The Austrian

Liberalism and Illiberalism in the Twenty-First Century

Peyton Gouzien TA Wire

Peyton Gouzien: Welcome to Repeal the 20th Century. I have a very special guest, Jeff Deist. For those who do not know, Jeff Deist is the president of the Mises Institute and hosts the Institute’s Human Action Podcast.

I wanted to have you on, Mr. Deist, because I’ve seen you talk about how illiberal the twentieth century was, and as you know, the name of the podcast is Repeal the 20th Century, which is a direct quote from Murray Rothbard’s “Strategy for the Right,” in which he says, “Many critics of the Right say that what we want to do is repeal the twentieth century.” And he says, “In fact, that is exactly what we want to do.” Let’s start with the grand overview of why you think the twentieth century is an illiberal century.

Jeff Deist: That’s a tough one. We could be here all night. What we have to understand is liberalism as a word and as a concept have been bastardized terribly, and the same is true for libertarianism. We’ve got a couple of really loaded terms here. We’d like to think that libertarianism is the new word for liberalism. That’s not entirely true, but let’s just assume that it is. What we’re talking about when it comes to liberalism is from the nineteenth century, not the twentieth. What Mises means in his book Liberalism and when he’s writing about the nature of the state in Socialism, he really means liberalism. This is liberalism, this is early in the twentieth century when he’s writing, so obviously, he’s writing about the nineteenth century in the rearview mirror.

The first mistake that so many people make is that they assume that the twentieth century was somehow some triumph of liberalism. Nothing could be further from the case. The West in the twentieth century meant central banking, it meant income taxes, it meant social security retirement schemes, and the Great Society and entitlement programs. It meant two horrific world wars. As far as the United States was concerned, it meant a terrible police action in Korea. We’re still there seventy- odd years later, spending trillions of dollars throughout those seventy years. It meant a quagmire in Vietnam. And then toward the end of the twentieth century, under Bush the first, it meant a terrible foray into Kuwait and Iraq.

There’s nothing liberal about any of that. And so, I certainly agree with Murray Rothbard in this idea that we ought to repeal those things. I think that’s as good a dividing line as any between, let’s say, a garden-variety, or Beltway, libertarian and a Rothbardian.

PG: Do you think the twentieth century was a liberal triumph or an illiberal disaster?

JD: That’s a little grandiose, it’s not quite that dramatic. Obviously there were very, very, very good things which happened throughout the twentieth century in technology and otherwise. We shouldn’t paint it with too broad a brush, but if we’re trying to come up with broad parameters for purposes of the conversation, I think that’s a good place to start. And from my perspective, the twenty-first century has not started off with a bang, to put it mildly. The problem is that all of us get caught up in this idea that there’s got to be new, new, new. There’s got to be a new economics, there’s got to be a new political theory. The only thing new is technology. That’s the only thing new. There really is nothing new under the sun when it comes to organizing human affairs or when it comes to human nature, a concept which our progressive friends basically reject. And when I say progressive friends, I mean of all stripes. There are libertarian progressives, left progressives, right progressives. A progressive is simply somebody who believes humans can and ought to be perfected to serve a broader collective or state purpose and that they’re not fallen people. We can effectively be transhumans if we use enough technology and if we just get people over these stubborn old attachments they have to the old way.

So yes, I think the twentieth century ought to be viewed illiberally and the twenty-first century project ought to be “What can we do or undo from that period?”

The more I think about it, technology’s obviously a double-edged sword. It’s been a huge boon to mankind, and it’s also been a huge threat to mankind, as when states get their hands on it. Yes, we ought to be using technology, we ought to be using privatization, we ought to be using private models of governance, but I think the twentieth century, especially if you view it through Hoppe’s Democracy: The God That Failed, it gives us that ability today. When you move from aristocracy to democracy, that doesn’t necessarily mean things get more liberal. Democracy doesn’t do away with the problem of oligarchs, it just transfers it from maybe a hereditary monarch or another kind of aristocrat to a democratic bureaucratic managerial elite, and that goes beyond just government or the so-called deep state, the federal agencies. That dovetails with media and academia and popular culture and NGOs and religious denominations. It’s broader than just the state.

But we have that wisdom the twentieth century affords us that our grandparents didn’t have, that Mises didn’t have when he was praising democracy as allowing for the peaceful transfer of power. We do have that wisdom and that hindsight. So let’s use it. Let’s just say democracy is not the full and final form of governance. I’m not interested in government, but I am interested in governance, two very different things. And I think we can do far better in the twenty-first century if we get over some of our shibboleths: democracy, egalitarianism, and the idea that voting solves things. What I’m saying is that we don’t have the excuse of ignorance with the twentieth century to guide us. We start there, and we begin to redefine liberalism away from its current use and toward looking in the rearview mirror, toward more of a nineteenth-century conception of the term, which was rigorously property and self-determination.

PG: You ran a Twitter poll in which you asked people, “Do you think the twentieth century was liberal or illiberal?” It is a very good line to use to separate the wheat from the chaff—in this case, the Rothbardians from the Beltway libertarians—in their view of the twentieth century. Another question to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were, is “Are you antiwar or not?” If you’re antiwar, then you can be convinced of positions, A, B, and C. If you’re not, even if you agree with us on other things, it’s predictive of really horrible positions.

Why do you think the twentieth century was illiberal or liberal and exposed the darker areas in so-called libertarians?

JD: That’s a good question. I think economics is really just another term for society. And as a matter of fact, Mises thought about calling Human Action, “Social Cooperation.” That was an alternative title for the book. So, where libertarianism falls down is, first of all, it accepts a denuded idea of property rights and, second, it attempts to attach a whole host of left cultural precepts. In other words, property is really the basis of everything, even self-ownership. Because a human being has to stand somewhere, they have to occupy a square foot of earth. They presumably have to have clothes on their back against the elements. They need to have some sort of calories coming into their body. This is all property. When you start to try to relegate property to simply the realm of economics, it opens up a whole broader compartment to liberty, which is basically this bastardized concept of self-actualization. You’re not free simply because you have property. You’re free because the conditions exist in society which allow you to sort of self-actualize and be who you are and you don’t have to have all these hang-ups from some church or your parents or grandparents judging you or this broader society. We need to get rid of authority figures, we need to flatten things out to be less hierarchical. You’re not truly free, and you can veer from libertarianism into leftism if you say, “You’re not truly free if you have to worry about your rent or housing, if you have to worry about food, if you have to worry about paying for education or healthcare, if you have to work”—all these things make you unfree.

And of course, that’s basic Marx right there. Marx said, “Imagine if we were all freed of these day-to-day petty concerns about money.” Well, then we’d all go out and be the poets and the artists and the dancers and the creative people deep within us, if we didn’t have this workaday world. Can you imagine how incredibly crappy most people would be at poetry or art or dancing? There’s a reason why very few people get paid to swing a golf club or dance in a ballet or perform in an orchestra. Nothing wrong with a workaday job. It’s the most admirable thing on earth, actually.

We like to think that left-right distinctions only apply to conservatives and liberals, but that’s not really true. There’s a left and right worldview, and it’s in most of us. Whether it’s hardwired or whether it’s environmental, that’s above my paygrade, I don’t know. In most of us—now, there are outliers, there are exceptions to any rule—there’s an instinctive, reflexive tendency to revere tradition, order, society, antiquity, whatever it might be, and be a little more suspicious about radical change.

Then there’s the flip side, where people basically view the past as retrograde and racist. There’s an inevitable happy arc to human history and we’re always progressing forward and advancing, and by the way, we’re becoming better people. Are you really better than your great- grandparents? I doubt very much you’re tougher, and I doubt very much you’ve worked as hard.

We take a lot of the material world around us for granted, but we’re standing on the shoulders of a lot of generations before us that made that Starbucks on every corner and all this beautiful infrastructure and energy and transportation and buildings and travel and unbelievable food. All this stuff is possible because of the capital accumulation of previous generations, and capital accumulation is just another word for profit. Profit is the source of savings, and savings are the source of capital investment, and capital investment is the source of this wonderful material world around us, but not all of us. I mean, there are still billions of people on earth in the third world, for example, who don’t have that. So, the project’s not complete, and I’m not trying to argue it is, but what I am saying is that some people are wired a little more egalitarian or a little more traditional.

I do care about political liberty. I think political and economic liberty are necessary precursors for happy, prosperous people. I absolutely think political liberty is a worthy goal. But I’m not much interested in libertarianism per se, this idea that libertarianism is a thought process or a lifestyle or an identity. I don’t really care about that. It can become a crutch, it can become a cul-de-sac where people waste a lot of time, and that certainly was true of myself in my twenties.

Libertarianism’s interesting, but I think as an intellectual project, it’s probably been taken about as far as it can be taken. The idea of an an-cap society, what that would look like, some of the permutations of that, the theory behind that—you can go all the way back hundreds of years ago to Lao Tzu. You can go to the British Levellers, you can come forward to the twentieth century and have Linda and Morris Tannehill talking about private insurance providing security and police, etc. You have people like David Friedman, you certainly have Murray Rothbard, and then you have Hans-Hermann Hoppe, so I think the intellectual work, the scholarly work around libertarianism in its fullest expression, anarcho- capitalism, has already been done. I’m not sure there’s all that much more to be said or done there.

What’s far more interesting today is the applications of anarcho-capitalism. I think something like Uber coming along and operating in a gray market in cities— and before regulation could catch up to it, it was so popular that it was hard to ban—that’s an interesting application of an-cap theory. You know, is it legal? Well, we’ll see what happens. You know, there are interesting applications in money, like bitcoin. There are interesting applications going on with private societies, seasteading and that sort of thing. But, I think libertarianism as an identity is probably fairly unwise for most people. I am for political and economic liberty, but the broader program is cultural and societal and civilizational, and that’s pretty heavy lifting, I’m afraid.

PG: This does bring up a great question when it comes to libertarianism. Is it a political ideology, is it something that we apply to society, or is it a lifestyle that I live?

I’m interested in the specific ways in which the twentieth century has destroyed the institutions of political liberty and economic liberty. What has been the most devastating thing in that regard that came out of the twentieth century?

JD: Well, probably public schools and the separation of children from parents for forty plus hours a week. That was certainly the camel’s nose under the tent. If you read Rothbard, you’ll recall that he hates John Dewey, the educational reformer of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Dewey exemplified this pietist puritanical need to control everything. And that’s really at the heart of a lot of progressive policy. When you go back a hundred years, 120 years, and you have children scattered about, especially in the Western states, in small towns, being unschooled or schooled in a one-room schoolhouse with no set standards, not controlled by New York or Washington, DC. That was just anathema to the progressive pietist sensibility, and so, there came this push for not only public schooling, but very standardized public schooling with a federal overlay, which ultimately led to the creation of the Department of Education and standardized testing.

The second-biggest loss has got to be the statist corruption if not capture of religion. Virtually all mainline Protestant denominations, certainly the Roman Catholic Church, certainly most synagogues today: super woke, super lefty, basically promoting state idolatry, and most recently, promoting the covid narrative. That’s a huge problem because hearts and minds used to be set with the family, with the community, maybe with the church, maybe with the school, but now those are captured top- down. That’s one of the great tragedies, one of the great losses of America, along with all the wonderful things we got out of the twentieth century in terms of technology and material. Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone says it well: “the loss of any sense of community and also the loss of localism and regionalism, everything from dialects to different kinds of food around the country, different experiences.”

I live in the US South, I live in Auburn, Alabama, a college town, and you know, I like the idea of regional differences, as opposed to everywhere you go has this sameness to it. There’s a lot of things we’ve lost with modernity, and I think the general libertarian impulse is to join with progressives and say, “Well, that’s always good. That’s always and ever good, and the present is always better than the past and the future’s always better than the present.” And that’s true in many ways, but it’s also wrong in many ways. We can look back and say, “No, the family structure was better in America, including for black folks, in the 1940s, than it is today.” Well, that’s just a fact, Jack. I can’t say that, or I can’t even think that because that doesn’t comport with my always forward worldview. That’s just silly. We’re not blank slaters. Again, we have centuries of received wisdom and knowledge. It doesn’t start with Mises being born in the 1880s, it doesn’t start with Thomas Paine. You go back centuries, and I don’t think liberty means throwing that out with the bathwater at all.

That word, libertarian, should really be a adjective more than a noun. Liberty’s a noun. Liberty we can define as the absence of state coercion, which means the absence of a state. But libertarian, to me, ought to be a verb. In other words, “Jeff, are you a libertarian?” The term has been bastardized in recent years. I would say I have libertarian views on X. I think libertarianism tends to want to dispose of all the received wisdom and to always look forward, and that’s a mistake. Markets themselves are informed by all the information bound up in seven billion humans on earth waking up every morning and acting, presumably, for their own betterment. And embedded in that is a lot of history and tradition and culture and all kinds of things that make people do what they do.

There’s a good distinction between two kinds of liberty, this kind of homo economicus trope, which is that under capitalism there is this grasping tendency amongst humans, and if you can make more money selling crack than being a heart surgeon, you’ll just give up being a heart surgeon and go sell crack. Well, that’s not the case. People have all kinds of motivations, and that’s why we understand ordinal utility instead of cardinal. It’s a big world out there and a long one, and a lot of libertarians don’t want to equip themselves with history and the knowledge that it provides.

PG: I think there is a growing sense in the liberty movement, of not liking the term libertarian. We see people calling themselves postlibertarians or rejecting the term libertarian in general, and that is because it’s been polluted and diluted. That comes from, as we were mentioning, the Beltways, the left libertarians, whatever term you want to use, viewing the twentieth century as a liberal triumph because we did have good things like technology. There was a satisfaction of material needs for many, many people. At the core, what exposes the difference is that that’s not all of it. That’s just two pieces of the puzzle.

I want to talk about other pieces of the puzzle like creating a single monolithic culture. Though there are holdouts, and some do reject it, we are a monolithic culture. Where do you see this going? Do you think that these holdouts are going to push back and be strong enough that we will see a return to family and community life? Or do you think we’re going to continue down the path of continually subverting and taking out community life until there’s nothing left?

JD: Wow, that’s a tough one. This is mostly a question about materialism because I don’t think any huge change happens, any diversion of our current path short of some real economic pain. People will put up with a lot if everything works reasonably well and things are pretty good at work, things are pretty good with their paycheck, things are pretty good with inflation. But you take that away, and all of these social fissures which exist in America get very nasty very quick. There’s two ways to imagine it. One is what I would consider a happier, more decentralized, federalist soft succession. Maybe not an outright breakup of the United States into brand-new political entities, but a real resurgence of federalism to the point of aggressive regionalism, where we start self-segregating, which was already happening before covid but accelerated mightily during covid. Some kind of scenario where there’s no bloodshed and we have enough time, a period of maybe years or even decades, to work out all these terribly thorny questions, like federal land and federal debt and federal entitlements and nukes, really tough, tough questions—a negotiation process of sorts.

The other scenario is some kind of really nasty economic downturn which results in going the other way: instead of a federalization of things in America, we succumb to an internationalization under the auspices of somebody like the IMF (International Monetary Fund), where we say, “OK, now there’s a currency crisis to end all currency crises. It’s the US dollar.” The world’s reserve currency is all of a sudden losing its value, and we need to step in, just like the Fed stepped in during the crisis of ’07.

Now we need the international Fed, in effect, the central bank to central banks under the form of the IMF, to step in and create some sort of worldwide currency, some sort of worldwide bond debt. This isn’t my thinking or anything I came up with. A lot of people way smarter and more informed than me have talked about this. Jim Rickards in his Currency Wars book talks about the IMF. Pat Buchanan, of all people, ten or twenty years ago said we’re going to go one of two ways: either we’re going to have a breakup or we’re going to have truly more of a global system. And the Great Reset and the World Economic Forum—there are a lot of people trying very hard to make sure it’s that second scenario. And it’s not a conspiracy. They’re quite open about it. They discuss it very openly, and they’ve become a lot more open about it since Brexit and Trump and covid. Now they’re just wanting to discuss it, the Klaus Schwabs of the world. Go listen to Bob Murphy’s series on that. He’s using their own words, their own documents, their own statements, public statements.

I don’t know which way it goes. I certainly hope it’s bloodless. I think it’s not in anybody’s interest to have any kind of civil conflict in America, and frankly, we’re not very tough people. We’re kind of fat and addled. Wars are generally fought by young, hard men. There’s some of those in Ukraine and Russia. There’s some of those in China. Not too many of those in America.

There’s a law professor at George Mason named Frank Buckley who wrote a book titled American Secession just a year or two ago, and he talks about the kind of negotiations that could be possible. This doesn’t have to be set in stone that there’s some sort of civil war, and obviously we don’t have any neat geographic divides in America. We had the North-South, the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War era. We don’t have that now. We have very blue cities within red states. We have very red areas within blue states. I think that there would probably have to be at least some amount of physical or geographic shifts where people are leaving states and going to states that comport better with their worldview. There’s no reason why 330 million people have to share one view on abortion or one view on gun control or one view on prayer in schools.

A lot of those social issues could really be defanged by simply allowing a greater degree of federalism. That in and of itself could really be a release valve for a lot of the pressure in this country. And so that’s how I’d like to see it going.

I remain optimistic. I have a couple of kids, teenagers. I need to be optimistic for their sake, and day to day we still have a tremendous degree of freedom. We still have tremendous platforms to speak our mind. I’m really surprised, frankly, they haven’t had more crackdowns on the internet in the West, and while we have those freedoms, we ought to be using them and availing ourselves of them. So, you and I, we don’t have the right to pessimism because we haven’t earned it. We haven’t gone through material hardships. We haven’t gone through wars or depressions or times of deprivation. We don’t have the right to be Debbie Downer.

PG: I want to talk a bit about the twenty-first century and the way you’ve seen it going and if it’s emulating the beginning of the twentieth century or if it’s behaving differently and whether or not you think we’ve gotten more liberal or more illiberal.

JD: Tough question. Ryan McMaken pointed out: the scenario we’re in right now with Putin and Ukraine is far more like 1914 than it is like 1938. We have to drop it with these Hitler comparisons. Ukraine is not Germany rolling into Russia. It’s not Germany rolling into France or into Austria. It’s a very different thing. It’s really a regional skirmish and let’s hope that we don’t, through a series of errors, turn it into some kind of European-wide or eastern European-wide conflagration. Nobody wants that, nobody wants nuclear war.

Are we more liberal or less liberal than we were at the turn of the century, twenty-two years ago? Liberal in our sense of that? Boy, it’s hard to say. I mean, the internet revolution. Really, the first websites didn’t get robust until the late nineties, and 2000 through 2010 was really when the blogosphere blossomed. So, in that sense, I think we’re freer. There’s a lot of great stuff you can go find out there, and it’s been a great leveler. When the New York Times has an editorial, there’s a million comments online. That never used to be the case. You just had to sit there and take it. In the communication sense we’re freer. There’s certainly a greater potential for freedom in money, a greater potential for freedom in digital printing, 3-D printing, firearms, etc.

The thing about the political class is they never go away, no matter how horrifically wrong they were. We still have neoconservatives today. They didn’t put their tail between their legs after Iraq and go away in shame. No, they came back stronger than ever, and now they’re mostly Democrats, like Hillary Clinton. Ideologically, we’re probably worse off than we were in 2000. The W, Cheney, John Ashcroft, Paul Wolfowitz’s doctrine of regime change and preemptive strikes and renditions, detaining people, indefinite detention without habeas corpus, calling people war criminals rather than regular criminals. All that was a really dark time, a really fascist time for America. The Patriot Act, creation of the TSA. We’re probably less liberal as a result of all that. Obama ushered in more of the social craziness, the T in LGBT really came to the fore under Obama, and that’s led to a lot of hateful—and I’m talking about on the T side—a lot of real hatefulness and a desire to inflict pain on people and cancel people and ruin people who won’t go along with the new delusion. So, in that sense, we’re less free in our public statements and pronouncements. Cancel culture’s new.

And, of course, debt and deficits have gotten worse. In 2001, when W entered office, US federal debt was about $5 trillion. Now it’s thirty. As recently as twenty years ago you still could’ve dealt with debt and entitlements in a mathematical sense. It still would have been possible. I’m not saying there was the political will to do the things you would have to do, like cut spending or raise taxes, but it was mathematically feasible. Now fast-forward twenty-two years later, and you’ve had two wars and the crash of ’07–’08 and the Fed’s balance sheet and hyperdrive spending. Now we’ve got $30 trillion in debt, and it’s no longer mathematically possible, especially when you consider that the number of people in America over sixty-five will double in the next twenty to thirty years. That means the entitlement consumers will double even as the entitlement payers are ever shrinking. All of that has gotten way worse since 2000, and frankly, I would say, bizarrely speaking, Trump and Biden are certainly an improvement on W, both rhetorically and, I think, in what they really believe. The die is cast with regard to the federal government and federal entitlements in the dollar. It’s too late to worry about that. What we’ve got to be worrying about is the things which are in our control, and those are certainly closer to home.

PG: I’d like to return to the twentieth century and identify a point at which the twentieth century turned illiberal. I think the turn started in 1913 with the creation of the Federal Reserve and the implementation of the income tax. You saw a little bit of it with Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency and the ushering in of a more progressive ideology, within the GOP and the Democratic Party. Was there at any point the potential to turn the tide or was the century as a whole too far gone?

JD: I think there was a chance to turn the tide. It was called Silent Cal, the great Calvin Coolidge, a guy who actually literally reduced nominal federal spending while in office, not adjusted nominal federal spending. Silent Cal is a really interesting character and I recommend his biography by Amity Shlaes, the historian who runs the Coolidge Foundation.

I certainly think the 1910s were the beginning of the end. Obviously, income taxes and central banks. All these things, of course, had their roots, as you mentioned, back in the 1880s. You can’t just say that all of a sudden, 1910, people became progressive in their thinking. No, they were influenced by previous decades, of course. I think the 1910s are probably the best mark in the sand, maybe the high-water mark, in many ways, for civilization.

I would say pre–World War I Vienna was probably the social, cultural, and intellectual high point maybe in human history. The kinds of minds that had been gathered there, and not just liberty minds: communism, socialism, variants on everything, on science, technology, all coalesced around Vienna. Music ... So if you’re looking for a point in time where the wave reached its high point and then receded, you might say some of those coffeehouses in Vienna in 1910 or thereabouts. Obviously, World War I is just a terrible tragedy, a comedy of errors that started and then moved across Europe. Then you get Versailles, which, not in full, let’s be fair, creates a lot of angst and animosity in Germany, helps give rise to Hitler. We make some disastrous mistakes toward the end of that war in our relationship with Stalin, and we basically allow Russia to become the Soviet Union. And you go on from there, all of Eastern Europe crushed, including beautiful places like Poland and Hungary. What would things look like if you’d had a unified Europe for the entirety of the twentieth century? Wow, hard to imagine.

So yes, I think World War I and the 1910s were really the tipping point. There were opportunities to get back on track, perhaps with Coolidge and perhaps a last-gasp tipping point with Taft versus Eisenhower in 1952. Now, Eisenhower didn’t turn out all that bad, but Taft died maybe within a year of the actual election, so it’s hard to say what it would have meant if Taft had somehow won. But once the Old Right, in the form of Taft, was extinguished, that led us into the fifties and the Cold War. Conservatism went wildly off the rails at that point, stopped conserving anything and became strictly a Cold War party. Ike tried to get a hold of the beast, and then the sixties came along. Earlier we were talking about how a good dividing line amongst liberty types is to say, “Do you think the twentieth century was liberal or illiberal?” When it comes to the 1960s, there’s basically two kinds of Americans, Americans who think that the sixties and what came out of it were largely a good thing and Americans who think the sixties and what came out of it were largely a bad thing. So that’s kind of an interesting heuristic for the modern, the second half of the twentieth century.

I would say probably by the fifties, it was baked in the cake. When World War II ended, we took on the unfortunate role of world’s policeman, and that manifested in Korea and Vietnam. And then, even worse, when the Soviet Union collapsed in ’89, we took on the role as the world’s superpower as opposed to disbanding NATO. And without any multipolarity in the world, we have gorged ourselves on debt and we’ve lived beyond our means and we’ve been unchallenged materially and otherwise, and we’ve had quite a party. And it feels like it’s coming to an end.

PG: I have to agree with you. I think the dichotomies of the twentieth century and the turning of the tide toward illiberalness highlight not only a difference in the thinking within the liberty community, but Americans and people in general. We are left with the consequences of this thinking and the beast it created. Really, our state that we see now is a beast, forged in the twentieth century.

JD: Indeed.


Gouzien, Peyton, “Liberalism and Illiberalism in the Twenty-First Century,” The Austrian 8, no. 3 (2022): 18–27.

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