The Great Libertarian War of August 2017: Reflections and (another) Mea Culpa

So I decided to post this on my blog, a) because I haven’t used it in over two years, and b) doing ultra long Facebook posts some times grates on me and hopefully this will be a more useful format for sharing.

I want to begin with a mea culpa: I was wrong about Jeff Deist’s speech. When the ‘blood and soil’ line from his speech was first circulated, I posted it in a couple of libertarian Facebook groups, saying it was messed up. Not long after, I gave my first mea culpa as I realized I wasn’t giving Jeff Deist the benefit of the doubt, as I should have – I jumped to a conclusion that he meant it in one particular way, when a plain reading could equally have me fall on down on a more generous interpretation instead. I said so at the time, and I having heard the audio of the speech, and Tom Wood’s defense of Jeff’s speech on his podcast, I want to publicly state that I was wrong about what Jeff meant by using the phrase ‘blood and soil’ and the potential for libertarians to be irrelevant for ignoring it – my initial reaction had me taking it as a call to get chummy with alt-right types, whereas I think he meant it just as a statement of how others see the world, and to engage meaningfully with those concerns. In that second regard, I actually wholeheartedly agree with Jeff’s call – I believe libertarianism and the liberal worldview has a compelling answer to appeals to nativism and insularity, and I try to promote those values whenever I can.

I have a wider set of concerns coming out of this whole incident, centred on libertarian tribalism. I want to begin at the outset in saying that I think people will always be tribal and that I am not so naive to make some kumbayah sermon about how libertarians should all get along. And to be fair, I don’t enough about the history of the last 30 years of the libertarian movement in the US to conclusively state that the Mises Institute hasn’t harboured some people with ugly views about race, as I’ve heard people I respect (including Steve Horwitz) claim about them. My interaction with the Mises Institute crowd is limited to hearing Hans-Hermann Hoppe on ABC’s Counterpoint 6-7 years ago talking about Democracy: The God That Failed, hearing Walter Block debate Reason’s Nick Gillespie at the Soho Forum a few months back, and having listened to Tom Wood’s podcast for the last couple of months, so make of my comments what you will.

It is one thing to have different views and it is another to colour those differing views with personal attacks. I can see why Steve Horwitz would be so incensed over the use of the term ‘blood and soil’ and I can see why Tom Woods saw it as harmless – what I cannot understand is why it has to come with name calling, vituperative mockery and tribalism. Taking a dispute and then descending into corners (Mises Institute in one corner, and the Cato Institute in the other) is just plain stupid and petulant. No single libertarian or libertarian organisation can conclusively say everything that is true or useful on libertarianism, and so there is no competition here. Mises Institute has a particular output and approach and the Cato Institute has its own output and approach, and it would be strange to think that there is no value to be gained from reading/listening to the contributions both make to the libertarian cause.

In my own life, I can see that both either has made or will in the future make a contribution to my own life and thinking – without the Cato Institute, Steve Horwitz and Tom Palmer, I wouldn’t know a fraction of what I know about libertarianism. Cato produces podcasts at a prolific rate and I have listened to most of their shows religiously for years now, and Cato University (under the directorship of Tom Palmer, and heavily featuring his contributions) has been instrumental in helping me understand libertarianism and the liberal worldview. I think Cato’s policy work is a model for how libertarians can seriously engage with the politics of the day with solid research and tireless advocacy. And Steve Horwitz’s videos at Learn Liberty were also very helpful as I was learning about libertarianism, and his one on how prices ensure that we will never run out of resources is still my go-to video on the issue. I know he has also made valuable contributions as a speaker to the work of the Institute for Liberal Studies, where I interned over the Australian uni winter break, and if Matt and Janet Bufton tell me he is a great guy, then who am I to disagree?

I’ve also really enjoyed Tom Wood’s podcasts over the last couple of months – I find him to be an enthusiastic and energetic host, with a strong desire to promote entrepreneurship as a practical means of achieving liberty, and his shows are almost always interesting and informative. As a budding Austrian economist, I can see how both Tom Woods and the Mises Institute as a whole will probably play an important ongoing part in my life, as they are a bastion of Austrian thinking, and I know I will need that as a libertarian who by circumstance is just kind of floating out there on my own. One of the my long term goals is to write a book on the practicalities of starting a private city, and if I was going to go anywhere to seriously understand Rothbard and his thinking (a critical thinker for anarcho-capitalism), I’d be mad not to make use of the Mises Institute’s resources.

And to an extent, I can understand why there is a division between them, especially when considering the formation of the libertarian community in the US. From my reading of Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism, I can see why a bunch of individualistic freethinkers living on the fringes of politics might end up rubbing each other the wrong way, especially when you have people like Rothbard, who had the touch of the troll about them over the course of decades. It’s also not hard to see why philosophical differences might lead to personal discord in such a small group of people – what is hard to understand is why it would continue, especially amongst people for whom those personal beefs are not their monkey, and therefore not their circus.

I saw some photos taken at MisesU by an attendee, standing with a bunch of the different speakers and one was with Jeff Deist with the comment ‘We need more Jeff Deist and less Steve Horwitz’. Now, the guy might be being flippant for all I know (he is some random who tagged someone who I know through Friedman conference this year, which is why the photos popped up in my Feed) but I’m sure some would take that attitude for realsies, and to that I would say: we need more of both! We need more Mises and more Hayek and more Friedman and more Rand and more Rothbard and more Roberts and more Boudreaux and more Palmer and more Woods and more of anyone else who takes liberty seriously and wants to put in effort to promote it in a world that takes the liberties of others very unseriously. Unlike the apostle Paul, we rarely can be all things for all people in our efforts to persuade – for some, the hard line property rights approach and appreciation of cultural conservatism of the Mises Institute will appeal; for others, a more liberal cultural world view of Tom Palmer or David Boaz will appeal; for others still, the consequentialist approach and decidedly less hardcore neoliberal approach of a guy like Sam Bowman from the Adam Smith Institute will be very appealing. The great thing is that you’d have to reduce the size and scope of the state a heck of a lot before you get to the point where you would have no issues of shared concern and approach between those three broad categories, and I pray that God would be so merciful as to get us to the world where the state has been so reduced that the differences between anarchists and minarchists is a foremost concern. In the mean time, it’s a big world and libertarians of any stripe aren’t in competition with each other – there is more than enough scope to keep our snarking within the realm of polite disagreement with one another and then go back to providing our own distinctive contributions to liberty. Future generations of libertarians don’t need to be sustaining the grudges and gripes of our predecessors.

I say all of this with the recognition that I have spent my fair share of time as a keyboard warrior on social media, and have certainly dished out my fair share of snark too, so I’m going to pretend that I am some sort of innocent dove, unsullied by the rough-and-tumble of social media interactions. However, I don’t think I have harboured any grudges, nor gotten particularly personal with people for whom my differences are primarily intellectual (if I have, I unreservedly apologise), and I would more than happily share time on my podcast with guys like Tim Wilms from The Unshackled, whom I have substantial disagreements with over substance and strategy. It is important that divisions amongst libertarians don’t become insurmountable barriers, for that there are so few of us, and the task before us is so inordinate, that we can’t afford to be gunning each other down in a circular firing squad. It would seem pretty silly that a group of people who champion the flourishing of a thousand blooms and the endless potential of the market would lock themselves into a way of think that ignored the possibility that others might make meaningful contributions to the growth of liberty, and instead pursue a winner-takes-all approach.

So in that regard, I would encourage my fellow libertarians to give the side-picking a rest – it is neither usefully nor edifying. The virtue of being an individualist means that you don’t have to even pick a side: you lose nothing by respecting those who say/write things of substance, even if isn’t your cup of tea. Where you see others engaging in name calling (even people with profile in the movement) and whatnot, rise above it – don’t get sucked into their games. Everyone will approach liberty in their own way and no one can be you except you, so why begrudge those who aren’t you?


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