(co-authored with Steve Horwitz)
We all know the thought experiment. There are a million versions of it. What do you do if the Nazis show up? Do you hide your Jewish neighbors in your attic? Do you protest in the streets? Do you throw stones at the Nazis’ parades? Do you shoot them on sight? What are your ethical limits? What are the limits of a civil society?
Is it okay to punch a Nazi?
Classrooms across the US run thought experiments like these, show the movie “The Lesson Plan” about the Third Wave event in Palo Alto, and discuss the Milgram experiment. It’s supposed to prepare our students and ourselves to resist fascism.
We want students to say that the solution here is to engage the Nazis in reasoned debate, to resist them peacefully, and fight fascism by being living examples of civilized society.
Here’s the problem, though.
It’s not a thought experiment anymore. The philosophy classroom is no longer an intellectual version of matchstick poker. The stakes are real.
The attendees of the 2017 International Students for Liberty Conference—still going on as we write this post—no longer have to wonder what they would do if Nazis showed up.
Nazis—at least, one prominent member of the alt-right with neo-Nazi views and a handful of his supporters—showed up at ISFLC17 this weekend. They were invited by a few attendees who belong to a group (The Hoppe Caucus) that is not affiliated with Students for Liberty in any way. They arrived, got a table in the hotel bar, posted a sign that implied they were part of the official conference, and began to try to engage with passersby. It was—as the Hoppe Caucus made clear on their Facebook page—a scheme explicitly concocted in order to cause trouble.
After 30 minutes or so of what one SFL attendee called “fairly boring conversations with a Nazi” some of the SFL students began to get angry and shout. Jeffrey Tucker, who knows better than most how insidious this kind of thinking is within the libertarian movement, arrived, told the Nazi that fascists are not welcome at an anti-fascist conference, and argued with him for a few moments.
The hotel bar, quite justifiably, got tired of the disruption and asked everyone to leave. The neo-Nazi, at his own request, was escorted from the bar.
The news hit Facebook and Twitter, and the post-game analysis began.
While many felt that the situation was handled as well as it could be, others seemed intent on engaging in those familiar thought experiments. Jeffrey Tucker and Students for Liberty were called delicate snowflakes for not wanting to welcome Nazi ideology at a conference dedicated to liberty. People who supported the ejection of the Nazi and his supporters were told they were violating his free speech rights. Tucker was criticized for being visibly angry with the Nazi and for not sitting down and engaging him in reasoned debate. Many claimed that the Nazi got exactly what he wanted. People got angry. He got publicity.
We aren’t going to rehearse, here, the many arguments we have had about what happened and what should have happened.
We just want to say this: “What would you do when the Nazis show up?” is not a thought experiment any more. We never expected, in our lifetimes, to really need to know what to do when Nazis show up to one of our talks or to a conference we were attending. And because—just by chance—we were already on a flight home when all this occurred, we didn’t need to know that this weekend.
But we no longer believe that we won’t have to know. And soon.
And while we still hope that our responses to such a situation will serve as examples of a civil society, we are more resolute than ever in our conviction that believing in a civilized society does not require that one dine with neo-Nazis, white supremacists, or those who believe that ethnic cleansing is anything other than evil. Those who reject the ideas and institutions of a liberal social order are not entitled to being treated by others as if they accept them. Again, we believe it’s wrong to throw the first punch, but there’s no obligation to treat Nazis as reasonable conversation partners.
Today is also the grim anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which created internment camps for Japanese-Americans during WWII. It reminds us that it’s not just Nazis, but sometimes it’s our own government who forces to face these questions.
Do not ask yourself, any longer, “What would I have done?” in that situation. Do not ask yourself “What would I do if a Nazi had shown up?” Do not ask yourself “What would I do if my neighbor was hauled away?”
Ask yourself “What will I do?”
Because, these days, you need to know.