Being a libertarian in Washington D.C. can sometimes feel akin to being a Catholic in Cromwellian England—not the subject of an outright prohibition, but still not escaping a certain degree of suspicion and derision.
Mercifully, the city’s small network of free market organizations have created their own parallel social infrastructure of open houses, galas, and happy hours, where one can consume free booze and snacks, while railing against the state in the company of friendly fellow travelers.
It was at one such event that I struck up a conversation with a stranger about the proper role of the state. My interlocutor identified himself as an anarchist, a philosophy I don’t prescribe to but enjoy puzzling over. It was no sooner than I started a line on questioning on how an anarchist political order might sustain itself when the first positive reference to Pinochet was dropped. All we had to do to was told, was execute any communists, and liberty could be sustained for generations to come.
Surely that in of itself would be a violation of liberty I retorted—an ironclad component of a free society is the freedom of conscience, after all. To this, I was told that communists deserved no rights because they were engaged in a criminal conspiracy to deprive rights from others. No measure of violence should be spared in combating them.
I was too taken aback to really respond, but that was no matter, as this man kept speaking. The criminal conspiracy as it turns out did not stop at communists; it extended to almost every idea that did not accept that taxation is theft.
More moderate socialists were of course blacklisted, as were Democratic voters, and Protestants. So long as they were advocating or voting for statism, they were complicit in the crimes of the state and had to be proscribed, punished, imprisoned.
I was shocked by this line of wrapped logic that would see it as an advancement of liberty to put the vast majority of Americans in concentration camps. Still, I consoled myself with the idea that bizarre brand of fascist libertarianism was confined to this one individual, its intellectual incoherence too great to sustain its spreading to other minds.
Sadly, as I have come to learn over the past few months, the advocacy of authoritarian means to achieve libertarian ends has become an increasingly popular idea among some of the darker corners of the movement.
One recent example of this is a forthcoming book from Chase Rachel entitled White, Right, and Libertarian, the cover of which displays a helicopter emblazoned with an anarchist “A” with four bodies hanging from it—the symbols for feminism, Islam, communism, and left-anarchism superimposed on their faces. Conspicuously absent from the image is anything like a hanged Nazi.
That Rachel would use this image on his book is not particularly surprising, judging from the content he runs at the blog Radical Capitalist, which has published such hard-hitting think pieces as “For a Libertarian Alt-Right” and “There is Nothing Un-Libertarian About White Nationalism.”
What is shocking is the number of figures in the libertarian movement who were willing to endorse the ideas in Rachel’s book even if they have disavowed the cover and title. Hans Herman-Hoppe—a scholar respected in some libertarian circles—penned the forward for Rachel’s book, and the libertarian Mises Institute—where Hoppe serves a Distinguished Fellow—agreed to publish it.
Why would self-identified libertarians adopt such contradictory views? Or perhaps one should ask why adopt such views while still clinging to the label libertarian. More than a few of their equally genocidal brethren have been happy to shed the term in favor of alt-right. Why not them as well?
Part of the reason is no doubt marketing. Libertarianism, whatever the limits of its political or social utility, is at least not offensive to the cultural zeitgeist. Maintaining the name while ditching the values allows this motley collection of philosophers, bloggers, and social media page managers to peddle their particular brand of fascistic free-market ideology without running afoul of societies general distaste for political violence as a form of advocacy.
This explanation doesn’t really do much to explain why the likes of Hoppe, or even Chase—both intimately familiar with the philosophical roots of libertarianism—still carry the torch of liberty while advocating the most thuggish of means to bring it into existence.
No doubt disillusionment with the political and social fortunes of the retail politics branch of libertarianism provides another clue.
Radicalism is an inevitable consequence of rising political expectations meeting disappointing political outcomes, an arc that describes much of libertarianism trajectory over the past decade.
Toward the end of Obama Presidency, libertarians could claim with some facial credibility that the arc of history of on their side—with the failures of domestic and foreign government intervention widely accepted and acting as an almost self-evident argument for a broadly anti-establishment, non-interventionist, and pro-capitalist political movement.
Ron Paul’s ascension to the edges of mainstream acceptability during the 2012 Republican primary fueled this optimism while giving libertarians a sense of a wider, contiguous movement that had largely been absent in the past.
Even as Paul’s campaign fizzled, other libertarian voices were drawing on a number of social trends of increased individuality, customization, tolerance, and openness—in the marketplace and in our own value systems—that would over time produce a more libertarian politics and by extension a more libertarian world.
But this “libertarian moment” proved to be illusionary. Anti-establishment anger did not translate so readily into an articuble desire to smash the state as many libertarians had hoped. Meanwhile, whatever growing openness there was in society was quickly supplanted by hyper-politicization of social spaces and a consequent worsening of relations along all sorts of lines, from party, and geography, to race and gender.
Those who had formed their identity around being libertarian in this moment were ripe for disappointment and despair. Some legacy libertarians meanwhile found their cynicism about politics confirmed, and their willingness to play with far more radical and theoretically violent alternatives easier to justify and sell to a newly minted rank-and-file.
This is especially true of those who’ve developed a psychological need to place politics at the center of one’s life and identity, and by extension make politics the sum of a person’s worth.
This is evidenced by the fact that the those most willing to advocate totalitarian visions of violence against their opponents are not the “classical liberal” members of the libertarian movement, but the most radical and anarchistic. Chase is a self-described “radical capitalist” and his murderous chopper is emblazoned with an anarchist symbol. Hoppe has written at length about how the provision of justice could function outside the state. The numerous chopper meme sharing libertarians online are quick to adopt the yellow and black trappings of anarcho-capitalism, and even my interlocutor from the beginning of this piece stressed again and again that he was an anarchist in between his advocacy of murder and political mass incarceration.
When one’s vision is a total political transformation of society—in this case from statism to total anarchy—as a means of pursuing justice, then it becomes increasingly difficult to tolerate anyone in your utopia that might have different ideas of what that utopia might look like. Indeed, this is a particular problem for ideologues whose beliefs require the end of politics in one way or another.
One great example are Marxist regimes of the 20th century, where it was assumed that once the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie were exterminated and a sufficient portion of the working population was re-educated, the state would simply wither away and die.
Another stark parallel however is the Jacobins of revolutionary France—themselves liberals of a sort—and more specifically in the mind of Robespierre, a man who likewise preached a doctrine of liberty while serving as a prominent member of the modern world’s first totalitarian dictatorship.
It was Robespierre’s obsession with individual virtue as the only true guarantor of individual that led him to seemingly inescapable conclusion that matter of individual conscious are inherently political, and thus a legitimate subject of state action, even from a liberal state.
Said Robespierre in his infamous Report on the Principles of Public Morality speech, “that which is immoral is impolitic, that which is corrupting is counter-revolutionary. Weakness, vice, and prejudices are the road to royalty,” royalty being the ultimate evil for the arch-republican.
From this obsession with the personal character of individuals as the guarantor of the French Republic’s fate, and the Republic in turn being the guarantor of all that is moral and just, it an increasingly any step for Robespierre to justify any and all violent sanctions against those who failed his exacting standards for personal morality.
“Let the despot govern his brutalized subjects by terror; he is right to do this, as a despot,” said Robespierre, “the government of the revolution is the despotism of liberty against tyranny.”
Something very similar, I think is going on in the minds of libertarians eager to embrace the most brutal and sweeping forms of state violence. They similarly believe all problems will be solved, all oppressions abolished, all wrongs righted in the forthcoming anarcho-capitalist utopia. The only thing standing in our way from having such a paradise now, and from it being maintained far into the future is those who would advocate for, or even passively participate in, any alternative system.
But in addition to this being morally abhorrent and intellectually incoherent, the sort of libertarian authoritarianism advanced by Chase, Hoppe, and the morally repugnant, it is also just bad strategy. Unlike the collectivist ideologies like communism, fascism, or even Jacobin democracy, libertarianism has very little to offer in the way of a mass organizing principle. Political violence is just an extension of political activism, and libertarianism isn’t built to win at either of these things.
All three of these totalitarian ideologies, by their very nature, require a kind of frantic political energy to maintain and safeguard the totalitarian state they advocate from capture by opposing forces. Such a state is both essential and incredibly dangerous for the radical. Its powers, unchecked by either rooted tradition or liberal competition, become vulnerable to usurpation by banished opposition. The myriad decisions its tasked with making become an endless series of political games that must be won at all costs.
This creates a deep power insecurity for which they must apply enteral activism—structured around the ideological memes which justified the creation of the regime—to quiet opposition, lest the games be lost, the struggle abandoned.
It is no coincidence that revolutionaries are more often murdered by the government they install than the government they are trying to overthrow. Stalin’s purges sought to crush the power of the Communist party apparatus. Hitler’s Night of Long Knives targeted not leftist opponents, but fellow Nazi stormtroopers. The Reign of Terror fed far more rival republicans than recalcitrant royalists to the guillotine.
By adopting a view of their political opponents as threats by their very existence, and thus an existence that cannot be tolerated, “radical capitalists” like Rachel want to make libertarianism players in this totalitarian game. Yet it is a game that libertarianism is particularly ill-suited for.
A philosophy of live and let live has few enemies whose extermination it can justly call. The libertarian rejection of collective identity undercuts collective action, particularly violent collective action. This is one reason libertarianism does so poorly the admittedly far less bloody political game of mass democratic politics it’s currently engaged it. It doesn’t have the rents to distribute, the incessant enemies to be vanquished.
Why someone like Rachel would think that libertarians—performing so poorly in a political game of far lower stakes and violence—will succeed in the blood sport that is totalitarian politics is beyond me. It an exceedingly bad tactical idea that can only corrupt the ideas it would seek to implement.