Why libertarians apologize for autocracy

This is an edited version of an article originally published by Salon:

From the support of a few progressives a century ago for eugenics, and expressions of admiration by a few 1920s liberals for Mussolini’s ability to make the trains run on time, Goldberg and others on the right have crafted the latest in a series of right-wing conspiracy theories about American history, this one claiming that Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt deliberately set the U.S. on the road to an American version of Mussolini’s corporate state.

Given their professed interest in admirers of Mussolini, it is curious that American conservatives and libertarians have not seen fit to discuss the view of fascism held by one of the heroes of modern American libertarianism, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. In his book “Liberalism,” published in 1927 after Mussolini had seized power in Italy, Mises wrote:

It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aimed at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has for the moment saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history.

Friedrich von Hayek, who was, along with von Mises, one of the patron saints of modern libertarianism, was as infatuated with the Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet as von Mises was with Mussolini, according to Greg Grandin:

Friedrich von Hayek, the Austrian émigré and University of Chicago professor whose 1944 Road to Serfdom dared to suggest that state planning would produce not “freedom and prosperity” but “bondage and misery,” visited Pinochet’s Chile a number of times. He was so impressed that he held a meeting of his famed Société Mont Pélérin there. He even recommended Chile to Thatcher as a model to complete her free-market revolution. The Prime Minister, at the nadir of Chile’s 1982 financial collapse, agreed that Chile represented a “remarkable success” but believed that Britain’s “democratic institutions and the need for a high degree of consent” make “some of the measures” taken by Pinochet “quite unacceptable.”

Like Friedman, Hayek glimpsed in Pinochet the avatar of true freedom, who would rule as a dictator only for a “transitional period,” only as long as needed to reverse decades of state regulation. “My personal preference,” he told a Chilean interviewer, “leans toward a liberal [i.e. libertarian] dictatorship rather than toward a democratic government devoid of liberalism.” In a letter to the London Times he defended the junta, reporting that he had “not been able to find a single person even in much maligned Chile who did not agree that personal freedom was much greater under Pinochet than it had been under Allende.” Of course, the thousands executed and tens of thousands tortured by Pinochet’s regime weren’t talking.

The Pinochet dictatorship was admired by the right in the U.S. and Britain for turning Chile’s economic policy over to disciples of Milton Friedman and the University of Chicago, who inflicted disastrous social experiments like the privatization of social security on Chile’s repressed population. Following the libertarian reforms, the Chilean economy collapsed in 1982, forcing the nationalization of the banking system and government intervention in industry. According to Grandin:

 While he was in Chile Friedman gave a speech titled “The Fragility of Freedom” where he described the “role in the destruction of a free society that was played by the emergence of the welfare state.” Chile’s present difficulties, he argued, “were due almost entirely to the forty-year trend toward collectivism, socialism and the welfare state . . . a course that would lead to coercion rather than freedom.”

Friedman politely neglected to mention the lack of political and civil liberty under the Pinochet regime. Many of its victims were drugged and taken in military airplanes to be dropped over the South Atlantic, with their bellies slit open while they were still alive so that their bodies would not float and be discovered.

One of the members of Pinochet’s cabinet, Jose Piñera, has enjoyed a second career at the leading American libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute, and is credited with having influenced George W. Bush’s failed attempt to partly privatize Social Security in America. The Cato website says:

Distinguished senior fellow José Piñera is co-chairman of Cato’s Project on Social Security Choice and Founder and President of the International Center for Pension Reform. Formerly Chile’s Secretary of Labor and Social Security, he was the architect of the country’s successful reform of its pension system. As Secretary of Labor, Piñera also designed the labor laws that introduced flexibility to the Chilean labor market and, as Secretary of Mining, he was responsible for the constitutional law that established private property rights in Chilean mines.

Piñera, the brother of Chile’s billionaire president Sebastian Piñera, has a personal website in which he claims that he played a major role in the transition to democracy in Chile. Piñera’s portrayal of himself as a champion of democracy is somewhat undercut on the same Web page by several defenses of Pinochet’s regime that he includes, including this one by a writer in an Australian magazine:

Indeed, in all 17 years of military rule, the total number of dead and missing — according to the official Retting Commission — was 2,279. Were there abuses? Were there real victims? Without the slightest doubt. A war on terror tends to be a dirty war.

Still, in the case of Chile, and contrary to news reports, the number of actual victims was small.

When it comes to American history, again, libertarians tend retrospectively to side with the Confederacy against the Union. Yes, yes, the South had slavery — but it also had low tariffs, while Abraham Lincoln’s free labor North was protectionist. Surely the tariff was a greater evil than slavery.

The posthumous induction of Jefferson Davis into the libertarian hall of fame was too much for David Boaz, a vice president of Cato. In a 2010 essay in Reason magazine titled “Up From Slavery: There’s No Such Thing as a Golden Age of Lost Liberty,” Boaz observed that even whites in the antebellum North “did not actually live in a free society … Liberalism seeks not just to liberate this or that person, but to create a rule of law exemplifying equal freedom. By that standard, even the plantation owners did not live in a free society, nor even did people in the free states.”

Boaz asked his fellow libertarians, “If you had to choose, would you rather live in a country with a department of labor and even an income tax or a Dred Scott decision and a Fugitive Slave Act?” It says something that in 2009 this question stirred up a controversy on the libertarian right.

So where were the anti-authoritarian libertarians, denouncing libertarian fellow travelers of Pinochet like von Hayek and Milton Friedman?

For that matter, where was the libertarian right during the great struggles for individual liberty in America in the last half-century?

The libertarian movement has been conspicuously absent from the campaigns for civil rights for nonwhites, women, gays and lesbians. Most, if not all, libertarians support sexual and reproductive freedom (though Rand Paul has expressed doubts about federal civil rights legislation). But civil libertarian activists are found overwhelmingly on the left. Their right-wing brethren have been concerned with issues more important than civil rights, abuses by police and the military, and the subordination of politics to religion — issues like the campaign to expand human freedom by turning highways over to toll-extracting private corporations and the crusade to funnel money from Social Security to Wall Street brokerage firms.

The dread of democracy by libertarians and classical liberals is justified. Libertarianism really is incompatible with democracy. Most libertarians have made it clear which of the two they prefer. The only question that remains to be settled is why anyone should pay attention to libertarians.

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