( Please note that John Ganz has provided a response to this column, included as an update at the bottom.)
John Ganz at the Washington Post has another opinion piece up today wherein he continues to make the currently fashionable (on the left) argument that Libertarians are actually far more akin to the so-called “alt right” than they would care to admit. Even though he was nice enough to include a hat tip to our own Taylor Millard on the subject, this silliness has been making the rounds lately with any number of hot takes and it truly deserves a rebuttal with a healthy dose of reality included.
First let’s get to the meat of Ganz’s argument which supposedly supports this proposal.
It’s probably true that some of the overlap between libertarians and alt-righters can be explained by their companionship as members of the political fringe. But it’s not purely accidental, either. Historically, prominent libertarian thinkers have made the decision to cultivate ties with the nationalist far right, and have viewed racial demagoguery both as an efficacious political tool and an intellectually defensible position. The libertarian-to-fascist pipeline may have been forged partially by coincidence, but it was also crafted and maintained.
Ganz invokes everyone from Murray Rothbard to Joseph McCarthy in making this case, but there’s one overriding reason why this argument falls flat. It comes down to the fact that political analysts are frequently more concerned with the philosophical destination someone arrives at over the course of a debate than the path they took to get there.
To understand whey there is an apparent (but still fictional) overlap between the big “L” Libertarians and perceived fascist fringe movements with intense racial animus you need look no further than the classic lunch counter debate. The idea of a whites only lunch counter has become accepted as the epitome of racism in the modern era and any court defense of it began falling apart by the early 1960s with Barr v. City of Columbia as well as other cases.
But let’s walk into a hypothetical whites only diner with a lunch counter and examine the question. Inside, we find one of a particular subset of either small government conservatives or hard core, big “L” Libertarians and ask him why he’s willing to eat there. He will calmly explain that the judgement of the government should not substitute itself for the judgement of the free market. There are, by definition, a certain number of potential diners out there who are black, Latino, Asian, indigenous or anything else other than white. These diners need to eat, therefore there is a market for those services. If the whites only diner is currently the only one in town, there is a vacuum in the market and the free market hates a vacuum.
This will lead to the opening of a new lunch counter which welcomes minority diners. Also, particularly in light of continually changing and more accepting attitudes in our society, there will be some number of white diners who are offended by the “Whites Only” sign and would prefer to dine at the new establishment. If there are a sufficient number of white diners willing to eat at the whites only counter and a sustainable number of minority and “white but objecting” diners eating at the new place, some equilibrium will be established. Everyone gets served lunch and two businesses remain in operation. If there are not enough for the whites only counter to stay in business (or vice versa) then one of them will close. Either way, the free market prevails. (As a side note, if the hypothetical town we are in has hordes of vigilantes who will burn down the all customers diner for serving blacks or run the owner out of town you have an entirely different problem based in real crime.)
Next, we’ll stroll a few stools down the counter and talk to the garden variety neo-nazi, KKK member or white supremacist eating there. (Please stop saying “white nationalist” because you make yourself sound foolish.) When asked, he will respond by saying, “Yep. That there libertarian fella has it right. I damn well should be able to eat my lunch in a place with no black people.”
At this point we will hear a loud thudding sound as the Libertarian begins banging his forehead repeatedly into the counter.
The lunch counter isn’t the only example. Pretty much every law you care to examine which focuses on identity politics falls into the same basket. Many small government conservatives and Libertarians both oppose so called “hate crime” laws because they are thought crimes and also because they result in unequal enforcement of the law. But the liberal glitterati will quickly inform you that anyone taking that position is racist, regardless of the intellectual path they took to arrive at the conclusion.
This works in reverse also, and you will find small government, Libertarian types winding up in the same camp as dyed in the wool liberals on other issues. The small government, Libertarian position on gay marriage which I’ve often espoused here is not based on the fact that anyone deserves special treatment because of their sexual orientation, but because it’s not the government’s place to demand licenses or fees for consenting adults to marry. Does that mean that we should now do an about face and be lumped in with liberals? Even though we have arrived at the same conclusion as the identity politics crew and they welcome us with open arms, our new “allies” immediately become distressed when I tell them that my feeling that the government shouldn’t be in the business of marriage doesn’t mean that I think it should be able to force someone with deeply held religious convictions to bake a cake, create a photo album or rent a hall out for a gay wedding. But I make sure to tell them not to worry, because the free market will solve that problem as well and plenty of providers who don’t object to gay marriage will be along to take their orders.
See how complex this can all be? But it’s the reality behind the various arguments being made here. Just because two different groups arrive at the same destination on any given issue, that doesn’t mean that they are kin to each other in any way shape for form. So no… there is no Libertarian to “alt-right” pipeline.
You may now return to your respective lunch counters.
UPDATE: (Jazz) John Ganz, the author of the piece linked above, contacted me with a response to this column. I include it here without comment beyond noting that I obviously still disagree with the original premise and feel we’re debating two different points. Stating that libertarians view racist thought as an ideology, albeit a stupid one, which can exist as one possible outcome is fine, I suppose. But then making the leap to add, “also maybe a potential political friend” is where the author makes the leap off the bridge yet again. In any event, here is his response without edits.
First of all, thank you for giving me the opportunity to reply. I think this is an important debate, and I’ve been impressed by the willingness of the libertarian community to engage constructively in it. It’s never been my intention to cast the entire libertarian community as being somehow associated with the alt-right. On the contrary, in my piece I attempted to be as fair to the publications like yours that have taken this issue seriously.
However, I think your response ignores what I believe is a matter of historical fact rather than theory, which is that libertarian intellectuals of some standing have cultivated ties with what has become known as the alt right. You write that I “invoke” McCarthy, but McCarthyism was the explicitly stated model for Rothbard’s populist strategy. In his “Betrayal of the American Right,” Rothbard says, “In sum, there was a vital need to appeal directly to the masses, emotionally, even demagogically, over the heads of the Establishment.” The way Rothbard’s ally Rockwell carried out this demagogic strategy is on display in Ron Paul’s newsletters, which my piece gave some small sampling of. Lastly, one could argue that Rothbard’s disciple Hoppe has attempted to institutionalize these politics in the Property and Freedom Society, host to Taylor, Spencer, and Brimelow. Most libertarians confronted with these facts say these guys are fringe and disassociate. My question is how fringe is populist demagoguery compared to the “mainstream” of the libertarian movement today?
Second, skipping over for a moment how your hypothetical account matches up with the actual history of Jim Crow, the “lunch counters” thought experiment closely models my theoretical explanation of the historical tendency I outline above. Questions of policy aside, my contention was that the libertarian tradition as a body of arguments did not, and possibly cannot, provide a strong normative rebuttal to racist thought as an ideology, but rather views it just as one of a number of possible options; maybe a stupid option, (but we see also maybe a potential political friend), but not as a threat to the goal of an egalitarian, pluralist, and democratic society, which I believe it is.