A Free-Market Energy Blog

Encountering–and Overcoming–Libertarian Critics

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- January 11, 2021

“And, frankly, libertarians like you who have supported Trump bear blame for this crap too. You have NO ground to stand on today having enabled this seditious shitty excuse for a human being….” (Steve Horwitz to Rob Bradley, Facebook, January 6, 2021)

“For me, one of the most tragic results of the Trump phenomenon has been to cause good, decent, reasonable classical liberals (libertarians, the good ones, not the zealots, you know what I mean) to yell at each other in anger and frustration.” (Peter Lewin, Facebook, January 8, 2021)

Amid the Capitol violence of Wednesday January 6, Peter Lewin, a notable Austrian-school economist and respected classical liberal, posted on Facebook about the “out of control zealots…. Mob Hysteria ready to explode….” Exchanges followed. I asked some rather civil questions including this one:

I’m not condoning the violence, just trying to put it in perspective….. I remember a generation ago the radical libertarians would have applauded the ‘storming of the State’ for just about any reason. From Rothbard to Lavoie, and maybe even little ol’ me. Now, a lot of libertarians are appalled and casting hate toward Trump. Anyone else noticing this?

In fact, “Smash the State” was the view of “Mr. Libertarian” Murray Rothbard, one shared by my good friend Don Lavoie. (Both gentlemen were noted libertarians and economists.) [1]

Then out of the blue. Steven Horwitz, a notable Austrian economist and classical liberal, wrote:

Leave Don [Lavoie] out of this insanity. To even mention him in the same breath as Trump is just ridiculous.

And, frankly, libertarians like you who have supported Trump bear blame for this crap too. You have NO ground to stand on today having enabled this seditious shitty excuse for a human being. “But deregulation! But taxes! But Gorsuch!” and so on looks utterly preposterous after today. Anyone who gives a shit about liberal institutions should be *unhesitatingly* condemning what happened today, not speculating about false flags.

Wow! Cussing and word hate from an individual whom I had a very pleasant email exchange with just two months before regarding his receiving the Julian Simon Award. (He won it for 2020; I won it back in 2002.)

Here was my rebuttal to Horwitz on Facebook:

Hold on, Steve. First, there is a populism behind Trump that is more-or-less libertarian–I live in MAGA country, and most ardent Trump folks just want to be left alone. Period. There is very little on the Progressive Left that offers any inkling of hope for libertarians, much less conservatives.

I suspect that 90 percent of the folks at the rally today were good, innocent folks. And I suspect that 97% of Trump supporters in general are the same. Sure, condemn the violence of a few (bad apples are everywhere), but don’t smear Trump nation by being holistic and spiteful.

Second, Steve, methodological individualism please. Holistic Trump hate is bad scholarship. I have always looked at policies one by one–and free market C4s have had openings that were closed and now will be closed. Trust our ‘on the spot’ knowledge on this one.

Energy and environment are very big areas–and Trump is the most free market there is in US history. Ask Wayne Crews of CEI on regulation elsewhere. IER/AEA endorsed Trump in both elections–I dare you to explain why this was and is anything but appropriate. I explain more of my reasoning against TDS among libertarians here: https://www.masterresource.org/…/libertarian-case-trump/

Peter Lewin pushed back on Horwitz:

You are including a lot of people who love you in that fuming rant. As if we are all idiots as revealed by today’s events. It makes me sad.

Horwitz then doubled down on me:

That was aimed specifically at Rob who has been among the most vocal Trump supporting “libertarians” around.

I answered to Horwitz:

No, you are criticizing Peter who is fair toward Trump as well. (Mario Rizzo also seems to be fair by focusing on policy in his Facebook posts.) I have consistently supported Trump’s free market policies and editorialized against his bad policies in the energy/environmental field. You will find nothing in my writings that endorses government intervention to my knowledge.

My profound dissatisfaction with a number of think tank-academic folks comes from their holistic Trump hate that is not only unfair but detracts from the benefits of a lot of reg reform. Criminal justice reform and some foreign policy matters–areas for others to decide. ‘Hate all politics and all politicians’ is one thing–I get that. But scholars have to be fair and not have a double standard.

Secondly, I am a classical liberal with some scholarship to my credit. Politically, I am libertarian, as messy as that is today.

Regarding Don Lavoie, he was VERY radical against the State in the old days and would have found some good in the serious rattling of the DC R&D cage. He also had enough to a sense of humor to have enjoyed The Donald rallies exposing the hypocrisy and sins of the mainstream.

Don and I knew each other quite well. I financially enabled the printing of three issues of the old “Austrian Economics Newsletter” that had been tabled (he was editor, and CLS was out of money). Don called me with a scholarship to become the first student in the new GMU program. Don was on my dissertation committee some years later and thought my oil-and-gas focused political economy had some importance….

Don and I spent many days together in NYC (later Fairfax) and in the Texas Hill Country (multiple visits). Don liked to laugh and understood things in context. He would have recognized that Trump Nation had a ‘good populism’ questioning the State. Of course, Don would have been very critical of Trump’s bad policies.

That was the Don I knew; you knew him later and quite well for a longer period until his death in 2001.

Steve Horwitz insulted me and disappeared. No comment on my (polite) rebuttal. But on his own Facebook page, he wrote: “No patience tonight for the lame excuses of Trump supporting ‘libertarians’ … in supporting the biggest danger to liberalism of at least the last 50 years.” And: “It’s cold comfort to have been calling Trump a fascist since 2015.”

Final Comment

Politically homeless, frustrated classical liberals are at war with each other. Emotions are running high. But I will say that Donald Trump’s four years in energy and environment were very good–and far beyond what any President, Republican or Democrat, had ever done for consumers and entrepreneurs. I believe that many, if not the large majority, of free market nonprofits would attest to opportunities and progress in their respective areas under Trump.

Perhaps some libertarians would prefer that some of us not have anything to do with the the Trump Administration–not work there, not applaud the good decisions. Maybe we should have just decided to ‘Go Galt‘ (Atlas Shrugged), to disengage, since Trump is a “fascist.”

I was just about ready to Go Galt four years ago when Hillary was going to be elected. Instead, I had a very good four years in the public policy fight. I am grateful. But I am nonplussed at libertarians who put emotion over fairness in the political debate.

Appendix: John Lott

John Lott, Jr. has also pushed back against Cato/TDS. His complaints in Facebook exchanges have echoed mine. Here is his latest.

Trump has appointed more libertarian type judges than any president in my life time. He is the first president in probably at least 100 years to cut government regulation. He is the first president since the 1950s not to get involved in a new foreign conflict.

He pushed for school choice. His first three budgets tried to cut spending — not much he could do during the first two years with Dems in the Senate threatening to filibuster even the modest cuts that survived the legislative process up to that point.

On the other hand, he was protectionist, though at least in some cases such as with China he was doing it to protect intellectual property rights. And Biden will also be bad on this and will be doing it for worse reasons. Yet libertarians at places such as Cato seem to hate Trump 10xs more than they ever hated Obama.Why? Is it that they really value open borders so much? …

The weirdest thing to me is how many Cato types have attacked Trump as authoritarian or even totalitarian, terms that they didn’t use against Obama and Biden. But what administration spied on US Senators and their staffs, spied on the press and the families of members of the press, put members of the press in jail, used the IRS to attack their enemies, spied on an opposing party’s presidential candidate using the FBI/CIA/NSA, abrogated property rights of bond holders such as those for GM and Chrysler to transfer tens of billions of dollars of wealth to unions, destroyed the lives of people such as General Flynn who they viewed as a threat with outrageous prosecutorial abuses (Biden’s idea), etc?

Yet, to these libertarians Trump was the threat? I just don’t understand it. But when I would point that out to people like David Boaz, that you couldn’t find one post on his FB page really criticizing Biden during the campaign, but a constant attack on Trump and finding nothing that he did well, Boaz would block me on social media.

I got blocked too by David Boaz. He (and others) don’t want to argue but to hit, run, and cancel.

———–

[1] This was confirmed by economist David Henderson, who remembered an exchange with Rothbard. “Amazing that you mention Murray Rothbard,” he said:

Seeing that guy grab a lectern reminded me of an argument I had with Murray in the mid-1970s when he was advocating “reclaiming” our property from government. I told him that it would be a huge and chaotic free-for-all a la “Tragedy of the Commons.” He hesitated and then agreed, and then said, “On the other hand, it would be a lot of fun.” I admit that he caught me off guard and I laughed like crazy.

Rothbard, an ‘anarcho-capitalist,’ regarded the State as:

… not a social instrument. It’s an inimical organization which is hostile to society, plundering it, which has to be confined, whittled away, reduced and hopefully ultimately abolished.

Elsewhere he explained:

The libertarian sees the State as a giant gang of organized criminals, who live off the theft called “taxation” and use the proceeds to kill, enslave, and generally push people around. Therefore, any property in the hands of the State is in the hands of thieves, and should be liberated as quickly as possible. Any person or group who liberates such property, who confiscates or appropriates it from the State, is performing a virtuous act and a signal service to the cause of liberty.

Such abolition to him should not be gradual but immediate, as in ‘pushing a button.”

As for me, I will leave the “minarchist’ (or ‘night-watchman’ state) versus ‘anarchist’ debate for others. Incremental change is the work of the C3/C4 nonprofits these days.

4 Comments


  1. Ron Clutz  

    Rob, thanks for this essay and your efforts to be what Pielke Jr. calls as honest broker regarding public policies. I can relate to libertarian homelessness as someone who had a liberal orientation when that meant respect and defending of individual rights a freedoms. As you well know, that notion of liberalism has been hollowed out by progressives devoted to an ideology seeking to be absolute. I do remember a poster of Trump, in which he says: “In reality they’re not after me. They’re after you, “I’m just in the way.” The events since the election and now in 2021 seem to confirm that unity actually means conformity.

    I have been appreciative of the writings of Bruce Pardy, Canadian law professor, who articulates a view of limited government consistent with libertarian principles. He has been outspoken against energy statism ( to fight climate change, of course), against compelled speech (to protect hurt feelings of diverse people and genders). And so on. An introduction to his understandings is summarized in this essay:
    https://rclutz.wordpress.com/2018/05/19/on-coercive-climatism-writings-of-bruce-pardy/

    Reply

  2. Richard Greene  

    As a libertarian since 1973 I have observed that our federal and state governments in 2020 were more powerful than ever before, and our personal freedoms were less than ever before. This happened during the Trump Administration. I expect the Biden Administration to be worse. Those of using looking for less government and more freedom have been disappointed for over 50 years. It’s too easy to blame others for this undesirable trend — it happened on Trump’s watch.

    Reply

    • rbradley  

      No question, there was state expansion under Trump prior to COVID–and with COVID, an explosion of government. We are in big trouble now. Without COVID, Trump would have probably gotten reelected on the economy. But not all would be rosy by any means short of a massive government asset selloff to help tame the deficit. That would have been government lands and mineral rights, something that Trump would have probably considered strongly.

      Reply

  3. rbradley  

    So here is the ‘smash the state’ libertarian view, as stated by my friend Sheldon Richman: “He should be impeached for being a big-time schmuck. Impeachment is not a criminal proceeding.” – Sheldon Richman, Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/SheldonRichman/posts/10158938102972184. So impeach ’em all!

    Reply

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