Against the Zeitgeist
This article is excerpted from a talk delivered at the 2018 annual meeting of the Property and Freedom Society.
Ladies and gentlemen, the first task for any intellectual or ideological effort is to understand the environment surrounding it. Whether we like it or not, we live in a decidedly illiberal age: an age hostile to private property, individualism, civility, speech, academic freedom, culture, even to civilization itself. The spirit and tenor of our time are not at all conducive to liberal arguments; in fact such arguments are perverted into justifications for state action. Because of this sober reality we should resist the zeitgeist, and resist the language, narratives, issue framing, incivility, and purported egalitarian ends of the anti-intellectual landscape around us.
If you've read Murray Rothbard on the Progressive Era, you know he hated a reformer. And he especially hated a Yankee pietist reformer. No one embodied this kind of reformer like John Dewey, the psychologist who earned Rothbard's wrath through his evangelical though secular zeal for saving the world through progress and statism.
Dewey had what Rothbard called a "seemingly endless" career, with significant influence— which he bolstered with frequent columns in The New Republic— a new magazine in 1914, created as an unholy alliance between big business and leftwing public intellectuals.
An astonishing article Dewey produced for The New Republic in 1917 bore the perfect title for our discussion today: "The Conscription of Thought." Dewey, like his colleagues at the magazine, urged the US to enter the Great War in Europe, and they did everything they could to encourage a "war spirit" among stubbornly doubtful Americans.
Now his pro-war perspective had nothing to do with the realities on the ground in Germany or Britain or France, or even US interests in those areas. His focus was entirely domestic— war would help lead America to socialize its economy and greatly expand the powers of the state. War collectivism in Europe should be admired and emulated. War could be used as an "aggressive tool of democracy" at home and help "foist innovation upon the country."
For Dewey, then, rejecting neutrality had nothing to do with the outcome of the war per se, but instead was critically important to his quest for achieve National Greatness— America could not afford to miss out on an opportunity to join an historic war and unite its citizens as a world power rather than a provincial observer.
In other words, he adopted a pro-war view solely to advance the Progressive program at home. And he knew that once "Conscription of Thought" was achieved— once American minds were conscripted for the war effort or any other Progressive cause— then their bodies and wallets would follow.
What an astonishingly honest phrase- "Conscription of Thought." It applies in spades to America and the West still today, even more so today. We have accepted the premises and framework of the state, and thus we accept the degradations that follow from statism. The only corrective, in Dewey's time and our own, was a full-throated intellectual challenge to those premises and framework.
Yet it is precisely this challenge from which the Zeitgeister shrinks.
Succumbing to The Zeitgeist
Lew Rockwell brings up the old adage, the smaller the movement the more— and louder— the factions. Now I know what you’re thinking, but this is not a talk about libertarian factions: Left vs. Right, thick vs. thin, modal vs. paleo, or Beltway vs. populist.
No, this is not about factions. The Zeitgeist Libertarian transcends these categories by accepting the purported ENDS of Progressivism and state action while only suggesting different MEANS— and in most cases only slightly different means.
Like John Dewey hectoring stubborn Americans still stuck on WWI neutrality, the Zeitgeisters hector us to give up the old modes of thinking— that dreary talk about rights and property and the state— and instead happily accept the spirit and tenor of the age. The details matter less than being in the game. In this sense the Zeitgeister accepts the Conscription of Thought— accepts the parameters set by the political world, and focuses on influence within those parameters over all other considerations.
There is a great story involving David Gordon, whom I’m sure many of you know, and the late Ronald Hamowy, who was a wonderfully funny un-PC scholar and a member of Murray Rothbard’s Circle Bastiat group in New York.
David and Ronald attended a conference at Stanford University in the 1980s, and were walking to their car when a scraggly looking person approached them obviously hoping for a ride. Upon being asked by the stranger “Which way are you going?” Ron rushed to answer: “The other way. We’re going the other way.”
And so it it for many of us in this room I suspect: we feel at odds not only with the dominant western politics and economics of our day, but also with the cultural landscape. We don’t want to be, in Mises’s term, “historians of decline,” but we are clear-eyed and honest about where we are after a progressive century of war, central banking, and statism.
Not so for the Zeitgeisters, who as their name suggests are not only caught up in the spirit and tenor of our age, but mostly approve of it. They cheer, even advance the prevailing narratives: America and the West are deeply racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic. Western wealth is the result of colonialism and conquest. Climate change is an immediate civilizational threat. Income inequality is the most pressing economic issue of our time. And so forth.
Above all the Zeitgeisters go along along to get along. Unlike the happy radicals Murray Rothbard and David Gordon and Ron Hamowy—all going the other way— they treat radicalism— at least libertarian radicalism—with reflexive suspicion and contempt.
Recall how Murray Rothbard used the term “libertarian movement,” a phrase we might regret him using. It’s a loaded term, certainly. Of course by “movement” he meant a multi-pronged approach involving top-down intellectualism, bottom-up rightwing populism, leftwing antiwar instincts, and libertarian political action— mostly educational, mind you, and always purist— all combined with a healthy dose of bourgeois sensibility and a willingness for ordinary people to engage in a bit of Irish Democracy when the state oversteps. Above all he called for radicalism and real opposition to state power.
Yet “movement libertarianism” must be seen as a failure today, in the political sense. And it is in every way political; how could it not be? The Zeitgeisters pushing political libertarianism accept the politicization of everything just as they accept other injuries to liberty. They take what ought to be a radical nonpolitical movement— one dedicated not only to reducing the size and scope of the state, but to diminishing politics itself, a movement to make society less political— and reduce it to a set of watered-down “public policy” choices.
And as a result of this neutering, political libertarianism has crashed, as all political movements must, on the rocky shoals of compromise, dilution, and ultimately co-option.
The Horseshoe: Neoliberalism and Neoconservatism
Now to be fair to the Zeitgeist Libertarians, and to understand that Zeitgeist, we must take a look at where we are and how we got here.
You’re probably familiar with the horseshoe theory. While we would reject the Left-Right continuum, the horseshoe theory takes this linear concept and bend it into a horseshoe shape.
It’s used in a facile way to suggest that the far Left and far Right have so much in common that they almost come together, like the two ends of a horseshoe. The Left veers toward radical socialism or Communism; the Right toward virulent nationalism or fascism. Both movements, if left unchecked and taken to their logical extremes, lead to violent suppression of freedom, devolving economies, and an authoritarian ruling class that badly mistreats or even kills its subjects.
Again, it’s a facile argument, but useful for making the larger point that widely divergent political motivations can lead to similar destinations. Quoting from a progressive website called The Conversation:
“When fascists reject liberal individualism, it is in the name of a vision of national unity and ethnic purity rooted in a romanticised past; when communists and socialists do so, it is in the name of international solidarity and the redistribution of wealth.”
Well thanks for clearing that up! Yet it remains true, at the policy level, when it comes to what governments actually do, there is a great degree of convergence— regardless of the motivations behind those policies.
That’s why we might view the horseshoe today as having been cut off on the end and shaped into two parallel tracks: neoliberalism and neoconservatism. These are the two dominant political views of our time, we might almost call them default ideologies because they represent devolutions of older, better versions of left-liberalism and conservatism. The old ideological causes and motivations scarcely seem to matter anymore, the only fight now is over who controls the political apparatus and turf.
And by parallel we mean neoliberalism and neoconservatism appear to be converging rather than diverging:
Both purport to represent “Third Way” thinking between fully planned economies and complete laissez-faire;
Both are fully globalist and universalist in outlook, elitist, technocratic, hostile to populism; and both treat political decentralization and breakaway sentiments as dangerous developments to be quashed;
Both hate Trump and Brexit, and far more importantly, Trump and Brexit voters, while viewing Hillary Clinton and Remainers as self-evidently preferable to anyone other than an exasperating child;
Both advocate a robust global role for the US as the chief, even unilateral enforcer of a global world order— a militarily order courtesy of US armed forces and NATO, and an economic order courtesy of the US Federal Reserve Bank and the US Treasury market;
Both support nation building as an obvious and just endeavor for western nations, oblivious to their own neo-colonialist impulses;
Both support the legitimacy of supra-national organizations like the EU and UN and IMF and various trade bodies;
Both give lip service to market capitalism as a necessary ingredient for a wealthy society, but only within a robust regulatory environment and with robust restrictions on private property rights;
Both advocate some variant of social democracy as the accepted way to organize society, with a robust social safety net—the current vogue term is “welfare capitalism”— and plenty of taxes to fund it;
Both support political correctness over robust free speech and academic truth-seeking;
Both support activist governance, i.e. both see the state as an active participant in society rather than a referee or neutral arbiter; and
Both purport to be pragmatic rather than ideological.
Today, accordingly, the differences between neoliberals and neoconservatives are more tone and style than substance. Yet shockingly, or perhaps not shockingly, our Zeitgeist Libertarians are right there with them, on a parallel track between them: sharing their ends and only quibbling about means.
Today’s Zeitgeist Libertarians:
Are similarly globalist and universalist in outlook— and not the good kind of globalist, the market globalist who cheers when commerce triumphs over government, but the bad kind of political globalist;
Hate Trump and consider Hillary Clinton the lesser of evils—when they aren't openly praising her;
Accept, or at least fail to be exercised by, US interventionism, nation building, and pax Americana— foreign policy always takes a distant back seat to social and cultural issues. They dislike Ron Paul, for example, but offer only muted criticisms of "statesmen" like the late John McCain;
Accept the role of the Federal Reserve, and merely advocate tinkering with “rules-based” reforms;
Accept the legitimacy of supra-national organizations— even as such organization clearly attenuate supposedly cherished democracy— lest they be lumped in with those reactionary “Get Out of the UN” types;
Accept regulated capitalism and the regulatory state as pragmatic, and not only dismiss property rights absolutism but reject the concept of property as the core element of libertarian thought;
Dismiss concerns about PC overreach and campus intolerance;
Accept the overarching narrative that liberals are well-intentioned buy only misguided as to means, while conservatives are evil almost by definition; and as a result they obsess about the tiny, fringe "alt-Right"— with no institutional support, money, or influence— even as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez win elections running on openly socialist platforms; and
Perhaps most importantly, Zeitgeist Libertarians increasingly seek to minimize the intellectual and philosophical components of libertarianism in favor of pragmatic and empirical approaches.
In other words, they sound a lot like neoliberals and neoconservatives— and thus they push political libertarianism toward a convergence with those doctrines. In doing so they take the marrow out of the bone, and reduce liberty to a variant of “public policy.” And by this we mean approved public policy—nothing too radical or intellectual. They make a fetish of appearing neither Left nor Right, and engage in endless "whataboutism," but end up with a milquetoast message that sounds to ordinary people precisely like a mishmash of Left and Right.
The Progressive Triumph
Why should this be so?
Why does movement libertarianism lack the stomach to present a truly radical, anti-state program to the world— a program bold enough defy government as the central organizing principle in society?
Yes, there is a sense of wanting to be in the game, in the fray, in Washington DC and New York and Brussels, of being taken seriously and invited to the right parties. That's why they are happy to write progressive-friendly articles for the Washington Post or New York Times, hoping for that next step up to The Atlantic or The New Yorker. That's fine in a sense, and understandable.
But there is more to all of this. We need to view the Zeitgeist Libertarians through the lens of recent history, and perhaps judge them leniently. They are, after all, creatures of their environment. Over the past 140 or so years, Progressivism went from, say, 10 on a scale to 100 on that scale today. Anyone who suggests dialing the state back to 95, or merely proceeding from 100 to 105 more slowly, risks immediate branding as a reactionary. And that is the one thing Zeitgeisters seek to avoid being called above all.
Progressivism has been the overwhelming force in western politics for the last 100-odd years. Political progressives—defined not by their party, but by their desire to remake man into a more obedient political animal, absolutely dominated the 20th century.
Consider: anti-trust legislation, central banking, income taxes, the League of Nations giving way to the UN, two world wars, the rejection of economic freedoms by the Supreme Court, the New Deal with its old age pensions and public works, the Great Society with its welfare entitlements and food stamps, healthcare schemes, and finally the absolute triumph over each and every culture war issue by the Left.
What kind of movement libertarianism should we expect to emerge from this?
In every meaningful way, progressives control politics, government, business, and culture in America and the west. The 20th century was so irretrievably progressive that we’ve stopped paying attention to the baseline state all around us. Thanks to that progressive century—a century of war and socialism—government has become like the furniture or potted plants around us: we’re so accustomed to it we no longer even see it.
Progressives overwhelmingly control both major political parties in the US;
Progressives control the federal judiciary, along with all federal departments and agencies;
Progressives dominate academia, universities, and K-12 education, both government and private;
Progressives run the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association, and thus the traditionally “conservative” professions of medicine and law are now steered leftward;
Major corporations, both global and domestic, are run by progressives. Their boards are progressives. Their corporate branding and messaging is progressive;
Progressives run Wall Street, and give far more campaign money to progressive candidates;
Silicon Valley and the tech industry are dominated by progressives, from Google to Apple to Microsoft; also donating overwhelmingly to Left politicians;
Progressives overwhelmingly control traditional media, including broadcast news and print publications (virtually all journalists self-identify as progressive);
Progressives overwhelmingly run important social media outlets like Facebook, and Twitter;
Progressives run Hollywood: they hold sway over the film, TV, and video industries, including the growing market for streaming content from HBO, Netflix, and others; and
All major religious institutions in the west, from the Vatican to mainline Protestant churches to virtually all synagogues, are now thoroughly progressive both politically and doctrinally.
The point here is that modern libertarianism did not evolve separate and apart from this Progressive juggernaut— and how could it? Our point is to understand the impossibility of political or movement libertarianism within the current progressive framework. No truly libertarian movement will advance when it accepts the wrong premises, asks the wrong questions, and cedes the terms of the debate. It's not a matter of selling out principles for influence, it's a matter of preemptively accepting the organizing principle of the state.
Our responsibility to libertarians is the same as our responsibility to the world at large: to truth, wherever it takes us, and to promoting the timeless ideas that yield peace and human flourishing. We are not required to engage in watered-down political movements, or to engage in politics at all. We are not required to participate in ideological or intellectual movements that accept Progressive ends. We are not required to append a set of leftwing cultural precepts onto political liberty any more than we are required to append rightwing militarism. What matters is getting first principles right. Without that nothing good follows.