Scrolling my timeline on Twitter, I find the Mises Institute has a new article out by Jeremy Powell: “Tyranny, Inc.: How “Beltway Libertarians” Failed to Convince Conservatives”. And I was about to post a reply on Twitter, but covering all the points involved was so long I figured: why not make it a blog post and place it here on my website?
The basic premise of the piece is that the ever-rising censorship and suppression of conservative points of view by big business has lit up a powder keg in the movement, and the prevailing analysis by “Beltway Libertarians” is that it’s all perfectly fine because the actors are private companies operating in a free market. Which as we all should know is not true; as is correctly pointed out in the article, what’s happening is entirely state-sponsored and state-driven, just, as in the fascist economic model, using business as a proxy rather than directly employing state violence. These are not private companies, and we do not live in a free market.
Nevertheless, as the article points out, the analytical error has given an opening for clerical fascist characters like Sohrab Ahmari to “debunk” the free market and call for sweeping government intervention in and management of the economy. How exactly this is supposed to work in conservatives’ favor when the bureaucracy is irredeemably anti-conservative Ahmari leaves as an exercise for the reader; much like progressives, the “national conservatives”‘ reflex is magical thinking when it comes to government. See a problem that’s not being fixed on its own? Well, then the government will fix it! How exactly will this be accomplished? Why exactly should we expect the government to succeed when other institutions have failed? Uh…you’re not supposed to think about that part!
Contra Tyranny Inc., sans “National Conservatism”
Anyway, Ahmari and company are arguing in bad faith. If the problem is corporate censorship of conservatives and their points of view, the simplest solution, and the most obvious to those who subscribe to a politically mainstream worldview, would be to just pass a law outlawing discrimination on the basis of political beliefs or political affiliation (in fact California has a law like that on the books right now), as well as retaliations (e.g. the denial of services) on the basis of legal behavior.
This would at a stroke make “debanking”, for example, into an offense against the law that could be prosecuted; the behavior could be suppressed using government power. This would be an intervention into the market according to the (fatally flawed) “Beltway Libertarian” analysis, but all told a rather minor one that would not significantly impede business in this country. Certainly a lot of interventions now that are accepted by mainstream conservatives (and even “Beltway Libertarians”) are much more invasive and costly than this would be.
Zooming out and applying the correct analysis, such an edict may well be an effective way to counter the censorship wave, which is being driven by government; criminalizing this behavior on the part of private corporations would serve to protect businesses from being interfered with or threatened by governments for rendering services to (who government bureaucrats and politicians deem to be) undesirables, so on net the level of freedom enjoyed by American businessmen would expand, rather than contract.
Of course outlawing such behavior on the part of government would be more effective still, and wouldn’t interfere with the right to do business as one chooses at all, so from a libertarian perspective it should be considered preferable. Really, from any perspective it should be preferable, since it strikes at the actual root of the problem rather than treating a mere symptom of it. One could, of course, do both, if one was not so principled about the free market and wished to solve conservatives’ problem as effectively as possible.
A much slicker approach, and one I have recommended, would be to use the government budget to encourage the adoption of free-and-open-source, decentralized, and peer-to-peer alternatives to institutions such as big tech companies, social media websites, and banks. Your access to an anonymous, encrypted, peer-to-peer network can’t be cut off on anyone’s say-so; it’s just technically infeasible. Notice that suppressing dissidents online relies on depriving said dissidents of platforms such as big tech websites and (where that doesn’t work) payment processors, all of which are centralized; replace those platforms’ functions with protocols, and dissidents can’t be touched.
Critically, this approach, once the servers with pre-loaded software have been distributed and (if you want to really tilt the scale) everyone has been bribed by the government to start using them, doesn’t depend on maintaining the Republican Party in power indefinitely. What if the laws you pass outlawing discrimination are repealed or changed? What if an unfriendly administration stacks the deck with prosecutors who won’t enforce the law, and the courts with judges who won’t return guilty verdicts to the offenders?
Then you’re screwed over, at least until the next election (assuming there even is a next election that’s not just rigged…). With the technological solution, on the other hand, a turn of the party in power results in conservatives’ enemies staring down a fait accompli; once the peer-to-peer technologies become the standard, which they could inside of one friendly presidential term, there’s nothing they can do.
Even if you have qualms about using government power to do that (really, it would be more like a reparation for what the state has already done, so in my view it would be licit, but leaving this aside…), it would probably be within the ken of conservative billionaires and assorted mega-donors to the Republican Party, its candidates, and various conservative and right-wing causes to pool their resources together and effect this. The conservative movement could do it all by themselves, if they set their minds to it.
Alas for conservatives, their movement is not very smart nor is it all that interested in actually winning anything; whining about being silenced is far more popular in Republican ranks than doing anything to ensure they won’t be silenced. Kinda sad when you think about it, at least for those few in the movement who are serious about taking action and getting real results.
I say all this to make it clear that Ahmari and company’s prescription, to junk the free market in toto in favor of some fascist economic model, is a completely wrongheaded response to a problem that can be solved with, at worst, minor adjustments to free-enterprise orthodoxy. Junking the free-market principle is not necessary here, at least not any more so than, say, the convention to ban CFCs or some such to solve the problem of the ozone hole, or bans on offshore drilling in states like Florida which even most Republicans in the area have always supported. Nobody ever said “oh, the free market is debunked because we shouldn’t have offshore drilling in this state; let’s go full-hog for central planning, baby!”.
Of course this is because the clerical fascism of the “national conservatives” and the “integralists” is a solution searching for a problem. They’re not arguing in favor of this doctrine in good faith, out of some sentiment that it’s a cruel but necessary corrective to a principle that’s failed them. No, they never had any free-market principles in the first place.
“Convincing Conservatives”: a Dead End?
And here’s where I think the whole premise of Jeremy Powell’s article is wrongheaded: it assumes that there ever was a chance to persuade conservatives to adopt not only a correct (i.e. Austrian) understanding of economics but also free-market principles. While I agree that the Beltway Libertarian think tanks have been far too compromising and have done a godawful job of converting people to the free-market and libertarian cause (aside from certain elite bureaucrat types, which has, believe it or not, been valuable in many ways), the truth is conservatives have never had much interest in adopting libertarian or even free-market principles. Nor could they have ever had much interest in it.
The reason is libertarian ideology is rooted in first principles, principles of liberty and equality, as well as the belief that a better future is both possible and worth fighting for. This is all antithetical to the conservative worldview, which rejects the very idea of principles, eschews both freedom and equality as the organizing principles of public life, and is implacably opposed to the notion that a dream of a better future, i.e. progress, can be realized. Libertarianism is liberal and left-wing to the core, in ways that will forever make it alien to the conservative and to the right-winger. Libertarian extraordinaire Murray Rothbard was well aware of this in his most able phase of political analysis.
The upshot? Libertarians will never persuade conservatives to adopt their point of view, short of the objects of persuasion ceasing to be conservatives altogether. Fundamentally it would be much more fruitful to try to persuade liberals and leftists to become libertarians; for them only relatively minor adjustments in worldview would be needed, so the task ought to be much easier.
Don’t let a Stopgap turn into a Zombie
Yes, in the real world there’s considerably more overlap between libertarians and conservatives than with liberals, but this is the product of them being forced together as an odd couple due to the rise of state socialism on the left wing during the 20th century, liberals being persuaded that government intervention (particularly in the economy) could be used as a means to deliver freedom, equality, and progress, concomitant with the left-wing alliance with organized labor threatening to overthrow the social hierarchy and status quo that was precious to the conservative and the right wing. The fact that the liberal movement sputtered out due to internal developments and became impoverished of radical vision over the course of the 19th century helped considerably as well; functionally they were already conservatives long before Red October.
But the times when state socialism for the working class was an unstoppable popular juggernaut are long over, as are the times when conservatives needed the rhetoric of free market principles to stop said juggernaut. The Cold War is long over; the threat of communist revolution or even New-Deal-style restructuring in the West over for longer still.
For the conservative, the free market was never a principle believed in in good faith; that’s why they’re all so compromising and in practice only ever invoked free-market capitalism when doing so will work to the benefit of those who already enjoy power and privilege in society. There’s a reason why conservatives have been so ineffective at actually delivering on the goals of shrinking government spending and slashing regulations when they’ve been in power, and it’s not because of a lack of ability, it’s because they just didn’t want to.
Meanwhile, liberalism was reborn from the ashes in the 20th century by the likes of Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard, the Founding Mothers recovering the dream of the Founding Fathers and spearheading a resurgence of vision even more radical than the original version from the 18th century. Fusionism is not long for this world. Even if a broad alliance of culture-war losers that includes conservatives still makes sense, it’s clear the center cannot hold; libertarianism and conservatism are threads which shall never truly meet, and those in the movement really should stop trying to make that happen.
Should we give up on reaching conservatives? Certainly not; if nothing else a clear-headed understanding of economics will help them make better policy than they would otherwise be inclined to, which works to both the movement’s and humanity’s benefit. But why restrict this productive dialogue to conservatives and the right wing?
It’s wrongheaded to conceive of libertarianism and the movement as some subset of conservatives who should stay in the bubble, restricted to the Republican Party’s orbit for any real chance of persuasion. The truth is there’s a big, wide, beautiful world beyond the bubble of conservatism, full of opportunity and possibility that’s been largely ignored by the libertarians.
It requires stepping out of what’s heretofore been our comfort zone, but isn’t that where organized libertarianism has spent the past 50 years, with crushingly disappointing results congress after congress, presidency after presidency, election cycle after election cycle? It’s long past time for the Libertarian to be bolder, more imaginative, and, yes, more to the Left. Let’s summon that pioneer spirit of adventure and see what we can build out there; the results may well surprise us…