A Good Case can be Made That He Was
With our new Education Secretary, Betsy Devos the idea of moving away from public schools via vouchers for private schools is once again in the news. Many feel there are insufficient safeguards against discrimination in many voucher programs. An important bit of history is that the notion of privatizing school has its roots in the battle to preserve racial segregation in the era of “massive resistance.” When the Center for American Progress (CAP) pointed this out, the libertarian Cato Institute issued a rather weak response. Libertarians, I think, like to ignore the rather sad history of their movement’s commitment to racial justice.
The CAP report focuses on Prince Edward County, Virginia. This story is related to James M. Buchanan, the subject of Nancy Maclean’s Democracy in Chains. The libertarian right have attacked this book fiercely . Here is what I find notable about many of the criticisms of her book. They pounce on certain words (she says “lodestar!”), her interpretations of some of the quotations she cites, minor incidents of Buchanan’s career, or some minutia of Buchanan’s “public choice theory.” Rhetorician Kenneth Burke nailed this strategy in the 1950s in his essay, “On the Art of Debunking:
It would seem they are no longer seeking good arguments; rather they are seeking any arguments, if only there be enough of them to keep running through the headlines, an avalanche of arguments, condemnations, prophecies of dire calamity, “statistical proofs,” pronouncements by private and institutional “authorities,” a barrage, a snowing under, a purely quantitative mode of propaganda, Are there no eagles among their utterances? Very well, let them be instead a swarm of mosquitoes. Before you could refute this morning’s, there is a new batch out this afternoon.
When can we say a libertarian was a racist?
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.
My dear wife (married 31 years this coming August!) told me that as a child she used to love to be in a bookstore or a library and just walk down the aisles and read the book titles. Not open the books. Not read the books. She just enjoyed reading the titles. If you are person who just enjoys reading book titles it is hard to go wrong reading libertarian titles. They may offer extremely questionable answers to society’s problems, they may have morally suspect fellow-travelers, they may show a near-complete insensitivity to the most vulnerable among us, but damn they can write a nice book title. As one who struggles with writing even a passable title, I can only gaze in wonder. There are Mozarts in the world and I will always be Salieri. You know the old saying: “Those who can compose a great book titles compose great book titles; those who can’t compose lists of other people’s great book titles.” What? It is too a saying! Shut up.
Libertarians have great titles because they manage to evoke the core of their ideology in very few words. The language they use is evocative, stirring up emotions while, somehow, simultaneously giving the appearance of cold rationality.
A couple things to keep in mind: first, this is not a list of great libertarian books (are there any?), it is a list of great libertarian book titles. I’m hardly qualified to give you a list of the books you should read to become a libertarian, but I love these titles. Second, no Ayn Rand titles. Atlas Shrugged may or may not be a good title, but I’m kicking her out of the competition because I’m arbitrary and capricious and narrow-minded.
With all that in mind, I offer to you a Top Ten List of great libertarian book titles.
My mom told me a story once about being a little girl when she and my grandparents drove from their home in South Dakota to California. It was sometime in the 1940s, after the war, and she might have been ten years old or so. Lord knows how long that must have taken in those pre-Interstate Highway days. Obeying some rules of travel known only to her, my grandmother insisted that my mom sit in the front seat between the two adults for the entirety of the trip. My grandmother, with the reasonable patience for which the German people are known, spent a lot of time criticizing her daughter for not having Sitzfleisch.
As difficult (and boring for any normal 10-year-old girl) that trip must have been, it must have been immeasurably more difficult for African American travelers of the time. The South, of course, was legally segregated, but things were not any better in the North or the West. The law allowed any private business to refuse service to African Americans simply because they were African Americans. When travelling, African Americans could never be sure if they would be refused service at the restaurant they stopped at for lunch, the gas station they stopped to refuel, or the motel they stopped in to rest. One resource they had was the Green Book, a guide that showed them the places where they would be welcome. As the introduction stated:
With the introduction of this travel guide in 1936, it has been our idea to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.
The legend on the cover has a rather ominous warning: “You may need it.” It was not even a matter of your kids going hungry because you can’t find dinner or sleeping in the car because you can’t find lodging. It was also a matter of avoiding a violent reception in an area where the police could not be counted on to enforce the law.
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 Events, which 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.
Steve Bannon, who has been pulling Trump’s strings, has hit some setbacks. He got booted from his post at the National Security Council and there are whispers that he’s feuding with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who is suddenly very important in the administration. Still, there are reasons to believe that “Bannonism” will live on, even if Bannon has a reduced (or no) role in the administration. But what is “Bannonism?” Bannon’s agenda is outside mainstream politics and his “worldview comes across as a fairly incoherent hodge-podge of incompatible ideologies whose common thread is hatred of elites.” Part of my goal in this blog is to show that Bannon’s ideology, or at least as much as we can see of it, has a specific history in the postwar American right.