The rise of political extremes in America, both left and right, poses a particular challenge for those of us who prefer liberty over government control. It’s not only in the US; the same grows in the UK, Europe, Latin America, and Brazil. As the old managerial elite in all countries loses credibility and power, socialist and nationalist forms of statism are vying to take their place, while relegating liberalism to the political margins.
To survive and thrive, we will need to gain greater confidence in who
we are and what we believe about the social order, clarifying and
focusing on what liberty looks like and what precisely we are going for,
while avoiding partisan traps along the way. In particular, we need to
avoid being lumped in with movements – rightly or wrongly, by expedient
or intellectual error – that are contrary to our tradition and
In case you haven’t heard, for example, many academic and media
observers are on a hunt to discover the origin of the nationalist
resurgence, and particularly its most bizarre and violent segment of the
alt-right. To the horror of many dedicated intellectuals and activists
in the liberty space, some academics and journalists have tried to link
this movement backward in time to the libertarian political movement as
it developed over the last two decades, and, by extension, the rise of
the Trump-controlled Republican Party.
It should be obvious that, in theory and contrary to what the
socialist left has long claimed, there is no connection whatsoever
between what we call libertarianism and any species of rightist
ideology. One negates the other. As Leonard Read wrote in 1956, “Liberty
has no horizontal relationship to authoritarianism. Libertarianism’s
relationship to authoritarianism is vertical; it is up from the muck of
men enslaving man…”
And yet today, there does indeed appear, at least superficially, to
have been a social, institutional, and even intellectual connection, and
migration, between what is called the liberty movement and the
emergence of nationalism, right-wing identitarianism, and the politics
of authoritarianism. Some of the most prominent alt-right voices in the
2017 Charlottesville marches once identified as libertarians. This fact
has been widely covered. It’s a fair question to ask: did these
individuals ever really believe in a liberal worldview? Were they
trolling all along? Were they just deeply confused?
I’ve been interviewed many times on these questions. How did this
come to be? The answer is complex. It was more than six years ago that
my article “Against Libertarian Brutalism”
raised a conjecture: a libertarianism, rendered simply as nothing more
than a “leave me alone” outlook, with no larger aspiration for the good
life, and no interest in the subject of social cooperation, could find
itself divorced from a historical conception of what the advent of
liberty has meant to human life and society as a whole. Without that, we
fail to develop good instincts for interpreting the world around us. We
are even reduced to syllogistic slogans and memes which can be deeply
misleading and feed even illiberal bias.
And where does this bias end up? Where are the limits? I see them
daily online. In the name of fighting the left, many have turned in the
other direction to embrace an alternative form of identitarianism,
restrictions on trade and migration, curbs on essential civil liberties,
and even toyed with the freedom of the press and the rights of private
enterprise, all in the name of humiliating and eliminating the enemy.
Some go further to celebrate anything they believe the left hates,
including even odious causes from the authoritarian past.
The rhetoric at the extremes approaches nihilism. The press isn’t
really free so why not impose restrictions, censorship, and litigated
punishments? The borders aren’t private so why not prohibit all entry?
Some speech doesn’t support freedom so why permit it the rights that
freedom entails? Social media companies aren’t really private
enterprises, so why not force them to carry and promote some accounts
that I like? That large company has a government contract so why not
bust it up with antitrust?
The gradual evolution of language has unleashed all kinds of
confusion. Activists denounce “the establishment” without a clear
distinction between government and influential media voices. They will
decry “globalism” without bothering to distinguish the World Bank from
an importer of Chinese fireworks. They promote identitarianism and
racial collectivism without the slightest understanding of the illiberal
origins and uses of these ideologies in 20th-century history. After
all, they say, there is nothing “inherently un-libertarian” about
casting down an entire people, religion, gender, language, or race, so
long as you don’t directly use violence.
It takes a special kind of circuitous sophistry to justify, in the
name of liberty, collectivistic animus and state violence against
voluntary association. But the history of politics shows people are
capable of making huge mental leaps in service of ideological goals. All
it takes is small steps, little excuses, tweaks of principle here and
there, seemingly minor compromises, some element of confirmation bias,
and you are good to go, ready to make as much sense as the old communist
slogan that you have to break eggs to make omelets.
Here is an example of what I mean. I’ve heard many libertarians
postulate that public spaces ought to be managed in the same way private
spaces are. So, for example, if you can reasonably suppose that a
private country club can exclude people based on gender, race, and
religion – and they certainly have that correct – then it is not
unreasonable to suppose that towns, cities, or states, which would be
private in absence of government, should be permitted to do the same.
In fact, it has been claimed, the best kind of statesmen are those
who manage their realm the same way a CEO manages a corporation or the
head of a family runs a household.
What is wrong with this thinking? It is perhaps not obvious at first.
But consider where you end up if you keep pursuing this: there are no
more limits on the state at all. If a state can do anything that a
private home, a house of worship, a country club, or a shopping center
can do, any state can impose arbitrary rules, conditions of inclusion,
or codes of speech, dress, and belief, including every manner of mandate
and prohibition, the same as any private entity does. Such a position
essentially belittles 500 years of struggle to restrain the state with
general rules, from Magna Carta to the latest rollbacks in the war on
The whole idea of the liberal revolution is that states must stay
within strict bounds – punishing only transgressions against person and
property – while private entities must be given maximum liberality in
experimentation within rules. This distinction must remain if we are to
keep anything that has been known as freedom since the High Middle Ages.
Through long struggle, we managed to erect walls between the state and
society, and the struggle to keep that wall high never ends. The notion
that public actors should behave as if they are private owners is an
existential threat to everything that liberalism ever sought to achieve.
This is a case that illustrates how easy it is to get off course
through small intellectual confusions. As the old Scholastics said, you
get one point wrong, and follow it consistently enough, next thing you
know, an entire worldview unravels. Then you are vulnerable to every
manner of manipulation and even corruption, even to the point of
marching in parades for totalitarian causes.
This type of intellectual confusion is what enabled and encouraged
the migration from libertarianism to the alt-right. It was a failure to
see the big picture of what it is that human liberty is all about, and
this failure, fueled by anger, opened up many people to a dark world
they didn’t know or understand.
How can libertarians again find our center, enliven our mission, feel
great about what we do, avoid falling into partisan traps, and protect
ourselves from ever again being trolled by evil?
Here is my suggestion: we need a new aesthetic of liberty that helps
clarify the look and feel of the type of society in which we desire to
live. This new aesthetic should replace the barren and politically
malleable abstractions that have robbed libertarianism of its bigger and
larger vision and made people unable to see when a movement turns in an
We need to form in our minds a beautiful vision of the society and
world we want to inhabit, not in its detailed operation like the central
planners, and not as an end state like the socialist and natitionalist
utopians, but in its ever-evolving institutions that serve human
well-being above all else. We need to sense it, see it, get to know it
in our minds, love it and long for it, and help others see it too, just
as our greatest writers and intellectuals in the past have done.
This must begin with rethinking who we are in light of where we’ve
been in past ages and form ideological personalities that resist being
manipulated by the political actions and reactions around us.
A liberty aesthetic that can give us a firmer self-identity and build
public support for the great cause consists of five main parts.
First, we need a bright outlook on human progress.
The big picture is that before the age of liberalism, humanity
slogged around for some 150,000 years without hope, improvement in
living standards, or better or longer lives. Then freedom came. Hope was
born. In your own life, you could manage to create improvement. You
could live better. You could cause the world around you to adapt to new
conditions. You could improve the lives of others. To be volitional
meant something for the first time. You could travel. You could earn
money and buy things. You could invest, and hope for a better life for
your children. To have hope in this world, and not just the next, was
the great gift of liberalism to the world.
We cannot and should not give this up. Anger, bitterness, resentment,
and hate are just not good substitutes. On the contrary, they are
corrosive of the heart and soul. I’ve had many discussions with people
who are shaking off a statist phase. The number one thing they have told
me: “I was consumed and blinded by anger. It caused me to lose sight of
the beauty of liberty.” This leads me to believe that avoiding this
cast of mind could provide some immunization against illiberal thought.
Second, we need to stop believing that the enemy of our enemy is our friend.
Formal alliances between libertarians and others have been the source
of great mischief for decades. There is nothing wrong with cooperating
with people from many sides of the political spectrum for the good of
liberty. And there is not much point in regarding libertarians as some
kind of hermetically sealed group, protected from outside influence.
Formal alliances are another matter. These can tempt people to distort
priorities, bury principles, and embrace insidious ideas, all in the
interest of preserving the alliance.
This is a particular problem in the area of politics. You hate
candidate A and don’t particularly like candidate B. But your loathing
of A is so strong that you come to back, even passionately, candidate B.
Once having backed B, you continue to confirm your bias by cheering
everything he or she does following the election. This tendency can rot
the brain and debase one’s principles to the point that you no longer
remember what it is you actually believe.
Third, we should hope for more peace and less violence.
The liberal revolution began with an insight: the costs of religious
wars are too high. How about we just let everyone believe what they want
to believe providing he or she does not impinge on the rights of others
to do the same. And guess what? It worked. This set up a general
curiosity toward the uses of peace or violence. Next came freedom of the
press, freedom of association, freedom of trade, freedom of movement.
It was beautiful and amazing.
Reflecting on this history, F.A. Hayek sought to sum up the libertarian spirit as a preference for peace over violence, whether that violence is from private actors or the state. This is why libertarians have high regard for the commercial sector of life. So long as there are clean lines of ownership and the possibility of trade, people are in a position to get a bite to eat and put clothes on their backs without having to kill each other. This makes for a better society.
Note that this general preference for peace over violence is not put
into some algorithmic theorem that is set apart from real human
experience. Nor does it enable some ivory-tower theorist’s perfect
insight to solve every human problem. The manner in which the rule of
thumb applies needs to be tested according to the circumstances of time
and place, and the results judged by a market test.
Fourth, we should be wary of mass hysterias and populist agitation.
Liberty has been vexed as much by public frenzy – against the greedy
bankers, the weird religion, the foreign enemy – as by dictators. Much
of the time they work together to curb the liberties of the people, as
demagogues use mass movements (or insiders use ambitious leaders) to
obtain power. When you see mobs of people gathered and screaming, and
some leader behind a microphone yelling, and the anger reaches a fevered
pitch, you can have a sense that it is not liberalism at work here.
Ludwig von Mises in 1927 noted this at the end of his great work on
the free commonwealth. He said that liberalism can be recognized not by
flags, songs, marches, and uniforms but by its reasoning. We will win
the day because we have the arguments. I’ve put my faith in the belief
that he is right, and only add that Mises himself was never more
convincing than when he described in beautiful prose the glorious
achievements of freedom in the past and its marvelous potential for the
Fifth, we need a central theme that is beautiful and inspiring.
What is the central theme of the aesthetic of liberty? It is this:
emancipation. This has been our great contribution to humanity. It was
the libertarian idea that brought about emancipation from rule by
dynasty, from feudalism, from mercantilism, from theocracy, from
slavery, from institutional misogyny, from censorship, from war, from
all forms of state control.
And what are we working toward? What has been the point of all this
progress made toward liberty in the past? It is about the aspiration for
universal human dignity. That’s the theme and the test. Does what I
believe ennoble human life? Does it create conditions for greater
dignity and opportunity for all? Does it make life better for others and
myself? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves about
everything we believe and do in the name of liberty.
If we get this straight, prefer peace to violence, adhere to
principle, and rely on argument and not on noise to win the day, the
rest will take care of itself.
Why does it matter? People are being misled. They believe that the
alternative to the left is the right, or that the left is the
alternative to the right, forgetting that both paradigms emerged from
the same anti-liberal framework that opposes the greatest transformation
in the history of the human race.
Actually it’s worse than that: our generation is not entirely aware
of what they are buying when they rally uncritically (but
understandably) around anti-leftist causes without asking what these
causes are actually for. They rally around fashionable memes and follow
articulate leaders and, one day, find themselves carrying ethnostate
flags and screaming blood-thirsty slogans. Further, they come to imagine
that freedom can be achieved through statist means. It has never been
None of this has to be. What the world desperately needs is a new and
conscious movement that is devoted to a classical form of liberalism,
applied in the 21st century. This movement (however informal and focused
more on ideas than organizing) should be enlivened by ideals. It should
optimistically celebrate free enterprise, trade, and peace and
recognize that the magic of freedom is revealed most profoundly in its
capacity to create harmony out of diversity, strong cultural ties out of
spontaneous association, and prosperity from the creative actions of
individuals in an open-ended social order. A new liberalism needs to
recognize that liberty is about building a good society in which
everyone can thrive in peace.
Such a movement needs to detach itself from the war between right and
left, eschew the hatreds and revenge fantasies fueled by today’s
political struggles, and instead embrace a liberty aesthetic as a path
that transcends modern politics and offers pure light in an otherwise
The political frenzies of our time will pass from the scene, and leaving the question of what paradigm should form the new orthodoxy, a socio-political worldview that is built on integrity, peace, and the highest longings for the well-being of all people. Liberalism in the classical tradition needs to be there – intellectually robust, honest and truth-telling, animated by the highest ideals – to provide the alternative to left and right that we so desperately need.
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