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Aug 30, 2011

Michael Lind’s False Alternative

Michael Lind writes at Salon.com: “Having denounced liberals as crypto communists for half a century during the Cold War, the American right now routinely accuses the center-left of being fascist.” Lind goes on to wonder why “American conservatives and libertarians” have avoided discussion of their own “heroes” who seem to have been soft on fascists. He specifically mentions Ludwig von Mises’s remarks about the Italian Fascists in the 1920s (in his book Liberalism) and F. A. Hayek’s and Milton Friedman’s alleged approval of Augusto Pinochet’s “free market” dictatorship in Chile.

The first thing I want to say is that by putting libertarianism on the right and linking it with conservatism, Lind indicates that his knowledge of the libertarian movement is rather superficial. Philosophically the differences are too fundamental to permit such a mistake in a conscientious observer. If libertarianism belongs anywhere, it is on the left.

Lind’s article contains much to comment on, but here I want to make just one or two points. Even if Mises, Hayek, and Friedman really approved of fascist regimes (one can disagree with them while maintaining that things aren’t quite so simple), it would take more than that to indict libertarianism. Lind never explains why this alleged record doesn’t merely reflect on the particular named individuals who for one reason or another departed from their stated libertarian principles.

After all, what is there in libertarianism that would incline an adherent to feel the least sympathy for fascist dictators? Certainly nothing obvious.

The closest Lind gets to answering that question is his pointing out that libertarians dislike democracy, the implication being that one who dislikes democracy necessarily likes autocracy. That’s a strange argument indeed, as Roderick Long points out here. As Long writes, “[L]ibertarians don’t oppose democracy (in the conventional sense) because they hanker after autocracy; they oppose democracy because it is too much like autocracy.”

It’s not as though there are no alternatives to democracy and autocracy. How about market anarchism, where majorities don’t rule minorities and minorities don’t rule majorities? And libertarian minarchists can say to Lind that they accept democratic decision-making but only in the smallest area necessary, while otherwise opposing rule by both majorities and minorities.

Lind commits a major gaffe by taking democracy at face value; it seems not to have occurred to him that democracy might not be exactly what it is purported to be. Indeed, it has long been argued that a façade of majoritarianism typically masks a form of aristocracy, or minority rule. The historian Edmund Morgan refers to this as the fiction of representation. I discuss Morgan’s thesis here.

Had Lind not swallowed the civics-book hype and understood that democracy is not actually rule by the people, he might have sized libertarianism up differently.

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