Politics & Policy

Our Savonarolas

(Ralph Freso/Getty)
On the ethos of “Burn it down!”

Odd news that maybe isn’t so odd: A presidential straw poll conducted by a libertarian student group found that the most popular candidate among its members was Donald Trump. Second place: Bernie Sanders.


Young libertarians for elderly socialists: Not as strange as it sounds, or unprecedented.

Fifty years ago, the libertarian (he’d have said “anarcho-capitalist”) economist and political analyst Murray Rothbard dreamt of a grand coalition between far Left and far Right, whose members and interests, he believed, might be unified momentarily and perhaps more than momentarily by opposition to the Vietnam War. This was an error and led him to some ghastly places (thrilling to the stirrings of David Duke and culpable indulgence of Holocaust deniers) and into associations from which the liberty movement has never recovered.

What might drive a young libertarian into the “revolution” that Sanders proclaims? One thing is the ongoing Rothbardian bent in libertarian foreign-policy thinking, and Sanders is the only candidate in the race who isn’t entirely hostile to non-interventionism on the Ron Paul model. On lifestyle-libertarian issues — marijuana, stance toward religious traditionalists and their institutions — Sanders is the libertarians’ man, in practice. Sanders is energetically anti-libertarian on questions of trade and immigration, but a nontrivial number of self-professed libertarians have abandoned those issues or reversed themselves on them, “libertarian” now being used with unfortunate looseness to mean “right-wing populist who does not wish to be identified with Mitch McConnell’s party.”

We also are seeing the poison dividend of the bank bailouts.

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Free-marketeers and free-traders must of course be realists about big business and its interests to the extent that we live in the real world, but for a generation, the working assumption was that the party of capitalism and the party of capitalists were if not the same party then largely on the same side, give or take an ethanol subsidy or in-house fight about intellectual property. The bailouts changed that.

The sort of libertarians who might have followed Rothbard into the sweaty precincts of David Duke’s political thinking have always had some uneasiness about the (Jewish) international bankers who terrified Henry Ford, and you’ll generally find them in possession of a copy of The Creature from Jekyll Island, the ur-text of Federal Reserve conspiracy theory. The spectacle of a small number of financial institutions throwing the world into an economic crisis through their fecklessness and rapacity and then demanding sweetheart loans amounting to trillions of dollars to see them through — a drama in which the banks were both the hostages and the hostage-takers — brought new life to the dry bones of 1930s conspiracy theories.

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And the banks and other businesses have encouraged those conspiracy theories by conspiring. That is why we have an agency of the federal government whose only meaningful business is providing attractive financing to overseas clients of Boeing and a few other politically connected firms.

There are a number of standing roles in American public life: For example, there is always a place for a spokesman for black America who is treated as a spiritual heir to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., regardless of whether he merits it. (No, Jesse Jackson does not.) There’s always a Christian preacher-in-chief and an alpha feminist and the Face of Good Capitalism (Bill Gates, I suppose, or Warren Buffett). There is also the Saint, the One Incorruptible Man. I rolled my eyes when Nassim Taleb insisted that Senator Sanders “has all the attributes of a secular saint” and that “he brings sainthood to public service,” but there is something to that. People were attracted to Ralph Nader for that reason, and the same energy animated Ron Paul’s movement and now Senator Sanders’s. The candidates have similar affects and similar presentations: thin adenoidal men in ill-fitting suits, men who display no love of wealth and no awe of its holders, men who do not talk the way politicians usually talk. Senator Sanders may not be a saint, but he is something of a secular Jewish Puritan, a socialist Savonarola. Such men inspire tremendous personal loyalty.

And of course libertarians know a little something about cults of personality.

#share#One of the worse scenes in a very bad novel, Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, concludes with an enlightened judge, working in heroically lonely fashion at his desk in the late hours to revise the Constitution. “He sat at a table, and the light of his lamp fell on the copy of an ancient document. He had marked and crossed out the contradictions in its statements that had once been the cause of its destruction.” Libertarianism, as opposed to liberalism (what we conservatives are obliged to call “classical liberalism” to avoid being confused with Sanders voters) is an ideology, whereas liberalism is a cast of mind, a set of principles that can conflict with one another, some of them axiomatic and some derived from experience. Libertarians of the Rand variety dream of a world without politics: Once you have received the Truth, you become a sort of freedom-mullah, and there is no need to stage a convention or take a vote when revising the fundamental law of the land. A is A and that is that. Liberalism admits contradictions and limitations: freedom, yes, but stability, too; property rights, of course, but Washington still puts down the whiskey rebels.

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In American English, the word for “liberalism” is (perversely) “conservatism,” American conservatives being those who would conserve the Anglo-Protestant liberal order that proceeds, in no sort of a straight line, from Magna Carta through Adam Smith to New England and Virginia to F. A. Hayek and Ronald Reagan. Some conservatives, especially those who are suspicious of free trade and believe Americans to be the victims of scheming foreigners, reject that liberalism, dreaming instead of a throne-and-altar conservatism in a nation that knows no throne and whose ancestors threw fits over the installation of altar rails in English churches. Some of them have taken to calling themselves “libertarian nationalists,” a term with no meaning. They dream of arraying Americans into Prussian ranks rather than permitting them to go about their essentially anarchic business as they have for several centuries now; they would curtail free enterprise in the name of preserving the nation, without understanding that to impose such a nationalism on the American nation would produce a disfigurement leaving that nation unrecognizable.

Right-wing anti-capitalism has been both an elite preoccupation (the old aristocrats lamented the nouveaux riches and their manners) and a populist tendency, the latter of which survives (aristocracy didn’t). And libertarian anti-capitalism, for the moment, is thriving, and the operating motto of the liberty movement is “I like weed and porn but don’t think much of taxes and bankers.” Trump or Sanders, Sanders or Trump: not exactly the stuff of inspiration.

#related#There is an inspiring alternative. Homo sapiens has been around for about 200,000 years, and for the first 198,240 nothing happened. And then something did, and the material condition of the human race was changed radically in an almost inconceivably short period of time. Sixty-six years passed between the Wright brothers’ flight at Kitty Hawk and our landing on the moon. Sixteen years passed between the publication of The Grapes of Wrath and the opening of Disneyland. Ten years ago, no one had ever seen an iPhone. These changes did not happen because there is a law of nature demanding that Americans in 2016 be happy, well-fed, and secure. They happened because of ideas, habits, practices, culture, and political institutions that came from particular men in a particular time and place. Those ideas have enemies, two of whom are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

“Give him a shot, it couldn’t be any worse!” they say. But if there’s one thing conservatives know, it’s that things could always be worse. “Revolution!” they say. “Burn it all down!” they say. No, no, no, I think not.


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