Reflections on Libertarianism and Racism

When can we say a libertarian was a racist?

Picture of a Lighthouse

I’m afraid my engagement with Nancy MacLean’s critics generated more heat than light. Some things I wrote were misunderstood which must mean I did not state them clearly enough. This post is to engage some issues about how we can make inferences on the basis of historical evidence, and perhaps throw some reflected light on the ongoing debate about Democracy in Chains.

Here is the basic argument I hope to make in the book I am writing:

My book will explore how two groups, which for convenience I will call the “libertarian right” and the “racist right”, grew in the postwar U.S. This is a story of mirror-image twins. Both libertarians and the racist right shared the same values but held them in a reversed hierarchy. Libertarians wanted a society free of all government coercion: one consequence of such a society would be that “racially pure” enclaves would arise as people exercised their free individual choices. For them, the libertarian society was the goal; racial enclaves were simply byproducts. The racist right, by contrast, desired “racially pure” enclaves and found the libertarian voice the most effective in pushing their political agenda. Forming racial enclaves was the goal; the libertarian society was simply a byproduct.

A couple of caveats: I certainly do not mean to include all libertarians; I realize that libertarians come in all stripes. I am looking at specific people, not the varied ideologies and movements that claim the title “Libertarian.”  Second, by “racist right” I refer to those folks usually too noxious for William F. Buckley and National Review. They were usually funded by, or somehow associated with, Willis Carto. A good example of this is Revilo P. Oliver and his gradual march out of respectability in these years. My work is motivated by the idea that, with the rise of the “alt-right,” we see those racist ideologies marching back into some kind of respectability, usually using libertarian language, and sometimes aided by people who claim to be libertarians.

The task I set myself seems counter-intuitive. Racism is all about group identities and libertarians are all about individual identities. But let’s see what kind of evidence might enable us to draw these connections.

Let’s start with Willis Carto’s publication Right, which we met previously because Murray Rothbard cited it in his defense of “The Negro Revolution.” Carto published Right between 1955-60. It was about the size of Frank Chodorov’s analysis, more of a newsletter than a full-size journal, but there the similarity ended. Chodorov was an able writer, producing thoughtful pieces by his own hand. Right collected a stable of regular writers who wrote lurid and overblown pieces.  For example:

Frontpate of RIGHT with headlines

There is so much here that indicates where Right stands in the politics of the 1950s—firmly allied with the Citizens’ Councils which were founded to preserve racial segregation in the wake of Brown. “Science and Equality” is a paean to a book purporting to show that African Americans were just not as smart as white people. It includes a warning that it is “nothing short of revolutionary for the White-hating Zionist zealots and scientific prostitutes who run our universities, and those who write, censor, and review our books and encyclopedias” such as the Anti-Defamation League  “gestapo.”

This kind of thing was typical of Right, and I could have pretty much taken any front page at random:

Front page of RIGHT: Headline

The bombers in the headline who were allegedly framed were accused of bombing the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple in Atlanta. The “officials” who charged that this was all a frame-up were from the National States’ Rights Party (NSRP), an extremely antisemitic, racist organization. The article suggests you send your money to defend the accused bombers to John G. Crommelin, retired Admiral who vowed to defend white Christians against the Jews. It quotes from Matt Koehl, who was later to command the American Nazi Party. I suppose the NSRP would indeed have been an expert on bombings since one of its founders, J.B. Stoner—who once called Hitler a  “moderate” —would eventually go to prison for a church bombing. In the article on the (ha!) right, Right expresses puzzlement that it is called a “hate publication.” Imagine that.

So, who is reading this stuff? One clue is an advertisement for Right that lists endorsements and, in some cases, non-endorsements of the publication. I assume most of my readers agrees with P.C. Weams: “I think this is disgusting.” Some of the endorsements are completely expected because they were associates of Carto and would be on the board of his organization the Liberty Lobby within a few years. These include novelist Taylor Caldwell and retired military officer Pedro De Valle. There was also William B. Wernecke, a member of the Nazi German-American Bund. We can also find, Russell Maguire, still celebrated in neo-Nazi circles as the publisher of the antisemitic American Mercury magazine which would eventually be taken over by Carto himself. Heck, there is even an endorsement from Teddy Roosevelt’s son, Archibald! But take a look at this one:

Image of a letter that reads:

Robert LeFevre (1911-1986), according to the libertarian think tank, the Mises Institute, had a “legendary impact on a whole generation of libertarians” both through his writings and through his Freedom School, which he later renamed Rampart College. The Freedom School in Colorado was a place where budding individualists could come and learn about the free market and libertarianism. Perhaps the most influential was Charles Koch, often mentioned in Democracy in Chains, of the notorious Koch brothers, who took the lessons of LeFevre’s Freedom School to mean that he was free to pollute our environment as well as buy our political system. LeFevre was also a committed pacifist, although he gladly fought the Girl Scouts about their collectivist ways. So he was no wimp.

Why would LeFevre endorse Carto’s antisemitic publication? It is quite possible that LeFevre and Carto knew each other. LeFevre was the Executive Secretary of the Congress of Freedom, a right wing activist organization, and Carto was on its Board of Directors. Both LeFevre and Carto testified in front of Congress advising the U.S. to pull out of the United Nations. And both were, in the 1950s, relatively young men looking to make a name for themselves in right wing political circles. So LeFevre and Carto might have been engaging in a quid pro quo as two young activists on the move.

I have never seen in any of LeFevre’s writings (for example, here or here) a hint of antisemitism. There is certainly more I will read but I truly doubt I will find an antisemitic “smoking gun.” On the other hand, Robert LeFevre’s name appears on the masthead of at least one issue of Carto’s Holocaust denial journal, Journal of Historical Reivew in 1980.

The question we can now ask is: what kind of inference can we make about LeFevre and Carto based on the evidence we have? Let’s sort out some options.

1. LeFevre was a racist! To make this claim about LeFevre, it seems we first have to figure out why we would say Carto was a racist. We would say Carto was a racist because he did things and wrote things that clearly indicate he thought people of different races were not as good as he was. Just with the evidence I’ve shown you, you know he thought Jews controlled the media, that African Americans were inferior to white people, and that he promoted people who were neo-Nazis, church bombers, and the very worst of our society. Can we say that LeFevre was a racist the way Carto was?

Not really, no. Option 1 is not supported by evidence to show that LeFevre endorsed these views at all. Nor do we have evidence that James Buchanan endorsed white supremacy to any significant extent. Despite accusations that she did so, Nancy MaClean does not make that claim.

2. LeFevre allied himself with a racist. Here we are on much firmer ground. Perhaps LeFevre thought Carto’s opposition to the United Nations and other issues where the two agreed were important enough that LeFevre was willing to overlook the hysterical posturing about our “Zionist masters!” Perhaps LeFevre joined the staff of the Journal of Historical Review, not because it denied the Holocaust, but because it promoted the idea, popular among many libertarians, that FDR tricked the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor. Given these areas of interest, LeFevre might well have decided to throw his lot in with Carto without actually believing the central tenets of Carto’s racism.

So too, with James Buchanan in the 1950s. We do not need to know that Buchanan was a hardcore segregationist, only that he sought to privatize schools in order to advance what he thought of as freedom. He did so by paying little, if any, attention to the African American voices who warned that such a “solution” would guarantee that they would never get a quality education.

It’s so easy to condemn a blatant extremist like Carto, and it’s easy to let LeFevre or Buchanan off the hook, to explain away their indifference, to make excuses that they weren’t really racists, they were interested in other things, like “freedom.”

It’s easy, but it’s also wrong. All it took to enable racist propaganda was for LeFevre to look the other way when Carto began talking about the Jews. All it took was for Buchanan to ignore James Jackson Kilpatrick when he wrote “Negro race, as a race, is in fact an inferior race.”  And all it takes for historians is to pretend none of these alliances happened. That LeFevre or Buchanan were really good people working for everybody’s freedom. And that it was fine that they did so by working with racists.

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7 thoughts on “Reflections on Libertarianism and Racism

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