Daniel Hannan tweeted recently:
Libertarians want to break oligarchies, expand opportunity and let wealth spread. I can’t think of any political movement where the gap between what its supporters believe and what they are imagined to believe is wider.
Now, if people widely and persistently misunderstand you, the failing is likely to be yours as well as theirs. Mr Hannan should therefore ask: what are we right-libertarians doing wrong?
For one thing, they are keeping bad company. Bryan Caplan once wrote that there is a “libertarian penumbra” – a set of beliefs that are logically separate from libertarianism but which many libertarians happen to believe. One of these, for example, is an (excessive?) interest in IQ research – despite the fact that no correlation between IQ and life-outcomes suffices to justify our social system. For some leftists, this alone helps discredit right-libertarians.
In the same vein, right-libertarians are seen as shills for the rich – an image reinforced by the refusal of the IEA and Adam Smith Institute to say who funds them.
If being on the side of workers were to become a criminal offence, there’d not be enough evidence to convict many right-libertarians, Certainly, few are guilty by association.
Yet other associations are much worse. At least a few right-libertarians have supported Trump, others border upon the racist, and Christopher Freiman says many favour immigration controls despite the fact that the liberty to live where one wants or hire whom one wants must be important freedoms. And yet others take an interest in the sex redistribution cause.
Of course, this isn’t true of all or perhaps even most right-libertarians. But a few (some? many?) cases makes them look like a tribe of cranks. This matters, because when you are espousing views a long way from the mainstream, people are apt to think you cranky anyway so such examples reinforce that belief.
Just as significant as the associations some right-libertarians have are those they don’t have. Take for example the #Metoo movement. This is essentially expressing women’s Nozickean right of self-ownership. You’d expect, therefore, libertarians to be enthusiastic supporters of the movement. Similarly they should be vocal advocates of gay rights and of Black Lives Matter; being killed by a cop is a significant infringement of freedom. For every self-professed libertarian who is, however, there is perhaps another bleating about identity politics.
Yet another reason is that right-libertarians have some asymmetric sensibilities. On the one hand, many seem highly attuned to the dirigisme of Brussels, so much so that they took money from that noted libertarian Vladimir Putin to escape it. And yet they are blind to the much greater infringements of freedom that occur in workplaces. It’s as if they actually want to conform to Corey Robin’s description of conservatives as those who want to entrench private sector hierarchies, rather than break them as Hannan claims to want. I sense they would rather defend property than freedom
In this context, there’s another curious blindspot. Right-libertarians often channel Hayek to argue that the virtue of markets is that they aggregate the fragmentary information of dispersed individuals. Often they are right. But markets are not the only technology for doing this. Democratic control of workplaces can do a similar thing. Logically, right-libertarians should therefore support worker coops. But this is not exactly what we see.
Yet another blindspot is the failure to see that a sustainable market economy requires particular pre-conditions, such as rough equality of bargaining power; anti-monopoly policy; obstacles to cronyism; and measures to encourage socially useful innovation.
Without such pre-conditions, a “free market” economy will be dysfunctional and unpopular. Too many right-libertarians don’t get this. Like Brexiters – they are in many cases the same people – they will the end but not the means.
Hannan is right to say that freedom entails the breaking of oligarchies and spread of wealth: I suspect the causality runs both ways. The problem is that right-libertarians are terrible at arguing for this. In fact, I suspect they are even counter-advocates: they are so bad at making their case that their efforts to do so weaken support for freedom. Of course, you can point me to exceptions to this. My impression, though, is that that’s just what they are – exceptions.