To anyone who has spent time examining topics of economic history on Twitter and Wikipedia, it should be clear that Rothbard’s disciples and intellectual descendants exert a disproportionate influence on social media relative to what their raw numbers would normally predict. Perhaps this reflects libertarians’ glorification of business and technology. One need only look at the number of entries on Wikipedia that have sections and subheadings showing the Austrian point of view. It’s almost as if some organization instructed a bunch of their lackeys to go on Wikipedia, search out every topic remotely related to economic history, and then edit the entries so that their propaganda is unavoidable for students and professors. Sometimes their presence lies far outside the realms in which they can plausibly claim expertise. Do we really need to hear the Austrian criticism of Jared Diamond’s prize-winning work, Guns, Germs, and Steel? Imagine going on Wikipedia and seeing what the official stance of the Catholic Church is on every historical event! Recall that a few years ago I found that the Wikipedia entry on the Panic of 1837 was in terrible shape and that the only reference listed was a PDF from some random dude I had never heard of who worked at the Ludwig Von Mises Institute. I spent quite a bit of time correcting this entry and wrote about the experience for Perspectives on History.
In the academy, libertarianism is a bit more common than one might think, which is to say that academia is not the monopoly on progressive orthodoxy that critics often allege. Anonymous reviewers will sometimes leave clues to their identities and intellectual leanings. If they’re using the terms “public choice,” “coercion,” “tyranny,” or “rent-seeking,” you’re probably dealing with a libertarian. Inflation and taxation are “theft” under libertarian discourses. Call them out and they will reply that you are trying to “smear” them. A non-trivial amount of libertarians thrive in business schools, economics departments, the departments of philosophy, history, and political science, and law schools. Economics departments have the reputation of being anti-union and more conservative than most other academic disciplines. I suspect there are many professors in the hard and social sciences who just don’t care that much about politics, and since many libertarians and conservatives are highly motivated voters, apathy or acquiescence on the part of others effectively makes for a win for the political right. I have written before about how student evaluations and grade inflation are manifestations of running colleges like a business—a pernicious neoliberal phenomenon that elevates administrators, prioritizes flashy dorms and athletics departments at the expense of actual learning, devalues the labor and artistry of teaching, and treats students like customers. Indeed, it is a quintessentially libertarian philosophy for students to think of themselves as consumers who choose (again, choice!) the best professor with the greatest value (i.e. the softest grader with the least amount of work). Most students, professors, and parents object to the alarming rates of student loan debt, which now exceeds credit card debt, and yet few see how this is very much a part of the same customer-based model that they seem to admire.
My own experience with economic history in the antebellum era provides anecdotal confirmation of what we already know about most libertarians: of the 5-10 libertarians I know in this subfield, all are white men. I’ve held back on posting this for a long time, partly because I’m no big shot and partly because many of the libertarians I’m thinking of have been personally nice to me. I’ve thanked some of them in the acknowledgments of my book and note that they have helped me understand some economic concepts. Upon further reflection, however, I realized that being a nice guy is not a valid excuse for pushing terrible policies that harm others. We should be stressing policy in our discussion of politics, not personality. Judge Kavanaugh, by many accounts, is a “nice guy” but we know exactly how he’d rule on most legal issues. A crucial selling point in George W. Bush’s campaigns was that he was the guy you wanted to have a beer with, as opposed to the reputedly effete John Kerry. Tell that to the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis displaced by an unnecessary invasion that Kerry would almost certainly have not authorized. Tell that to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. One libertarian historian I know is a descendant of slave-owning Louisiana Whigs and is on record calling Lincoln the worst president in US history. One can talk at length about Lincoln’s war powers and denial of civil liberties but putting two and two together, it’s not hard to see that what this man is really enraged about was that Lincoln brought about a war that destroyed his family’s ill-gotten wealth.
As for why there are so many libertarians in economic history, I have asked a number of other academics and have never received a satisfying answer. I can only think that it relates to the large number of libertarians in economics and business departments; a nostalgia for a time when the United States was on the gold standard, had little national debt, and lacked a modern welfare state; and a phenomenon, peculiar to academia in the United States and perhaps an unfortunate if unintended consequence of the “cultural turn” of the 1980s, that sorts more quantitative and empirically-minded academics in one camp while those interested in more theoretical topics such as race and gender fall into another camp (this division is not a rigid one and might be breaking down). I only offer this as a tentative and imperfect dichotomy since libertarians are often deeply skeptical of econometrics and excessive jargon in the economics profession—something that I happen to share with them.
Recent reporting based on a FOIA request by the group called “UnKoch My Campus” has brought to light a major scandal and conflict of interest at the libertarian Mercatus Center located at George Mason University. The university gave the Kochs a say over hiring and firing in exchange for generous donations. The same conservative infrastructure that has done so much damage to the environment and the discourse on human-caused climate change has elevated scholars with a minority viewpoint who, I’d bet, would not have normally succeeded based on their own intellectual merits. They received outside help. In unison they’ve carefully crafted their talking points on the work of Duke historian Nancy MacLean. By managing to point out some interpretative and factual errors in MacLean’s otherwise penetrating book, Democracy in Chains, the Koch minions have tried their best to insinuate that by implication, all of MacLean’s work must be faulty and everything else presented in these posts must similarly be suspect.
Then there are pseudo-scholarly organizations that operate on the margins of academia but still manage to attract unsuspecting readers. I’ll never forget teaching an upper division class on the Jacksonian period several years ago when one student kept bringing up “DiLorenzo” a bunch of times and I was like, who the heck is this guy and why have I never heard of him? It turns out DiLorenzo is a senior fellow at the Ludwig Von Mises Institute (LVMI). He’s a Lincoln iconoclast who has conflated Nazism and socialism, an interpretation so absurd and so thoroughly debunked by academic historians that it need not merit a reply here. Ex-convict, poser, con man, and wannabe historian Dinesh D’Souza recapitulated this garbage only to be destroyed and humiliated by professional historians. The LVMI hosts 20 senior fellows and 0 are women. Of the 89, associated scholars, only 7 are women. Now take a look at the gender ratio of the LVMI’s staff to see that women serve in subservient positions in larger numbers. Based on profile pics, which is admittedly tricky and imprecise, very few senior fellows and associated scholars are people of color and none, as far as I can tell, are African American. No respectable organization would tolerate this kind of racial, gendered, and power imbalance. Many academic conferences in the discipline of history now refuse to accept all white male panels. In 2018, we have a good ole boys club and sausage fest in Auburn, Alabama trying to tell the rest of us about the nuances of liberty.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the LVMI, a think tank located in Auburn, Alabama, espouses “a radical libertarian view of government and economics inspired by the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, whom the institute says ‘showed that government intervention is always destructive.’” What a simplistic statement! Indeed, the institute, which publishes material that is not subject to independent, blind peer review, aims to “undermine statism in all its forms,” and its recent interest in neo-Confederate themes reflects that. One of the LVMI’s senior fellows, Walter Block, once stated that slavery “was not so bad – you pick cotton and sing songs.” Block also argued that white business owners had the right to exclude black customers at Woolworth’s because no one should be forced to associate with people against their will. In a libel lawsuit against the New York Times that a judge dismissed, 17 of Block’s fellow faculty members at Loyola University New Orleans wrote a joint letter calling on the university to “take the long overdue and necessary steps to condemn and censure Professor Block for his recurring public assaults on the values of Loyola University, its mission and the civil rights of all.”
LVMI founder Lew Rockwell argued that the Civil War “transformed the American regime from a federalist system based on freedom to a centralized state that circumscribed liberty in the name of public order.” Desegregation in the civil rights era, he said, resulted in the “involuntary servitude” of (presumably white) business owners. In the past, Rockwell has praised the electoral success of European neofascists like Joerg Haider in Austria and Christoph Blocher in Switzerland. Both Rockwell and institute research director Jeffrey Tucker are listed on the racist League of the South's Web page as founding members — and both men deny their membership. Tucker has written for League publications, and many League members have taught at the institute's seminars and given presentations at its conferences. Rockwell, who is also vice president of the Center for Libertarian Studies, runs his own daily news Web site that often features articles by League members. From 1978 to 1982, Rockwell was Ron Paul’s congressional chief of staff. He later wrote anonymously for the Texas libertarian’s newsletters, which sympathized with the militia movement and peddled a lot of bigotry against blacks, gays, and Jews. The newsletter referred to African Americans as “animals” in at least one instance and lamented the fall of apartheid South Africa as “destruction of civilization.”
Whatever the merits of limited government, individualism, and free market economics, those who promote these views have made common cause with a lot of truly awful people. What does it say about the neoclassical worldview if it appeals to neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis, militiamen, Troglodytes, and lunatics? I write this while experiencing the daily horror that is the Trump administration.* Beyond the small number of libertarians who have voted for Democrats, most have stood idly by as an illegitimate president has broken virtually all norms. Their criticisms are hollow based on their actions. However much they may protest the debts run up under recent Republican presidents, libertarians are ultimately complicit for the manner in which Republicans have subverted and usurped democracy.
I’d like to see more libertarians become vocal in calling for the removal of Florida’s felon disfranchisement law that permanently bars nearly 1.5 million Floridians from voting. A high percentage of these felons are African Americans. A state that permanently disfranchises voters for felonies is an oppressive state if I’ve ever seen one; the kind of state that libertarians should condemn. To be fair, there are probably some libertarians who do recognize this as an affront to individual liberty and a textbook case of the New Jim Crow. But far too many are silent. Libertarians know how African Americans vote. They don't vote for libertarians. Indeed, more African Americans voting would threaten to upset the hierarchy led by white male property owners that libertarians seek to protect. Their preference for property over voting rights is a major contradiction in a movement founded on "liberty."
If you are a libertarian academic, I have a number of questions for you. I’ve shown you throughout this blog series how a good many people out there who also identify as libertarian hate central banks, support the gold standard, sided with rapacious tobacco companies against the imperatives of public health, propagated climate denialism, vouched for financial deregulation and low taxes, opposed civil rights protections for women and minorities, rejected the minimum wage, sought to overturn collective bargaining, minimized the importance of slavery in explaining the Civil War, benefited from Koch donations, conceptualized taxes as theft and coercion, backed voter suppression, and expressed sympathy for white nationalism. Are these your positions? If not, how many of them do you reject? If you reject most of them, are you really, then, a libertarian?
I’m not sure why I should ever debate you or take you seriously if you share the same ideology as that of the types of people I have described in these posts. Sure, there are some sophisticated libertarians out there. But why would they use the term given its association with racist cranks, cooks, and clowns? Do they not realize that attaching oneself to libertarian ideology would be immediately met with scorn and ridicule? Either the respectable, scholarly libertarians out there should cease associating themselves with this hateful ideology or, if they choose to retain the label, they should fully accept the likely outcome that a large number of academics may ostracize them. Libertarianism does stress personal responsibility, does it not?