Last week, at the Mises Institution, President Jeff Deist gave a speech on broadening libertarian appeal. He concluded the talk thus [emphasis added]:
In other words, blood and soil and God and nation still matter to people. Libertarians ignore this at the risk of irrelevance.
Many libertarians objected to the phrase “blood and soil,” because of its historical context and ties to Nazi Germany and fascism (for example, see this piece by Steve Horwitz). Others claim that the phrase is taken out of context and that it was referring to a Jeffery Tucker piece written earlier that month (personally, I find this explanation a bit problematic, but I won’t go into that here).
Also this summer, libertarians have taken aim at the book Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean, a highly erroneous account of the intellectual life of James Buchanan, founder of the Public Choice school of thought. MacLean’s thesis is straightforward: despite the value-free wording of Public Choice, James Buchanan and the Koch Brothers are working on a vast conspiracy to overthrow democracy and establish an oligarchy. Despite lots of footnotes, she provides no hard evidence for her claims (as noted by various reviewers and fact-checkers, the sources cited in the footnotes tend to either be incorrect, incomplete, or downright contradictory). And yet, she pushes on, undeterred and several on the left jump on board.
At first, I wondered how she could get away with this. But then, I realized libertarians, and in particular, the methods espoused by Jeff Deist, aren’t doing ourselves any favors.
A quick history lesson is necessary (for a more complete, and probably more accurate than my retelling here, account, see here): back in the 80’s and 90’s, there was a movement within libertarians, lead in particular by Murray Rothbard, Lew Rockwell, and Ron Paul, to recruit as many people to libertarianism as possible, particularly as a conservative-libertarian fusion and oppose the left, which was becoming more socialistic, on cultural grounds. Of course, this strategy appealed to many people who were of decidedly anti-democratic nature (white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, anti-foreigner, etc). Whether or not recruiting these specific people was the goal of the policy is irrelevant; it was the consequence. Many of these groups, which were now broadly calling themselves “libertarians,” were decidedly anti-democratic and decidedly racist and decidedly elitist and all the charges levied by MacLean against Buchanan.
One cannot fault MacLean for not knowing this history (although perhaps were she doing a better job on her book, she would have researched the matter). I, who have been in the libertarian movement for about a decade, am just learning much of this. But it does make her accusations, at least prima facie, more understandable. Buchanan’s work is used in a lot of libertarian economics (although to call him a major influence is a bit much), he got money from the Kochs (who are libertarians), Stormfront and alt-right leader Richard Spenser have called themselves “libertarians,” therefore Buchanan and the Kochs must share similar goals as Spenser and Stormfront and others.
Jeff Deist may think he’s doing libertarians a favor by trying to make libertarianism have a broad appeal. But, if you cast a wide net, you also risk dragging up rotten fish which can ruin the whole bunch. This is the wrong strategy for winning people over. Rather than admit libertarianism is weak, unable to face challenges of the day, and thus must turn to other areas and places (or, abandon our principles in the face of things like “immigration” and “feminism”), we must show that libertarianism and classical liberalism is still relevant. If we continue to cast a wide net and drag up rotten fish (unintentionally or not), then we will continue to stink.