond the pale, but whether or not to spend hundreds of billions of dollars taken from taxpayers and kill tens of thousands of innocents is a technocratic issue that good and reasonable people can disagree on. Insulting non-whites is unforgivable; advocating the mass slaughter of non-whites is merely an innocent error in your calculations, as long as you don't say anything unkind about your victims.

Aaron said...

I know many libertarian/Austrian minded individuals and those who despise the racist tendency of Lew Rockwell et al (the vast majority) already strictly avoid the MI unless they need to buy a hard-to-find book from their store. So I think that the social pressure that this post proposes already happens to a large extent.

Also, for what it's worth, it may be that if we lived in a liberal society the unsavory elements would not want to associate with 'mainstream' (for lack of a better term) libertarians/Austrians either. I think we have both been forced into bed with reservations.

Anonymous said...

Glen, I'm a little annoyed you let pass without comment the ludicrous assertion that "many of [Cato's scholars] endorsed the concept of preemptive war." As far as I know, precisely one member of Cato's staff (Lindsey) publicly endorsed preemptive war. Around a dozen (Carpenter, Preble, Peña, Niskanen, Healy, Basham, Balko, Sanchez, Logan, Eland, and yes, Palmer himself) publicly opposed it, including every member of the foreign policy shop. I have no idea why people are so insistent on repeating the lie that "many" people at Cato were or are hawks, but it certainly isn't true.