Frank Chodorov: Scrappy Libertarian, Crappy Oracle

Libertarians are a strange bunch. They are the most predictable of political thinkers since the answer to every social problem is the exact same thing: The cause of the problem is government and the solution is less government. Full stop.

You have probably never heard of Frank Chodorov (1887-1966). Born in New York City as Fishel Chodorowsky, he is considered one of the pioneer libertarians of the twentieth-century United States. At the very least, libertarians remember him for a letter he wrote to Bill Buckley’s National Review in 1956, wherein he declared, “I will punch anyone who calls me a conservative in the nose. I am a radical.”1 Chodorov’s fightin’ words reflected Libertarians’ delight in considering themselves rough-and-tumble, independent thinkers. I can’t help noticing however, that their fierce independent thinking often matches perfectly with powerful business and corporate interests. Chodorov, for example, first made his mark by busting a union in 1923. Union busting for freedom!

Chodorov is often credited with keeping the libertarian flame alive during the dark days of World War II. A staunch isolationist, Chodorov founded a small newsletter he named analysis which he published between 1944 and 1951 before it merged with Human Eventswhich is still going strong. analysis was a pure distillation of Chodorov’s libertarianism, his own vision with no compromises—this is what blogging was like in the 1940s. As historian George Nash wrote:

It is a vivid illustration both of the virtually underground character of much of the “classical liberal” movement in this period and of the perseverance of its devotees that this little journal appeared at all. Frank Chodorov was a practicing individualist; he produced his own magazine in a few rooms in an unpretentious building in Manhattan.

In his obituary to Chodorov, Murray Rothbard claimed that analysis was the one place where Chodorov could present his pure gospel of individualism. I thought therefore that reading through analysis might be an important part of the history I’m writing.

For those of you clamoring to see, here’s a little peek behind the curtain that usually cloaks the humble historian’s magic: Looking at analysis turned out to be no easy task. It is almost impossible to find and very few libraries subscribed to it.  Fortunately, I live just down the road from the world’s largest library, the Library of Congress. Even so, they held the bound issues at their Fort Meade facility and it took a day for them to retrieve it. But, when it turned up, I spent some time last week perusing and scanning it in their wonderful Main Reading Room:

jefferson_main_reading_room

Every issue of analysis issued the declaration, “Please Copy—nothing in this paper is copyrighted. Readers are invited to lift whatever suits their purpose.” So I posted my amateurish scans over at archive.org. You are welcome world!

Chodorov, like most conservatives, was appalled by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. In the 1930s, the world was mired in the Great Depression and FDR instigated a series of federal government programs in order to pump more money into the economy, to put people to work and to stimulate economic growth. Programs like the Works Project Administration:

WPA_forging

For Chodorov, and other economic conservatives, these programs were an unjustified interference with the natural workings of the marketplace as well as a dangerous centralization of governmental power in Washington.

The New Deal programs had some half-hearted efforts built into them to see that the largesse they provided was distributed without regard to race. After Pearl Harbor,  the defense jobs provided by the war were very difficult for African Americans to get. As blues singer, Josh White sang:

Went to the Defense factory
Trying to find some work to do,
Had the nerve to tell me, ‘Black boy,
Nothing here for you’.

African Americans clearly recognized the hypocrisy of fighting a war against an overtly racist enemy in the name of freedom while denying U.S. citizens basic civil rights as well as ways to join the war effort. Labor leader and civil rights activist A. Philip Randolph organized a March on Washington in 1941 to bring the nation’s hypocrisy to the world’s attention. FDR forestalled the March by signing an executive order to establish a Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) to address discrimination in defense employment. The FEPC went through various iterations during the war and, after the war, Truman made various attempts to make a permanent FEPC to address discrimination in employment. Chodorov was having none of it and laid out the libertarian case against it in 1948. This short piece actually highlights some common libertarian argumentative strategies and is worth a close read. Some lessons:

1. The Problem Does Not Exist. Chodorov starts off with an erroneous premise:

Generally speaking, American law has not been too intrusive in the realm of human associations. In the South, to be sure, whites are not permitted to commingle with Negroes, and in all the states when, how and with whom we may live in conjugal bliss is covered by code… But, on the whole, companionship is one human habit American law does not yet intrude upon too much.

In 1948, throughout the South there were elaborate legal regulations in place to prevent white and black citizens from mixing. In the north, racist hiring practices and racist unions prevented gainful black employment. Yet, Chodorov argued that all this discrimination was unimportant and thus turned a blind eye toward the very social problem the FEPC was supposed to address. Having thus denied, or at least minimized, the problem Chodorov was free to claim that no solution is necessary.

2. Government solutions cannot work. Chodorov made several moves here. Chodorov argued that the racial prejudice was a moral/ethical problem, not an economic one. Thus, an anti-discrimination laws was simply a “venture in compulsory ethics only”:

“Right now our lawmakers are tinkering with a plan to curb the human impulse to choose one’s associates. The raging passion of righteousness is directed at employers who close their payrolls to persons of particular creeds, races or ancestry. Accordingly, a law is advocated to compel such employers to subscribe to the brotherhood of man, unprejudiced. To see that they so do, there shall be set up an inquisitorial tribunal to be known as the Fair Employment Practices Commission.

“Legal efforts to compel conformance with a prescribed code of behavior always bring about practices more reprehensible than the evil singled out for correction,” he claimed. Chodorov offered the example of Prohibition. Outlawing alcohol meant that “people drank more not less.”

There are a lot of problems with his argument. Prohibition did, in fact, lower alcohol consumption quite a bit, but let’s not try to confuse (even dead) libertarians with pesky facts. Rather let’s use their favorite argumentative tactic of reductio ad absurdumAll laws regulate behavior. Laws against embezzlement are attempts to lower the rate of embezzling behavior. Laws against perjury attempt to lower the rate of perjury behavior. If Chodorov were correct, then there would be more gambling in Salt Lake City than in Las Vegas. And, look at arson!

3. Libertarians love the slippery slope. Right after Chodorov painted a picture of helpless government bureaucrats flailing about unable to stop any kind of discriminatory hiring practices, he begins to argue the exact opposite proposition: the FEPC will be so draconian that it will destroy free enterprise completely:

The FEPC would in time become the national employment agency and in effect the workers would achieve civil service ranking. The power thus acquired by the FEPC would not be unlike that exercised by labor administrations under fascism. The unions would be superseded, private employment agencies would go out of business, personnel departments would be of no use.

It is said that communists and fellow-travellers are promoting this latest piece of moralistic legislation. They should be, if they are not, because the friction and confusion ensuing from its enactment would be just the thing for the advancement of American Communism. Moreover, the power over industry that would gravitate toward the FEPC would make it a useful instrument to get hold of. Its chairman would be a commissar in fact.

Chodorov’s switcharoo here, from the hapless government trying to enforce unenforceable anti-discrimination laws to the omnipotent Stalinist-Fascist government that has cowed businesses with its iron diktats, shows one thing: libertarians suck at prediction. The country had to wait nearly two decades before the federal government established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1965. In the five decades since, we have neither a federal dictatorship of our corporate hiring practices nor a crime spree of increased racial discrimination in hiring. Chodorov was factually, empirically, and undeniably wrong about the horrors of anti-discrimination laws.

Libertarians in general argue against any sort of governmental policy by claiming that, while the current proposed policy might seem like a good idea, it will inevitably result in the loss of our freedoms as the government takes over more an more of our lives. At some point, someone should have pointed out to Chodorov that his own example, that of Prohibition, disproves the point he was trying to make because, you know what happened when the country decided that they wanted a drink? We repealed Prohibition. Since Chodorov wrote this essay in 1948, we have had the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Rights Movement, the Gay Rights movement, and countless other measures that have increased our freedom. Libertarians have been Chicken Littling us about the road to serfdom for at least seventy years. It is about time we stop taking them seriously.

1 Chodorov, Frank. 1956. “To the Editor.” National Review 2 (20): 23.

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7 thoughts on “Frank Chodorov: Scrappy Libertarian, Crappy Oracle

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