Blogs > Liberty and Power > Libertarian Contrarianism

Aug 8, 2005 1:03 pm

Libertarian Contrarianism

Rod's recent posts here and here on the Mises-Cato "wars," as well as the conversation on Tom Palmer's site here, here, and here, prompts me to say a few words about a problem I see with elements of contemporary libertarianism, including and especially the folks at the Mises Institute.

There seems to be a view out there, and perhaps I'm attributing intentionality where there is none, that libertarians are, or should be, consistent "contrarians." That is, if the mainstream currents of the intelligensia believe "A," libertarians should adopt beliefs in contrast to A. This is surely understandable for those of us who strongly believe that the free markets are superior institutional arrangements than the alternatives, including the status quo. The intellectual defense of capitalism, particularly in its more laissez-faire forms, is indeed a contrarian position to take. But it's also a theoretically and empirically defensible position to take (in my view, of course).

What seems to have happened is that many libertarians, fueled by the fury of the outsider that comes from having to defend laissez-faire against a dominant intellectual environment that is hostile, transfer that same attitude and energy to other sets of beliefs that are "outsider" beliefs. If "everyone thinks" capitalism is wrong, but you think it's right, why not start to draw the conclusion that other things that "everyone thinks" are true might be wrong? The result? You begin to question the "received wisdom" on slavery and the civil war and then perhaps begin to find yourself associated with defenders of the Confederacy, not all of whom have the purity of your intellectual interest. You begin to flirt with controversial theories on race (see Hoppe's citation of Phillippe Rushton in the 5th note) that many others have branded as racist. You begin to flirt with the anti-Semitic right, conveniently forgetting to mention the Holocaust in a discussion of how many people Hitler killed as compared to Stalin or finding intellectual common cause with the Institute of Historical Review's Holocaust denials. (Note: opposing US aid to Israel or Zionism more generally does not ipso facto qualify as anti-Semitism. It's perfectly possible to be anti-Israel and not anti-Semitic.) And maybe theocracy doesn't seem so awful, because people have misunderstood the role of religion in the defense of liberty. I have also had conversations with self-described libertarians who are skeptics of Darwinism. And, of course, you become a fanatical opponent of "political correctness," without ever even asking how real the phenomenon is and whether it is so antithetical to libertarianism as that opposition suggests.

My point here is that it sometimes seems that libertarians who adopt these contrarian positions do so almost out of a principle. By that, I don't mean that they don't do any intellectual homework. Instead, it's more like the points I raised in the Dan Rather affair: one's intellectual priors lead one to look for evidence in some places and not others, and to read the evidence you do find through the lens of those priors. In this case, a lens that values contrarianism will lead one to particular places.

The irony of this to me is that it is people like Hoppe who accuse the left-libertarians of starting from a prior of juvenile anti-authoritarianism (see note 23) and deducing their political views from there. Could not one say that Hoppe et. al. suffer from a form of unreflective intellectual anti-authoritarianism that leads them to falsely reject mainstream intellectual views that may well be correct? If tradition and authority are sometimes right in the social world, can't they be right in the intellectual world as well? More important, isn't it truth we are after, not our own version of "political correctness?" If the historical truth seems to run contrary to our politics, then it's time to either rethink our politics or rethink whether that truth is really so contrary (or do better history - "better" history, not "libertarian" history).

As libertarians, we do ourselves no good by being contrarians for contrarianism's sake. It seems like that's where some self-described libertarians are ending up these days. Sometimes mainstream intellectuals are right, sometimes they're not. Our commitment to intellectual values of openness and scholarship must come first.

UPDATED 8:45pm EDT as noted in the comments

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More Comments:

Steven Horwitz - 10/11/2004

I'm willing to grant both of those points Mark. One just has to be very, very careful.

Mark Brady - 10/10/2004

I've now read Donald Livingston's fascinating article. I think it's well worth reading and I recommend that those who haven't read it to do so and think further about what he says. At the very least, I suggest that those who love liberty and oppose state power ought to be able to agree on two points: (1) that the Civil War wasn't about slavery in the way in which it is commonly portrayed; and (2) that the victory of the Union over the Confederacy wasn't unequivocally a "good thing".

Steven Horwitz - 10/9/2004

I didn't mean to take a shot at Prof. Livingston, who I don't know from Adam. I simply meant to point to an example of the sorts of arguments that can get one into trouble when picked up by the wrong people, hence my line about "as intellectually pure as you." My point was that if you make arguments that the Civil War really wasn't about slavery, and the Confederacy wasn't really so bad, you may well do so with the best of intentions and scholarship, but you are likely to attract others who aren't as "pure" as you. And the argument can quickly slide. I'm not an expert on the South, so I'm not going to offer a scholarly rebuttal.

I will, however, gladly apologize to Professor Livingston and those associated with him for implying something that I didn't intend to. And I will fix the original post to clarify that.

Roderick T. Long - 10/9/2004

Argh, I forgot that this software won't let me link to a particular part of the page. Well, either click the link above and scroll down to "One Cheer" or else copy the whole thing including the "#05" and paste it in your browser ....

Roderick T. Long - 10/9/2004

On this see my post "One Cheer for Political Correctness""

Stephen W Carson - 10/9/2004

"You begin to question the 'received wisdom' on slavery and the civil war and begin to associate with defenders of the Confederacy". Dr. Horwitz links here to a paper by Donald Livingston, a well respected Hume scholar and champion of de-centralization and secession. I have met Dr. Livingston, heard him speak several times and read much of his writing. He is also acting as a mentor to my sister as she works on her doctoral thesis on Hume. First of all, I don't believe that he would identify himself as a libertarian, though his interest in de-centralization makes his work of obvious interest to libertarians who find the trend towards the more and more centralized state of the last several hundred years a topic of great concern. But what really concerns me is that Dr. Horwitz' swipe at Dr. Livingston here would dissuade some libertarians from considering his work seriously. I think that would be a great mistake. In fact, the very paper that Dr. Horwitz links to, "A Moral Accounting of the Union and the Confederacy", is filled with new information and insights that would be of interest even to those who have no particular interest in revising their view of the secession of the South. Perhaps Mr. Horwitz would offer up a scholarly rebuttal, however brief, to Dr. Livingston's article? Simply making a passing comment on this great scholar so that we are to just assume that his argument can't be taken seriously just doesn't cut it for me.

Otto M. Kerner - 10/9/2004

It's certainly true that finding oneself outside of the mainstream, it tends to make one more open-minded toward other sidestream ideas. This by itself is not a bad thing. Perhaps one will discover that Phillipe Rushton, say, makes some important points (that's just an example, I don't really know enough about Rushton to judge his accuracy or importance). Your point that one should not become a principled contrarian is certainly right. The problem is that this is obvious when it's stated straightforwardly. I think that what's at work is primarily an emotional process, sort of an intellectual "enemy of my enemy is my friend". Just explaining it in rational terms won't necessarily make people stop doing it.