This is the transcript by V. S. of Richard Spencer’s Vanguard Podcast interview of Jonathan Bowden about libertarianism. You can listen to the podcast here.
Richard Spencer: Hello, everyone! Today, it’s a great pleasure to welcome back to the podcast Jonathan Bowden. If you’d like an introduction to Jonathan’s work, perhaps the best place to start is with our three previous broadcasts which were on the Left, Friedrich Nietzsche, and, most recently, Alain de Benoist and the European New Right.
Today we’re going to talk about a philosophical movement of equal importance and that is libertarianism. So, Jonathan, thanks for being back on the podcast.
Jonathan Bowden: Pleased to be here!
RS: Jonathan, libertarianism is in the news these days mostly through the campaign of Ron Paul, who is a Republican Congressman but he is a libertarian. He would identify as such and he has called his strong showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, these recent primaries, as victories for liberty.
Also, libertarianism certainly has many detractors, many of whom probably view it as some kind of apologetics for financial capitalism or a false consciousness in the Marxian sense of the word. It is a real ideology, and it’s one that certainly inspires millions of people, and it’s wrong to question the sincerity of the belief of people like the Tea Party who at least claim to really want liberty and to believe in it as a first principle of a country.
So, it’s obviously something we need to take seriously. With that in mind, you’re very good at getting down to the essence of something, so as we begin the discussion I’d like to ask, what is the essence of libertarianism? Where is it coming from? Is it a modern ideology? Is it much older than that? And we can also talk a little bit after that about whether this is on the Right or the Left or neither, and so on and so forth. But let’s start with that basic core. What is libertarianism at its heart?
JB: Yes, I think it’s an unfashionable form of liberalism which has become fashionable again in certain Right-of-center circles. Up until Keynesian economics in the 1930s, which didn’t really triumph until the economics of the Second World War because the economics of states when they’re at war are always very distinctive and different to states when they’re at peace. An enormous amount of expenditure on the recent Iraq War, for example, which wouldn’t have occurred in the “statist” way that it did had that war not eventuated.
The classical laissez-faire economics, which was the staple of most center-Right and centrist parties, and Right elements in center-Left parties as well, up until the great crash in 1929 would be, broadly speaking, libertarian, and they’d been ramified in social and cultural and educational and other areas that could be described as “old liberal” or “old Right liberal,” or “laissez-faire” or “laissez-aller” or “laissez-passer” liberal.
These were discredited by the Great Crash in ’29, which opened up a whole new space for socialists, semi-socialists, social democratic, socialistic, even in a dissident way social credit and other Right-wing/Left-wing forms of social intervention in the marketplace whereby the state would come in, would be a powerbroker between the participants in the market, would stabilize prices, would intervene on a day-to-day basis, would even nationalize parts of the economy, take them under state ownership and so on, which countries like Britain and France saw a great deal of in the post-Second World War twentieth century, when libertarian ideas were very much in abeyance and retreated to the margins.
When Friedrich von Hayek, who was one of the senior libertarian thinkers of the twentieth century, wrote The Road to Serfdom in the late 1940s he was reacting against the reaction against libertarianism. He was reacting against the socialist economics of the then Labour government that had a massive landslide in Britain in 1945 and ejected Churchill, and that socialized the British economy and set up a socialized system of medicine known as the National Health Service, which America has crept towards over sixty to seventy years, but even to this day has not quite fully embraced. But that was set up in Britain in the 1940s in the teeth of the opposition of the medical establishment and capitalist businesses that provided medical services at that time.
So, libertarianism in some ways is quite old and goes back to the classical liberalism of Ricardo and Mill and Adam Smith and the people who set up economics as a science and set up economics as a social science to study the economy in the 1780s and thereafter.
It’s always been an economic doctrine. It’s Marxism’s inverse. It’s inverted Marxism. That’s why when Marx wrote Kapital, volume one, he called it a critique of political economy, because the political economy that was then fashionable was laissez-faire economics, of which his work is an entire inversion. So, in a way, he was criticizing the libertarianism of that era.
RS: Well, picking up on that, Jonathan, obviously things like Left and Right can be arbitrary, maybe even in some ways those kinds of distinctions just aren’t useful anymore, but I think there is a real Left and there is a real Right that we talked about. Egalitarianism versus an acceptance of hierarchy and difference and so forth. So, do you think libertarianism is on the Left, and that even if it becomes an implacable foe of Marxian economics, that they both have the same nature in the sense that they think materialistically and that they both have a kind of utopia of rational distribution of all resources, and human happiness is maybe the ultimate goal in life?
JB: Yes, I see what you mean. Libertarianism, rather like the Green ideology and feminism up to a point, and certain sexual ideologies and certain other areas like anarchism, does fall outside the Left-Right nexus, and the Left-Right spectrum isn’t always the most useful in discussing it.
However, I’m a bit of a dissident here because I do regard libertarianism as not Left-wing. I think it’s a Right-wing discourse, because it always tends to inequality, it always tends to elitism and divisions between human beings, it always tends towards a class-based hierarchy, whatever anyone says to the contrary, it always tends to an unequal – in other words, a naturally occurring – distribution of goods and services, it always goes with the flow of inequity even in its commitment to freedom of speech, which is absolute.
One of the areas that demarcates it from most other ideological systems is the respect they do accord opponents, even when they’re trashing them with extremity. It’s one of the few discourses that does allow actual freedom of speech for almost every discourse imaginable, including discourses that people would regard as unimaginable and should be suppressed by law. Libertarianism is the only ideology that really does believe in freedom of speech and that includes all politically incorrect freedoms of speech as well.
So, I personally think libertarianism, because it tends to inequality, has to be regarded as on the Right and this has a synergy with the fact that the only space on the spectrum for it now is as the affordable Right of conservative and center-Right parties like the Republicans, who are embarrassed about a hard Right which is non-libertarian and even quite authoritarian and is nationalistic, and therefore wants to find another Right which in some ways is softer and more reflexive and goes with the values of the hour. Libertarianism has proved to be a bit of a godsend, really, for that purpose.
When I was a student on the Right-wing of the Conservative Party thirty years ago in Britain, and its student wing at that — then called the Federation of Conservative Students, a very wild and wooly organization in the 1980s by any stretch of the imagination — the libertarians were the dominant faction. They were known as the “sound faction,” and “the Libs,” as they were called, were very much in charge and very much had a sort of entrenched and vanguard ideology of their own. They never really made the jump from the hierarchy of the student wing of the Tory Party to the hierarchy of the Tory Party itself, although numerous individuals have been influenced by libertarianism in whole or in part. They took over the adult student wing of the party, but otherwise they made no further penetrations into it.
In America, it seems to be a whole different ballgame where, although it’s taken them fifty years, libertarianism has moved in from the lunatic fringe, virtually, to being accorded a degree of respect, even though much of the mainstream media regards Ron Paul’s candidacy as a species of lunacy. But when’s he’s getting, what— He’s sort of averaging, what, twenty percent of the vote?
RS: In Republican primaries, yes.
JB: In Republican primaries. That is not the lunatic fringe by any means.
JB: Although many of his ideas, abolishing the national debt, abolishing the Federal Reserve, zero tolerance for most permissive forms of taxation, the legalization of nearly all recreational drugs, to take a few examples of some of his top drawer and more moderate policy agendas, would be regarded by the center as the politics of lunacy.
And yet, the interesting thing about libertarianism is that because it’s philosophically based, the people who advocate it don’t come across as lunatic, and therefore, in a way, are part and parcel of the argument. Also, many of their ideas are much closer to the mainstream and the center than they appear at first light. So, this advocacy for liberty, who, in the center ground of American politics at any rate, is going to be against that? The advocacy of a sort of minimal constitutionalism, that the Constitution of the Founding Fathers is all that you require to run a modern society along the lines of. That’s something that many Americans, who wouldn’t regard themselves as libertarians at all or are even particularly interested in it, would adhere to.
Their attitude on things like guns, for example, which is extraordinarily libertarian, therefore anyone can own one – you can almost own your own bazooka, can’t you? Own your own tank! This is their attitude towards things – would ramify with a large number of quite conservative and Right-wing Americans who would have a loathing for their social ideas, anyway.
RS: Let me put some pressure on these points, because a lot of different avenues have opened up with what you just said. One thing that I find interesting about Ron Paul is that he is rejected by the mainstream media. Not just the liberal media, but all of them, and he’s pretty much rejected by every other Republican candidate as maybe good on a handful of issues, but dangerous and maybe even a little bit lunatic.
But what I think is truly dangerous about Ron Paul for the establishment and for the Republicans is that in many ways libertarianism is kind of all the Republicans really have in terms of an ideology that’s philosophically based, and it’s hard for them to exactly disagree with Ron Paul. Mitt Romney and so on and so forth, they’re are all going to say things like, “Capitalism is the best form of the distribution of goods. The government should be based solely on the Constitution and we should do nothing else,” and so on and so forth. They might be lying in a way. They don’t actually want that, but it’s quite hard for them to really disagree with Ron Paul, and Ron Paul is therefore dangerous because he kind of brings their words into action and takes their words to their ultimate, logical conclusion.
I also want to throw in here, to further the conversation, this notion of what I said before in the sense of libertarianism is one of the only ideologies that an American conservative could articulate. He can’t articulate one based on civilization and race. That is simply not done. You might lose your job if you say anything like that.
And so, do you think that libertarianism in a way is a kind of mask for a lot of these people? It’s a mask for the Tea Party? The Left is actually correct when they say that the Tea Party doesn’t really want what they say they want? It’s all about an implicit White identity or something like that in the sense that, at the moment, the state is pushing forward these things, it’s pushing forward regulations, it’s pushing forward health care socialization, it’s taxing them, it’s taking their money and giving it to immigrants or Blacks, or so on and so forth? Or giving it to the financial sector, it’s kind of worse. In some ways, libertarianism is a kind of defense mechanism. It’s a kind of “leave me alone” ideology, which is limited in its way but that is what libertarianism is really about. It’s a way of articulating something that is truly conservative and maybe even truly racially-based.
JB: Yes, there’s a lot to unpick there. I think the Left are largely right about the appeal libertarianism has and are less right about libertarianism itself. The small hardcore or vanguard of people who are libertarians, who regard their political and social life as “being a libertarian,” they’re a tiny handful in Britain and it’s much more common to find such individuals in the States, now they really do believe the ideology heart and soul.
JB: Whereas something like the Tea Party movement was an emotional bubble. If you looked at those town hall meetings that seem to have died out a bit now, from this side of the Atlantic anyway, they probably still have them, but they got an enormous amount of media attention during the middle of Obama’s tenure, his first presidential term, probably coming up to the mid-term elections which they doubtless influenced a great deal in getting the Republican base vote out to pack the Congress against the incumbent in the White House.
Now, those meetings tended to be very fissile and to be very febrile and to be very emotive, whereas libertarianism is a rationalist ideology tout court where everything is basically dry and put out to market tender. It’s quite clear that there was an enormous revulsion quite possibly against the first non-White president, who was seen as the effigy of all of these center-Left and socialistic policies, and the two fused together.
You used to have these posters, didn’t you, these mock posters of Obama super-imposed upon Lenin’s visage?
JB: With the sort of Leningrad features in the background and a red sky and a red flag instead of a Democratic– I guess it would be a blue flag, wouldn’t it? So, you had in the Tea Party movement an extreme emotional reaction to the Obama presidency and the disempowerment that many grassroots Americans felt as a result of that.
Libertarianism, in those circumstances, can be seen as a shield to say acceptably unacceptable and populist things, so I think the Left is quite right there. I think where they make the mistake is they think it’s so cynical that everybody thinks one way and speaks another, whereas life is never quite like that. The people who articulate this libertarianism or particular brands of it in the mainstream do generally believe in it, but there’s almost a subtext to what they’re doing, and they almost don’t allow themselves to reach the conclusions that have prompted their own actions. I think that’s very current.
So, I do think libertarianism is a species of the Right in this era. In another era, it might not be to the same degree, but in this era very much so. And I also think it does tend to Right-wing outcomes and I also think it is a code that is used deliberately to support anti-socialism, to support anti-Marxism, to support anti-Left-wing interpretations of feminism or ecology by denying them any space whatsoever. So, it’s an anti-Leftist movement, which means it’s on the Right by virtue of that.
And it’s a subliminal movement whereby all sorts of anti-Obama tendencies, tendencies of White and Caucasian distress in the United States are factored up and factored in in a manner which can be put forward in an acceptable nomenclature and used in a populist way that doesn’t necessarily sound like populism as it would be understood or thought of in a more rudimentary way, perhaps. So, yes, it is a shield, and all sorts of people have gathered around and are underneath it because it’s useful because it attacks the enemies they want to attack and it does so in a way which has less hostages to fortune at this time.
RS: Yes. It’s also worth pointing out the other side of libertarianism, and that is not the libertarianism that has a populist appeal or acts as a shield, but its deeper and maybe darker anarchist and revolutionary element, which might not inspire the Tea Party. I’m actually sure it doesn’t inspire the Tea Party, but it has inspired numerous intellectuals and so on and so forth.
Let me just throw out a few ideas related to what I just said. One of them is that libertarianism is often bashed by liberals and the Left as an apology for financial capitalism. So, these libertarians, they love the rich and they want to eat the poor and never tax anyone, and this would lead to some horrible society where corporations enslave us. You know, something like that.
But it’s worth pointing out that if Ron Paul were elected President, and he had hundreds of Ron Pauls in Congress, that actually financial capitalism, as it is currently established, might very well be destroyed. What I’m talking about is certainly the banking sector that relies on fiat money creation and fractional reserve banking, that would be gone. This would be a terrible thing for people like Goldman Sachs or Jon Corzine, and so on and so forth. There’s a huge industry involved with war-making that would go away, and Ron Paul might even push it further. He might go towards no-state anarchy. So, to use your terminology, Jonathan, there is a kind of demonic element to libertarianism that really wants to destroy the establishment and have pure liberty and a totally undetermined state, and so on and so forth, that is probably quite frightening for a lot of people.
JB: Yes, and they’ll never vote for it in a month of Sundays. They’ll vote for a toned-down sort of populist democratic notion of it linked to the Tea Party, linked to bucking the trend of socialized medicine, linked to lower taxes all round, linked to no gun control, and linked to staying out of foreign wars such as the war which may or may not be looming with Iran, for example.
If you keep it on that level, then there’s quite a lot of support for a proportion of those ideas, but the demonic subtext to libertarianism which you detect, and which is certainly there, is part and parcel of the fact that it’s now a revolutionary ideology on its own terms, and it is a pure ideology, again, in its own terms. It’s a sort of fractal, one of those sort of dissident images that you can create on a computer screen. It’s a nether entity and a thing in and of itself. It has its own philosophical predicates and it has its own philosophical maximalization, whereby it perceives a total solution to almost all social, civic, and human problems.
It’s anti-totalitarian in the most basic of resources because of its libertarian posturing, but there’s a degree to which it is a total answer. It is a very extreme ideology, actually, and almost all developments in the Western world since about 1910 are running in an anti-libertarian direction. More state power, more state intervention, more civics and culture based upon the same, less and less room for a naked capitalism, more and more management of everything, more and more capitalism being one of the partners with the state in management – something libertarians always forget. Capitalism is very happy to have lots of proximate relations with state institutions which are mutually beneficial for both sides. The degree to which crony capitalism is part of capitalism is part of the agenda that libertarians always miss out, because they have a heaven-on-Earth view of capitalism. They have an idealized view of capitalism which is as short of reality in certain respects as the Communist vision of the working class in Western societies was for most of the twentieth century, and all of the nineteenth century. There are mystical elements to it, in a strange sort of way, for something which is otherwise so hard-drawn, materialist, and dry, and rather desiccated, particularly in its economic patchwork. So, there are unbridled forms of extremism that lurk at the heart of it, and at the heart of it there is an economist – I think he’s called Schumpeter – who believes in anarchic capitalism and the creative destruction of the market mechanism whereby markets should be allowed to fail, and when they have dysfunction, such as the recent banking and credit crisis, all of those banks that were propped up in North America, Japan, Western Europe, Britain, and elsewhere should all have been allowed to go to the wall. They should all have been allowed to fail. Not just one. Lehman Brothers, that was allowed to go to the wall as an example to the others, but as a solitary example. Every one of them should have gone the Lehman route, and bankers should have been plunging from the tops of high-rises and committing suicide en masse, as a small number of them did in the 1930s during the great stock market crash then.
But what libertarianism fails to realize is the socioeconomic consequences of allowing markets to fail to that degree, so they can then start up again in a purist way, are so great and the misery that would be inflicted on tens of millions is so great that in democracy it is literally unfathomable and ill-proportioned and cannot be permitted.
The danger to the system is who these people would start voting for if the entire economic rug was pulled from beneath them in so radical and brutal a way. You would have the most unlikely people emerging from the fringes, possibly, in receipt of large votes, which is of course what partly happened in the 1930s, and which is still the terror that stalks mainstream democracy to this day. But if there was a collapse, who do people start voting for? It won’t be for the Mitt Romneys of this world.
RS: I completely agree. We actually had something like what you describe in a microcosm in Iceland. They actually went hard Left, but in an interesting, strange way. You had the first lesbian head-of-state. (laughter)
JB: That’s right, yes.
RS: Whatever you want to say about that. But I do agree that there is a deep fear of the establishment of a real collapse, and a kind of reset or a new paradigm taking part much as we saw in the 1920s and 1930s in Europe.
Of course, I will add to what you said and I’ll translate that into my next question, which is probably the response to this by a lot of libertarians would be that, “Yes, a cleansing of the system would be quite painful, but it would be probably very short and it could be something that could be overcome. However, the statist and welfare measures that are used to prevent the cleansing of the system will essentially perpetuate a slow misery for twenty years or something like this.” And I actually think they might very well be right about that, but at the very least the establishment can use that as somehow more stable, and not something that could give rise to a new kind of politics.
And I want to translate that into another question. Murray Rothbard discussed this, and also my friend Justin Raimondo has talked about it as well, and that is there was a kind of naïve libertarianism for many years that believed that essentially the world is always getting better, that there is an arrow of history and it points towards civilization and liberty and finely tuned, well-functioning markets, and so on and so forth. But actually that view of the world really hasn’t played out. It obviously looked quite bad in things like World Wars and so forth in the first half of the century, but even if you take the relatively more peaceful second half of the twentieth century, it is one that is unequivocally about the state eating up more and more of the economy, of states becoming larger and more empowered, of states having the ability to listen to your phone calls and read your e-mails – something that I don’t think Joseph Stalin could really imagine doing on the scale that the United States government can do. And so, if anything, if we look back at the foreseeable past, the arrow to history seems to lead towards tyranny or some kind of totalitarianism, or something like that.
So, Jonathan, do you think that we might be at the end of a cycle of the growth of the state like this, or do you think this could turn around? Or do you think that that is true, that the state is such a powerful force that it will grow to almost envelope societies and economies?
JB: Yes, there’s a large number of points there. To seize one of them first, I think libertarianism has always been a naïve view. It’s always had, partly because it is a very radical and revolutionary view, but the revolution it comes out of is the early stages of the French Revolution, the post-physiocratic early stages, until the Revolution really got going and the guillotine started coming in. As soon as you use physical force to get your way, libertarianism is lost, because of course libertarians don’t believe in using physical force to get your way. They believe in rational arguments and they believe in the invisible hand of social brotherhood through the market mechanism as the way to solve all problems.
I think the naïveté of this type of liberalism is that it hasn’t even come to terms with the mass society that was created in all Western societies during the twentieth century. One of the biggest agencies in the United States is the NSA, the National Security Agency, the equivalent of which is GCHQ in Britain, and these agencies exist to spy on the domestic population, primarily electronically, and also to spy on all foreign media and an enormous amount of foreign electronic media as well. Now, all of these institutions are deeply illiberal and deeply non-libertarian, and yet when states constitute themselves, they’re the first thing they think of.
JB: I don’t think the NSA was publicly admitted to exist until about 1980. GCHQ wasn’t publicly admitted to exist until about 1990. But these institutions have, in one form or another, existed throughout most of the twentieth century, whereby a proportion of the indigenous population is spied on by the state. Libertarians, when they bother to think about these things at all, are flustered, and regard it as totally immoral and inhuman, and in the proximity that we have to Third World demagogic dictatorships and Stalinist regimes and so forth. And yet the state’s first instinct is to gather information about those it governs as a core prerequisite. So, states are illiberal from the very moment they set the best in armed services to spy on foreign states and to spy on people in their own polities.
And libertarianism, it always thinks it can do away with this sort of world. It could do away with much of the infrastructure of social policing, for example, often in a quite naïve way, the reverse of a truculent way. It’s as if the twentieth century is the world they want to get away from. And it’s the century they want to step out of because, of course, in the nineteenth century the state was much smaller in Western terms, much more laissez-faire, surveillance of the citizen would be nil, but also, of course, statal concern whether you lived or died or not was nil as well. People without recourse to charity and so on had to do with workhouses and religious institutions which looked after those right at the bottom of the social heap, of which libertarianism is not really particularly concerned, although it does talk a lot about the voluntary sector and private charity.
But, yes, I do believe that there was a very naïve current in libertarian thinking that thought that history, with a few delinquencies like Communism, was on an upward curve towards more and more liberty. And I think states are increasingly amassing more and more power to themselves.
But there are contradictory tendencies as well, because just as they amass all this information, the Internet and other functions become yet more uncontrollable, and freedom of information legislation, which is a core libertarian axiom, although all states loathe it when Wikileaks and these sorts of unofficial libertarian entities go in for the leaking of state documents, which can be extraordinarily embarrassing in terms of inter-state relationships.
But nevertheless, the state itself is double-edged about a lot of these things. You can get an enormous amount of information about what states are up to now of a sort which, thirty to forty years ago, at the height of the Cold War, was much more problematical to get your hands on, and all of this is a result of libertarian pressures and yet, at the same time, the state insists on taking yet more information and assessing more people at any one time.
There was a book in Britain in the 1980s called Spycatcher. It was banned by the British state even though it was smuggled into the country and you could get it if you wanted. It’s now totally available. The reason it was banned is because it released a lot of the mechanisms the security services used, partly to investigate what a proportion of the population is up to. And it revealed all sorts of things about GCHQ and phone-tapping and that sort of thing.
One of the systems it revealed the existence of was something called ECHELON – there will be an American equivalent – whereby two million phone calls can be listened to at once, but the phone calls are not listened to individually. They’re listening for key words, which if people say them long enough and hard enough, eventually there will be an electronic trace left and that call may be intercepted and monitored, again by a machine. It wouldn’t reach a human being until many stages after that.
This is the very advanced use of technology. The technology that’s being used is utterly state of the art, it’s Pentagon technology, the cutting edge thereof, and it’s used in order to restrict the liberty of the citizen and it’s also used in the citizen’s interest to protect citizens from terrorism and from criminality and from the hostility of foreign espionage agencies that may wish them and theirs no good whatsoever, at least up to a point.
So, libertarians are very confused in many ways about what they want, and at times there is a sort of what I call an Amish element to libertarianism. You know, they want to go back to go forwards to such a degree that small people living in buggies with pre-modern technology. I think the Amish don’t use any item that was developed after about 1820 or something like that?
RS: Yes. They have roller skates, but no internal combustion engine.
JB: Yes. Libertarians at times strike me statally and civically as a bit like that, because at the core of their ideology there is no understanding about how you would run a modern state – even a state that they could approve of. And that posits again the fact that it is a pure form of idealism, that it is an ideal about how a society should be.
Just at the height of Communism, after multiple genocides and the introduction of slavery in Communist societies, such as Kampuchea under Pol Pot or Communist China under Mao or Stalin’s Soviet Union, after all that you still had Marxist texts available everywhere, where the ultimate aim is the withering away of the state—
RS: (laughs) Right.
JB: —that when the perfect society has been attained man will not need the coercive instrument of the state, when Marxism and anarchism lock hands again after their violent rupture in the 1880s, and there will be no state. So even North Korea preaches through its Marxist texts that eventually this state, that reduces a large swathe of the population to what Westerners consider to be near slavery, this state will wither away. And so you’ve got this total clash between the reality and what the idealism of the ideology in a pure form says or advocates. There are times in which libertarianism is very like that, but it’s not really a form of practical politics at all, but a form of idealistic philosophizing based on market liberalism extending out into all areas of life.
One of the interesting figures that we haven’t mentioned yet, of course, is the authoress Ayn Rand.
RS: Oh, yes. I do want to talk about her.
JB: I don’t know whether Ron Paul’s son is called Rand Paul—
RS: Well, actually, I do want to talk about Ayn Rand. I want to ask one question before then, but just to mention that what you just said, I actually heard Rand Paul interviewed, and this question was asked and the answer is no. I think his name is actually Randall or Randy—
JB: Oh, I see, right.
RS: —and his wife didn’t like that name, so she liked Rand. But it obviously, maybe unconsciously he was named after the author, who certainly Ron Paul read and said he admired.
I do want to talk about Ayn Rand, but first I want to ask another question that’s a deep one. It goes back to what I said before about the arrow of history, and so on and so forth. We’re living in a time where certainly the state is larger, it takes up more of the economy, it has more power, more of an ability to influence our lives than ever before, and yet there’s really also no state in the Western world that isn’t wildly bankrupt.
You could maybe sense that paying off debt with more debt could go on forever or something, but it can’t. Eventually it will collapse, so in some ways we might really be at a precipice or a tipping point in the sense that we’re witnessing the state at its largest expanse, but also to a point where it might really collapse. And so I think that is really quite interesting, and in this way libertarianism is a philosophy we need to seriously think about.
But before we talk about Rand, do you think – to go back to the naïveté of the libertarians – that there really is an internal urge for a state, or maybe there’s a historical, concrete necessity for a state, and that the libertarians, in thinking that we don’t need one or we need one that is miniscule, that maybe has one or two courts and maybe a very small police force that prevents theft, that they’re naïve? That at some level, as Carl Schmitt might say, someone must decide, someone uses compulsion to get his way, someone is sovereign. Do you think that there is a kind of eternal foundation for sovereignty and the state?
JB: Yes, I think there is, and I think it’s very true that there is in the United States of America. I think it’s not an accident at all that libertarianism has become, for a fringe ideology, such a powerful one in the United States of America.
Although there was the Austrian school of economics with von Mises and von Hayek, there is no real interest in libertarianism, really, in Central and Western Europe, never mind Eastern Europe. There are a few libertarian catchphrases that go around in the circles of debate, and there’s some interest in Britain because of the Americanization of British culture since the Second World War, if not before, but libertarian ideas have really come home to roost in the United States. And this ideal of the “republic on the hill” with a militia, with a minimal state, with a sound currency based on gold, with a Protestant morality, elements of which are very close to an Orthodox Jewish morality, that this state can be kept as minimal as possible, that all you basically need is the functioning of a market mechanism . . . These are deeply-held American tropes, and libertarianism feeds off them and has attained whatever power and ideological influence, cultural influence, influence of soft power that it has because of those traits.
So, it is buying into Americana. Even the Tea Party movement is based on an incident prior to the American Revolution, or the American War of Independence as Britons call it, somewhat more neutrally and in a slightly more embarrassed way, when some radicals rode out into Boston Harbor and took some tea which duty was to be paid on, and threw it off the docks and threw it into the water, and otherwise ruined it so that they were making the protest they shouldn’t have to pay these taxes and these duties because they wanted their own state. The sort of state that they wanted or thought that they needed was a minimal one, an eighteenth-century state.
In many ways, the libertarians are arguing to fit the twenty-first-century back into the eighteenth century, and that’s why it won’t go, because although modern states are bankrupt, they’ve done it to include the masses in the state machinery. They’ve done it to include the vast swathe of the population that has no capital and that can’t trade in the market, but who live and exist and are forty to fifty percent of the population of Western societies. Their education has to be paid for, their healthcare has to be paid for, quite often their housing has to be paid for, and if they don’t work, their actual living costs have to be paid for, and their old age costs have to be paid for, and their very early life costs have to be paid for. They almost have to be looked after from cradle to grave.
JB: There’s no longer the church-based institutions, and they would not have the reach or the resources even if they had the will and the social power to do so, to reach these people anymore.
Libertarianism, basically, would have to restrict everything back to a quasi-eighteenth-century way of thinking. It would also have to restrict democracy, because once you give these masses of people the vote, they will vote for candidates and parties and ideologies that service their requirements, and their requirements are serviced by big trade unions and by those politicians that trade unions tend to back, who are Left Democrats in the United States and the Labour Party in Britain or Australia and its current Canadian equivalent. They are the people who built the welfare state. Left-liberal theorists may have created its over-structures and its ideology, Beveridge in Britain, and so on, or Keynes in Britain, but there’s a degree to which center-Left parties on the votes of these people have brought them about.
The only way you would return to market solutions for everything is to excuse these people from the polity, is to take their votes away.
RS: Well, I think I might even go further. I think the creation of a libertarian order might eventuate in a dramatic reduction of the world population, as shocking as that might sound. Certainly, when the Haitian earthquake occurred, I remember reading statistics of some sixty percent of the Haitian economy was essentially food aid from the US. Again, these are rather dark things to think about.
JB: Yes, there’s a strong eugenic and dysgenic potential. That is why there is a species of social democratic Leftism that regards libertarianism as more cruel than fascism.
JB: Regards it as worse, because fascism has a socialist side and looks after people at the bottom for reasons of national paternalism, whereas libertarianism has no softness at all, and basically those at the bottom go to the wall or they find ways in which they can serve those at the top. Now, that’s not how libertarians think of their own ideas at all, but it’s how Left-wing critics think of them and libertarianism is regarded by socially-minded thinkers – not all on the Left, actually, because this would be a New Right critique of libertarianism along de Benoist’s lines – as very much the morality and the law of the jungle.
What looks remarkably nice in Hayek’s books about capitalist markets, such as his book attempting to refute Marx and the idea that there’s a business cycle – there’s no such thing as the business cycle, because it refutes the idea that markets fail. Markets can never fail, and Hayek deduced this sort of econometric text that’s highly mathematical. It’s one of the many texts that he won the Nobel Prize in Economics for.
But in the course of this text called The Pure Theory of Capital, he’s trying to prove that capitalism is the only system that works. The problem with those views is they may be mathematically true, but socially and politically they’re not true, because they exclude an enormous number of people. The reason Communism built slave-labor camps is it didn’t compute all the people who would not fit into utopia. What do you do with them? What do you do with all these dissident, artistic types who don’t go along with how you think things should be done? What do you do with all religious believers, who are an enormous swathe of any population, including quite sort of crude, primitive religious believers if you want to look at it in those terms, idol-worshipping believers, if you like, who will not give it up, will never give it up whatever anyone says, however they are pilloried or whatever in fashionable media? What do you do with these millions of people who are irreconcilable to the utopia? There are tens and tens of millions, if not billions, of human beings who are surplus to requirement in the libertarian model.
RS: Yeah. It’s quite true.
Well, I’d like to bring the conversation to a close by talking about Ayn Rand. I don’t know about yourself, but I know with me and with a number of my friends and colleagues, most all of us went through an Ayn Rand phase in our lives, and that usually occurred in high school. For me, I believe I was a sophomore in college, and I can actually remember even picking out The Fountainhead from the university bookstore and reading it and devouring it and finding it quite inspiring. I certainly remember thinking through libertarian ideology while I was riding my bike back to the dorm after classes thinking, “Is a market intervention unjustified even here?” And so on and so forth. So I think it is in many ways a positive thing for younger people. I think most of us get over Ayn Rand. But I will actually say that I still do like her and I still do admire her writings.
I guess the question I want to bring up for you, Jonathan, is that Ayn Rand’s economics were essentially taken lock, stock, and barrel from Ludwig von Mises. She believes in a gold standard and a minimal state and, very American in some ways, a constitutional government, and so on and so forth. But I think in some ways what inspires people from Rand’s work are not those things, and they’re actually some of the demonic aspects of her work, but I might even call them the kind of fascistic aspects to the work. That would obviously greatly offend most of Ayn Rand’s admirers and certainly her legacy-keepers at the moment, but these books do sell around two hundred thousand copies a year in the United States, from what I’ve read – that’s quite incredible for books, two books in particular, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, which were written in the 1940s and 1950s.
Let me just read very briefly from the first page of The Fountainhead, which is a very interesting book:
Howard Roark laughed. He stood naked at the edge of a cliff. The lake lay far below him. A frozen explosion of granite burst in flight to the sky over motionless water. The water seemed immovable, the stone – flowing. The stone had the stillness of one brief moment in battle when thrust meets thrust and the currents are held in a pause more dynamic than motion. The stone glowed, wet with sunrays.
I’ll just go down a little bit (this is Howard):
He knew that the days ahead would be difficult. There were questions to be faced and a plan of action to be prepared. He knew that he should think about it. He knew also that he would not think, because everything was clear to him already, because the plan had been set long ago, and because he wanted to laugh.
Howard Roark, along with John Galt, who is an even more mysterious protagonist in her novel Atlas Shrugged, they are, aesthetically speaking, Aryan gods, or maybe gods from a Greco-Roman statue. They’re described as having blond or, in Howard’s case I guess, reddish hair. They’re described as high cheekbones, as handsome, as tall, as angular and sharp maybe in their posturing and their body. And so you have kind of Aryan heroes, and she describes them in these romantic ways, and even though she does believe in liberty and the gold standard and so on and so forth, what’s maybe inspiring about these figures is that they are supermen. They want to go build a new world. They want to build great skyscrapers in the sky and stainless steel bridges that stretch on for miles. This is inspiring in a way that we want to worship great men.
It’s worth pointing out that all of the great antagonists, all the villains, in Ayn Rand’s pieces are essentially horrible little Cultural Marxists. They’re Toohey in The Fountainhead, he has a famous line which I love, which is, “I play the stock market of the spirit and I sell short.” So, essentially, not by economic means but by cultural and spiritual means, he’s going to level down society to a bunch of drones and children and so on and so forth. All the people in Atlas Shrugged are Wesley Mouch, these horrible little creatures that are in Washington, and they want to regulate everyone.
So, in some ways, what’s inspiring about Ayn Rand is this, I’ll just say fascistic, element, this hero worship and the view that there are all these evil little insects that want to bring down the great man.
Am I right about this, Jonathan, or am I reading a little too much into it?
JB: No, I think you’re absolutely right, and she exemplifies the tension in libertarianism. She’s almost single-handedly the reason for much of its success, because she’s essentially a romantic and a heroic sort of Greco-Roman romantic who comes quite close to advocating a raceless type of fascism, or quasi-fascism, aesthetically and psychologically and emotionally but in no other respects, and it’s those elements of her work which have created the great buzz around it and which has led to the enormous sales, because the rather boring, dry, and arid stuff about a rooted gold standard and a clearing at the market rate doesn’t really cut it.
RS: (laughing) Right.
JB: So, when you have the scene in The Fountainhead where Toohey and his associates have taken away the secular cathedral that Roark has built with the sculptor Steven to the heroic qualities in man, and have replaced it with a hospital for children with cerebral palsy and those who are otherwise afflicted, and then Roark and Dominique Francon blow it up . . .
RS: Yeah, something like that. I think he blows up another building, but yes, what you say is very true. I forgot about that. He does build a kind of secular cathedral for man. And it’s turned into a–
JB: That’s right, because she’s almost at times a quasi-religious writer.
RS: Oh, without question.
JB: And the ardor of her romanticism, the ardor of the great man… She just transmutes the great man into other areas. Because I think the subtext of Rand is that Rand is essentially an artistic person. If you look at most of her books that actually made her name, they’re not the Objectivist philosophizing which many academic philosophers regard as a pretty rum go anyway, and they’re not the polemicisms of the later years, and they’re not the cult that was created around her either, and that sort of thing, which still does survive in an attenuated and cultural form, and at times is used by her detractors to make her look ridiculous.
The core of her is these artistic books: the anti-Soviet book We the Living; the libertarian poem to heroic individualist freedom, Anthem; the poem about the artist as almost a supernatural creator, The Fountainhead, where the artist is seen as a heroic figure, the artist as a dictator, the artist as a sort of Abraham Lincoln crossed with Shakespeare crossed with Saddam Hussein crossed with the man who walked on the moon. That’s what Howard Roark is.
And they’re considered to be supermen, because of course she is very influenced by Nietzsche and she wants to heroicize. That’s why her novels are looked down on by the literary and cultural establishment, because they’re considered to be comic books, they’re considered to be ridiculous, idealistic fantasies of heroic, romantic men and women who can’t possibly exist in the real world, and therefore they’re not real and they’re unnatural. And although people will take the money because of the enormous sales of these volumes, there’s quite a lot of resentment about Rand. A lot of British publishers wouldn’t bring her across the Atlantic for quite a long time, although she’s in Penguin Classics now, but that didn’t happen until the Cold War had ended, I noticed. You had to import Rand from American editions or hardback from conservative publishers in Britain like Cassell and so on, who used to do The Fountainhead and We the Living and Atlas Shrugged.
So, she’s essentially a nineteenth-century Romantic figure. A Byronic, heroic Romanticist, who believes that the architect and the artist and the entrepreneur and the businessman and the private sector scientist can be on a level with the great statesmen and the great military warriors and the great religious leaders of the past. That’s her viewpoint, really, and it’s because her views are heroic that they chime with the instincts of romantic idealism of lots of people.
Libertarianism is very, very dry, and yet Rand is essentially its symphony. Rand is its sort of glowing musical overture to the rather dry-as-dust, bare-bones stuff that you get with von Mises and Hayek and some of the others. Oh, and Milton Friedman, for example. Rand is the poetry of it, and that’s what intoxicates people and draws them into it.
There’s also quite a lot of truth in her books, actually, about the way the world works and about certain psychological realities, and how people are prone to failure and success.
But yes, the reason that libertarianism has a vibe around it and has a currency of appeal is really down to her. It’s down to her crossover. All of the libertarians have fantasies that are based on her. These sort of non-martial martial fantasies of the great artist, the great lawyer, the great– Never the great leader, but it’s the great doer as the great leader. A leader manqué, a leader in their own life. And this sort of romantic individualism, which is in part the philosophy of nineteenth-century late American capitalism and the doctrine of the titan at the end of capitalism’s great cycle, before the state became manifoldly involved in the economy in the twentieth century, as much in the American economy as any other economy – although the fiction is it didn’t do that as much as in Europe – but, socialized medicine aside, the mechanisms are almost identical in Europe and America. This is one of the ironies about all the divisions between the two so-called models. The two models are the same. They’ve just got different dynamics. That’s all.
And these titans – the Rockefellers and those who created these enormous steel and rail confederations in nineteenth-century America, about whom a Left-wing novelist like Theodore Dreiser used to expatiate at the beginning of the twentieth century – these people, of course, tended to oligopoly and even semi-monopoly because advanced, rambunctious, uncontrolled nineteenth-century capitalism does tend to oligopoly contrary to what the libertarians say. That’s why you have to have anti-trust legislation to break it up and to reformulate more of a market.
So, there are many paradoxes involved in her thinking, but she worships these capitalist titan figures when they themselves are really capitalistic dictators wrenching the market out of its true focus. But that’s because her interest isn’t really in the market at all. It’s in these romantic figures that are artistically designated. Previous eras would have chosen saints and warriors and military leaders and dynastic political leaders. She invests businessmen and private sector scientists and, above all, artists with the same sort of cache. That’s why her work is popular.
RS: Well, Jonathan, thank you for being back on the podcast. I hope to have you back on again soon.
JB: Thanks very much. Pleased to be here. Bye for now!