You’d think the statement in my title should be obvious, but if you were wondering why it’s been so easy for so many supposed libertarians to flip over to the alt-right, you might consider the recent Facebook post of Lawrence Reed, the president of the Foundation for Economic Education, the oldest of the free-market think tanks. Larry, who I’ve known for decades and have always respected, tagged a story on business closures in Venezuela with the following: “Venezuela desperately needs a Hayek right now. Short of that, how about a Pinochet?”
As I said on Facebook, I don’t even know what to say about this given my long association with FEE and respect for the work they and Larry have done. I deeply want to believe that it’s a really bad attempt at humor, yet nowhere in that original Facebook thread does Larry give any indication that he was making a horrible joke. Given the pushback he’s getting there, it would have been very easy for him to try to back out with that excuse, but it’s not there. Not only that, he explicitly argues for “helicopter dropping” Maduro. Sure doesn’t sound like someone who is joking.
Even as really misguided humor, Larry’s remark fails in several important ways that are worth noting explicitly:
1. The liberal tradition in which FEE sits has always rejected dictatorships and authoritarians. In fact, as co-blogger Jacob noted on Facebook, this is an excellent example of the broken relationship that modern libertarianism has with democracy. A more sophisticated and serious understanding of democracy, even seeing it as a necessary marriage of convenience, but a marriage nonetheless, would help libertarians avoid saying things like this.
2. In one post, Larry has undermined years of hard work by libertarian academics to come to a more nuanced understanding of the whole Hayek-Pinochet relationship and why it’s been very much overblown by the left. The juxtaposition of Hayek and Pinochet opens up that whole can of worms and gives more ammunition to those who think “See? Libertarians really are fascists in disguise.” To say that’s not helpful is the understatement of the year.
3. Some of the harshest pushback has come, not surprisingly, from the Latin American freedom movement. Those folks have worked very hard to advance real liberty and democracy, and they have taken pains to try to distance their views from charges of being American imperialists or lackeys for the Latin American right wing. Larry’s post undermined that work in ways that they should be rightly enraged about.
4. Much has been written about the supposed libertarianism to alt-right pipeline and how easy it appears for people to pass through the former on their way to the latter, and in some cases not quite leaving their libertarianism behind. (See for example this NY Times piece.) Larry’s post is an example of how this sort of thing can happen. What else can one say when the president of a major libertarian think tank suggests that dictatorship is the solution to the problems created by socialism? Does he not think that young people, who are now FEE’s explicit target audience, are paying attention?
5. I shouldn’t be all that surprised by this development given the tone of a recent fundraising letter I got from FEE. In explaining how America was going down the tubes, and why FEE was important in saving it from that fate, the groups bearing the plurality of the blame for our problems were left-wing college professors and their snowflake students. The only reference to Trump was a throwaway line about how “Trump has not been a perfect president, but…” That the Foundation for Economic Education could not take the time to mention Trump’s economic nationalism, his crony capitalism, and his trashing of the Constitution as relevant factors in the the problems we face and how those should be issues on which classical liberals speak out loudly and forcefully says everything one needs to know about the apparent direction and priorities of FEE. It’s clear who and what they are trying to appeal to, and it’s not the liberalism of Mises and Hayek, not to mention Leonard Read and Henry Hazlitt. The libertarian movement cannot be premised on hating the left more than we care about preserving the institutions of a free society, no matter who is violating them.
6. Finally, given FEE’s recent emphasis on morality and character under Larry’s leadership, this apparent (even if done as a really bad joke) defense of Pinochet becomes the libertarian version of Roy Moore and Al Franken. It’s apparently okay to overlook all the disappearances, murders, and violations of human rights if you think the guy somehow preserved the “free market.” Even if that were true (and it’s not), maybe one day the libertarian movement will mature enough to realize that “liberty” is not totally subsumed under “property rights,” and that other forms of human rights and freedoms matter just as much. It’s precisely the focus on private property rights as the be all and end all (says the economist) that is one big factor behind the libertarianism to alt-right pipeline. It’s why the subject of the NY Times profile linked above is still talking about Rothbard and Hoppe and anarcho-capitalism even as he’s gone full Nazi.
This is one of the hardest BHL posts I’ve ever written because of my long-standing relationship with and respect for FEE and Larry. However, too many things in recent months have added up in a way that concerns me deeply about the organization and its commitment to the classical liberal ideas of its founders and that attracted me to it as a young scholar. Again, like Moore and Franken, we cannot, as libertarians, let “our own” off the hook when they do things like this because we think there’s something to be saved in the bigger picture. Larry’s post was a horrible mistake with deeply illiberal consequences, even if he didn’t intend them. I hope he and the rest of the leadership at FEE can see the mistake that’s been made here and respond in ways that restore the confidence in the organization that this has cost them, as one glance at social media will indicate.
FEE was too important in keeping the flame of liberty alive in the intellectual dark hours of the 1940s and 50s to see that flame extinguished when the darkness has returned not as an intellectual threat but as an existential political one.
[Addendum: Larry has issued the following apology.
MY APOLOGIES: Yesterday I posted a piece on Venezuela on my page here with an introductory statement that some have taken as endorsing certain things, or everything, that Augusto Pinochet ever did. I can see by my quick and careless wording how that impression may have been conveyed. It certainly was not my intent, though I freely admit fault in not making it clearly so. Some have also been offended that I referenced Hayek in the same post because, as I would readily and eagerly argue myself, Hayek would never have approved of Pinochet. I did not intend to imply that he would have, and I apologize for not realizing that one could get that impression. I think the answer to Venezuela’s problems is to embrace Hayek, not to embrace another strong-man dictatorship. In the way of explanation, whether you accept it or not, my thinking at the time was of some of Pinochet’s economic policies that proved to be far superior to what Venezuela is experiencing today. But the best way to get to good policies is never to take a chance on a dictatorship; it is, rather, to embrace good ideas, which is what I’ve always believed. So, sorry for the poorly worded post and thanks if you pointed out in good faith that I made a mistake.]