AIER: How Liberalism Can Survive Left-Right Polarization

This article from the American Institute for Economic Research looks into the rise of political extremity, both left and right, in the US, and what we need to do to affirm dedication to liberty while rejecting the vengeful appeal of authoritarianism.

The rise of political extremes in America, both left and right, poses a particular challenge for those of us who prefer liberty over government control. It’s not only in the US; the same grows in the UK, Europe, Latin America, and Brazil. As the old managerial elite in all countries loses credibility and power, socialist and nationalist forms of statism are vying to take their place, while relegating liberalism to the political margins.

To survive and thrive, we will need to gain greater confidence in who we are and what we believe about the social order, clarifying and focusing on what liberty looks like and what precisely we are going for, while avoiding partisan traps along the way. In particular, we need to avoid being lumped in with movements – rightly or wrongly, by expedient or intellectual error – that are contrary to our tradition and philosophical longings.

In case you haven’t heard, for example, many academic and media observers are on a hunt to discover the origin of the nationalist resurgence, and particularly its most bizarre and violent segment of the alt-right. To the horror of many dedicated intellectuals and activists in the liberty space, some academics and journalists have tried to link this movement backward in time to the libertarian political movement as it developed over the last two decades, and, by extension, the rise of the Trump-controlled Republican Party.

It should be obvious that, in theory and contrary to what the socialist left has long claimed, there is no connection whatsoever between what we call libertarianism and any species of rightist ideology. One negates the other. As Leonard Read wrote in 1956, “Liberty has no horizontal relationship to authoritarianism. Libertarianism’s relationship to authoritarianism is vertical; it is up from the muck of men enslaving man…”

And yet today, there does indeed appear, at least superficially, to have been a social, institutional, and even intellectual connection, and migration, between what is called the liberty movement and the emergence of nationalism, right-wing identitarianism, and the politics of authoritarianism. Some of the most prominent alt-right voices in the 2017 Charlottesville marches once identified as libertarians. This fact has been widely covered. It’s a fair question to ask: did these individuals ever really believe in a liberal worldview? Were they trolling all along? Were they just deeply confused?

I’ve been interviewed many times on these questions. How did this come to be? The answer is complex. It was more than six years ago that my article “Against Libertarian Brutalism” raised a conjecture: a libertarianism, rendered simply as nothing more than a “leave me alone” outlook, with no larger aspiration for the good life, and no interest in the subject of social cooperation, could find itself divorced from a historical conception of what the advent of liberty has meant to human life and society as a whole. Without that, we fail to develop good instincts for interpreting the world around us. We are even reduced to syllogistic slogans and memes which can be deeply misleading and feed even illiberal bias.

And where does this bias end up? Where are the limits? I see them daily online. In the name of fighting the left, many have turned in the other direction to embrace an alternative form of identitarianism, restrictions on trade and migration, curbs on essential civil liberties, and even toyed with the freedom of the press and the rights of private enterprise, all in the name of humiliating and eliminating the enemy. Some go further to celebrate anything they believe the left hates, including even odious causes from the authoritarian past.

The rhetoric at the extremes approaches nihilism. The press isn’t really free so why not impose restrictions, censorship, and litigated punishments? The borders aren’t private so why not prohibit all entry? Some speech doesn’t support freedom so why permit it the rights that freedom entails? Social media companies aren’t really private enterprises, so why not force them to carry and promote some accounts that I like? That large company has a government contract so why not bust it up with antitrust?

The gradual evolution of language has unleashed all kinds of confusion. Activists denounce “the establishment” without a clear distinction between government and influential media voices. They will decry “globalism” without bothering to distinguish the World Bank from an importer of Chinese fireworks. They promote identitarianism and racial collectivism without the slightest understanding of the illiberal origins and uses of these ideologies in 20th-century history. After all, they say, there is nothing “inherently un-libertarian” about casting down an entire people, religion, gender, language, or race, so long as you don’t directly use violence.

It takes a special kind of circuitous sophistry to justify, in the name of liberty, collectivistic animus and state violence against voluntary association. But the history of politics shows people are capable of making huge mental leaps in service of ideological goals. All it takes is small steps, little excuses, tweaks of principle here and there, seemingly minor compromises, some element of confirmation bias, and you are good to go, ready to make as much sense as the old communist slogan that you have to break eggs to make omelets…

Click here to read the entire article at AIER.