Sunday, 19 March 2017

The Enemies of Liberty: The Authoritarian Right and The Intolerant Left

My reflections of academic conferences continue; Glasgow Economic Forum last weekend, followed by Lithuanian Free Market Institute's second Colloquium on Scarcity (where I learned an important lesson for behavioural economics), and the heighpoint of the this weekend: European Students for Liberty's LibertyCon2017. The great sessions included beer as a metaphor for economic life, Wolf von Laer's very inspiration rants, Enrique Fonseca's enthusiastic tips on communication, as well as great writing tips from Bill Wirtz. The main attractions of the conference (Jeffrey Tucker, Bruce Caldwell and Tom Palmer) were even better still!

Let me focus on Tucker and Palmer, since I want to get back to Caldwell and his work on Hayek in later posts, in more detail. From the titles of their keynote lectures alone ("Liberalism will save the world" & "Anti-Libertarian ideologies on the march"), it is obvious that they, as well as students and organisers of the conference, sense this two-headed and twisted threat to liberty rising; the inequality-obsessed social justice warriors violently attacking anyone who dares question the moral high ground of their envy-fuelled campaign to silence everyone (google 'no-platform') vs. the authoritarian protectionist bigotry spelled Trump with its many mindblowing proposals and neglect of basic facts. The world, to speak Marxian, is in a crisis of contradictions. How can we make sense of all this?

"We're all Hegelians now", Jeffrey Tucker seemed to conclude in his charismatic and always-fabulous manner. He found, in Mises, a short offhand description of the right-authoritarians and left-authoritarians sharing a common core: they both (unknowingly) trace the origin of their intellectual beliefs to Hegel (and Carlisle and Schmitt, Tucker argues). The left-hegelians are of a more familiar kind: strong state countering the evil speculative markets, regulate profit-seeking capitalism out of existence and blame the businessmen for the poverty that follows. We've dealt with them more or less successfully in the past. The right-hegelians are the real news. Tucker describes them as believers in the Great Man theory (that history is moved forward by strong great men), advocating a strong State directing the industrial production of the country, heavy regulation, especially against foreigners and their goods/services. Schmitt says: "We were put on this earth to engage in politics", echoing the modern-day nanny staters eager to impose the correct morals, correct marriages, correct welfare relationships between suitable subjects. Add to that an unhealthy dose of Darwin and obsession with race and purity. 
Left and right are both threats to freedom, but with different central plans
Tom Palmer almost echoing that message the next day, used Herbert Marcuse as an initiating figure, combined Schmitt and Heidegger along for a slightly different flavour of the anti-libertarian movement: "The collectivist hatred of capitalism is back", he emphatically began. On one side you have the violent opposition to freedom of speech that is identity politics (in their language, 'tolerance is oppressive'), and the incessant focus on politically correct group characteristics, which Palmer rightly labels "the biggest threat to liberty and civilisation"; on the other side the illiberal explicitly statist regimes rising to prominence primarily in Eastern Europe, the militantly anti-liberty movements of Greece and Hungary and Frace. He amusingly shows how Steve Bannon, chief strategist to Trump, seems to have read Hayek's Road to Serfdom not as a warning but as a manual. And he adds the threat of radical Islam to the mix.  

Palmer then identifies what I see as the great contribution here: these opponents of liberty act in symbiosis with one another. One of them grows as a result and a reaction of another, effectively squeezing out the liberal values upon which western civilisation rests. They draw serious distinctions between friends and enemies, creates conflict where freedom would create harmony, rips apart friendships and families in their quest for world domination. They refuse talk, debate, reason, global trade, creativity, all those liberal values that allowed progress to take place: "Banning ideas you don't like", Tucker says, "hasn't worked since the Middle Ages."

Tucker and Palmer make a compelling case, these movements are two sides of the same statist coin. The solution is liberty. Good old-fashion liberalism in the traditional European sense. Let people be. Don't assault them, and don't take their stuff. Let debate reign, let ideas be challenged and let progress continue.

"Our ideas are beautiful because they are effective, humle and optimist", Palmer forefully concluded. To which we should add kind, like Wolf von Laer did on Friday. Everything we see around us is the product of liberal values and somebody's ideas. That infuriates the right and the left alike and they refuse to believe it. Don't let them get away with it.

Update: Tucker summarised the conference quite beautifully in his reflections at FEE:
It is true that authentic liberalism is embattled in Europe: neglected in academia, ignored by the press, and marginalized in politics. What this means for anyone who so self-identifies is a necessary toughness of mind and a determination to proceed ever more boldly despite facing such grim odds.

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