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 philosophical longings.
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 drugs.
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 illiberal direction.
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 future.
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 so!
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 dark world.
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.