At Smith College, academic Loretta Ross recently gave a talk on, “Connections Between Far Right, Religious Right, Economic Conservatives, Libertarians, and Traditional Bigotry.” Ross is just the latest example of writers and academics who mistakenly conflate libertarianism and the alt-right.
Recently, the Washington Post argued that libertarianism embraces the alt-right. Author John Ganz argued that the “intellectual wasteland” of libertarianism accepts everyone from professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos to white nationalist Richard Spencer, and since libertarianism primarily cares about self-interest, it offers an intellectual “safe space for fascists.”
Ganz gets a couple of things right: a small subset of libertarians did once develop a strategy designed to appeal to racists. Political philosopher Murray Rothbard and writer Lew Rockwell, two associates of former Congressman Ron Paul, cooked up this strategy in the ‘90s, resulting in the ghost-written Ron Paul newsletters.
What Ganz misses is that movements evolve. That’s not unique to libertarians: twenty years can change a lot about any political group. Ask modern Democrats how they feel about Bill Clinton’s 1996 presidential platform, which bemoaned that “Criminal immigrants, deported after committing crimes in America, returned the very next day to commit crimes again.” Or Hillary Clinton’s 1996 dog whistling, where she called black teenagers “superpredators” and championed a tough on crime bill to bring them “to heel.”
Paul’s old newsletters were undeniably racist, but the then-Congressman’s presidential campaigns attracted youth more liberal on issues like immigration, gay marriage, and foreign policy. The legions of libertarians Paul collected are often appalled to learn of their movement’s earlier flirtation with racism.
Modern libertarianism doesn’t welcome the proto-alt-right that Rothbard and Rockwell courted. The Libertarian Party promotes open borders. Libertarians have condemned the drug war, and its racist origins, for decades. The very first Libertarian Party platform in 1972 pushed to abolish the drug war. Post writer and libertarian Radley Balko reports on the structural racism of the United States criminal justice system.
Libertarians embrace free trade, and want the United States to stop bombing civilians across the world. In a column for the Foundation for Economic Education titled “Libertarianism Rejects Anti-Semitism,” economist Steven Horwitz argues that the essence of the ideology is cosmopolitanism––libertarians want goods, services, and people to cross borders and mingle freely. That’s hardly an alt-right manifesto.
Ganz also misses the core of the libertarian philosophy. The philosophy doesn’t “revolve [around] the abstract notion of self-interest.”
Libertarianism was best described by Matt Kibbe, former president of FreedomWorks, as “Don’t hurt people and don’t take their stuff.” Libertarians, unlike liberals and conservatives, extend this peaceful principle to governments. Libertarians oppose conscripting citizens into wars and forcing people into cages for non-violent activities like smoking plants. An ideology built around self-interest could find room for white nationalism, because bigots rarely think mingling with other races is in their self-interest. However, an ideology focused on non-violence has no room for white nationalists, who support using force to keep minorities down, and see a human’s worth as contingent on their nationality or ethnicity.
More tellingly, libertarians differ from the alt-right psychologically. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues, libertarians lack a strong “disgust” mechanism. In his book The Righteous Mind, Haidt argues that humans evolved the capacity for disgust in order to avoid eating poisonous food or interacting with infected animals. Nowadays, Haidt argues, disgust has morphed and is triggered by “outgroup members” such as immigrants. People with a stronger disgust reaction are less welcoming to outgroup members than people with a weaker disgust reaction.
Libertarians are unique in their almost complete lack of disgust. This helps explain why the Libertarian Party embraced gay rights in 1972, the same year the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee condemned, “draft dodgers, deserters, queers, (and) kooks.” Conversely, the alt-right’s focus is on excluding outgroups, from immigrants to minorities.
Alt-righters who remain in the liberty movement find that it changes them: Rare’s Jack Hunter transformed from a confederate-themed shock jock to a thoughtful, empathetic writer––he chalks this shift up to the Ron Paul Revolution. The more you hear about the virtues of immigration and multiculturalism, the less your racist or nationalist ideals hold up.
This isn’t to say there aren’t a few alt-righters who call themselves libertarians. Lew Rockwell is unfortunately still writing. But any ideology is going to attract a few people with abhorrent beliefs. Libertarianism has a long history of championing outgroup members whom both parties vilify, from sex workers to Chelsea Manning. The vision of liberty is one in which LGBT people, sex workers, and drug users are free to be themselves, and people across cultures mingle by trading and immigrating freely. Libertarianism isn’t a “safe space” for the alt-right, it’s the polar opposite.
Julian Adorney is a Young Voices Advocate. His work has been featured in numerous outlets, including Playboy, National Review, Fox News’ Nation, The Federalist, The Hill, and Lawrence Reed’s best-selling economics anthology Excuse Me, Professor.