If you are looking for a history of libertarian thought to gain a greater appreciation for a philosophy you already adhere to and lock in your priors—one that is written by someone who was as deeply moved by it as you were—then Burning Down The House is not the book for you. (If that’s the kind of thing you want, I’d suggest you read Radicals For Capitalism by Brian Doherty.)
But if you’re looking for something on libertarian history by a non-libertarian who tries to be fair, but is also relatively critical and who comes from outside of the libertarian echo chamber—it may be worth your time.
The author of this new book, wrote an article this week for The Hill entitled, “The Libertarian Party is Collapsing. Here’s Why.” The short answer he gives, near as I can tell, is “racism”.
In it, he credits Gary Johnson’s 2016 run as the Libertarian Party’s “greatest triumph”, so one would assume that he is referring to a collapse post-Johnson. Although he resists naming names rather than defining crowds, there are only so many new developments to point to during that time. He relies heavily on reporting from places like The Southern Poverty Law Center and The Nation for the generalizations—both of which have been highly critical of the Mises Caucus wing of the party specifically, which is mentioned in the article.
His attacks on libertarianism run from those that seem absurd at first glance (he sees big government response to COVID as a case for big government rather than for libertarianism), to those that are pedestrian (he claims government is necessary to address large challenges like climate change and healthcare), to more interesting fare (comparing arguments common of modern libertarians to great libertarian thinkers of the past).
There’s obviously plenty to disagree with from a libertarian point of view, but to a certain extent politics is just the art of disagreement, best played by engaging with competing ideas. The day his Hill article was published, I talked to him about all this, and let him make his case.
TLR: This is Gary Doan of The Libertarian Republic and I’m talking to Andrew Koppelman. He’s a professor of law and political science at the prestigious Northwestern University, who’s often focused on the intersection of those two disciplines. He hails from University of Chicago and Yale law school, was a fellow at Harvard and Princeton, and to be honest, he has too many educational bonafides to be wasting his time talking to The Libertarian Republic. I’m happy he is all the same. His new book is entitled “Burning Down The House: How The Libertarian Philosophy Was Corrupted By Delusion And Greed”. Andrew, thanks for talking with me.
AK: Thanks for having me.
TLR: You recently wrote an article in The Hill entitled, “The Libertarian Party Is Collapsing. Here’s Why”, which was critical of the most modern iteration of the Libertarian Party, especially the Mises Caucus wing, which recently took control during the Reno reset. It’s full of charges of racism, selfishness, and greed festering in that institution as well as implications of external manipulation by the alt-right. Seems to have upset the usual suspects. Before getting into the details, what’s a summary of the “why” that’s the general gist of it? And did you reach out to any of the members of the LNC or Mises Caucus leadership before publishing for comment, and if so what was their response to it?
AK: Just relied on publicly available sources that had been pretty thoroughly reported by others. I do political philosophy. I was trying to think about the very narrow question of what are racists doing in the Libertarian Party to begin with, because there’s something puzzling about this. Libertarianism is foundationally concerned with the liberty of everybody. Equality seems to be baked into libertarianism. And so there’s just something very weird about these folks being here at all. It’s like having vegetarians in a butcher shop.
And so you’ve got to have some explanation for what are they doing here. And that’s something that I thought that I could contribute something to, and something that I really hadn’t talked about at all in my book, because while my book is critical of libertarianism and talks about the most prominent libertarian thinkers, none of them are racists. There’s not a single major libertarian theorist, who, as part of their basic philosophy, appeals to racism in any way. And most of them explicitly and vehemently repudiate it. So it’s just puzzling. What are these people doing here?
And my explanation is that there is a certain emotional appeal, first of all, to opposing civil rights laws. Barry Goldwater was not a racist. But once he voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that became an attraction of libertarian ideology for many people who were much less admirable than Goldwater himself. As a general matter, the fantasy of separating yourself out from a population you don’t like, is part of the appeal of this ideology. I am not saying that libertarianism itself is racist. I try to make very clear that that’s not what I’m saying. And I quote Ayn Rand’s repudiation of racism, but there’s something going on here that demands explanation.
TLR: Let me hold on to that racism thing for a little bit there. You’ve described the party as being quote, torn apart by an alt-right insurgency with racist tendencies and that was where you seem to first go to with this. I guess you could call it an extension to your book, hitting libertarianism from another end—or at least some modern libertarianism or a faction of it. When you say ‘alt-right insurgency with racist tendencies’, are you referring to the Mises Caucus specifically? Assuming you are, are you referring to the entire caucus, some of their ranks, or their leader–
AK: There are elements that are concentrated within the caucus. But once again, I have not done original reporting. I’m relying on secondary sources that are already out there and not- you know, reporters who are, I thought, quite reliable. But this is my claim. If you want to interrogate that claim, you need to go to the sources that I was relying on.
TLR: Some more reliable than the others. You know, some of it’s just like, Southern Poverty Law Center, stuff like that, but I’m sure there’s more reputable ones as well, because… I actually don’t disagree that there is a problem to be addressed that you’re alluding to, but–
AK: So the libertarians I’ve talked to- this seems to be common knowledge in the libertarian community. And the tendency has been there ever since the Ron Paul newsletters and some of the stuff that Lew Rockwell and Murray Rothbard wrote. So, I mean, this is our long-standing problem. It’s not something that I was not aware that there was any controversy about the fact that there were such elements.
TLR: Yeah, I mean, part of it, you alluded to with pointing to loaded words like “moocher” from Rand’s writing and so forth that can be taken… Obviously, Lew Rockwell and the Paul newsletters, you know, at most charitable are tone deaf to their whistles. I’m gonna return to the racism critique in just a second, here.
But when I think of the Libertarian Party’s greatest triumphs, I think of things like shifting the conversation in ways that led to ending the draft, lessening the extant prohibition through state-led legalization and decrim efforts, reminding conservatives of their anti-war history, and a respect at least in the rhetoric for free markets and making their promotion acceptable to the right, presenting progressives with concrete proposals in the realm of criminal justice reform, and leading the way early on ending modern forms of discriminatory practices, like bans on gay marriage, offering serious proposals on entitlement reform and foreign policy realism—all through shift in the narrative. They’ve contributed to all this despite remaining on the fringe, both in the direct electoral numbers since it’s pretty low, and while being handicapped by a decent amount of in-house crazies. But they’ve–
AK: All that seems to me to be fair. I’m not sure how much of it is the party and how much of it is a more general shift in the culture. But one of the things that I try to make clear about in my book is that libertarians were right about quite a lot of things. But there is- I have a lot of admiration for Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, and Richard Epstein. And I think that even the more romantic varieties like Rothbard or Rand have some real attractions to what they have to offer. It really is the case that I don’t even need to go through examples because you just gave a lot of them.
The reason why I wrote the book is because there are books out there about libertarianism, which are sort of introductions, to the general reader. And they’re written by very smart people. David Boaz wrote a good book. Jason Brennan has a good book. But they’re not critical. They don’t try to sort out, alright, where did this come from? And what are the different forms? And how does it hold up as a political philosophy? Because that’s what libertarianism is—at its core, it is a political philosophy. It needs to be examined with the tools of political philosophy, which is what I have to offer. I’m a professor.
TLR: In your book. I mean, the title “Burning Down the House”. So you’ve described libertarianism as a philosophy that advocates of state power be absolutely minimized. When I’ve heard you talk about your book- I’m actually a huge fan of the history podcast that you were recently on, even though I know the hosts aren’t all that libertarian. But when I’ve heard you talk about your book, you began with a story about a partially privatized fire department, which looked on, let a house be burned down for non payment of fire insurance.
AK: And, right, the guy had, you know, he was getting old, he forgot to make his payment. The consequence was, the fire department came to his house and watched as it burned down. And the reason why it’s particularly interesting is that there was a debate in the public press about whether this was appropriate behavior on the part of the fire department. And it was happening in the middle of the debate about Obamacare. And so everybody understood that this was really a debate about Obamacare. The question was, should everybody be responsible for dealing for their own misfortunes? Or is it legitimate to have communal institutions to protect people? When unexpected bad things happen? Such as a fire?
TLR: Yeah. However, libertarian runs this spectrum, from anarchism to various degrees of minarchism. I know plenty of libertarians who are moderate (by libertarian standards, of course), including myself who aren’t calling to privatize the police or fire departments who aren’t all regular–
AK: Yeah, the question the book is trying to answer is how did we go from Hayek’s moderate attack on socialism, which was absolutely right, and I think really has carried the day. I don’t think there is anything in the Road to Serfdom that would be rejected by Joseph Biden, or Elizabeth Warren, or Bernie Sanders, or even Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. They all think that we want to have a free market economy. The question is how large a welfare state is appropriate. But none of them want to nationalize the means of production. And yet, the idea of letting a house burn down would have seemed really weird to Hayek.
And so another puzzle is, how did we get from there to what happened in Tennessee? And I think it’s because of the advent of more extreme ideas, such as the ideas of Murray Rothbard, which are increasingly influential. And so then we have to look at the ideas and ask well, so what do we think of Rothbardian ideas? Are they or are they not an improvement on Hayek? Because Rothbard understood that he had deep disagreements with Hayek, and that there was just a fundamentally different philosophy being offered.
TLR: You said that a libertarian focus on individual rights seems flatly inconsistent with racism. Do you believe that combating something as irrational and repugnant as racism is best achieved through a focus on individual rights or a focus on group rights and why?
AK: Well, I’m, myself, not much interested in group rights. Since group rights have not turned up in libertarian thought, which I focused on, except in something that was too esoteric to even get into in the column. There are people like Hans Hermann Hoppe who argued that we should look at national borders as a sort of property right. And illegal aliens as a kind of trespasser. There is a strange notion of property here that has some very odd entailments. So, Hoppe is the only libertarian I can think of that comes anywhere near to thinking about group rights.
But I’m an individualistic liberal. I think that groups are interesting only to the extent that there are people who suffer injustices as a member of a group, and that you can notice these group patterns and try to fight them. And there are questions about reparations and what you do about those, which is just a whole different set of questions. Robert Nozick, in Anarchy, State and Utopia, cites a speaker’s book making a case for black reparations, with approval, saying, ‘Well, you know, maybe that’s possible’. But it’s a whole different set of questions than fundamental questions about what does a just society look like? Remedying past wrongs raises a distinctive set of problems which I haven’t gotten into at all in this book.
TLR: You just described yourself as a liberal. What do you believe is the difference between libertarianism and classical liberalism, if any?
AK: Well, the liberalism, as I identify with, does not have the kind of suspicion of the state of classical liberals like Richard Epstein and Milton Friedman. So you know, with what you’re trying to bring about, I want to bring about a world in which people are free to decide for themselves what their lives are going to be. And the fundamental difference between me and the libertarians is that they purport to want that too, but a minimal state will not deliver you that. A minimal state will deliver you conditions in which lots of people find their hopes thwarted at every turn.
One example that I think presents a real problem for a Rothbardian. And I end the book with an argument among old Rothbards about this is how do you deal with large misfortune that violates nobody’s rights, such as the outbreak of deadly disease. Such as COVID. And the way in which we managed to get COVID sufficiently under control that we could go back to our lives was through massive government taxation and spending. The government gave enormous amounts of money to pharmaceutical companies that would not have undertaken the vaccine research on their own because it was too risky. And as a result, we got a vaccine. And as a result, the death rate is far lower than it would have been if we had had an absolutely minimal state, or for a Rothbardian, no state at all. And so that suggests to me that if you want people to be free to conduct their lives as they like, a minimal state is not the way to deliver that.
TLR: Some of the people you seem to have chosen from that book, nobody can really disagree contributed a lot to libertarian thought. I mean, especially the Hayek, Rothbard, the Friedmans, and so forth. Hoppe I’m a little uncomfortable with, but makes sense. But one of the ones who you included was Ayn Rand, who was famously contemptuous of libertarianism. She called us a monstrous, disgusting group of people. She called us amoral plagiarists lower than Marxists.
AK: She was a very difficult person. (laughter) But, libertarians understand that she is enormously influential in the way that libertarians think. Someone once wrote a book about libertarianism, with the title, ‘It Usually Starts With Ayn Rand’. And that’s accurate. And she offered herself as a philosopher with strong affinities with libertarianism. She was extremely friendly for a while with Rothbard. Although, as with everybody else in her life, she eventually drove them away. And so I try to take her seriously as a writer and thinker. But, you know, as the person who was traumatized by living through the Russian Revolution, which involved massive corruption, incompetence, mass murder, and I think all her life, she was traumatized by that. But I try not to get into the biographical details, and I really tried to take her seriously as a thinker, because lots of libertarians take her seriously as a thinker. And so I try to look at her as a philosopher and ask – alright, so how good a philosopher is she? And the answer is not very good. But I think that you’re only entitled to say that if you take her seriously, seriously, look at her arguments.
TLR: There is a lot of overlap with objectivism, even past positions with a certain strain of respect for the kind of more individualistic anti-collectivism thrust of her work compared to what I see libertarian as, myself. Do you believe American libertarianism is right wing, left wing, neither, or something that draws for both?
AK: Well, it’s hard to classify because I mean, the the American right and the American left, both are clusters of the views in a two party system. People are going to have to form coalitions if they want to get anything done. And so each party clusters together all of us that don’t necessarily have anything intrinsically to do with one another? If you are in favor of tax cuts in American politics, you are probably against abortion. But those two really haven’t got anything to do with one another. So I just try to take libertarianism seriously as just the proposition that we’ll be freer if we reduce the state to little or nothing. And that’s a distinctive proposition. And I think it can be taken on its own terms without trying to locate it in a larger political currents.
TLR: One of the things you point out with the racism thing was that one of the changes to the LP platform that the Mises Caucus first made was to replace the words ‘we condemn bigotry as irrational and repugnant’. And it’s presented as evidence of racism—as a reason for party defections of longtime members have been pretty strong since then. However, it was replaced with the words ‘we uphold and defend the rights of every person, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or any other aspect of their identity’. What in your view is a major difference between the two statements from an actual public policy standpoint that makes them significantly enough different to focus on?
AK: I think it was generally understood that the deletion was more important than the addition. And it is, in fact, the reason why there were these mass defections from the party—which, if I’m right, was one of the things that was hoped would occur.
TLR: I mean, I can argue that there’s been some success if that’s an actual strategy rather than outcome. You infer also in your article that the Republican Party donors have been promoting the LPMC as a strategy specifically to destroy the party, which has been draining away Republican votes. You point out that had Trump gotten 100% of the LP vote in 2020, he would have won. However, exit polling has been pretty consistent among presidential elections showing roughly a third of LP voters without the libertarian option would have voted Democrat, a third wouldn’t have voted at all. It tends to be a third, a third, a third in most elections, more or less. How do you square the fear you think the GOP has of the LP with those numbers showing that it takes pretty evenly from both major parties?
AK: I simply note and again, here I’m relying on much more experienced reporters than me, people like The Nation who said, these are the people who have historically been associated with Trump and are financing the effort. They seem to be under the impression that they’re hoping to accomplish by doing that.
TLR: You claim part of the appeal of libertarianism to some Americans is racism. However, libertarians have led the way on plenty of issues that have had disproportionate effects on communities of color. They’ve opposed the drug war, they’ve opposed qualified immunity and the militarization of police and as acting as agents of the state against peaceful people. They’ve opposed zoning policies that segregated cities, and occupational licensing restrictions, and supported school choice, which they believe improves access to quality education for those trapped in low income government schools separated by zip code. They supported increased immigration and oppose Trump’s wall. They’ve described the military industrial complex as rich people sending the poor off to die fighting in countries already at a socioeconomic disadvantage themselves. Are there any issues other than reducing some social welfare programs or adding in work requirements or thinking some portions of the Civil Rights Act in the 60s were antithetical to the freedom of association… in libertarian thought than in the various iterations of the Republican or Democratic parties?
AK: Again, I’m not attacking libertarian thought, which, as I say in the book, you know, I barely talk about racism because it is not a significant part of libertarian thought. But with respect to those issues, like opposing civil rights laws, opposing welfare—or some people, that’s really all they care about. And all of the other aspects of the libertarian platform, which really would benefit African Americans, they don’t care about those one way or the other. By that, I mean, no question, getting rid of occupational licensing with respect to many professions like hairdressing, braiding where it’s just silly to have licensing? That would benefit African Americans, no question about it. But the folks I’m talking about don’t care about that one way or the other.
TLR: One of the things that separates libertarians from libertines is they’re focused on concepts like responsibility and self reliance, right? However, I think most libertarians would agree that reducing the government as radically as they’d like would require communities, societies, voluntary organizations to replace that government intervention—that excessive government interventions have stunted those types of institutions, right? I mean, some libertarians may be overly optimistic about human nature being strong enough to drive charity and mutual aid that’s adequate enough to take over those government functions. But doesn’t this expectation they have of community over central control sort of speak against libertarianism being exclusively individualistic or selfish pursuit?
I think you used the word autarky. But an expectation that communities and societies are stronger and more resilient than governments, if left to thrive, doesn’t seem to be something at peace with the kind of view of libertarianism as solitary, lonely, uncaring. So I guess my final question is, if you could make your pitch, that placing stuff like communities and social organizations and families above or at least separate from government realms—is that something that is delusional or greedy or attracts people who are delusional or greedy?
AK: Well, the place where I think that the alignment of delusion, greed is most clear, is in the area of regulation. And the book concludes by talking about the climate catastrophe that is occurring, that has been abetted by petroleum industry led by Charles Koch, who’s the most important libertarian in the United States today. In which, simultaneously, rests on a philosophy that really doesn’t do a very good job of thinking about pollution, and industries that will benefit financially by the absence of regulation—and who aren’t particularly principled at all. And they work in tandem together. So that’s the alignment of delusion and greed.
But with respect to the capacity of communities to step up and help one another, and you know, quite a lot of libertarians do hope that if you were able to reduce the footprint of the national government that people would step up. I think that it is a bigger ask than you’ve ever given to voluntary associations. Well, first of all, it’s not clear how voluntary associations could possibly deal with pollution. It’s very hard- I mean, how do you sue somebody in tort for warming up the planet? It is not something that can be done with anything but regulation.
And then some of the redistribution involved health care for poor people who get really bad diseases is far more expensive than the charity care that existed in the early 20th century. Some illnesses cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to treat, and either there is communal insurance for it, or the private charity system will be overwhelmed. This is matter of prediction, and different people have different predictions. Richard Epstein is very smart guy and he thinks that private charity would step up and do it. I just don’t believe it.
TLR: I was going to have that be my last question. But now that you say that, I did want to touch on one thing with the climate concerns. Near as I can tell, at least in 2022—it seems like most people from the side of Republicans, Democrats and libertarians, although they might not agree with the degree, I think most people are generally on board with believing climate change is real, impactful and impacted by human activity. I think that’s pretty well understood by most serious people on all three sides.
And the way I see it, all three sides are are giving some kind of solutions about it, right? Like the libertarians would say, ‘Oh, well, one of the problems with carbon emissions is the federal government’s failure to timely give out anything for new nuclear permitting for fear of the science of nuclear power. Or they might say, Well, what about carbon credits that can be bought and sold on the open market as a way to have market input and trading done on pollution to impose external costs that exist, which, there might be some problems with how you quantify that or whatever. But it’s been one idea that’s been put forth. And one of the things you mentioned was property rights claims, which might be easy to do if you’re actively polluting a river that then goes downstream somewhere, but it’s harder to do if you’re releasing carbon into the atmosphere.
And then you have, you know, the left, which is- just throw money at a whole bunch of different alternate fuel sources, which may or may not turn out to be efficient ones. Shutting down drilling before we’re ready. Until gas prices started getting higher. They did sometimes talk about making gas more expensive to incentivize that. But they didn’t seem to like, hold to that when it actually came because it was unpopular. And then you have Republicans who are just like, ‘yes, we know, it’s a problem. But we think the technology will just advance on its own. And we don’t think there’s much to do worth doing’.
My point is, why are the solutions that libertarians have put up there to address climate change better or worse than the solutions put up by people who are more left of center trying to address the same problems that libertarians are by supporting nuclear power and things like that?
AK: Well, the solutions that are most promising that are going to work? Well, the classic Hayekian solution is a tax on carbon, which actually was seriously proposed in the first Bush administration, and had Koch and Cato not worked so hard to spread fake science denying that anything was happening, that might have gone through.
And that really is the best solution. You just get people to incorporate the real costs of what they’re doing. And then the market creates incentives for people to come up with better technologies, what actually seems likely to do some good… because you know, all over the world, people don’t want to stay poor, they want to raise their standard of living, and they’re going to burn coal if they have to, in order to achieve that. And so the only way to stop them from warming the planet themselves is to come up with better technologies, and hand them to them on a platter and say here, don’t burn coal, do this instead.
And that’s the kind of research supported by government that gave us the COVID vaccine. And you’ve quite a lot of that kind of research funded in the climate bill that Biden just pushed through. And I think that that’s our only hope. You are not going to build massive nuclear plants in countries that are too poor to afford them.
TLR: Could you remind anyone reading this of the title of your book and where they can find it?
AK: The book is Burning Down The House: How Libertarian Philosophy Was Corrupted By Delusion And Greed. I’m Andrew Koppelman. If you go looking on the internet, you’ll find copies of the book, very affordably priced, I’m happy to say 28.99. And if you read it, and you’re not persuaded by it, I want to hear from you and I want to hear why.