Twisting Libertarianism

by Kevin D. Williamson
Michael Lind either misunderstands it or is intellectually dishonest.

If you would like to see everything that is wrong, shallow, and dishonest about our contemporary political discourse in one neat package, read Michael Lind’s recent drive-by defamation of Bryan Caplan, “Libertarians’ scary new star.”

Start with whoever writes the headlines over at Salon and that adjective, “new.” Professor Caplan has enjoyed some prominence for some time now, and, even accounting for the fact that the writers at Salon, to say nothing of the readers, don’t seem to get out much, intellectually speaking, his work is not new to readers of, say, The New Yorker or Psychology Today. Professor Caplan is one of the few serious thinkers of his tendency who have managed to connect to some extent with audiences beyond the relatively narrow libertarian and conservative circles. The irony here is that one of his more famous ideas, the “ideological Turing test,” would be of great benefit to Mr. Lind, among others.

The ideological Turing test, modeled on Alan Turing’s 1950 thought experiment for measuring the approximation of intelligence in computers, is relatively simple. It holds that a political partisan can be said to adequately understand opposing ideas if he is able to articulate them in such a way that his explanation would be indistinguishable from an explanation offered by a person holding those ideas when judged by a neutral panel. Judging from his piece on Professor Caplan, Mr. Lind has about as much a chance of clearing that hurdle as I do of dancing Coppélia with the Bolshoi Ballet.

Mr. Lind’s piece contains no analysis. Like a great deal of what currently passes for commentary, it is mostly a half-organized swarm of insults out of which emerges the occasional tendentious misstatement of Professor Caplan’s views and those of the libertarian thinkers with whom he is sometimes associated. Mr. Lind begins by bemoaning our alleged national descent into plutocracy and writes: “Some on the libertarian right have responded to this research by welcoming our new plutocratic overlords. Among these is Bryan Caplan.” Professor Caplan, author of The Myth of the Rational Voter, is a trenchant critic of electoral decision-making. Voters, he argues, suffer from specific, predictable biases — anti-market bias, anti-foreign bias, make-work bias, and pessimistic bias — that causes them to hold, and act on, untrue beliefs about the way the world works. Being an economist, Professor Caplan focuses on what voters believe about economics vs. what professional economists believe. He characterizes the typical American voter as a moderate national socialist who strongly supports state intervention in many areas, and remarks, “Given public opinion, the policies of First World democracies are surprisingly libertarian.”

There is a great deal of agreement among the poor, the middle class, and the rich on most political issues, but the rich are significantly more libertarian than are the poor. As Professor Caplan notes, the wealthy and the poor both support raising the minimum wage, but the poor much more strongly so. You might think that that is a question of narrow self-interest, but self-interest, counterintuitively, has little effect on public opinion. And the rich are more libertarian than the poor not only on economic issues but also on social issues. The poor are “much more anti-gay,” Professor Caplan writes. “They’re much less opposed to restricting free speech to fight terrorism.” On the relatively few issues on which there is strong disagreement between the poor and the rich, the preferences of the rich have tended to prevail, and that pleases Professor Caplan, because that means that more libertarian policies are put into place than public opinion would suggest. “To avoid misinterpretation,” he writes, “this does not mean that American democracy has a strong tendency to supply the policies that most materially benefit the rich. It doesn’t.” But there is no avoiding misinterpretation when the opposite side is committed to misinterpreting you. Professor Caplan celebrates the advance of gay rights, pushback against the surveillance state, and, regrettably (especially for the author of Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids), abortion rights, among other items on the progressive social agenda. Mr. Lind sees only a champion of plutocracy — because that is all he is inclined to see.

Mr. Lind, who shares with fellow former conservative David Brock the convert’s zeal, is something of a fanatic on the subject of libertarianism, and the bulk of his piece is dedicated to abominating every libertarian thinker he’s ever heard of, making the case that the abominable Professor Caplan should fit right in. He starts with the predictable home-run swing (“you might be tempted to dismiss Bryan Caplan as just another Koch-funded libertarian hack . . . ” and follows up with “Koch-subsidized intelligentsia of the libertarian right,” “almost all of them are paid, directly or indirectly, by a handful of angry, arrogant rich guys,” “third-rate minds like Peter Thiel”), goes right into the shallow insults (“that near-oxymoron, libertarian thought”), and then proceeds to the greatest hits: “Ludwig von Mises praised Mussolini,” “Friedrich von Hayek” [NB: The Hayek family ceased being the “von Hayek” family in 1919, when Hayek was twenty, and he did not use the honorific himself, but that “von” sounds kind of Nazi-ish, so, there you have it] admired the military dictator Augusto Pinochet,” and closes out with moral preening: “Our squalid age of plutocratic democracy has found a thinker worthy of it.”

Is any of that true?

Begin with the claim that “Ludwig von Mises praised Mussolini.” Mr. Lind cites a passage from Mises’s The Foundations of Liberal Policy as evidence. Mussolini himself is not considered at all in the work, in which Mises describes fascism as “evil,” as an ideology that “cannot fail to give rise to an endless series of wars that must destroy all of modern civilization,” and argues that “fascism does nothing to combat [socialism] except to suppress socialist ideas and to persecute the people who spread them. If it wanted really to combat socialism, it would have to oppose it with ideas. There is, however, only one idea that can be effectively opposed to socialism, viz., that of liberalism.” Mises concludes that in the struggle against Communism, fascism was an “emergency makeshift. To view it as something more would be a fatal error.” That is not praise of Mussolini or his ideology.

This is not a matter of opinion or a question of interpretation. It is simply untrue to claim that Mises admired Mussolini or fascism. This is all in the same chapter that Mr. Lind cites; all he had to do was read it and to exercise some degree of intellectual honesty.

Hayek, like Milton Friedman, advised the Pinochet government, and I’ve always liked Friedman’s response to those who criticized his doing so: “I gave them good advice.” He made identical presentations to the Communist government of China, which, unlike the Pinochet regime, did not have the good sense to follow some of Friedman’s advice. Friedman was no mooncalf: “I have nothing good to say about the political regime that Pinochet imposed.” Hayek had more of a blind spot when it came to Chile and was privately rebuked by Margaret Thatcher for failing to fully take account of the abuses that were going on there. But is it true that Hayek personally admired General Pinochet? He repeatedly said that he believed the Pinochet regime to be an improvement on the Marxist strongman Salvador Allende. Whether you think that that is an indefensible position probably depends strongly on your views about Communism. Was Mises, writing in 1927, when the Third International had declared war on liberal government categorically and was carrying out armed insurgencies around the world, a crypto-fascist because he was pleased to see the Communists defeated? It is impossible to be even trivially familiar with his work and his beliefs to conclude that. The irony here is that Mr. Lind is the author of a book expounding the glories of one of Mussolini’s main tenets: nationalism. Not to mention that he is the author of a love poem to Woodrow Wilson, the American president who most closely resembled Mussolini’s ideal.

Many who were very pleased to see Francisco Franco triumph over the Communists in Spain were not closet Falangists, and many who wished victory for Chiang Kai-shek bore no brief for the Kuomintang. It is a very old, tired, and cheap rhetorical ploy to revisit a century of Communist insurrection around the world and to tar the anti-Communists with the crimes of ideologically distant forces that also opposed Communism. Strange that the American Left, which actively supported and still supports Communist regimes around the world, is rarely if ever associated with the 100 million–and-counting murders on that unhappy account. Pinochet or Allende? Thomas Jefferson was not available for duty in Chile.

Also, “third-rate mind like Peter Thiel”? Does anybody who can read (especially if they read verse) really believe that Michael Lind is in any sort of position to sit in intellectual judgment of Peter Thiel? Does any serious person think that the founder of PayPal and Palantir, a former federal appeals-court clerk, Stanford philosophy graduate, and rated chess master is a third-rate mind? Michael Lind could dedicate his entire life to trying to build something like Palantir and not make a dent. The New America Foundation, which employs Mr. Lind, is chaired by Google’s Eric Schmidt. I wonder if he thinks that Peter Thiel’s intellect is third-rate. But that sort of preposterous name-calling makes intellectual mediocrities — writers and their readers both — feel smart. 

There is something interesting to say, though Mr. Lind probably is not capable of saying it, about Professor Caplan’s views on the defects of democracy, which are in some ways very radical but in many ways very familiar. The belief that voters will often choose bad policies, support inhumane values, or do violence to national principles is hardly new — it is, for instance, why we have a Bill of Rights. It is true that poor Americans are more likely to support government censorship than are wealthy Americans — should we lament that the First Amendment still, a Senate Democrat or 40 notwithstanding, prevails?

I do not believe that Mr. Lind is intellectually capable of writing with honesty and insight about Professor Caplan or his ideas. But if I have learned anything from Bryan Caplan, it is to be open to the possibility that I am wrong. So I offer a challenge: If Michael Lind can pass Professor Caplan’s ideological Turing test, I will publish the results here, send him my last bottle of 1982 Bordeaux with my compliments, and read his dopey Woodrow Wilson poem on an upcoming episode of Mad Dogs and Englishmen. He has nothing to lose — he’ll have to go on being Michael Lind in either case. I look forward to his response.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.