More Timely Than Ever!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Michael Lind’s False Alternative

Michael Lind writes at “Having denounced liberals as crypto communists for half a century during the Cold War, the American right now routinely accuses the center-left of being fascist.” Lind goes on to wonder why “American conservatives and libertarians” have avoided discussion of their own “heroes” who seem to have been soft on fascists. He specifically mentions Ludwig von Mises’s remarks about the Italian Fascists in the 1920s (in his book Liberalism) and F. A. Hayek’s and Milton Friedman’s alleged approval of Augusto Pinochet’s “free market” dictatorship in Chile.

The first thing I want to say is that by putting libertarianism on the right and linking it with conservatism, Lind indicates that his knowledge of the libertarian movement is rather superficial. Philosophically the differences are too fundamental to permit such a mistake in a conscientious observer. If libertarianism belongs anywhere, it is on the left.

Lind’s article contains much to comment on, but here I want to make just one or two points. Even if Mises, Hayek, and Friedman really approved of fascist regimes (one can disagree with them while maintaining that things aren’t quite so simple), it would take more than that to indict libertarianism. Lind never explains why this alleged record doesn’t merely reflect on the particular named individuals who for one reason or another departed from their stated libertarian principles.

After all, what is there in libertarianism that would incline an adherent to feel the least sympathy for fascist dictators? Certainly nothing obvious.

The closest Lind gets to answering that question is his pointing out that libertarians dislike democracy, the implication being that one who dislikes democracy necessarily likes autocracy. That’s a strange argument indeed, as Roderick Long points out here. As Long writes, “[L]ibertarians don’t oppose democracy (in the conventional sense) because they hanker after autocracy; they oppose democracy because it is too much like autocracy.” Mises agreed: "There is really no essential difference between the unlimited power of the democratic state and the unlimited power of the autocrat" (Socialism, 1922).

It’s not as though there are no alternatives to democracy and autocracy. How about market anarchism, where majorities don’t rule minorities and minorities don’t rule majorities? And libertarian minarchists can say to Lind that they accept democratic decision-making but only in the smallest area necessary, while otherwise opposing rule by both majorities and minorities.

Lind commits a major gaffe by taking democracy at face value; it seems not to have occurred to him that democracy might not be exactly what it is purported to be. Indeed, it has long been argued that a façade of majoritarianism typically masks a form of aristocracy, or minority rule. The historian Edmund Morgan refers to this as the fiction of representation. I discuss Morgan’s thesis here.

Had Lind not swallowed the civics-book hype and understood that democracy is not actually rule by the people, he might have sized libertarianism up differently.


Joe said...

Doesn't "democracy" have a similar definitional problem to "capitalism," i.e., the nominal definitions are far different from the systems in existence?

Sheldon Richman said...

One could argue that market anarchism is the ultimate democracy.

steven said...

I would say that market anarchism is the only legitimate form of democracy, where each person participating has freely consented to participate.

Anonymous said...

I view democracy an a means towards an end. The objective(s) of the end requires definition of its own...

Barry Loberfeld said...

I actually got a reply from a leftist (charmingly named "Kill Republicans") to my original post at My rejoinder:

Thank you for your thoughtful reply to my letter. To wit…

Until a critical mass of Libertarains who think differently come forward and denounce this pro-Pincochet bias publicly and make it a contested issue, the American Libertarian movement will continue to have a “Pinochet Problem”, for better or for worse.

Since the late 60s, the libertarian movement has been opposed to support for all authoritarian regimes. In fact, that is one of the things that conservatives have attacked us for most vehemently (up to and including Ron Paul). Lind takes a relative handful and presents that as the majority.

I would think that Libertarians of all people would understand the fundamental problems with assigning collective guilt for individual crimes.

Yes, and I hope Lind would understand that, as well.

Well the obvious answer to that is it stains NIxon, Kissinger and his administration, not the institution of the Presidency, let alone “liberalism” or Big Government.

Our welfare-warfare state’s support for authoritarian regimes preceded Nixon … and succeeded him. It’s not the free market that taxes your income away to torturers.

Kyle Bennett said...

"Lind never explains why this alleged record doesn’t merely reflect on the particular named individuals"

It's because Lind is representing a political movement. The misunderstanding goes deeper than positions, it goes to the way we think about positions, politics, and movements. Libertarians put their primary loyalty in ideas, and only secondarily in people. While we may admire and respect Mises for some of his ideas, we do not hold him up as a *representative* of libertarianism. Libertarian ideas are separable from the people who hold them in ways that are not possible for the holders of ideas within political movements.

A political movement's primary loyalty is to the people who are its face, because political movements' viability is defined by their numbers, and numbers are defined by aggregate loyalty to certain people. Lind criticizes libertarianism on the grounds of what would be a dangerous flaw for the representative of a political movement, but he does not know (or will not concede) that libertarianism, as an anti-political movement, does not live and die by representative people, but by representative ideas.

This is why criticisms of libertarianism coming from political movements always miss the mark. Unfortunately, many libertarians cooperate in trying to move that mark in front of the arrows.