On August 26, Jeffrey Tucker published an article highlighting what he perceives to be five important differences between the alt-right and libertarianism. Throughout the piece, he misunderstands various aspects of the alt-right, along with their connection to libertarianism. As such, let us examine Tucker’s article and what libertarians can learn from the alt-right.
We begin with Tucker’s introduction, in which he writes,
Let’s leave aside the question of whether we are talking about an emergent brown-shirted takeover of American political culture, or perhaps merely a few thousand sock-puppet social media accounts adept at mischievous trolling on Twitter.
Here, he both sets up a false dilemma and decides to ignore its resolution. The alt-right, as explained in an article that Tucker links to, is an umbrella term for everyone on the right who is opposed to establishment conservatism. This includes American nationalists, anti-egalitarians, fascists, men’s rights activists, monarchists, neo-Nazis, paleoconservatives, racial separatists, reactionaries, right-libertarians, and white identitarians. But many of these groups are at cross purposes with one another. The danger of such a broad term is twofold; that which describes everything really describes nothing, and this vacuum of imprecision may then be filled by anyone who wishes to denigrate everyone included within the broad brushstroke. Tucker spends the rest of his article doing the latter, as we will see. For the purpose of this article, I will focus on a (neo)reactionary, right-libertarian take on the alt-right that includes some aspects of men’s rights and anti-egalitarianism.
1. The Driving Force of History
The first difference Tucker notes is the theory of history that each movement has. His presentation of the libertarian view as one of liberty versus power, or market versus state, is essentially correct but lacking in detail. It is this detail that the alt-right can provide, but Tucker decries this as “long and dreary.” To the contrary, the “meta-struggle that concerns impersonal collectives of tribe, race, community, great men, and so on” describes the individual historical events that decide the victor between liberty and power, between market and state. To ignore this is to see a forest and have no concept of a tree.
While libertarianism does speak of individual choice and the alt-right does speak of collective action, these two are not mutually exclusive. The belief that libertarians must reject any concept of a group identity or a collective action just because they are individualists is the height of political autism. While a collective does not exist in the sense of having a particular form in physical reality, it is a useful mental abstraction and grammatical shorthand to describe many individuals acting in concert toward a common purpose. Contrary to Tucker, the alt-right does not claim that we “default in our thinking back to some more fundamental instinct about our identity as a people”; the claim is that while people have this instinct which is genetically hard-wired into us, some people embrace it while others reject it. Those who embrace this instinct have an advantage in forming a strong social unit, which is the basis of a strong society. To criticize this as racist is generally inaccurate, as there are many population groups within each race, some of which may be more different from one another than from a population group of a different race. Thedism, tribalism, or in-group preference would all be more accurate terms for this phenomenon.
The overarching theme here is that while an individual person has the ability to make minor course corrections to the general trend of a society, the arc of history is generally not subject to the whims of an ordinary person. This is because an ordinary person lacks the means to defend against nation-states or even large groups of opposing ordinary people, and many libertarians oppose the idea of them acquiring such means. Thus, something more powerful than an ordinary person is needed to “make a dent in history’s narrative,” as Tucker says. Where the alt-right goes wrong is to believe that this requires a Carlylian Great Man. Libertarians correctly recognize that a large number of ordinary people can make such a change directly, without acting through a Great Man or any other method of centralization.
2. Harmony vs. Conflict
The second difference Tucker discusses is the view of harmony versus conflict. He compares Frédéric Bastiat’s view of a “harmony of interests” with the alt-right view of societal conflict. What Tucker fails to realize is that these views are not mutually exclusive. People find value in each other and divide labor among one another in order to build a society, and this works best in the absence of central planning. Tucker correctly says that libertarians believe in a “brotherhood of man,” but then fails to understand that the alt-right does as well to some extent. The männerbund (league of men) is a central element of neoreactionary thought, being the organ that defends a society from external threats, maintains the traditions of the society, and enforces social norms within the society. The decay of this organ due to various aspects of modernity (which are frequently misidentified as capitalism rather than communo-fascism) is lamented by the alt-right as a contributing factor to much of the moral degeneracy currently present in the West.
Voluntary cooperation and free markets are wonderful and liberating, but some people do not want us to be liberated, preferring instead to violently victimize the innocent and exist parasitically upon productive members of a society. Those people must be physically repelled and removed, and someone must do the repelling and removing. This deterrent must exist in order to keep the state eliminated as well as repel common criminals and foreign invaders. The subset of libertarians who think that we will all peacefully evolve into a utopia where no one initiates the use of force suffer from incredible naïveté concerning matters of violence as well as an ignorance of history. The history of mankind has been one of deep-rooted conflict, based on whatever happens to be convenient at the moment.
Tucker closes this section by noting a parallel in Marxist ideology about a conflict between labor and capital. He quotes Ludwig von Mises, who wrote, “Nationalist ideology divides society vertically; the socialist ideology divides society horizontally.” This is true but incomplete, as it puts the cart before the horse in terms of how human interaction actually occurs. Society is already divided horizontally and vertically by the inherent biases and prejudices that people have. Nationalism and socialism simply give people an intellectual basis to explain and amplify what they already believe.
3. Designed vs. Spontaneous Order
Third, Tucker looks at the nature of social order. Tucker describes the libertarian position thusly:
The libertarian believes that the best and most wonderful social outcomes are not those planned, structured, and anticipated, but rather the opposite. Society is the result of millions and billions of small acts of rational self-interest that are channeled into an undesigned, unplanned, and unanticipated order that cannot be conceived by a single mind. The knowledge that is required to put together a functioning social order is conveyed through institutions: prices, manners, mores, habits, and traditions that no one can consciously will into existence. There must be a process in place, and stable rules governing that process, that permit such institutions to evolve, always in deference to the immutable laws of economics.
This is an accurate description of the libertarian position, as well as how society should operate. The alt-right mind, on the other hand, has a better understanding of how the current system operates, and this is an understanding that libertarians must have. After all, one cannot get from point A to point B without knowing about point A. Statist societies are built through central planning, by “the will of great thinkers and great leaders with unconstrained visions of what can be,” as Tucker writes. However, what we see is not necessarily the result of someone’s intentional and conscious planning from the top down, as there are unintended consequences and bootlegger motivations that must be accounted for.
What Tucker alleges to be an obsession with conspiracy theories by the alt-right is actually something else; a realization that some consequences that people routinely claim to be unintended should not be assumed to be such. When there is an ample body of history and economics to suggest that a particular result will follow from a particular policy, it is reasonable to assume that someone wanted that outcome, or at least should have expected it. But Tucker does understand the desire to seize the controls, if only by accident. Some libertarians have proposed that the controls must be destroyed, this author included. But since there appears to be almost no popular support for this idea, we are left with a situation in which someone will use those controls, and far better that it is libertarians than anyone else. It could be the case that like the One Ring, someone must hold state power in order to eliminate it. We cannot use state power to create a stateless society, but we can set one enemy of liberty against other enemies of liberty in the hopes that they weaken or destroy each other, after which we can mop up what remains of them.
Finally, Tucker correctly criticizes Carlyle about economics, but then fails to provide the correct answer. Economics is not “the dismal science” for not being dismal, but for not being science. Economics, properly understood, is an a priori, rational discipline like logic and mathematics.
4. Trade and Migration
Tucker’s fourth point concerns trade and migration. He is correct to laud the positive changes that have occurred since the Middle Ages with respect to human rights, economic mobility, and free association. He is also correct to view protectionism as a tax on consumers and an unnecessary source of international conflict. But again, Tucker fails to appreciate the context of the situation. We do not live in a world in which tearing down our barriers makes everyone better off. The reality is that doing this would only impoverish and endanger the domestic population while empowering foreign governments and external organized crime. If we open our borders, they will be magnetic to those who would come here to take handouts from the state at our expense. And once those people are here, we will not only be forced to associate with them, but any opposition to them or the government programs that bring them here will be condemned as racist. Since a libertarian solution is not on the table and no one seems to be willing to do what would be necessary to put it on the table, we are left with a choice between forced integration and forced segregation. The latter is both less threatening to the liberty of the domestic population and easier to evade through illegal means.
Tucker also misunderstands the alt-right view of this issue. A community must be strong enough to thrive as an independent unit not because international trade is “inherently bad or fraudulent or regrettable in some sense,” but because entrusting the survival of one’s community to outsiders is a precarious position. Trade is generally good to engage in, but not to depend upon to such an extent as to lose the ability to provide for one’s own basic needs. The potential danger comes when trade causes a society to evolve too fast, which can bring destruction as delicately balanced social structures are swiftly toppled without a clear replacement ready to prevent chaos.
The reasons that migration is seen as a profound threat to the identity of a community are that assimilation occurs slowly (if at all), and the resulting multiculturalism weakens the männerbund of a society, which compromises the security and values of the society. A massive influx of migrants into a community will cause the culture of that community to change in their direction. It is amazing that so many libertarians fail to understand this, given that the Free State Project has this very objective for the state of New Hampshire. But the FSP is an exception to the rule; generally, migrants come from societies whose cultures do not value libertarian principles, which will weaken the culture of liberty.
5. Emancipation and Progress
Tucker’s final point is about human progress. He writes,
Slavery was ended. Women were emancipated, as marriage evolved from conquest and dominance into a free relationship of partnership and consent. This is all a wonderful thing, because rights are universal, which is to say, they rightly belong to everyone equally.
This much is true, but then he continues,
Anything that interferes with people’s choices holds them back and hobbles the progress of prosperity, peace, and human flourishing. This perspective necessarily makes the libertarian optimistic about humanity’s potential.
This is not always true. For example, laws against trespassing interfere with people’s choices to go wherever they choose. Laws against theft interfere with people’s choices to take whatever they choose from whomever they choose. Laws against rape interfere with people’s choices to have sex with whomever they choose. Need we go on? People’s choices must be tempered against the rights of other people as well as the social norms of the community in which they find themselves. To be fair, Tucker would be unlikely to dispute this, but avoiding poor wording prevents many problems.
The alt-right view is not that the libertarian view is incorrect, but that it is incomplete and devoid of context. Without the state, an overall increase in liberty would have occurred by freeing slaves and emancipating women, not that slavery or treating women as property could have been maintained in its absence for as long as they were in its presence. But with the state in place, empowering women and former slaves has not resulted in an overall increase in liberty, but in a struggle between races and genders. The result of that struggle thus far has been a decrease in liberty for men and for white people, as it is at their expense that women and the descendants of slaves have made many unjust gains. The corrupting and perverse incentives inherent in democracy only make this worse, as expanding suffrage to include more people has allowed them to use the state to attack elite men. The end result has been the expansion of a political view once found only in brothels to ensnare the society as a whole. This is why, as Tucker writes, “What appears to be progress is actually loss: loss of culture, identity, and mission,” at least for white males. The proper libertarian answer is not to expand suffrage to everyone, but to abolish it for everyone. It is for this reason that a libertarian with alt-right sympathies can “look back to what they imagine to be a golden age when elites ruled and peons obeyed” and “long for authoritarian political rule.” Traditional monarchies were far from perfect by libertarian standards, but the shift to hyper-inclusive mass democracy failed to solve the problems of traditional monarchy while introducing new problems of its own. The authoritarian political rule of a king or dictator more closely resembles that of a private property owner than the popular rule of the masses in a democracy, at least in terms of the incentives that apply to the participants. If a decentralized violent revolution to end the state is not forthcoming, and technological advances that push back against centralization are insufficient, then an intermediate step against the leftist Leviathan in the form of a right-wing dictator is the remaining option, risky though it is.
Contrary to the view of left-libertarians, libertarianism does not expressly forbid authoritarianism, but rather confines it within the boundaries of private property. The critics of libertarianism who say that we wish to replace the tyranny of the state with the tyranny of the private property owner are correct, in that libertarianism allows a private property owner, in terms Tucker uses elsewhere, “to assert their individual preferences, to form homogeneous tribes, to work out their biases in action, to ostracize people based on politically incorrect standards, to hate to their heart’s content so long as no violence is used as a means, to shout down people based on their demographics or political opinions, to be openly racist and sexist, to exclude and isolate and be generally malcontented with modernity, and to reject civil standards of values and etiquette in favor of anti-social norms.” This should be welcomed, as a society in which private property owners may freely express their preferences and prejudices is far more likely to confront and successfully deal with bigotry than a society in which the state either promotes or prohibits bigotry across its entire territory.
While libertarianism has an a priori true position on universal rights in theory, the alt-right once again excels in describing how the world actually works at present. That “rights are granted by political communities and are completely contingent on culture” and “some were born to serve and some to rule” is true in current practice, and the latter would be the natural result of the sort of Darwinian meritocracy that is the logical conclusion of libertarian theory. One has many sorts of rights in theory; property rights, freedom of association, freedom of communication, and so on. But if one cannot make use of them and defend them against those who would violate them, they are meaningless in the real world. And unless a person has a reliable means of self-defense against an entire community while being able to survive without said community, that person’s expression of rights are granted by political communities and are completely contingent on culture.
The alt-right knows who its enemies are, and while some libertarians are among them, others are not. The alt-right generally shows hostility only to left-libertarians, social justice warriors, moral degenerates, and other such subsets of the libertarian community. Many other libertarians are able to have peaceful, honest, and productive conversations with members of the alt-right, with some even identifying as both libertarian and alt-right with no apparent contradictions. Even so, one can make temporary common cause with a lesser enemy (unsavory elements of the alt-right) in order to defeat a greater enemy (the democratic state).
Tucker finishes by commenting on the common opposition to democracy among libertarians and the alt-right. He writes,
This was not always the case. In the 19th century, the classical liberals generally had a favorable view of democracy, believing it to be the political analogy to choice in the marketplace. But here they imagined states that were local, rules that were fixed and clear, and democracy as a check on power. As states became huge, as power became total, and as rules became subject to pressure-group politics, libertarianism’s attitude toward democracy shifted.
In contrast, the alt-right’s opposition to democracy traces to its loathing of the masses generally and its overarching suspicion of anything that smacks of equality. In other words, they tend to hate democracy for all the wrong reasons. This similarity is historically contingent and largely superficial given the vast differences that separate the two worldviews. Does society contain within itself the capacity for self management or not? That is the question.
These views are not mutually exclusive. One can loathe people, conclude that a state will not solve anything because it is composed of people, and therefore support abolition of the state in favor of an anarcho-capitalist society because it is the best that we can do. Furthermore, the 19th century classical liberals should have known better. As Hans-Hermann Hoppe explains,
Free entry is not always good. Free entry and competition in the production of goods is good, but free competition in the production of bads is not. Free entry into the business of torturing and killing innocents, or free competition in counterfeiting or swindling, for instance, is not good; it is worse than bad. So what sort of “business” is government? Answer: it is not a customary producer of goods sold to voluntary consumers. Rather, it is a “business” engaged in theft and expropriation — by means of taxes and counterfeiting — and the fencing of stolen goods. Hence, free entry into government does not improve something good. Indeed, it makes matters worse than bad, i.e., it improves evil.
What Libertarians Can Learn
With Tucker’s piece examined, let us conclude by considering some lessons that libertarians should learn (or re-learn, in some cases) from the alt-right. First, the alt-right has a better understanding of how to get media attention. The alt-right is most famous for using the Internet to troll and create memes to attack those whom they oppose. This gets them media attention to a degree that many libertarians only dream of, and libertarians can learn their skills in order to create better memes as well as troll enemies of liberty.
Second, the alt-right has found a way to deal with the nearly constant accusations of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. that spew from the left. They either ignore, dismiss, or embrace such accusations. To the surprise of many on the left, though it should surprise no one, this technique is effective. Throwing labels at one’s political opponents in response to their reasoned arguments is not a counter-argument; if anything, it is an admission of defeat and ignorance, as a person who is capable of making counter-arguments has no need for name-calling. Libertarians would do well to respond to such accusations in this way rather than accusing leftists of being the real bigots or backing down for fear of being accused of bigotry. As for embracing the accusations, it is better to have bigots within libertarianism than outside of it, for if bigots truly become libertarians, then they must start adhering to the non-aggression principle. This means that they would have to stop initiating the use of force in pursuit of their bigotry, as well as stop asking the state to do so on their behalf. The presence of openly bigoted people also has the welcome side effect of driving out social justice warrior entryists.
Third, the alt-right is better at avoiding political autism. Political autism is the manifestation of symptoms similar to those which are present in high-functioning autistic people, such as using reason and evidence exclusively while being unable to process that a listener is operating emotionally rather than rationally, an inability to identify or think about groups or shared interests, preoccupation with particular topics to an unusual extent, focusing on details while missing the big picture, and repetitive use of set phrases. It is important to learn to identify when one is engaging in such behaviors so that one may correct oneself and avoid incorrect conclusions. This is not a new problem; Rothbard identified an example of political autism at work without naming it in a 1967 essay called War Guilt in the Middle East. Rothbard writes,
The libertarian, in particular, knows that states, without exception, aggress against their citizens, and knows also that in all wars each state aggresses against innocent civilians “belonging” to the other state.
Now this kind of insight into the root cause of war and aggression, and into the nature of the state itself, is all well and good, and vitally necessary for insight into the world condition. But the trouble is that the libertarian tends to stop there, and evading the responsibility of knowing what is going on in any specific war or international conflict, he tends to leap unjustifiably to the conclusion that, in any war, all states are equally guilty, and then to go about his business without giving the matter a second thought. In short, the libertarian (and the Marxist, and the world-government partisan) tends to dig himself into a comfortable “Third Camp” position, putting equal blame on all sides to any conflict, and letting it go at that. This is a comfortable position to take because it doesn’t really alienate the partisans of either side. Both sides in any war will write this man off as a hopelessly “idealistic” and out-of-it sectarian, a man who is even rather lovable because he simply parrots his “pure” position without informing himself or taking sides on whatever war is raging in the world. In short, both sides will tolerate the sectarian precisely because he is irrelevant, and because his irrelevancy guarantees that he makes no impact on the course of events or on public opinion about these events.
No: Libertarians must come to realize that parroting ultimate principles is not enough for coping with the real world. Just because all sides share in the ultimate state-guilt does not mean that all sides are equally guilty. On the contrary, in virtually every war, one side is far more guilty than the other, and on one side must be pinned the basic responsibility for aggression, for a drive for conquest, etc. But in order to find out which side to any war is the more guilty, we have to inform ourselves in depth about the history of that conflict, and that takes time and thought – and it also takes the ultimate willingness to become relevant by taking sides through pinning a greater degree of guilt on one side or the other.
Fourth, the alt-right understands role of society in judging individual behavior and opposing degeneracy. Many libertarians believe that private actors should not be criticized because they have the freedom to do as they wish with their bodies and resources. While this is true in the sense that no one has the right to initiate the use of force to stop them, this does not mean that libertarians cannot condemn hedonistic behavior that is capable of collapsing a society if it becomes sufficiently prominent. It could even be said that there is a tragedy of the commons at work, in that everyone pursuing their own carnal pleasures without regard for the well-being of others results in less liberty and prosperity for everyone. Libertarians must learn to use non-violent means, such as shaming, ridicule, and ostracism, to peacefully promote beneficial social norms if the goal of a functional stateless society is to be created and maintained.
Fifth, the alt-right recognizes that blank-slate egalitarianism is false. This is because individuals vary in ability and populations groups adapt to their environments. These adaptations can give members of a particular population group an advantage in a particular activity. While these adaptations can be noticed in people who move to another place and live as the locals do, the extent of the adaptations which are present in a population group that has inhabited a place for many generations cannot be replicated in one human lifetime. The result is that there are both individual and demographic disparities in intelligence and athleticism, which cause disparities in socioeconomic outcomes. While these differences are not large enough at present to categorize humans into different species or subspecies, libertarians would do well to learn about gender dimorphism and human biodiversity, as their implications will alter the strategy for reaching a functional stateless society.
In Tucker’s foray into the alt-right, he seems to deliberately look for the worst that anyone in the movement has to offer while ignoring the positive lessons which may be learned. As a result, he sees what he wants to see; a separate and distinct movement from libertarianism with no legitimate overlap, an enemy to be fought rather than a potential ally. But as shown above, this is a thoroughly misguided approach. There is much common cause to be made with the alt-right and much to be learned from them, especially in defeating our common enemies.