February 13, 2009

Libertarians, Freaks, and Kooks

Having just finished listening to this discussion with Richard Spencer and Austin Bramwell, a few thoughts on the “two faces” of libertarianism debate.

The designations “tragic” and “comic” are interesting and examining what those terms mean contextually within the increasingly broad libertarian spectrum gives one much to ponder. While I am not sold that either of those libertarian distinctions can be so neatly applied, the classifications unquestionably point to two existing “moods” within the broader libertarian movement (if such a thing can be said to exist).

Something that is hinted at in the Bramwell/Spencer debate, that is noteworthy, though never fully explored, is the two approaches the two moods take toward human nature. While Richard may have been reaching a bit in suggesting that the “comic” crowd ultimately must rely on some sort of global governance system to enforce its “rights” based agenda, the sentiment behind the argument is undeniably true.

To the “comics,” the world is a place filled with bigots, homophobes and opponents of “alternative lifestyles.” As a rule they seem to favor an aggressive counterattack against prevailing traditions and social institutions. The comics simply don’t trust people to govern themselves. Enforcement of civil rights statues and PC policing have become staples of their cause, and the “selfism” so abhorred by the original American individualist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, is the norm. The State is only nominally the enemy, and at times is an appropriate agent of “social justice.”

The “tragics” may have a negative view of political institutions, but they generally have a favorable view of organic communities and local customs. There is little fear among the tragics about how different cultures behave in their own backyards and the autonomy of culturally conservative (and culturally liberal) enclaves is cheered, not feared. In other words the tragics do trust people to govern themselves.

That said, it seems that the comic/tragic divide is but one of many fissures in the modern libertarian movement, and this divide is perhaps less significant than others. One glaring example, and one that is rarely discussed in polite company, is the huge rift amongst libertarians and their often conspiracy driven, popular base. While many prominent libertarians hint at having sympathies with various conspiracist arguments involving political assassinations, false flag operations, etc., most serious movement thinkers spend their time writing or discussing questions of economics, foreign policy or personal liberty. Their primary method of criticism regarding the State is in measuring its relative inefficiency by comparison to private enterprise.

Yet a very large segment of the libertarian grassroots are diehard conspiracy theorists. To them, the Austrian Theory of the Business Cycle is not only unknown, but irrelevant. They see a very real globalist coup that has already succeeded and curiously consider the State remarkably efficient, but only when it comes to doing dangerous and wildly immoral things. While it is fair to say there is overlap between these two camps, it is also fair to say that where they do not overlap, they are doomed to be engaged in an endless civil war. The conspiracists see the intellectuals as “gatekeepers” and the intellectuals see the “conspiracists” as “kooks.” This is complicated by the fact that the “kooks” need the credibility of the “gatekeepers” to be heard at all, and the “gatekeepers” need the sheer numbers and enthusiasm of the “kooks” to stay relevant.

There are many other divisions that are not covered by the “comic” and “tragic” denotations. The large gap between libertarians who put decentralism first (as do I) and those that put raw economics first (most Misesians) immediately comes to mind. Though I have serious disagreements with Mr. Bramwell’s assessment of monetary issues, his central contention may in fact be true. Libertarianism may not be a fully formed, mature, political movement or ideology. What is unclear is why this would be viewed as a negative thing in lieu of what the more organized philosophies have given us over the last hundred years.

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