Editor’s Note: “Libertarianism and the alt-right” is a series consisting of three parts.
Part 1: Leading libertarians denounce Hans-Herman Hoppe, on Sunday.
Part 2: Ludwig von Mises vs. the Ludwig von Mises Institute, on Monday.
Part 3: Libertarian centrism vs. the alt-right, on Tuesday.
Would the real Ludwig von Mises please stand up?
Ludwig von Mises, the Austrian-born economist, was indisputably one of the founding fathers of modern libertarianism.
Through works such as his magnum opus Human Action, Mises helped build the bridge from 19th Century classical liberalism to modern 20th Century libertarianism.
However, the institute created in his name has strayed far from the vision to which Ludwig von Mises dedicated his life.
The leading theorist of Austrian economics
Though the school of thought had pre-existed Mises, it was largely though the association with him that the “Austrian School” became the label for his style of free-market economics.
In the 1920s, Mises articulated and promoted what would become one of the most damning and accurate condemnations of socialism. This was the “calculation problem” about why the market pricing system is crucial to rational economic decision-making.
Mises, from a Jewish family of Austrian nobility, fled Europe and the advance of the Nazis in 1940. He arrived in the United States, at the age of 60, essentially penniless and unable to speak English. He struggled to find an academic berth, eventually accepting a visiting professorship at New York University.
Like other classical liberal scholars who had been displaced by the Third Reich, he was financially supported by the Volker Fund, a key source of early backing for proto-libertarian ideas in the United States.
He also struck up a friendly correspondence with the Russian-born author Ayn Rand, another refugee from foreign totalitarianism, and the two exchanged praise for each other’s books and ideas.
Misesian ideas are now widely incorporated into economic theory
Mises quickly mastered English, and many of his seminal works were translated and republished, having previously only been available in German. Yet he struggled to find mainstream acceptance in the world of academia. But his stature among early libertarians only grew.
In time, the criticisms of socialism and central planning that he first articulated in the 1920s came to be vindicated by the stagnation and repression in nations governed by Communism. Though not all of his ideas have been so accepted, the calculation problem became one of his contributions that is now incorporated into mainstream economic theory.
When fellow Austrian School economist F.A. Hayek was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics in 1974, many saw it partly as not just an honor to him, but an implicit apology for failure to award the same prize to Mises before his death the year prior. (Nobel Prizes are, as a general rule, not awarded posthumously.)
The Mises legacy has always been significant in the of history free-market economics and libertarian political theory. It might have remained obscure to the general public, however, had one of his former students not seized upon the opportunity to rebrand his own idiosyncratic political preferences under the banner of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
An institute less about Mises, and more about Murray Rothbard
The name Murray Rothbard will cause recognition in those steeped in libertarianism, but very few others. He was a chameleon-like political thinker and strategist who insisted that he be associated with the word “libertarianism,” of many sorts.
A student of Mises at NYU, Rothbard’s career had a strange start: He was one of the only New York City supporters of segregationist presidential candidate Strom Thurmond, who ran on a third-party “Dixiecrat” ticket in the 1948 election.
The polemicist, who coined the label “anarcho-capitalist” to describe himself, cycled through political alliances and strategies about every decade. The Robert Taft “Old Right” got a turn in the 1950s, followed by the anti-war “New Left” in the 1960s. The nascent Libertarian Party got its turn in the 1970s, before it too was spurned and denounced by Rothbard.
By the 1980s, Rothbard had returned full circle to where he’d been in 1948. He formed a close association with Lew Rockwell, who had been chief-of-staff to Texas Congressman Ron Paul during his first stint in the House.
Together, Rothbard and Rockwell hit upon a new strategic direction for their vision of the libertarian movement: appealing to and focusing on the marginalized fringes of the populist far-right. They coined a label for this new theory: “paleolibertarianism.”
Paleolibertarianism embraces social conservatism and racially-tinged identity politics
Though later disavowing the term, it was the name that stuck. In time, it came to overlap heavily with the so-called “paleoconservatives,” who had been the inspiration for the prefix.
Paleolibertarianism had a few defining features that distinguish it sharply from other schools of thought under the “libertarian” umbrella. It embraced social conservatism and racially-tinged identity politics, while denouncing as “libertine” the traditional social liberalism and pluralism of the libertarian movement.
While libertarians had usually sought to position themselves as equidistant from both left and right, and opposed to both, the paleos sought to focus their fire on the left and build alliances on the right. This came in the form of aggressively denouncing “political correctness” and progressivism while expressing sympathy for “anti-establishment” right-wing rabble-rousers.
Instead of supporting criminal justice reform and police accountability, the Rothbard-Rockwell duo applauded police brutality against minorities. They were dismissive of libertarian concerns for legalizing things like marijuana and prostitution.
Conspiracy theories about the “New World Order,” and fear-mongering against gays at the height of the HIV epidemic all became part of the paleolibertarian way of thinking.
By appealing to the base of socially conservative populism, the theory went, libertarians could assemble a viable coalition for radically smaller government.
Paleolibertarianism became a scandal for Ron Paul
This idea was deeply problematic from the start. In the Rothbard-Rockwell Report, and the closely related Ron Paul newsletters likely ghost-written by the same two authors, kind words for David Duke and enthusiastic support for Pat Buchanan flowed freely.
Rockwell responded to the Rodney King riots by cheering on the police, and proposing to ban video cameras to stop future recordings of police brutality from sparking protests.
The newsletters would later come back to haunt Ron Paul during his 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. The success of the Paul campaign was largely built around an anti-war message and appeal to younger voters.
Because of Paul’s association with the Mises Institute (he remains a “distinguished counselor”), his political success also translated into greater prominence for the institute. The taint of the newsletters blunted some that momentum, throwing a surprisingly successful campaign into a tailspin of recriminations and damage control.
Renouncing the newsletters without revealing their authors
Paul renounced the newsletters during that controversy, insisting that he had not personally written the inflammatory language. But he also refused to disclose the identity the real authors.
There was little secret about it to longtime liberty-movement observers, though. It was plain that many of the ghost-written pieces were in the combative voices and styles of either Rockwell or Rothbard, both of which were in sharp contrast to the genteel and mild-mannered Paul.
Here it was, years before Donald Trump became associated with a political movement, or years before Breitbart, or even before the techno-libertarianism of the internet: The basic ingredients for what would ultimately become the alt-right were coming together.
These ideas, beyond just newsletters, needed an institutional home. And that home needed a name. They got it by robbing the grave of Ludwig von Mises.
The current staff impugn the good name of Ludwig von Mises
Between Rothbard’s embrace of the Libertarian Party, and his return to his segregationist roots, he had a falling out with Ed Crane, the founder of the Cato Institute and the campaign manager for the 1980 Libertarian Party presidential campaign of Ed Clark and David Koch. Rothbard played a role in first few years of the Cato Institute, but blanched at its pragmatism and respectability.
He decided that his own brand of libertarianism needed an institutional home that would stick to his hardline and obscurest vision.
With funding from some some hard-money goldbugs keen on advocating for the gold standard in 1982, Rothbard found a home for the Mises Institute in rented offices on the campus of Auburn University, in Alabama.
The somewhat unusual choice of location wasn’t a coincidence. Paleolibertarian figures often expressed sympathy and support for neo-Confederate groups and Southern resistance to the civil rights movement. They sought to capitalize on the relationship by placing their new organization in the heart of the Deep South, far away from the liberal coastal elites and the D.C. establishment.
Despite their disagreements on numerous fundamental issues, Rothbard still considered Ludwig von Mises his mentor, and thought of himself as at least one of Mises’s intellectual heirs.
By 1982, Mises himself had been dead for almost a decade. He was survived by his widow, however, and Margit von Mises was persuaded to give her consent to use of the name. Thus was born the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Rothbard would continue to be closely affiliated with the Mises Institute until his own death in 1995. Rockwell still serves as its chairman today. He’s one of the leading figures in its broader orbit of right-leaning paleolibertarians.
The institute hasn’t always been a hotbed of racialist thinking
The Mises Institute’s penchant for the “cultural conservative” paleolibertarian strategy has waxed and waned over the years. For stretches, it seemed to adopt a more inclusive stance, one that even included self professed left-libertarians with an “anti-establishment” flavor.
Still, much of the underlying biases and precepts of the “paleo” vision remained. In 2009, for reasons that remain obscure and disputed, but which may have been related to the old newsletter issue flaring up during the Paul 2008 campaign, Rockwell initiated what has been described as a “purge” of the institute’s more left- and center-leaning scholars and writers.
While more mainstream libertarians were pushed out or left, the Institute gave an increasingly prominent platform to figures like the theocracy-minded advocate of death-by-stoning Gary North; pro-Confederate historical writer Thomas di Lorenzo; Tom Woods, a founding member of the ‘Anglo-Celtic’ nationalist League of the South; and Hans-Hermann Hoppe. (See Part 1 of this series.)
Hoppe’s idea of libertarianism is to push for notionally private communities that would forcibly expel homosexuals, drug users, non-Christians, and other so-called “degenerates.”
The Mises Institute nurses grudges from the tail end of the disco era
Today, the Mises Institute and its associated LewRockwell.com website focus heavily on issues where they claim libertarians are wrongly alienating far-right support. Advocates of immigration reform are sneered at as “open-borderites.”
Reason magazine, long the flagship popular population of the libertarian movement, is derided as “[T]reason.” Rarely does a week go past without a broadside against the Cato Institute, nursing a grudge from the tail end of the disco era.
The Libertarian Party often becomes a target too. They particularly targeted Gov. Gary Johnson after his nomination as the party’s presidential candidate in 2016, with his campaign strategy of focusing on appeal to the “fiscally conservative, socially liberal” center.
The institute that bears Mises’ name has always more closely resembled the feuds and peculiarities of Murray Rothbard, even more than two decades after Rothbard’s death.
Mises Institute fellows have gushed in support of Donald Trump and the alt-right Steve Bannon
Then came Donald Trump and the rise of the alt-right. While most libertarians were horrified by his ascent, praise for the Donald has naturally flowed from Auburn.
“Libertarians for Donald Trump” was promoted by Mises Senior Fellow Walter Block, who argued in debates that libertarians should vote for him instead of Johnson, at least in swing states.
Referring to Trump’s alt-right chief strategist Steve Bannon, the Rockwell blog gushed that “Bannonism is libertarianism” because he represents “Austrian Economics applied to culture.”
Long-simmering tensions between the Mises Institute and other, more mainstream libertarian organizations surged when Trumpish neo-Nazi groups and white nationalist pledged to “Unite the Right” in their march on Charlottesville in August.
One of the sparks in the tenderbox was set off when Jeff Deist, currently Mises Institute’s president, gave a speech titled “For a New Libertarian.” He extolled libertarians to care more about “blood and soil and God and nationalism.”
As he explained, “an Irishman is not an Aboriginal, a Buddhist is not a Rastafarian, a soccer mom is not a Russian.”
The phrase “blood and soil” was one of the most notorious slogans of the Nazi Party. Days after Deist’s speech, hundreds of tiki-torch-wielding neo-Nazis would be chanting the same phrase as they terrorized Charlottesville in their support of a statue of Robert E. Lee.
The real Ludwig von Mises
This seems disturbingly dissonant to the memory of the man that many libertarians consider an intellectual hereo, Ludwig von Mises.
He was an immigrant refugee, a Jew who fled the Holocaust, an internationally-minded universalist, a staunch atheist harshly dismissive of the teachings of Christianity, and a consequentialist utilitarian.
Now, under his name, attacks are printed on “open-borderites” and “cosmopolitans” who fail to appreciate the importance of “blood and soil,” the supremacy of ethnic distinctions and conservative Christianity.
Rescuing the man from the ignominy being foisted on him is best done by letting Ludwig von Mises speak for himself.
From his 1927 book Liberalism, whose title was the word he used to describe his philosophy before the modern term ‘libertarian’ came into widespread usage:
The goal of the domestic policy of liberalism is the same as that of its foreign policy: peace. It aims at peaceful cooperation just as much between nations as within each nation. The starting point of liberal thought is the recognition of the value and importance of human cooperation, and the whole policy and program of liberalism is designed to serve the purpose of maintaining the existing state of mutual cooperation among the members of the human race and of extending it still further. The ultimate ideal envisioned by liberalism is the perfect cooperation of all mankind, taking place peacefully and without friction. Liberal thinking always has the whole of humanity in view and not just parts. It does not stop at limited groups; it does not end at the border of the village, of the province, of the nation, or of the continent. Its thinking is cosmopolitan and ecumenical: it takes in all men and the whole world. Liberalism is, in this sense, humanism; and the liberal, a citizen of the world, a cosmopolite.
Tomorrow: The dawn of libertarian centrism