August 30, 2011
Having denounced liberals as crypto-communists for half a century during the Cold War, the American right now routinely accuses the center-left of being fascist. This libel was given currency in Jonah Goldberg's 2009 book "Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning." From the support of a few progressives a century ago for eugenics, and expressions of admiration by a few 1920s liberals for Mussolini’s ability to make the trains run on time, Goldberg and others on the right have crafted the latest in a series of right-wing conspiracy theories about American history, this one claiming that Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt deliberately set the U.S. on the road to an American version of Mussolini’s corporate state.
Given their professed interest in admirers of Mussolini, it is curious that American conservatives and libertarians have not seen fit to discuss the view of fascism held by one of the heroes of modern American libertarianism, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. In his book " Liberalism ," published in 1927 after Mussolini had seized power in Italy, Mises wrote:
One of the members of Pinochet’s cabinet, Jose Piñera, has enjoyed a second career at the leading American libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute, and is credited with having influenced George W. Bush’s failed attempt to partly privatize Social Security in America. The Cato website says :
The Cato Institute’s problem with democracy is not limited to its appointment of a former functionary of a mass murderer to direct its retirement policy program. Cato Unbound recently hosted a debate over whether libertarianism is compatible with democracy. Milton Friedman’s grandson Patri concluded that it is not :
In a similar spirit, a libertarian economics blogger named Arnold Kling has proposed his own alternative to democracy , which he calls "competitive government":
The posthumous induction of Jefferson Davis into the libertarian hall of fame was too much for David Boaz, a vice president of Cato. In a 2010 essay in Reason magazine titled "Up From Slavery: There’s No Such Thing as a Golden Age of Lost Liberty," Boaz observed that even whites in the antebellum North "did not actually live in a free society ... Liberalism seeks not just to liberate this or that person, but to create a rule of law exemplifying equal freedom. By that standard, even the plantation owners did not live in a free society, nor even did people in the free states."
Boaz asked his fellow libertarians, "If you had to choose, would you rather live in a country with a department of labor and even an income tax or a Dred Scott decision and a Fugitive Slave Act?" It says something that in 2009 this question stirred up a controversy on the libertarian right.
Libertarians and conservatives, to be sure, can point to many examples of naive liberals in the last century who embarrassed themselves by praising this or that squalid, tyrannical communist regime, from the Soviet Union and communist China to petty police states like North Korea, communist Vietnam and Castro’s Cuba. But the apologists for tyranny on the left were always opposed by anti-communist liberals and anti-communist democratic socialists. Where were the anti-authoritarian libertarians, denouncing libertarian fellow travelers of Pinochet like von Hayek and Milton Friedman?
For that matter, where was the libertarian right during the great struggles for individual liberty in America in the last half-century? The libertarian movement has been conspicuously absent from the campaigns for civil rights for nonwhites, women, gays and lesbians. Most, if not all, libertarians support sexual and reproductive freedom (though Rand Paul has expressed doubts about federal civil rights legislation). But civil libertarian activists are found overwhelmingly on the left. Their right-wing brethren have been concerned with issues more important than civil rights, voting rights, abuses by police and the military, and the subordination of politics to religion -- issues like the campaign to expand human freedom by turning highways over to toll-extracting private corporations and the crusade to funnel money from Social Security to Wall Street brokerage firms.
While progressives betray their principles when they apologize for autocracy, libertarians do not. Today’s libertarians claim to be the heirs of the classical liberals of the 19th century. Without exception the great thinkers of classical liberalism, like Benjamin Constant, Thomas Babington Macaulay and John Stuart Mill, viewed universal suffrage democracy as a threat to property rights and capitalism. Mill favored educational qualifications for voters, like the "literacy tests" used to disfranchise most blacks and many whites in the South before the 1960s. After the Civil War, Lord Acton wrote to Robert E. Lee, commiserating with him on the defeat of the Confederacy.
In a letter to an American in 1857, Macaulay wrote:
The history of democratic nation-states since the 19th century proves that Macaulay, and von Mises, and Hayek, as well as lesser lights like Patri Friedman, have been right to argue that democracy is incompatible with libertarianism. Every modern, advanced democracy, including the United States, devotes between a third and half of its GDP to government, in both direct spending on public services like defense and transfer payments. Given the power to vote, most populations will not only vote for some system of government-backed social insurance, but also for all sorts of interventions in individual behavior that libertarians object to, from laws banning nudity in public to laws mandating that people support their children, do not torture or neglect their pets and water their lawns during droughts according to scheduled rationing.
Unfortunately for libertarians who, like Hayek, prefer libertarian dictatorships to welfare-state democracies, even modern authoritarians reject the small-government creed. The most successful authoritarian capitalist regimes, such as today’s China and South Korea and Taiwan before their recent transitions to democracy, have been highly interventionist in economics, promoting economic growth by means of state-controlled banking, state-owned enterprises, government promotion of cartels, suppression of wages and consumption, tariffs and nontariff barriers to imports, toleration of intellectual piracy, massive infrastructure projects to help industry, and subsidies to manufacturers in the form of artificially cheap raw materials, energy and land.
The dread of democracy by libertarians and classical liberals is justified. Libertarianism really is incompatible with democracy. Most libertarians have made it clear which of the two they prefer. The only question that remains to be settled is why anyone should pay attention to libertarians.
- Michael Lind is Policy Director of the Economic Growth Program at the New America Foundation and is the author of " The Next American Nation: The New Nationalism and the Fourth American Revolution ." More: Michael Lind