Libertarian Origins, Libertarian Influence, and the Ruling American Right
At the Washington Post’s Volokh Conspiracy blog, Ilya Somin has responded to my recent essay on the way libertarian antipathy to democracy has influenced the small-government, free-market right. Somin’s gracious and thoughtful reply is most welcome. However, I’m afraid he has misunderstood my argument and the scope of my claims. I’m sure this is as much my fault as his, so I’m grateful for the opportunity to clarify.
My argument, as Somin reconstructs it, is that libertarians are hostile to democracy due to an “absolutist conception of property rights,” this hostility has “infected the mainstream Republican right,” and has become “a major factor in [the right’s] undermining of various key norms of liberal democracy.” But this is totally wrong, Somin argues, because libertarian skepticism about democracy isn’t driven primarily by property rights absolutism, and “it is not a significant contributor to the pathologies of the conservative right.”
Somin does not dispute that libertarians are generally skeptical of and often hostile to democracy. It’s agreed on all sides that libertarians tend to be down on democracy. The contested questions then are “Why?” and “How much influence have libertarian anti-democracy ideas had on actual Republicans?”
I’m largely unmoved by Somin’s response. First, he somewhat misstates my view about the source of libertarian hostility to democracy. Second, Somin’s implicit theory of influence is overly intellectualized and unreasonably demanding, which allows him to wave off otherwise undeniable libertarian influence on Republican politics.
My argument is not, as Somin says, that property-rights absolutism drives libertarian democracy skepticism. This actually gets my diagnostic narrative backwards, which is why Somin’s response seems to me orthogonal to the argument I tried to make. That said, my argument wasn’t as clear as it might have been. I failed to clearly distinguish my story about the genealogy or history of certain libertarian ideas, on the one hand, and, on the other, the influence of those ideas in our political culture. I’ll try to clear that up.
But Somin and I are also running into a different confusion around the usage of “libertarianism” and “classical liberalism.” I’ll clear this up first.
Classical liberalism versus libertarianism: semantics and substance
I’ve told a historical story, which Somin doesn’t really address, that tries to say something about what distinguishes libertarianism from classical liberalism. In my story, there’s speciation in the intellectual lineage. Libertarianism branches off from classical liberalism, and the speciation event is the emergence of property-rights absolutism. It’s true that, as a matter of history and political sociology, classical liberals and libertarians continued to make common cause, and that, as a matter of linguistic usage, it became common to refer to classical liberals as “libertarians.” But in the context of a historical claim that a radical view about the inviolability of property rights accounts for the emergence of libertarianism as a philosophical and political stance distinct from classical liberalism, it begs the question to casually lump classical liberals and libertarians together.
In modern times, the two most significant libertarian critics of majoritarian democracy were economists F.A. Hayek and James Buchanan (one of the founders of public choice theory). Neither of them favored absolute property rights either. Buchanan even advocated a 100% inheritance tax. Wilkinson tries sidestep this by classifying Hayek and Buchanan as “classical liberals” rather than “libertarians.” But whatever terminology we use, it is pretty obvious that Hayek and Buchanan’s ideas (combined with more recent works flowing from the same traditions) are the most influential bases for most modern libertarian skepticism about democracy. And these theories are not based on any notion of absolute property rights.
I’m not sidestepping anything by labeling Hayek and Buchanan “classical liberals” rather than “libertarians.” I’m saying that they aren’t libertarians in the sense I’m interested in, precisely because they aren’t property rights absolutists.
Cleaving libertarianism from classical liberalism at the property rights joint is neither historically nor philosophically arbitrary. Consider this passage from Samuel Freeman, a distinguished liberal political philosopher:
It is commonly held that libertarianism is a liberal view. Also, many who affirm classical liberalism call themselves libertarians and vice versa. I argue that libertarianism’s resemblance to liberalism is superficial; in the end, libertarians reject essential liberal institutions. Correctly understood, libertarianism resembles a view that liberalism historically defined itself against, the doctrine of private political power that underlies feudalism. Like feudalism, libertarianism conceives of justified political power as based in a network of private contracts. It rejects the idea, essential to liberalism, that political power is a public power, to be impartially exercised for the common good.
I resisted this for a long time, but I’ve come around to Freeman’s view. The implications for classical liberal/libertarian relations are profound. If Freeman’s right, classical liberalism isn’t simply a “soft” or less “principled” version of libertarianism. Rather, the distinction is that classical liberalism is a form of liberalism and libertarianism isn’t.
Now, I don’t think the distinction is really so starkly binary as that, since there’s a range of more-or-less strict views about the (in)violability of property rights. Still, it remains that classical liberalism is in conversation with the dominant liberal view (which Freeman calls “high liberalism”) on the question of the status of economic rights and liberties in a way that libertarianism is not. Should we grant economic liberties the same legal protections afforded to civil and political liberties, and thereby further restrict the scope of democratic choice by expanding the list of basic rights? Classical liberals say “Yes.” High liberals (e.g., Rawlsians like Freeman) say “No.”
Absolutist rights-based libertarianism isn’t really part of this conversation at all. It’s effectively an argument against liberalism and the legitimacy of liberal political institutions, which is why it’s so confusing that the folk taxonomy lumps libertarianism and classical liberalism together, and sets them against standard left-liberalism. The dispute between liberalism and hardcore libertarianism concerns whether it’s possible to justify democratic political authority at all. The dispute within liberalism, about the status of economic rights and the legitimate scope of democratic decision-making, is much smaller than that.
From this perspective, Somin and I both are firmly on Team Liberal. Our philosophical differences are actually exceedingly small. We both disagree with “high liberals” like Freeman more than we disagree with one another. And we disagree with liberals like Freeman less than we disagree with, say, Ron Paul. Likewise, Jason Brennan, author of Against Democracy, who I mentioned at the outset of my essay as an example of a libertarian democracy skeptic, isn’t libertarian, in this sense, either—as he has explained himself. Brennan, like me, is an updated classical liberal—he uses the term “neoclassical liberal.”
Political labels are confusing, and I encouraged confusion about labels myself by identifying Hayek and Buchanan as classical liberals rather than libertarians, in accordance with my historical theory about the emergence of libertarianism, but followed common usage at the outset of my piece when I identified Somin, Brennan, and Bryan Caplan as libertarians, despite the fact that none of them are property rights absolutists.
This is confusing, but I don’t think it is fundamentally confused. Brennan and Caplan (I’m a little less sure about Somin) are very culturally libertarian, in much the way that some atheists are culturally Jewish or Catholic of Mormon. And that’s why it makes sense to see their books as libertarian critiques of democracy, despite the fact that none of them is a property rights absolutist, and none of them argues from notably libertarian premises.
Each of these books is based, in one way or another, on the voter ignorance literature, which doesn’t really have an ideological valence. What’s interesting is that libertarians or ex-libertarians (starting with Jeffrey Friedman at Critical Review), already relatively disenchanted about democracy, were first to latch onto the deep implications of profound public obliviousness, and laid out the dire picture with a sort of told-you-so glee. Standard liberals, burdened with a romantic attachment to an idealistic vision of democracy, have fought these implications kicking and screaming, and are only now starting to square up, rather morosely, to the bleakness of the picture.
Political philosophies exist and develop in time, and political movements and identities are social and historical. Classical liberals and libertarians have been involved in the same institutions, going to the same meetings, and attending the same parties since libertarianism got off the ground. This has libertarianized the views of classical liberals a good deal. Moreover, many new-style classical liberals, like me, came through radical libertarianism, which has continued to shape our views both as a foil and as a filter through which we can’t help but continue to experience the world.
Influence is complicated. You can change your mind without changing your heart. Doctrinal communities structure our thoughts, sentiments, and group attachments long after we’ve strayed from orthodoxy or left the group. It’s impossible to understand how political ideas influence political culture without understanding this.
What drives libertarian antipathy to democracy, again?
I strongly agree with Somin that classical liberal ideas have been a very influential source of libertarian skepticism about democracy, but these ideas aren’t distinctively libertarian. I also agree that, in elite academic and legal circles, classical liberal democracy skepticism is much more influential than radical rights-based libertarian democracy skepticism. No one doubts that Hayek and Buchanan are classier than Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard, and less likely to be sneered at in a university seminar room. But this doesn’t imply, logically or empirically, that radical libertarian democracy skepticism has not had a big influence on the political culture of the right.
Classical liberals have always opposed unconstrained majoritarian democracy. Madisonian anti-majoritarianism is a pervasive background influence on American liberalism, left and right. My genealogical/historical argument is that the specifically modern classical liberal fear of democracy was rooted in the worry that unconstrained democratic majorities, in the grip of radical socialist ideals of economic justice, would redistribute their way into penury and tyranny. Hayek is the representative figure here. His worries about democracy’s vulnerability to dangerous ideological fads motivated his constitutionalism and his conservative-ish defense of the independent political authority of the common law and established social norms against romantic majoritarians. This work has been enormously influential, and I’m a huge fan. (That I generally agree with Hayek’s view of democracy didn’t come across to some readers.)
The next step in my story, which I’ll expand on here, is that other, even more vehemently anti-socialist classical liberals, such as Isabel Patterson and Ayn Rand, were animated by the exact same worries, but feared that refurbished classical liberal anti-majoritarianism was too morally and rhetorically insipid to stem the surging red tide.
Hayek thought that, in order to survive, liberalism needed to be updated and refreshed for the modern era. But Hayek frankly acknowledged that the fate of the liberal order ultimately depends on vagaries of public sentiment, and he visibly struggled with the problem of how to make liberalism as inspiring as socialism without dishonoring the complexity of truth. If you’re worried about the survival of liberal capitalism, this is unnerving.
Rand took the problem of inspiration and moral passion head on. She developed a radical, individualist moral and political theory expressly designed to neutralize radical socialism, sold it to the masses by weaving it into thrilling anti-collectivist propaganda, and insulated it from criticism by packing it all inside a cult of reason.
So, again, my claim is that modern classical liberal worries about democracy largely motivated absolutist theories of property rights, like Rand’s, which created a new political philosophy distinct from classical liberalism. The initial political point of libertarian property rights theory was to serve as a countervailing cultural force to the idea that leveling redistribution is a requirement of justice, and to popular myths about the unique authority and legitimacy of unlimited majoritarian sovereignty.
This is the sense in which Somin is wrong to say that I’m arguing that property rights absolutism drives libertarian democracy skepticism. On the contrary, I’m arguing that classical liberal democracy skepticism drove the adoption of property rights absolutism, which launched libertarianism as a distinct ideology.
The gospel according to Murray Rothbard
I’ve suggested that the theory of rights in Rand’s fiction and nonfiction was the, um, fountainhead of libertarianism as a distinct philosophy and political movement. Her influence has been enormous. The opinions of millions, including some extremely powerful people, have been shaped by her books. But much of Rand’s influence has been indirect, flowing through the almost mind-boggling sway of Murray Rothbard. Pausing to detail the various channels of Rothbard’s influence will help make my claim about the influence of libertarianism on the ruling American right much less abstract.
Rothbard, effectively Jesus to Rand’s John the Baptist, created the orthodox, hardcore libertarian catechism by sprinkling Rand’s absolutist rights-based individualism with a pinch of secularized Catholic natural law doctrine and fusing it to Ludwig von Mises’ economic theories. As Jacob Levy recently noted, a smart historian looking to spin a gripping dark yarn about the influence of libertarian ideas on the American right would pass right over James Buchanan, a high-minded scholar’s scholar, and fix on Rothbard, an obscure but colorful figure who has exerted extraordinary influence on American political culture at every level of brow. high, middle and low.
On the high-brow side, Rothbard directly influenced the great Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick. Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which made hardcore libertarianism academically respectable, was a Rothbardian defense of the minimal state again’s Rothbard’s own anarchism. Untold thousands of undergrad and grad students have been exposed to libertarian ideas through Nozick’s reputable version of Rothbard and Rand.
At the cultural middle, Rothbard was a major influence on the billionaire industrialist Charles Koch, who co-founded the Cato Institute with Rothbard and Ed Crane. According to David Gordon, Koch “met Rothbard and was so impressed with him and his ideas that he decided to endow an organization to promote libertarian theory and policies.” More than a few of us here at Niskanen worked at that organization for more than a few years. It is not without influence.
On the low-brow side, Rothbard was a guru to Ron Paul, the most successful libertarian evangelist of the past couple of decades. Rothbard actively promoted hitching libertarianism to populist white identity politics, which Ron Paul’s racist newsletters (probably written by Lew Rockwell, a Rothbard disciple) infamously did. Rothbard’s 1992 manifesto, “Right Wing Populism,” is a ringing endorsement of David Duke and Joe McCarthy, and a lucid description of a racist, anti-elitist political strategy nearly identical to the one that got Donald Trump into the White House. Rothbard, thanks to Paul and the Rockwell-founded Ludwig von Mises Institute, is largely responsible for the populist libertarian streak that ran through the Tea Party and now runs through the so-called “Alt-Right.”
Influence in the production and consumption of ideology
Suppose I’m right that fear of the Red Menace helps explain the Cold War-era emergence of a radical offshoot of classical liberalism committed to an absolutist theory of property rights. That doesn’t mean that people influenced by radical libertarian theories of property rights had pre-existing anti-democratic sentiments. Some did, some didn’t. For many consumers of libertarian ideas, voters and politicians among them, the ideas about property rights come first and the anti-democratic implications of those ideas sink in later. (That’s how it was for me, personally.) This is the sense in which I am arguing that property rights absolutism drives democracy skepticism, just as Somin says.
I’d like to make this as clear as I can. So consider the imaginary case of Ayn Rand and a fellow named Burt.
Rand was pretty open about the fact that she was looking for a radical anti-redistributive antidote to the Communist ideology that had been shoved down her throat as a student in the Soviet Union. And, as I’ve suggested, I think she was attracted to an absolutist theory of property rights because it fit the bill, and constrains democracy so much it practically vanishes. (This is not to say that Rand did not sincerely believe that the laissez faire minimal state is a logical implication of the law of non-contradiction. I think she got herself to believe it.) So she writes Atlas Shrugged.
Burt is a moderately politically engaged mechanical engineer with ordinary civics-class ideas about democracy, as well as a strong distaste for paying his taxes. (He wants to buy a boat.) One day Burt picks up Atlas Shrugged on the recommendation of a friend, likes it a lot, and spends a few weeks poking around libertarian precincts of the Internet, where he encounters a number of libertarian arguments, like Rand’s, that say that taxation violates a basic, morally inviolable right. Burt happens to find these arguments extremely convincing, especially if he’s been idly shopping for boats online. Moreover, these arguments strongly suggest to Burt that democracy is a dangerous institution by which parasitic slackers steal things from hyper-competent hard workers, like Burt.
Now, none of this leads Burt to think of himself as a “libertarian.” He thinks of himself as a Lutheran, a moderate Republican, and a very serious Whovian. He’s suspicious of “free trade.” He’s “tough on crime.” Burt would never disrespect “our troops” by opposing a war, and he thinks legalizing drugs is bananas. Make no mistake: Burt is not a libertarian. But selective, motivated exposure to a small handful of libertarian arguments has left Burt even more indignant about taxes, and a bit sour on democracy—an altogether new attitude that makes him feel naughtily iconoclastic and a wee bit brave. Over time, the details of these arguments have faded for Burt, but the sentiments around taxation, redistribution, and democracy have stuck.
Ayn Rand and the other libertarian thinkers Burt encountered in his brief flush of post-Atlas Shrugged enthusiasm wanted him to be indignant about redistribution and wanted him to be sour on democracy. He drew the inferences their arguments were designed to elicit. The fact that he’s positively hostile to other elements of the libertarian package can’t mean he hasn’t been influenced by libertarian ideas.
Let’s suppose that, a few years later, a voter-ID ballot initiative comes up in Burt’s state. The local news tells Burt that this will likely make it harder for Democrats to win by keeping poorer people without IDs away from the polls. Burt rightly surmises that these folks are likely to vote, if they can, to take even more of his money in taxes. A policy that would make it less likely for those people to cast a ballot sounds great to Burt. Then it occurs to him, with a mild pang of Christian guilt, that this is a pretty selfish attitude. But then Burt remembers those very convincing arguments about the wickedness of democratic redistribution, and it makes him feel better about supporting the voter-ID requirement. Besides, he gives at church. So he votes for the initiative come election day.
That’s influence. And it’s not trifling, if there are a lot of Burts. I think there are a lot of Burts. Even if the partisan desire to stick it to Democrats is doing most of the work in driving Burt’s policy preference, the bit of lightly-held libertarian property rights absolutism that got into Burt’s system can still be decisive. If it gives him moral permission to act on partisan or racial or pecuniary motives that he might otherwise suppress, the influence might not be so small.
Lots of folks are animated by distasteful first-order partisan, racial, and financial motives about which they have second-order misgivings. Cognitive dissonance sucks, so people actively hunt for considerations that help bring their conscience in line with their desires. Co-partisans talk to each other and tune into the same website and shows. When there’s an argument or line of thinking that helps, word gets around.
Of course, America’s principal source of straight-up hostility to basic democratic equality has always been white racial politics. Rothbard very clearly grasped how neatly radical libertarianism’s anti-redistributive, anti-democratic upshot meshes with the practical priorities of populist white-identity politics. Ron Paul’s dog-whistling populist libertarianism, intellectually reinforced by the Rothbardians at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, supplied many conservative white Americans, who were already hostile to democracy and redistribution on racial grounds, with a polite, principled way to publicly justify acting upon increasingly socially unacceptable racist sentiments. By offering cover for those sentiments, Rothbard’s Rand-inspired property rights absolutism has helped to keep them psychologically and politically alive. I don’t know whether it’s a coincidence that Rothbard’s right-wing populist platform describes Donald Trump’s presidential campaign with uncanny accuracy. But it’s certainly no coincidence that the influence of Rothbard’s racialized libertarianism helped set the table for Trump’s right-wing populist success.
I hope it’s clear enough that my view is not that the Republican Party is chock full of folks libertarians would recognize as ideological fellow travelers. The Republican Party is just full of Republicans. Most people are not in the least ideological. My view is that, thanks to the Cold War libertarian-conservative fusionist alliance, libertarian arguments became a part of the American right’s ideological milieu, conservative racial politics gave some of those arguments outsized traction, and a Chinese-menu approach to libertarianism became part of the “permission structure” on which Republican policy is built. Libertarian ideas about property rights and democracy vanish from the scene when they get in the way of things Republicans have decided they want to do. But they pop up constantly when there’s a proposal to cut taxes, or to cut transfers that disproportionately go to non-white people, or to make it hard for Democrats to vote.
Ayn Rand matters in Washington
Today’s GOP has many flaws. But hard-core opposition to redistribution motivated by property-rights absolutism is not among them. This is the party that has essentially given up on trying to cut federal spending, and elected a president who categorically opposes even modest cuts to Medicare and Social Security, the two biggest redistributive programs. On top of that, the Trump-era GOP increasingly embraces sweeping protectionism and harsh immigration restrictions, often defending them on the grounds that these forms of government intervention in the economy can help redistribute wealth to the party’s favored constituencies.
I haven’t said that anti-redistributive libertarian ideas are a dominant influence in Republican politics. But they really do animate the Tea Party/Freedom Caucus faction of the GOP, which does have considerable influence.
I’ve argued elsewhere that the anti-redistributive vehemence of the libertarian-ish wing of the party helps explain why unified Republican government can’t pass any major legislation. Republican voters are mainly white people on the older side among whom Medicare and Social Security are very popular. But the ideological free-market, small government types really do want huge tax cuts funded with massive benefits cuts. The benefits cuts they want may not be politically viable, but the GOP leadership keeps trying, despite the fact that it keeps getting stuffed, and is driving the entire party toward an electoral bloodbath.
And they’re going to get those tax cuts come hell or high water. Right now, it looks for the world the GOP is planning to run up the deficit so that budget rules that automatically reduce entitlement spending kick in. Neat trick! It’s a way to cut Medicare with tax cuts. If congressional Republicans don’t ultimately manage to pass huge tax cuts for rich people on the back of major reductions in entitlement spending, it’s not going to be because they didn’t try.
Now, the fact that Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, and Mitt Romney’s 2012 running mate, is an avowed Ayn Rand super-fan does not impress Somin, who notes that Ryan is not dead-set on completely eliminating the welfare state, and claims to “completely reject” the philosophy of the radical atheist. But, look:
Ryan has referenced Rand repeatedly over the course of her career, saying her writings got him into economics and policy. Ryan told the New Yorker recently that he has been reading Rand since high school; it was “Atlas Shrugged” that got him interested in economics. In March of 2003, Ryan told the Weekly Standard he was still a huge fan.
“I give out ‘Atlas Shrugged’ as Christmas presents, and I make all my interns read it,” he said. “Well… I try to make my interns read it.”
To state the obvious, you don’t hand out multiple copies of a book as a Christmas gift and make your interns read it if you “completely reject” its message.
Somin has set the bar for significant influence way too high. It goes without saying that the political influence of the Speaker of the House of Representatives is, well, large. The fact that Paul Ryan is a practical guy who works inside the system and needs religious folks in Wisconsin to vote for him is not a great reason to doubt that his favorite book has significantly shaped his worldview and political priorities.
And it’s not just that this one Randroid chanced into a position at the commanding heights of the the GOP. Take Mick Mulvaney, the head of Trump’s OMB:
Mulvaney was a star economics student in college—he earned an academic scholarship to law school—and during an interview he mentioned he still keeps Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged in his office.
Keeps it in his office! According to NPR, Mulvaney “has read Rand’s novels six or eight times each.”
Let’s not forget about Charles and David Koch, among the GOP’s most generous donors. They’re not Rothbardian purists, but the purist influence persists. Here’s an illustrative quote on tax reform from the Koch-controlled Freedom Partners, a powerful group of wealthy conservative donors:
… Washington has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to unrig the tax code and make it simpler, fairer, and more competitive with the rest of the world. That means eliminating as many carve outs as possible and lowering rates as low as they can go. We oppose any provision that stands in the way of lower rates … because it would undermine our competitiveness and jeopardize the jobs and economic growth we’d otherwise achieve. [emphasis added]
Freedom Partners doesn’t say that it opposes “any provision that stands in the way of lower rates” because taxation is theft. However, in my experience, the claim that every reduction in the tax rate increases the economic growth rate is usually “taxation is theft” in drag.
How about Senator Rand Paul, son of former Congressman Ron Paul, the Murray Rothbard disciple? The younger Paul isn’t quite so beholden to libertarian orthodoxy as his father. “I’m a Republican, you know?” Senator Paul has said. “When I describe it, I say ‘I’m libertarian- ish,’ which means I have some libertarian impulses.”
When Paul suggested to Rachel Maddow that parts of the Civil Rights Act violated the constitutional rights of segregationist business owners, that was a libertarian impulse. When he pushes for criminal justice reform (and heartily recommends Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow) that’s an another (much better!) libertarian impulse.
This week, Paul expressed yet another libertarian impulse by proposing an amendment to the Senate version of the tax bill that would end the ACA’s individual mandate to help fund larger middle-class tax cuts.
Today I am announcing my intention to amend the Senate tax bill to repeal the individual mandate and provide bigger tax cuts for middle income taxpayers.
The mandate repeal is a promise we all made and we should keep. It also allows an additional $300 billion+ in tax cuts.
— Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) November 14, 2017
According to the CBO, repeal of the mandate would lead to 13 million fewer Americans with health insurance over the next ten years. This makes total sense if you believe that individuals have a right not to be taxed, but don’t have a right to health care.
Congressional Republicans, so far, have embraced Senator Paul’s proposal.
Will Wilkinson is Vice President for Policy at the Niskanen Center