Mises Wire

Is Libertarianism Just Another Form of Critical Theory?

There’s no shortage of ill-informed criticisms of libertarian theory across all sides of the political spectrum. To most leftists, the libertarian is selfish, greedy, elitist, disdainful of the poor, and a useful idiot for big-business interests. To most right wingers, the libertarian is atomized, nihilistic, a hedonist, a materialist, a moral relativist, an egalitarian, and a naïve utopian who scorns tradition and religion.

But there’s a new, relatively overlooked angle from which libertarianism has come under attack—namely, the attempts to relate it to Marxoid critical theory or even to argue that libertarianism itself is a form of critical theory. Despite the obscurity of this idea, it would be valuable to take up the task of examining the arguments its proponents present to see if there’s any merit to them.

The most notable of the aforementioned proponents is cultural critic James Lindsay. For the past few years, Lindsay has laser-focused his research and scholarly output on grappling with and dismantling critical theory. He founded the website New Discourses, which mostly deals with analyzing, deciphering, and criticizing the “critical social justice” movement. He’s managed to gain a fair amount of social media recognition and praise (as well as criticism, naturally) for his efforts, with his X account boasting over 480,000 followers as of March 2024.

He splits libertarianism into two types: the “more reasonable” type (it’s never specified what he means by the “more reasonable” form of libertarianism, but it’s fairly certain that it’s the murky, internally contradictory, utilitarian wing which makes endless concessions to state intervention in the name of “efficiency”), and the type he calls “critical government studies.” Most libertarians consider the state to be an organization characterized by oppression and domination, which seeks to maintain and perpetuate its power and influence, and Lindsay sees this rhetoric and way of thinking as mirroring feminist theory about the patriarchy and critical race theory about systemic racism, thus earning (hardcore) libertarianism the name of “critical government studies.”

This is nothing more than a superficial similarity in rhetoric, which doesn’t establish a broader intellectual connection between these theories. The libertarian desire to free oneself and others from the shackles of the state is strangely described as “seeking Gnostic Liberation” by Lindsay. He groups it into what he, in a recent podcast appearance, dubbed “sociological Gnosticism”—a Rousseauian view where “man is born free but is everywhere in chains.” Society (or, in the libertarian case, the state) is what produces the chains that constrain man, and secret Gnostic knowledge is needed to be set free from them.

Unsurprisingly, Murray Rothbard is the shining star of “critical government studies” in Lindsay’s view, who calls Rothbard a “critical theorist but only of state power.” In fact, Lindsay goes so far as to use Rothbard’s writings about right-wing populist strategy as proof of his claim that Trumpism and the “Make America Great Again” movement are themselves a critical theory. These comparisons continue with Lindsay stating that Rothbard is the Herbert Marcuse of the libertarians, even editing an argument Rothbard made to try to liken it with Marcuse’s philosophy.

This supposedly “radical neo-Marxist” argument was a simple critique of the Hayekian strategy for social change, which advocated converting the intellectual elites to libertarian doctrine, which would have a trickle-down effect on the rest of society. Rothbard pointed out that those intellectual elites are themselves part of the ruling class and benefit from the statist system that libertarians are seeking to overthrow. This puts a massive wrench in the hypothetical process of Hayekian top-down ideological conversion because most intellectuals aren’t primarily motivated by objectively getting at the truth wherever it might lead them, especially if it means overriding their self-interest.

Lindsay, again, associates this line of thinking with Marxism, and even antirationalism, by editing out the part where Rothbard says “Hayekian conversion” and substituting it for “rationalist theory” and claiming that Rothbard’s argument “cannot, literally cannot, be told apart” from Marcuse’s antirationalism. This is another instance of Lindsay erroneously connecting two differing worldviews on the basis of superficial rhetorical similarities, as nothing in Rothbard’s argument was inherently Marxist or antirationalistic.

Due to its close relation to libertarianism, examining Lindsay’s view of classical liberalism would be instructive for our purposes here. In a recent article for New Discourses, Lindsay’s website, Lindsay gives a highly laudatory account of classical liberal philosophy. He praises its advocacy of individual rights to life, assembly, free speech, and private property and a just, constitutional, limited democratic government based on the consent of the governed.

In a recent podcast episode, Lindsay stresses the absolute necessity in safeguarding these liberal values and a need to refine and recontextualize them to fit modern, technologically advanced society lest we lose everything that makes Western civilization great and successful. In Cynical Theories, a book he coauthored, “liberalism without identity politics” is outlined as the remedy to the various social justice movements plaguing Western culture, academia, and politics. The inherent animus that critical theory holds for liberalism and its notions of objectivity, universalism, and individualism is also successfully brought to attention in the book.

It is well known that modern libertarianism is the successor to classical liberalism, so one would think that Lindsay’s dislike of the former and reverence for the latter is rather strange, but his theories regarding where the two diverge should clear up the confusion. Rothbard, the godfather of modern libertarianism, is presented as “clearly hostile to liberalism” by Lindsay. This hostility manifests in his apparent religiosity (in reality, he was an atheist) and traditionalism (he was culturally conservative, as were many classical liberals, but not a traditionalist in the real sense of the word). Rothbard even called John Stuart Mill mushy! (What isn’t mentioned is the reason for Rothbard’s dislike of Mill—namely, that he was a fuzzy, compromising utilitarian. That is, he wasn’t liberal enough.)

In his comments on a Cato Institute article, which argues that the theory of intersectionality is useful to classical liberalism, Lindsay frames intersectionality as an “infectious” influence of “libertarian CATO” on the classical liberal tradition, stemming from the way libertarians criticize state power. Lindsay is fine with a “principled distrust” of government, but he talks of ANY government as a “self-perpetuating oppressive system of power” that we need to abolish and “liberate” ourselves from by enlightening the masses to its nature (thus “raising their consciousness”), immediately sounding the alarm bells of critical theory and Gnosticism in his head.

Upon close historical inspection, the massive gap that Lindsay tries to create between the two movements simply doesn’t hold up. The great classical liberal radicals of old didn’t simply adopt a passive distrust of government and leave it at that. From the Levellers to Patrick Henry, Richard Cobden, Frédéric Bastiat, Herbert Spencer, et al., a burning hatred for the state as an organization of oppression and domination is a shared theme in the history of classical liberalism. These attitudes were not invented in Murray Rothbard’s living room seventy years ago.

The radicalism of classical liberalism is dampened in Lindsay through his contention that it’s necessarily a doctrine of class harmony and rejects all theories of class struggle and conflict. This does hold true when it comes to the Marxian paradigm where the “classes” in question are employers and employees. But, as the late historian Ralph Raico has shown, this very doctrine has roots in classical liberal theory. Liberal formulations of class struggle between the productive social forces and the parasitic state predate and influenced Marx’s writings, which is something he knew and readily admitted. Since a fundamental difference between classical liberalism and libertarianism cannot be established, it stands to reason that any incompatibility that critical theory has with classical liberalism, it also has with libertarianism.

Unfortunately, even self-identified libertarians themselves aren’t above making the same type of mistakes that someone like Linsday is prone to making. Former Libertarian Party runner-up Austin Petersen, in his debate with comedian and libertarian commentator Dave Smith, argued that the libertarian advocacy of “presentism” (judging the actions of distant historical actors by modern moral standards) and their “oppressor-oppressed foreign policy views” smack of critical theory. Smith correctly pointed out that one should keep in mind the moral standards of the times when analyzing historical actors, while also consistently applying libertarian ethics to form proper judgments on them (ethics which manifestly differ from those advocated by modern proponents of “social justice”). As for the “oppressor-oppressed” dichotomy with regard to foreign policy, Smith points out that the acceptance of the basic fact that there are inflictors and sufferers of oppression doesn’t necessitate the acceptance of the bizarre theories of power dynamics and intersectionality touted by modern progressives.

As Bastiat said, “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.” The attempts at besmirching the cause of liberty by saddling it with unnecessary baggage aren’t anything new, and it’s our imperative to identify and dispel any distortions of our great philosophy.

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