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Progressive Libertarians Against the Old Guard
CJay Engel comment 8 Comments access_time 14 min read

In this post, I’ll go back to something from my blogging roots: commenting on libertarian movement politics. It’s been too long.  By libertarian movement politics, I do not mean how the Libertarian Party (which is arguably worthless, in my opinion; and has been since the Rothbardian purge) relates to electoral politics in general, nor do I mean how the libertarian movement relates to the government.  I am talking about the inner divisions and associations within the greater movement that describes itself as adhering to libertarian political philosophy.

In recent years, one debate that has surfaced among libertarians is the so-called “thick vs. thin” debate, which almost immediately saw a great tendency toward redefinition of terms and a tragic occurrence of talking past one another.  Nevertheless, as I have stated before, the best way to think about this debate is that there is a division over the question: “what constitutes a libertarian?”  The “thinnists” answer by stating that a libertarian is any individual who assents to the principle that no person may initiate aggression against the person or property of another.  Everything else related to libertarian ideas, obviously with a certain amount of exposition and deep thinking, is derived and deduced from this.  The individual who thinks he agrees with the principle (for on its face, who would disagree with it?), but then includes a plethora of exceptions (especially to the State) is revealed to not be libertarian.  It is important to note that the categorization of a certain person as a libertarian relies on acceptance of the principle, but not the justification that is used to defend this principle.  In other words, to use a real-life example, both Ludwig von Mises and Murray Rothbard were libertarians even though Mises would agree with the principle on utilitarian (economic) grounds and Rothbard on natural law (ethical) grounds.

The “thickists,” on the other hand, argued that libertarian should be seen as more holistic (and interestingly, they aren’t too fond with the principle stated above as representative of the libertarian position –it sounds too rigid and dogmatic).  That is, it is their opinion that not only should the libertarian have a certain view of the nature of the initiation of force in society, but he should also hold to various other opinions, most of which are socially progressive; anti-bigoted, anti-homophobia, anti-sexist, and on and on. You are starting to get the picture.  If one is not Progressive enough in acceptance of what were once called “alternative lifestyles” (it seems that even this phrase is deemed inappropriate and hateful today), he cannot in any meaningful sense be called a libertarian.  Or at the very least, according to these Politically Correct Libertarians, one must admit that he holds to views that are “in spirit” contrary to the proper libertarian attitude.  What this means, then, is that conservative Christians, cultural traditionalists, and those hesitant and unsupportive about embracing those “lifestyles” and other “hip” activities (such as drug use) need to be purged from the libertarian movement.

One of the reasons that the thickists revolted against the “narrow” libertarian definition of the thinnists is that the thinnists have for decades highlighted the fact that there is a distinction between calling something immoral and seeking to criminalize it in society.  In fact, libertarianism since the great Traditionalist Conservative vs. libertarian debates in the 1960’s has stressed this distinction and emphasized that there is no necessity of the libertarian abandoning his more holistic cultural and moral preferences and standards (for anyone interested, please see Rothbard’s dissecting of Frank Meyer on the profound implications of thin libertarianism and its positive relationship with cultural conservatism).  Thus, while the thickists demand that libertarians adopt progressive social outlooks, the thinnists have firmly held that one’s moral principles and love for traditional Western cultural standards do not need to be placed on the altar on the way to libertarian acceptance.  What matters in regards to one’s libertarian credentials is adherence to the above principle, not his “attitude toward social trends.”  For trends are fleeting and moral standard is forever.

Now, there are certain libertarian outlets and institutions that can be identified as representing the various camps on all this.  In an effort to keep the history brief, it should mentioned that the Rothbardian School, which was the fusion of Misesian Austrian Economics and Natural Law (ethics based) political theory, grew at amazing pace in the 1970’s, especially at the close of the Nixon Presidency.  The United States population had become disillusioned with Federal level politics and the corruption (remember, today it is considered a conspiracy theory to suggest that both parties are drowning in corruption) that was blatantly apparent throughout both political parties was weighing heavy on an America that was struggling in the mid-70’s recession that followed Nixon’s separation of gold from the dollar.  Frustration with politics and the central government is a healthy aspect of a nation; for it is a sign of the realization that the State cannot solve civilization’s problems, grow an economy, or cause a nation to advance morally and socially.

Into this context came the Great Turn toward the old voices of the Austrian School and the anti-imperial politics of the long dead Old Right.  Seeing that the neglected voices of the anti-establishment libertarians were about to become suddenly reconsidered by an increasingly growing number of politically frustrated citizens, even if in desperation, the now infamous “Koch brothers” made an impressive investment in Murray Rothbard and created the Cato Institute, which was founded largely to be a hub for the Rothbardian/Misesian vision.  I have summarized that story here, but long story short, the Cato Institute itself soon became corrupted by compromisers and politically-well connected men who preferred “influencing policy” in Washington DC rather than working toward the development of ideas.  Among the most important policy issues on which the Cato folks sought to compromise with Washington were the very issues that defined Ron Paul’s legacy: the abrogation of the Federal Reserve and a staunch anti-war outlook on US military shenanigans. Rothbard was soon booted from the ranks and was forced out of the think tank that was established for his ideas.  Lew Rockwell, in turn, founded the Mises Institute and joined forced with Rothbard, much to the severe aggravation of the Cato-Koch faction of the libertarian world.

The split never healed and today the Cato Institute, which is perhaps the leading “beltway libertarian” institution, is considered “respectable” in policy circles whilst the Mises Institute remains, to use a mainstream smear word, on the “fringe.”  The Cato Institute has since joined forces with the descendants of Ayn Rand (Ayn Rand Institute member John A. Allison was placed as Cato’s President in 2012) and remains unsympathetic of Misesian economics and Austrian Political Economy, preferring instead the comfortable position as the mainstream-approved libertarian representative.  This is of course not to say that the Cato Institute never says anything good, but it should be clear that their libertarianism is not the Mises Institute’s.  And since Ron Paul long ago chose Misesian economics, rejected Ayn Randianism, and embraced Lew Rockwell/Murray Rothbard, he and Cato have been at odds with each other since the 90s. Hence why the mysterious general absence of Ron Paul from Cato-sponsored libertarian events and his very clear association of the Mises Institute.

In the final leg of our story, let me now consider the relationship between the Cato/Mises split with the thin/thick split.  The Kochtopus, as David Gordon calls the fascinatingly large group of think tanks and institutions funded with Koch-brother money, has been spreading its tentacles far and wide as the libertarian movement picks up speed as, once again, the American youth are dreary of establishment political parties and their century-long effort toward centralization and power.  The Respectable Libertarians are those who categorically reject the “principlism” of Ron Paul’s Rothbardian ways and are largely also those funded by the libertarian-entrepreneur Koch Brothers.  Besides the Cato Institute is the Koch-funded “grass roots” Students for Liberty (anything Koch-funded is almost by definition not grass roots) who last year took Ron Paul and his Institute to task for not holding to the respectable position on the Western-backed Ukraine-Russia kerfuffle.  As Justin Raimondo points out, the Students for Liberty group, has on the Ukraine issue toed the neocon line while the actual grassroots Young Americans for Liberty, which is funded by Ron Paul sources has refused to go full neocon.  As the libertarian movement is being corrupted from the inside by way of dropping the libertarian antiwar standard, there are other trends as well bubbling up from these same “Respectable Libertarian” institutions.

And here we arrive at the conclusion, in which I comment on the very event which inspired this whole article: the newly arrived and fresh off the press “Open Letter to Ron Paul,” which was written by Students for Liberty Campus Coordinator and C4SS (Center for a Stateless Society –a so-called “left-libertarian” group that has been on the leading edge of the social Progressivist, thickist effort) blogger Cory Massimino.  These “left-libertarians” have long sought to redefine libertarianism away from the Mises Institute and those most central to the Rothbardian libertarian vision, which include Lew Rockwell, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Tom Woods, Ron Paul, and, well, most of the faculty members at the Mises Institute.  This is the continuation of the Cato Respectable Libertarians vs. The Rothbardian School “radicals.”  Of this “open letter,” Tom Woods, while enjoying a break from his hard work on the Ron Paul Curriculum by taking a cruise, writes on his Facebook page:

I interrupt my cruise to note that the world will be a better place when the last pompous, holier-than-thou p.c. automaton in the libertarian movement has unbosomed the last “Open Letter to Ron Paul.”

Indeed, of all the tragedies in the world, Massimino’s main intent of this letter is to call out to Ron to abandon the libertarian legacy of those associated with the Mises Institute because of their so-called “bigoted” and “hateful” opinions on matters of cultural and, of course, race and sex.  Of the individuals called out by name, Massimino includes Rockwell, Hoppe, Walter Block, and Gary North.  Massimino wags his finger at Paul by writing:

We believe many of the people you have aligned yourself with and continue to align yourself with are libertarians only in name and their true ideology is one more akin to a bigoted and authoritarian paleo-conservatism. Your appearance at Mises Circle in Houston, Texas just a few weeks ago is a prime example of this.

Massimino leaves no room in his own thickist definition of libertarianism to allow for those who disagree with him on various extra-libertarian social and moral issues.  His quotation of Walter Block provides a very important example of what is going on here.  He writes:

If that wasn’t clear enough, Block has made his bigoted views explicit, “I am a cultural conservative. This means that I abhor homosexuality, bestiality, and sadomasochism, as well as pimping, prostituting, drugging, and other such degenerate behavior.”

The problem here is twofold: first, it assumes that Block cannot have these personal preferences and at the same time be a libertarian.  This assumes an understanding of libertarianism that has little to do with the libertarian vision of political philosophy as a theory of rights and breaches of rights.  Later on in the “letter,” Massimino writes that

Bigoted subtext has consistently been condoned by so-called “pro-liberty” individuals; a contradiction of the most offensive degree. Liberty cannot exist if individuals of any group are viewed as inferior, whether it is outright, or merely in the connotations of an argument.  Suppression means the absence of liberty….

This is a very distorted, and disturbing, view of libertarianism and liberty. It is an exchange of libertarianism as a political theory to libertarianism as a tendency of social acceptance.  It is, to be frank, a corruption of libertarianism that threatens to destroy libertarianism altogether. For if the message of libertarianism is that we must all become PC hysterics, then our war against statism is suddenly placed on the back burner as the new round of politically correct witch hunts that has in recent years been stirring by the Progressivist Mainstream Left becomes a “libertarian” issue.  Indeed, Massimino calls for a new round of libertarian purge as he declares in the very next sentence that “[h]ypocrisy to this extent cannot be permitted any longer in the libertarian movement.”

Translation: libertarian are open minded, except if you disagree with us on social issues that have historically had nothing to do with actual libertarianism.

The second problem with the quote above is the same problem with accusations of “racism” and “sexism” more generally; namely it redefines the meaning of the words so that anything that can be taken offensively by the Hyper-Sensitive is guilty of being “hateful” and bigoted.”  If you think that, for example, homosexual actions are wrong and against the natural order of things, it is not just that your opinion is disagreeable; rather, you are deems as a “hater” and a “bigot” and you ought to be purged from Respectable Society until you recant of these sins.

In one fell swoop, Massimino seeks to eradicate all the work of those like Murray Rothbard to explain to cultural conservatives why libertarianism is perfectly consistent with their values and social preferences.  By taking a handful of quotes by “those” Ron Paul “has aligned himself with” completely out of context, Massimino continues the war on those associated with the Mises Institute on the basis that their opinions are not Respectable.  The world is changing, he implicitly tells the readers, and those fond of paleo-libertarianism and who do not adhere to the politically correct mainstream consensus have no place in the Progressive Libertarian movement.

Indeed, he declares pontifically that

“Millennial” or “Second-wave” libertarianism is not going away and there seems to be irreconcilable differences between these new libertarians and the old guard, which includes figures such as Lew Rockwell, Hans Herman-Hoppe, Walter Block, Gary North, and yourself.

This, is the Progressive Libertarian war on the Old Guard.  We must be honest with ourselves. We must see this trend as reflective of the world in general. The new libertarian tendency sits in the context of society at large: those with traditional views on things, who are wary of the Progressivist takeover of culture, are not to be accepted in polite society. They are outcasts, not only in the libertarian world, but in the world at large.  Your religion, your views on morality, your standards of virtue have no place in Progressive Utopia. Flee or die.

Creator and Editor of Austro Libertarian. Lives in Northern CA, runs several businesses, spends time with his family, and reads as much economics and political theory as possible.