The libertarian party is arguably the most disorganized political party in the United States.
For years, debates have waged over the gulf between the actual political philosophy and the official party’s platform. Many hardcore libertarians feel the party has long since lost its way. For many disillusioned lovers of liberty; the remedy came in the form of the Mises Caucus founded in 2017. The emergence of this faction within the LP has been met with controversy. As more members of the caucus assume leadership roles within the national party, concerns arise regarding the tendinous social views of this strain of libertarianism. Accusations of racism and transphobia have surfaced and put the Mises Caucus in the crosshairs of LP party leadership.
To the casual observer, this tension in the LP may seem like a new development; but the political in-fighting has been a fixture of the party’s institutional dynamics since its inception in the 1970s. The antipathy sowed between the libertarian establishment and Austro-libertarianism dates back to the founding of the Cato Institute. The intellectual father of the political movement sweeping the structure of the LP was none other than economist Murray Rothbard. Rothbard co-founded the institute with the vision of it being an academic nexus between libertarian thought and Austrian economics. Rothbard’s unwillingness to compromise on Cato’s messaging, he was ousted from the institute. He then moved on to establish the Mises Institute in the early 1980s. It is reasonable to this one event as a manifestation of a major schism within libertarianism. A rivalry formed between the moderate libertarian political philosophy and the convictions of full-on anarcho-capitalism. A system of beliefs exalting ideological purity, articulating rhetoric steeped in social conservatism and the mechanism of Austrian economics.
The competing philosophies of Cato and the Mises Institute are the lines between academic establishment and the populist tendencies of the liberty movement. Cato has the ear of the academy, while the Mises orbit has the ear of the people. However, this is not to say there isn’t a deep tradition of scholarly work within the Austro-libertarian tradition; the cadre of academics advancing this political philosophy has to produce voluminous amounts of literature. Cato has not had the same effect on the advancement of libertarianism on the ground level. Aside from the popularity of Rothbard’s polemical pamphlets in the 1970s and 1980s; the movement gained new life in the 2000s with the Presidential campaign of Ron Paul. The Cato Institute attempted to distance itself from Ron Paul for his reluctance to condemn political extremism. Former Senator Paul was an instrumental figure in founding the Mises Institute. He has also had longstanding professional relationships with figures such as Lew Rockwell and Rothbard.
The variety of libertarianism with a hint of social conservatism advocated for by Ron Paul and the Mises Institute cannot disavow extremism as it is part of their political strategy. In contrast to the libertarian establishment, Austro-libertarians have formed alliances with paleo-conservatives, injecting planks of Old Right sensibilities into their platform. Libertarians favoring this hard-right strategy perceive the virtues of multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism to be treasonous to individual liberty. Many Rothbardians/Hoppeans believe that policies such as open immigration will erode cultural identity, and private property rights and expand the welfare state.
This is not to insinuate that the Mises Institute nor Ron Paul’s campaign was managed by Klansmen. That would be a bad faith assessment of the political dynamics of Austro-libertarianism, there is not enough evidence to make such a claim. The attempts to annex populous conservatives and the far-right were more pragmatism on Rothbard’s part. The run-of-the-mill country club Reaganite Republican will not have any appetite to “end the fed”; naturally this individual would be a lackluster bedfellow in such an endeavor. On the other hand, a gentleman living in the rural south, raised in an environment of culturally entrenched conservatism and a distaste for centralization, would be a more likely partner in crime.
Rothbard could foresee the logical instability in the Reaganite brand of “fusionism”. The political progeny of National Review editor Frank Meyer; a doctrine suggesting that libertarians and conservatives should make minor compromises and join forces to gain more ground in American politics. Realistically, this approach is shortsighted in a climate of winner-take-all politics. Disagreements on core wedge issues will eventually create fault lines that cannot be repaired. Rothbard’s vision of liberty was immoderate and immune from the debasing effects of implicit logrolling.
The strife between the two warring factions of libertarianism is nothing short of a textbook example of a prisoner’s dilemma. Frank Meyer was not off base with such a suggestion of political compromise, but neither party agrees to make any concessions. The very stance of the Mises Caucus and other Austro-libertarian organizations is nothing more than an automatic defection. Their hard-nosed commitment to ideological integrity has already taken the possibility of bargaining off the table. Developing a libertarian with the rigidity of Aristotle’s ethical virtue of “right reason”; which is utterly inflexible. The libertarian insiders in the Washington D.C. belt away may garner more appeal to establishments and academics outside of the movement; due to their ideological moderation. These movers and shakers at the think tanks have made no effort to reach out to the populous wing of the libertarian party. If anything, they have either ignored or condemned Ron Paul supporters as hopeless racists or conspiracy-mongering dingbats. None of this is productive when it comes to advancing a political philosophy. It is as much of defection as the resolute principles of the droves of lay libertarians regularly reading the Mises Wire.
The suboptimal results engendered by this mutual defection should be conspicuous; we have yet to have had a true Libertarian in the oval office since the establishment of the official party. The overall lack of consensus has stymied libertarianism’s influence on American politics. There are always several groups arguing over what libertarianism truly is; instead of working together to make an impact. This gives outsiders the impression that libertarians are politically disorganized. It is not that they are a bunch of lazy hippies, bearded mountain men, or a gaggle of goofy naked men kvetching about drivers’ licenses. The party has been sidetracked by years of internal conflict, making this turmoil the ultimate collective action problem.
- The Mises Caucus might be the “Trump moment” for the LP, a populous takeover of the formal structure of the political organization.
2. This is not a defense of the Mises Caucus nor a jab at the libertarian establishment. Rather, it is an expression of how neither subset of the LP is willing to compromise with the other.