Five Differences Between The Alt-Right And Libertarianism
Well, Hillary Clinton has gone and done it.
To the cheers of alt-righters everywhere, those angry lords of the green frog meme who hurl edgy un-PC insults at everyone to their left, the Democratic nominee has put them on the map at long last. Specifically, she accused Donald Trump of encouraging and giving voice to their dark and dangerous worldview.
Let’s leave aside the question of whether we are talking about an emergent brown-shirted takeover of American political culture, or perhaps merely a few thousand sock-puppet social media accounts adept at mischievous trolling on Twitter. The key issue is that more than a few alt-rightists claim some relationship to libertarianism , at least at their intellectual dawning until they begin to shed their libertarianism later on.
What are the differences in outlook between alt-right ideology and libertarianism?
1. The Driving Force of History
Every ideology has a theory of history, some sense of a driving theme that causes episodic movements from one stage to another. Such a theory helps us make sense of the past, present, and future. The libertarian theme of history is beautifully articulated by Murray Rothbard:
My own basic perspective on the history of man…is to place central importance on the great conflict which is eternally waged between Liberty and Power… I see the liberty of the individual not only as a great moral good in itself (or, with Lord Acton, as the highest political good), but also as the necessary condition for the flowering of all the other goods that mankind cherishes: moral virtue, civilization, the arts and sciences, economic prosperity. Out of liberty, then, stem the glories of civilized life.
There it is: liberty vs. power. Liberty unleashes human energy and builds civilization. Anything that interferes with the progress of liberty impedes the progress of humanity. One crowds out the other. The political (or anti-political) goal is clear: diminish power (which means reducing unjust violence) and enhance liberty.
Frédéric Bastiat described the free society as characterized by a “harmony of interests.” What is the alt-right theory of history? The movement inherits a long and dreary tradition of thought from Friedrich Hegel to Thomas Carlyle to Oswald Spengler to Madison Grant to Othmar Spann to Giovanni Gentile to Trump’s speeches. This tradition sees something else going on in history: not liberty vs. power, but something like a more meta struggle that concerns impersonal collectives of tribe, race, community, great men, and so on.
Whereas libertarianism speaks of individual choice, alt-right theory draws attention to collectives on the move. It imagines that despite appearances, we all default in our thinking back to some more fundamental instinct about our identity as a people, which is either being shored up by a more intense consciousness or eroded by a deracination and dispossession from what defines us. To criticize this as racist is often true but superficial. What’s really going on here is the depersonalization of history itself: the principle that we are all being buffeted about by Olympian historical forces beyond our control as mere individuals. It takes something mighty and ominous like a great leader, an embodiment of one of these great forces, to make a dent in history’s narrative.
2. Harmony vs. Conflict
A related issue concerns our capacity to get along with each other. Frédéric Bastiat described the free society as characterized by a “harmony of interests.” In order to overcome the state of nature, we gradually discover the capacity to find value in each other. The division of labor is the great fact of human community: the labor of each of us becomes more productive in cooperation with others, and this is even, or rather especially, true given the unequal distribution of talents, intelligence, and skills, and differences over religion, belief systems, race, language, and so on.
And truly, this is a beautiful thing to discover. The libertarian marvels at the cooperation we see in a construction project, an office building, a restaurant, a factory, a shopping mall, to say nothing of a city, a country, or a planet. The harmony of interests doesn’t mean that everyone gets along perfectly, but rather than we inhabit institutions that incentivize progress through ever more cooperative behavior. As the liberals of old say, we believe that the “brotherhood of man” is possible.
The libertarian believes that the best and most wonderful social outcomes are not those planned, structured, and anticipated, but rather the opposite.To the alt-right mind, this all seems ridiculous. Sure, shopping is fine. But what actually characterizes human association is deep-rooted conflict. The races are secretly at war, intellectually and genetically. There is an ongoing and perpetual conflict between the sexes. People of different religions must fight and always will, until one wins. Nations fight for a reason: the struggle is real.
Some argue that war is what defines us and even gives life meaning, and, in that sense, is glorious and celebratory. For this reason, all nations must aspire toward homogeneity in stock, religion, and so on, and, as for the sexes, there must be dominance, because cooperation is an illusion.
Maybe you notice a certain commonality with the left here. In the 19th century, the Marxists whipped themselves up in a frenzy about the allegedly inherent conflict between labor and capital. Their successors fret incessantly about race, ethnicity, ability, gender, and so on, pushing Marxian conflict theory into ever more exotic realms. Ludwig von Mises captured this parallel brilliantly when he wrote, “Nationalist ideology divides society vertically; the socialist ideology divides society horizontally.” Here, as with many other areas, the far right and far left are strangely aligned.
3. Designed vs. Spontaneous Order
The libertarian believes that the best and most wonderful social outcomes are not those planned, structured, and anticipated, but rather the opposite. Society is the result of millions and billions of small acts of rational self interest that are channelled into an undesigned, unplanned, and unanticipated order that cannot be conceived by a single mind. The knowledge that is required to put together a functioning social order is conveyed through institutions: prices, manners, mores, habits, and traditions that no one can consciously will into existence. There must be a process in place, and stable rules governing that process, that permit such institutions to evolve, always in deference to the immutable laws of economics.
Again, the alt-right mind finds all of this uninspired and uninspiring. Society in their conception is built by the will of great thinkers and great leaders with unconstrained visions of what can be. What we see out there operating in society is a result of someone’s intentional and conscious planning from the top down.
If we cannot find the source, or if the source is somehow hiding, we imagine that it must be some shadowy group out there that is manipulating outcomes – and hence the alt-right’s obsession with conspiracy theory. The course of history is designed by someone, so “we” might as well engage in the great struggle to seize the controls – and hence the alt-right obsession with politics as a contact sport.