Friday, July 20, 2018

The Trump Challenge for Libertarians: Are We Willing to Man Up and Admit That the Republican Strategy Was a Mistake?

While I have for years recognized a distinction between mainstream libertarianism and Rothbardian libertarianism, recently that breach appears to be widening. Some good examples of this would be the controversy over the cartoon published in the name of Ron Paul as well as the conflict at the Libertarian Party National convention. I suspect that a key issue here is the presidency of Donald Trump, which makes it harder to pretend that a common set of values exist. On the one hand, mainstream libertarians are horrified by Trump and see him as a reason to rethink their Republican strategy. On the other hand, the Rothbardians see a Trump Republican Party has precisely the kind of institution that they can do business with. This requires a reevaluation of what this relationship was from the very beginning.  

Historically, Murray Rothbard (Ron Paul's mentor) argued that libertarians should ally with anyone who really hated the government. He calculated that the people who best fit this category after the civil rights movement were radicalized working class whites. This required tiptoeing around the issue that such people were likely to be hardcore racists. Mainstream libertarians tended along a similar if a more moderate line of thinking of trying to reform the Republican Party to make it more market-friendly while hoping to keep Christian-conservatives in check.

As long as both sides were pursuing these tracks, the difference would appear as a matter of degree and personal taste. Both sides accepted that libertarians, as a small minority, needed to appeal to some audience that was not libertarian per se but sympathized with elements of the libertarian agenda. Both sides recognized that the post-1960s left (whether justified or not) was premised on making white males pay for an expanding welfare state and that this offered an opportunity for libertarians to make the case for small government to white men. With the New Deal, we could pretend that the government was going to shake down wealthy businessmen for their benefit. Now government means that you, white men, are going to have to pay to support public school teachers, who hate your values, brainwashing your children for seventeen years (kindergarten through college) in order to convince them to vote for more welfare for blacks. (Note that I would consider this perspective to be, technically accurate, but highly misleading in its choice of focus.)  

If you are looking for white men who simply want to make the government smaller, you can afford to be a little bit choosy about whom to associate with. From this perspective, it made sense to join the William F. Buckley coalition that denounced open racism. If you are actually trying to overthrow the government then you are left with precisely the kind white men that not even Buckley Republicans would be willing to touch. That being said, in practice what we had was a spectrum without clear lines, leaving a lot of room for personal gut checks. Furthermore, as libertarians were never actually in a position to put their policies in practice, all of this was theoretical. So, like any good marriage, both sides were free to pretend that the other was whatever they wanted them to be. Some libertarians wanted to focus on reigning in the growth of government in the short run, while others looked to the long-term question of what to do about government as a principle. Alu v’alu divrei Elokhim hayim (both are the words of the living God).

Going after welfare made sense as long as the existence of a certain Overton Window could be assumed that made actual racism an anathema. If there were no real racists outside of certain compounds (a position that sounded very reasonable considering that real racists felt the need to move into compounds in the first place), then one could, in good conscious, target the left for using welfare as a means of buying off black voters. If the left called that racist, well that simply demonstrated the extent that the left was not arguing in good faith and could safely be ignored. Similarly, if everyone recognized that legal immigration from Latin America was a good thing to be encouraged and expanded then it was perfectly reasonable to discuss certain border controls in the name of national security.
Long before Trump, I had already left the Republican Party, even as I continued to wish it well because I stopped believing that it was serious about promoting a free-market agenda. As quaint as it sounds now, I did not even support Mitt Romney in 2012. That being said, I still trusted in the basic decency of Republican voters. I was one of those people who believed that Trump was finished the moment he went after Mexicans for “not sending us their best.” Over and over again, I was proven wrong whenever I decided to interpret Republicans charitably and continued to assume that Stephen Colbert was a comedian and not a demonstration of the Poe Law.

These days, even the Republicans who oppose Trump, I find to be dominated by this black hole of conspiracy thinking and hatred of the left. A useful test case for this is birtherism. To be clear, I have no particularly strong opinions as to where Barack Obama was born beyond the conviction that if there really was something to him not being born in Hawaii, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden would have pursued it to the very end. The fact that any conservative would invest any of their moral capital in this venture even after Obama is no longer president suggests that, more than markets, what animates such people is a conspiratorial narrative that pits “true Americans” against the “left.” Such thinking is not inherently racist, but this acceptance of conspiratorial group narrative provides an important ingredient that allows a person to go from being politically incorrect/lacking proper sensitivity to being the actually dangerous kind of racist.  

Alternatively, consider the use of technical defenses that rely on particular definitions of words at the expense of the wider moral issue. For example, when a pro-Palestinian person responds to the charge of anti-Semitism by arguing that, as Arabs are Semites, he cannot be anti-Semitic. Putting aside the actual history of the word “anti-Semite,” we can readily grant the Palestinian his argument because he has already implicitly confessed to the charge. If he had an honestly worked out defense that allowed him to hold his political positions without being hostile to Jews, he would have given it and not tried to play word games. Similarly, when a conservative says that his views on Islam do not make him a racist because Islam is not a race, we can rest assured that whatever better more precise word we wish to come up with (and prejudice and bigotry have their problems as well), our conservative is guilty of it. If he had an honest defense, he would have used it. (Let me add that the real-life conservative who used this argument with me was a Jew, who then turned around and said that we Jews needed to ally ourselves with white nationalists.)  
To return to the Rothbardian libertarians, I do not see myself as any kind of perfect model of tolerance even as I do not think that there are many people who are much better. If you think you are, might I suggest that it has more to do with the gaping size of the blank checks you have prejudicially written out for yourself? For this reason, I am willing to wink and nod at petty venial bigotry. (The kind of sensibility of Mel Brooks’ “let them all go to hell except cave 76.") If the Rothbardians want to be less politically correct than me, fine. It is not like the left would hesitate to come after me with similar arguments so why make myself vulnerable by self-righteously denouncing them. 

In my experience, if you are tempted to accuse someone of bigotry, you will usually find something more to the point close at hand. How can it be that it is a protectionist like Trump who causes Rothbardians to move closer to the Republican Party? As a libertarian, I value free trade (and that includes moving people across borders) as the vital link between private property and freedom of expression. The government has no business interfering with markets, whether physical or ideological. If you are willing to get behind Trump’s rhetoric on borders then it does not just mean that you happen to be a bigot. It means that you value your own bigotry more than free trade.

A similar line of reasoning underscores my disillusionment with Ron Paul. I could forgive the newsletters, the cartoons and the bone-headed statements regarding Israel as long as I believed that Paul, whether I agreed with him or not, was acting out of a desire to pursue a sincerely libertarian non-interventionist foreign policy. Such a person would know how to draw a clear line between criticizing American foreign policy and engaging in apologetics for Putin. The fact that Paul seems unable to draw this line suggests that he is less a libertarian non-interventionist as he is a white nationalist who looks to Russia to save him from liberals.   

The path to the summit of Mount Liberty is going to be tricky and I do not claim to have fully worked out how to get there. It is possible that along the way, at some point, we are going to have to make a Faustian bargain with racists. It may be that a libertarian society will feature open racists, who use their freedom of association to discriminate. I am willing to consider such a possibility on condition that I am not having that conversation with people for whom the point of climbing Mount Liberty was as an excuse to sell their souls in the first place.