Friday, September 04, 2020

A Question on Libertarian History

I am working on another chapter of my current book, one that starts with the letter I wrote Edith Efron back in 1978, responding to an article of hers in Reason. Her article is webbed and I have now reread it, forty some years later. One thing that struck me again was this passage:

I suspect that a critical turning point in the evolution of this movement occurred when the proponents of a constitional republic, who by definition advocate a nation-state, agreed to suspend their endless quarrel with the anarchists, on the grounds that one should not split the forces of a small pro-liberty movement. After all, the argument went, one could wait a few hundred years to debate the issue of whether the government should be merely microscopic, or downright non-existent. All, presumably, could agree on the necessity to diminish its powers. It sounded like a plausible agreement. But it wasn't. For the constitutional republicans it was a very serious error. Already traumatized by the Objectivist debacle, which had severely undercut their self-confidence, they actually had agreed to abandon a series of important areas of political thought-above all they had abandoned the affirmative aspects of their position—the value of nation, the necessity of a national culture, the value of a government, the need to defend the country, and the need for a radical reformer to formulate a political position which integrates his proposals for change with his desires to preserve ... The constitutional republicans were struck dumb. They became paralyzed, mute, and stupid. The plain fact is that repression addles the brain.


By agreement with the anarchists, no examination of the affirmative aspects of the nation-state or of the unifying abstractions of the nation's pluralistic culture, was allowed. Over the years, in fact, the taboo became so intense, that ugly invective broke out whenever an individual presumed to explore these areas. The invective, of course, came from the anarchists, whose sole position on nation and state is negative—and who had lost nothing whatever by the agreement.

I was an active libertarian throughout the relevant period, and cannot remember what Efron describes ever happening. As a Harvard undergraduate I attended meetings of Radicals for Capitalism, the campus Objectivist group, argued with its members, and was eventually asked to stop coming because they did not like having to defend their views against my arguments. As a member of YAF and the token libertarian columnist on The New Guard I argued with everyone from traditionalists through fellow libertarians. When, at a libertarian event, I gave a critical talk on Anarchy, State and Utopia with Nozick in the audience, the interaction was friendly. The agreement as I understood it was that anarchists and minarchists were all libertarians and could work together, not that either side was forbidden to argue its position.

I am guessing that some of my readers were also part of the libertarian movement in the sixties and seventies, the period Efron is describing. My question for you is whether your memory supports her description of the history or mine. 

One possible mistake I made in the letter was to identify the anarchists Efron was attacking with Murray Rothbard. She mentions Rothbard early on in an anecdote about the failure of an early attempt of his to interact with people on the left but not thereafter, despite the fact that, throughout the period, he was the most prominent figure in the libertarian anarchist movement. That may be because, having initiated the attempt to ally with the left in 1965 he had abandoned it by 1970, eight years before Efron wrote her article. That makes her identification of "the anarchists" with the people she is criticizing a bit odd — presumably most of them were Rothbardians who had followed him into the left but not out of it.

When I have the whole chapter done I may put it up here for comments, but at the moment I am just curious as to the difference between her account and my memory.


At 10:09 PM, September 04, 2020, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The only thing I know about libertarian history is the stuff I've read on wikipedia.

But, to offer my 2 cents, she seems to be referring to the Dallas Accord, which is something that happened within the LP.

Were the "right-anarchists" symphatizing/fraternizing with "left-anarchists" at that time, I have no idea.

At 11:13 PM, September 04, 2020, Blogger David Friedman said...

The Dallas accord, at least according to Wikipedia, wasn't an agreement not to argue, it was an agreement not to put either the minarchist or the anarchist position in the LP platform, thus leaving the organization open to both groups.

At 8:00 AM, September 05, 2020, Blogger Gary Y. said...

I don't believe I can help either.

While I was a new leftist during my salad years (though I abandoned that movement when it became violent) and read all of Miss Rand's published books thereafter, following Bertrand Russell, I eventually began a letter to her with the title, "Why I am not an Objectivist." (Didn't finish it.)

It was probably while reading your book, "The Machinery of Freedom," that I realized that there was a political position that I not only could agree with but which had explicitly defined my inchoate inclination since childhood: "Don't bother others unless they insist on bothering you."

At least I recall that by the time you gave a speech at the Libertarian Convention in New York City, I was very eager to attend!

It was a few years after that before I began reading Murray Rothbard and subscribing to, "Reason." So I think I began reading "Reason" after the article you quote was published. (Certainly, I don't recognize the name of the author.)


At 1:28 PM, September 08, 2020, Blogger Michael Wolf said...

I wasn't even alive back then so can't comment on anything from my own experience in the 60s and 70s, but it does strike me that her comments haven't aged well. While minarchism is certainly still a popular and honorable libertarian position, it does seem like the continued and massive expansion of government we've seen over the past ~40+ years since that article was penned - despite theoretical constitutional restraints that at best seem to occasionally "slow the spread" but never "stop the spread" of government expansion, to use a timely phrase - is a good argument for not writing off a growing wing of libertarians whose ideas seem to more closely align with historical reality.

At 2:02 PM, September 13, 2020, Blogger Peter McCluskey said...

My recollection, from Yale libertarians and anarchists starting around 1975, is that it's somewhat plausible to say that libertarians didn't value nations or national culture.

But it seems bizarre to attribute that to any concern related to anarchists. I'd attribute it mostly to something like a preference for cosmopolitan culture, or maybe to High Modernist tendencies that denied the importance of anything as hard to measure as culture.

At 9:33 AM, September 15, 2020, Blogger Michael Grossberg said...

As a libertarian since 1972, and active in and broadly familiar with the movement since then, I’ve noticed a general reluctance among leading writers (at Reason, Cato and elsewhere) to explore and advocate for (the many positive aspects of) our common culture – our civilization.
Why shouldn’t we?
Others do it. Conservatives do it. So do those with 1 foot in libertarian-land and 1 foot in conservatism, like Efron and today’s Jonah Goldberg (a libertarian-leaning free-market conservative whose three books are worth reading – especially Suicide of the West, which seems to me pretty consistent with a libertarian perspective even when he ranges far beyond it to broader cultural themes.
Perhaps libertarians, a besieged and still misunderstood minority, don’t do it more because we feel constrained within the social/intellectual division of labor to concentrate on and stick to our defining distinction between Liberty and Power (or cooperation vs. coercion, as I’ve come to think is a better way for libertarians to reclaim “society” and “community” from the authoritarian progressive-fascist-socialists of the left who still don’t understand the most basic reality, inevitably obscured in our age of political/cultural “democracy,” that was the very first distinction made by Thomas Paine in his bestselling “Common Sense” & “The Crisis:” – between the People and the Government.)
Perhaps because libertarian principles - self-ownership, non-aggression, voluntarism, and free markets - are still not widely understood or embraced consistently, libertarians feel pressured within the division of labor and division of knowledge to keep affirming & explaining that. Because that is crucial!
Perhaps we’re afraid of mudding our “brand” and ideology if we more often affirmed the many aspects of our common culture and civilization worth defending, even if they’re messy and mixed in the evolution of our spontaneous order. (Even worse and more complicated, that culture is warped by the constraints and history of politics imposed on the spontaneous order of the market and culture by the legacy of war, slavery, dictatorship and other coercive government.)
Just as common law historically was messy and imperfect, but vastly preferable to the king’s law (“l’estat, c’est moi!” or today’s rationales “for reasons of State” & national-security state), so is our common culture messy and flawed, but vastly preferable to the censored, disfigured and monstrously corrupted State culture, including those well short of the hideous extremes of Stalinist, Leninist, Hitlerian “culture” or later Mao’s murderous Cultural Revolution.
Perhaps in the modern era, with a widespread, unspoken Prohibitionist Mentality - “there ought to be a law” to fix every perceived problem, even with some “problems” and disparities merely reflect different people’s choices, reflecting their individuality and history) - libertarians are reluctant to regularly affirm other social values beyond the goodness of freedom and the evils of coercion, especially the institutionalized coercion of the State.
Today, if you says “X is a problem,” too many assume you view government as the solution. So it’s easy to be misunderstood if you venture into the “culture wars” and you’re still 100% libertarian. But beyond making the libertarian point about how the politicization of society has created and exacerbates our cultural wars, and how, say, advancing to a free-er market in education, college and elsewhere could minimize such political conflict and tensions, maybe libertarians sometimes do need to take sides to defend the innocent, the good and the decent.


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