Keeping It Realer on ‘neo-Confederate Libertarians’

Fellow historian and TPM Reader BA thinks I’m cutting conventional libertarians a bit too much slack on how deeply the ‘neo-Confederate’ stain goes in the movement. I don’t fully agree with the argument. I think there are a lot of libertarians who have the sort of philosophy I noted. But he’s right and could have said even more about how much the ‘clean’ libertarian movement for lack of a better word has courted and interwoven with these noxious folks …

While I think your forthright denunciation of neo-Confederates as racists, plain and simple, is on the mark and valuable, the sharp division you attempt to draw between such people and “philosophical” libertarians is based on little evidence. I understand the desire to see people at the Cato Institute as “philosophically consistent, [not] basically about race but … a form or what I’d call hyper-individualism. Not my cup of tea but a perfectly legitimate political movement.” Being able to have civil, political discussions with those with whom one disagrees is important. Worthy political opponents are, in general, a good thing.

But, as a matter of fact, the histories of neo-Confederate racism and this other, seemingly more “legitimate” branch of libertarianism have been deeply intertwined for more than half a century. Ron Paul was the Libertarian nominee for President in 1988, after all (and his candidacy was controversial within the party mainly for his anti-choice position on abortion, not his racist ties). You cannot simply say: the Pauls and Lew Rockwell = evil; Cato and the Libertarian Party = wrong but legitimate. There are clearly individual libertarians who deeply dislike the neo-Confederates and want nothing to do with them. But, institutionally and organizationally, there are very few clean hands here.

And the reason for the connection is not simply, as Rachel Weiner notes, that there are “some ideological similarities between the groups.” It’s that the intervention of the government, especially the federal government, has been the most effective method of protecting minority rights. As a result, racists have been among the most prominent opponents of “big government” since at least the end of the Civil War. In this way, libertarianism in this country is a bit like the rhetoric of “states’ rights.” There may be no necessary philosophical connection between states’ rights talk and white supremacy, but there happens to be, as you know, a deep historical one. The same is true of the connection between libertarianism and white supremacy. To pretend that this is about two quite separate groups of people who have somehow found themselves stuck with the same name is to ignore this history.

To note the depth of these historical links isn’t, of course, to answer the trickier question of what to do about them. But what you seem to propose in “Keeping It Real,” treating racists as outside the pale and other libertarians as legitimate opponents, is much more difficult than you suggest. And it effectively gives those other libertarians a free-ride on their associations with the (more open) racists.

(Incidentally, have you had a chance to read Joe Crespino’s recent biography of Strom Thurmond? In a sense its main argument is that Thurmond was, throughout his national career both a Southern conservative and a Sunbelt conservative, that, at least until the 1970s when open white supremacy became marginalized in American politics, he was equally publicly committed to racism and the kind of “pro-business” policies associated with Cato. And of course Goldwater (of whose presidential candidacy Thurmond was an early and relatively effective supporter) is also a fine example of these links. In general, our tendency to want to simply separate out white supremacy from other aspects of American political life is a bit futile.)

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