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From Edith Efron to Peter Schwartz
A few years ago I came across a letter I wrote to Edith Efron back in 1978 in response to an article she had published in Reason criticizing anarchists within the libertarian movement.1 After rereading my letter — I had forgotten ever writing it — I found her article on the Reason site and read that. It gave an interesting early picture of two long-running arguments within the movement, only one of which I had responded to
One argument is anarchy vs limited government but, despite Efron’s repeated references to anarchists, that was not her central concern. What she was attacking was the strategy of alliance with the left that she thought she saw revealed in two new journals: Inquiry and Libertarian Review.
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Inquiry’s approach was to feature both articles by liberals and libertarian articles tailored to appeal to liberal readers. In a letter I got from Ralph Raico, its editor, he wrote:
"I ought to mention that our readership will probably not be primarily composed of libertarians, but rather of open-minded liberals and leftists, so that their sensibilities and the gaps in their political sophistication should be kept in mind."
Alliance with the left had been proposed by Murray Rothbard back in 1965 after he abandoned his association with the National Review circle over their support for an aggressive anti-communist foreign policy.2 He proposed alliance not with the left in general but with decentralist elements in the New Left, most notably Students for a Democratic Society, and with left intellectuals such as revisionist historians William Appleman Williams and Gabriel Kolko.
The project lasted from 1965, when the journal Left and Right was established, until the collapse of SDS in 1969.3 By 1970 Rothbard had declared the New Left dead and written an article criticizing young East Coast libertarians for continuing the project that he had now abandoned.4 At first glance, Edith Efron was attacking the project as the work of anarchists eight years after the most prominent anarchist in the libertarian movement had abandoned it.
Or perhaps not. Having abandoned the project of allying with decentralist elements in the New Left, Rothbard had replaced it with the idea of allying with people on both left and right when they happened to support causes that libertarians agreed with, writing:
we believe in allying ourselves with whoever has a libertarian position on issues important to us. We hail a Nat Hentoff on civil liberties and a Henry Hazlitt on economics.
So did Efron, who wrote:
This does not mean, however, that there are no allies in America for the libertarian. On both the Right and Left there are indeed allies for any defender of a free society.
The disagreement was over which people on the left were potential allies. Efron wrote:
On the liberal side, too, there is a growing group of potential intellectual allies—the liberals and former leftists inaccurately baptized "neo-conservatives" by the historically illiterate Left. In fact, they are "neo-liberals," returning to the insights of an earlier and more enlightened stage of liberalism. These, today, are the genuine culture heroes of the Left. They alone—above all Irving Kristol—have split the liberal world.
Rothbard, responding to Efron, wrote:
From her sneering at such freedom, it is obvious that her devotion to civil liberties is minimal. This conclusion is reinforced by her affinity for Irving Kristol, a "Libertarian" who advocates increased censorship and a theocratic enforcement of religious values.
Efron interpreted allying as supporting; since the left was hostile to central values of libertarianism, most obviously private property, supporting it made no sense. Rothbard’s response, both in his article in the Libertarian Forum responding to hers in Reason and elsewhere in his writing, was that libertarian alliance with the left was intended not to support the left but to work with it for common goals such as the abolition of the draft or an end to U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Part of the reason Efron did not see it that way was that some of what Rothbard was for, most notably a non-interventionist foreign policy, she was against.
Who, from Efron’s standpoint, were the guilty parties among libertarians? She attributed the error of seeking to ally with the left to “a significant portion of the libertarian leadership” and went on to talk in critical terms of “the libertarian movement.” After mentioning three economists, Ludwig Von Mises, Milton Friedman, and Friederich Hayek, as people the libertarians should be allying with and were not, she wrote that “It is only since Hayek and Friedman have received Nobel prizes that some libertarian publications have deigned to say a civil word about either man.” As she presumably knew, Reason, the leading libertarian magazine and the one she was writing in, had published friendly references to all three long before either Friedman or Hayek received their Nobel prizes. When Efron said “the libertarian movement” what she meant was Rothbard and his allies.5
The climax of her argument comes when she explains the reason for the mistaken strategy. Only at that point does she connect it to anarchism.
The collapse into counter-culture vulgarity has already been explained by Ayn Rand. Years ago, she said that the libertarian movement was doomed to degenerate into a "hippie" movement. She was quite right; in some important measure, it has. The reason for that is plain enough. Without a serious metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical base, a commitment to individual self-interest must necessarily degenerate into a slovenly rationalization for "doing your own thing." It is no great surprise, under the circumstances, that the counter-culture gutter movements, celebrating the most irrational manifestations of self-assertiveness, have been attractive to many libertarians, shorn of a guiding ethics or worse: confusing free market theory with ethics.
But, unless I missed that prophecy, even Ayn Rand did not predict that this movement would crawl into bed with the collectivist, anti-American Left. And for that, I think, there is yet another explanation. I suspect that a critical turning point in the evolution of this movement occurred when the proponents of a constitutional republic, who by definition advocate a nation-state, agreed to suspend their endless quarrel with the anarchists, on the grounds that one should not split the forces of a small pro-liberty movement.
For the constitutional republicans it was a very serious error. … they actually had agreed to abandon a series of important areas of political thought — above all they had abandoned the affirmative aspects of their position — the value of nation, the necessity of a national culture, the value of a government, the need to defend the country, and the need for a radical reformer to formulate a political position which integrates his proposals for change with his desires to preserve.
By agreement with the anarchists, no examination of the affirmative aspects of the nation-state or of the unifying abstractions of the nation's pluralistic culture, was allowed. Over the years, in fact, the taboo became so intense, that ugly invective broke out whenever an individual presumed to explore these areas. The invective, of course, came from the anarchists, whose sole position on nation and state is negative—and who had lost nothing whatever by the agreement.
As best I can tell, what she described never happened. Insofar as there was ever an anarchist/minarchist treaty it was the Dallas Accord, an agreement at the 1974 LP convention to put neither the minarchist nor anarchist position into the party platform, leaving the party open to both factions.6 I was active in the libertarian movement from the early sixties, attended meetings of Radicals for Capitalism, a campus Objectivist group, argued with them, eventually was asked not to come back. As a member of the Young Americans for Freedom and the token libertarian columnist on The New Guard I argued with everyone from traditionalists through fellow libertarians. When, at an LP convention in New York, I gave a critical talk on Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia, a book that argued against anarchy, with Nozick in the audience, our interaction was friendly.
One of the letters to Reason by a reader included the following passage:
Ms. Efron's article has needed saying by someone with clout, not in the Libertarian Party, for the past three years, if not longer. Limited governmentalists in the Party sure could have used it as added ammunition during the 1977 California Convention. At that time a concerted effort was made to bring the matter to a head, with pamphlets on the anarchy/limited-government argument, written by both John Hospers and William Westmiller, being distributed to all, and ignored by most of the delegations. An amendment, which would have made clear once and for all that the Party was dedicated to a government that is limited to the protection of individual rights, never even got a hearing due to the anarchist majority of delegates.
While the writer thought she was supporting Edith Efron’s position, she was describing a conflict not over whether anarchists and minarchists should argue with each other but whether the Party should officially adopt the minarchist position.
The intellectual failure that Efron blames on her imagined agreement not to argue was, in my view, due to the difficulty the minarchists faced in defending their side of the argument. Most in the libertarian movement, both anarchist and minarchist and including Objectivists, accepted the Non-Aggression Postulate, which held that it was never legitimate to initiate force. That implies that taxation is a rights violation, making it difficult to defend the existence of government.
Rand proposed a government with a monopoly on the use of retaliatory force funding itself by charging for services such as contract enforcement. The problem with that position, as Roy Childs had pointed out in his letter to Rand7 and others have since, is that the use of retaliatory force either is or is not a rights violation. If it is, the government cannot legitimately do it. If it is not, government enforcement of its monopoly violates the rights of would-be competitors.
To defend the existence of government one must accept some rights violation by government as legitimate, if only to prevent greater rights violation by private criminals or foreign invaders. That was the position of the classical liberals in the Nineteenth Century, almost none of whom were anarchists, and of 20th Century libertarians outside of Objectivist and LP circles such as the three economists Efron mentions. But it was unacceptable to Objectivists, Rothbardians, or pretty much anyone associated with the Libertarian Party, one of whose requirements for membership was (and is) agreeing to the NAP. By the time Efron wrote the article she had broken with Ayn Rand, I suspect because she was unwilling to accept Rand’s judgement over her own whenever they disagreed, making her a better Objectivist than those who remained in the movement. But she remained an admirer of Rand and shared many of her views.
The argument Efron offered against anarchists reappeared eight years later, in a longer and more ferocious form, as the article, book chapter, and pamphlet Libertarianism: The Perversion of Liberty by Peter Schwartz, an orthodox Objectivist.8 He applied it not merely to anarchists but to libertarians in general, on the grounds that the logical implication of their beliefs, as he interpreted them, was anarchy. Also moral nihilism, political violence and support of anyone opposed to anything the U.S. government did.
The argument starts by correctly stating that “libertarian,” as libertarians use the term, describes political conclusions not the arguments that produce them. A libertarian might have reached libertarian conclusions from his interpretation of Christianity, his view of the implications of utilitarianism, natural rights theory, or any other philosophical basis. His views might or might not provide Efron’s “serious metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical base.” Whatever their base, he would still be a libertarian. Schwartz jumps from the proposition that the definition of libertarian does not require any particular philosophical basis to the claim that it requires the absence of one. He concludes that a libertarian, being someone with no philosophical basis for his views, cannot be trusted to support liberty, Efron’s claim about anarchists.
To see what is wrong with the argument, consider that the definition of “human being” does not specify gender — both males and females qualify. It does not follow that to qualify as a human being you must be a hermaphrodite.
Schwartz offers quotes from a variety of individual libertarians, repeatedly representing what they say as what libertarians believe rather than as what at least one libertarian believes. Since different libertarians say, and believe, different things, he concludes that libertarians really believe nothing.
He quotes Rothbard, who wrote:
My own position grounds Libertarianism on a natural rights theory embedded in a wider system of Aristotelian-Lockean natural law and a realist ontology and metaphysics. But although those of us taking this position believe that only it provides a satisfactory groundwork and basis for individual liberty, this is an argument within the Libertarian camp about the proper basis and grounding of libertarianism rather than about the doctrine itself.
It does not appear to occur to Schwartz that what he has just quoted is inconsistent with his claim that “libertarianism is incompatible with values as such,” Rothbard being a libertarian and having not only values but a stated philosophical basis for them. Possibly Schwartz believed that Rothbard was lying.
Schwartz continues his identification of libertarianism with amoralism, writing that:
If there are no objective standards for judging right and wrong, why shouldn’t anyone be entitled to act on his feeling that counterfeiting is not fraudulent — or that owning bazookas and flamethrowers is not threatening — or that blowing up nuclear plants is not coercive?
Law as such is anathema to Libertarians, who reject all standards of behavior in principle. They abhor the law because it tells them, in effect, that they cannot do whatever they feel like doing.
Having proved to his satisfaction that libertarians — all consistent libertarians — are amoralists interested only being able to do whatever they want, Schwartz concludes that:
“It is no accident that so many Libertarians, particularly among the dominant leadership, endorse anarchism, since they grasp that Libertarianism views liberty as the absence of all restraints in the path of anyone’s whims.”
There is no evidence that Schwartz read anything by libertarian anarchists beyond what was needed to find quotes suitable for his purposes. If he had tried to understand the position, perhaps by reading a book defending it, he would have discovered that what libertarian anarchists propose is not a society without law but a society in which law is enforced by private institutions. I spent sixty some pages of my first book sketching out the institutions for creating and enforcing law in a stateless society. Rothbard, in a passage that Schwartz does not quote, wrote:
[I]t would not be very difficult for Libertarian lawyers and jurists to arrive at a rational and objective code of libertarian legal principles and procedures based on the axiom of defense of person and property, and consequently of no coercion to be used against anyone who is not a proven and convicted invader of such person and property. This code would then be followed and applied to specific cases by privately competitive and free-market courts and judges.
Both books were published long before Schwartz wrote his pamphlet.
Following out the logic of his position, he concludes:
“The primary libertarian battleground is not the halls of academia or the editorial pages of the newspapers but the streets and back alleys.”
“Libertarians want to transform the present system not by force of argument, but by plain force. And they broadcast this openly.”
Followed by a quote from Justin Raimundo, one of the founders of the Radical Caucus.
The number of libertarians making revolution in the streets and back alleys, in comparison to the number active in the halls of academia, does not seem to be something Schwartz inquired into. So far as the relative numbers of anarchists and minarchists, the 1988 Liberty Magazine poll found that about a third of those they polled were anarchists, two-thirds minarchists. The 1999 poll found the number of anarchists down to just over a tenth of their sample.
Most of what Schwartz wrote can be explained by the combination of poor logic and a burning desire to trash libertarians for not being Objectivists — Objectivism being the one true philosophy, anyone who was not an Objectivist could not really have a philosophical basis for his beliefs. But there is at least one example of what has to be deliberate dishonesty. Schwartz writes, about the 1984 platform of the Libertarian Party:
now it calls for ‘general and complete disarmament down to police levels’
What the platform actually said was:
We view the mass-destruction potential of modern warfare as the greatest threat to the lives and liberties of the American people and all the people of the globe. We favor international negotiations toward general and complete disarmament down to police levels, provided every necessary precaution is taken to effectively protect the lives and the rights of the American people.
The same platform also said, but Schwartz does not quote:
We recognize the necessity for maintaining a sufficient military force to defend the United States against aggression. We should reduce the overall cost and size of our total governmental defense establishment.
Libertarian Anarchism, Foreign Policy, and Alliance with the Left
Judging by the contents of the two journals that Edith Efron objected to, alliance with the left mostly meant criticism of U.S. foreign policy and the associated military and security institutions, although she is unhappy as well with libertarian support for other causes she associated with the left, such as gay lib and drug legalization.
There are at least three reasons why support for a non-interventionist foreign policy might be linked, although not limited, to support for libertarian anarchy. The first and most obvious is that in order for there to be a U.S. foreign policy there must be a U.S. government. The second is that providing defense against foreign governments is a hard problem for a stateless society; for supporters of such a society it is tempting to persuade themselves that foreign states are not a real threat, in which case most of the argument for an aggressive foreign policy disappears.
A third reason is that an interventionist foreign policy run badly is worse than none at all, since instead of fighting your wars mostly with other people’s blood and treasure you end up fighting their wars with yours; part of the practical argument for anarchy is that what governments do they usually do badly. While that argument is not limited to anarchists, anarchists are likely to accept it in a stronger form than libertarians who believe that there are things that should and must be done by governments.
The Other Thing Bugging Efron and Schwartz
On the face of it, what Edith Efron was objecting to was libertarians allying with, as she saw it supporting, movements on the left. Her explanation was that “Without a serious metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical base, a commitment to individual self-interest must necessarily degenerate into a slovenly rationalization for ‘doing your own thing.’” Schwartz gave an expanded version of the same argument, claiming that libertarians, all consistent libertarians, rejected not merely a serious base but any values at all. That seems an odd charge, given that one of the central targets of both, implicitly for Efron, explicitly for Schwartz, was Murray Rothbard. Not only did Rothbard have an explicit philosophical basis for his political views, Schwartz actually quoted him saying so.
That suggests that what both of them were objecting to was not that libertarians had no values or no philosophical basis but that they had the wrong values and, by implication, the wrong basis. Efron writes:
[Libertarians] have absorbed the counter-culture's notion that nothing has higher priority for lovers of liberty than the right to take dope, to contemplate pornography and to enact the full repertoire of Kraft-Ebing.
An umbrella that makes room for sado-masochism and acid-dropping cannot have space left over for any code of ethics.
Walter Block, in Defending the Undefendable, argues that prostitution is no different from any other business transaction and should not be viewed as demeaning. … Even pimps elicit moral praise from Block …
Who qualifies for Block’s accolades? Only the dregs of society. … As all these reprobates choose to climb into the slime, they do not uphold some new ethical criteria by which they claim that their lives are noble; they simply announce that they relish slime. An affinity for filth, Block maintains, is ennobling.
Although neither Efron nor Schwartz was willing to argue that drugs, prostitution and other activities they associated with the dregs of society should be illegal, they had no doubt that they were things nobody should do and that anyone who disagreed demonstrated by doing so a false sense of values.
Ayn Rand had written:
I would fight for your legal right to use marijuana; I would fight you to the death that you morally should not do it, because it destroys the mind.
What Rand offered to her followers, what Schwartz certainly and Efron probably accepted, was broader than a political philosophy. Objectivism had implications not only for what should or should not be forbidden but for what individuals should or should not choose to do. Efron would surely have conceded that other philosophical positions were possible, as shown by her positive references to non-Objectivists whom she though libertarians ought to be allying with. Schwartz might not have. But both were inclined to interpret disagreement over non-political values as evidence of moral failings, with implications for political values as well.
Postscript: Two Puzzles
One odd thing about Efron’s article is its treatment of Rothbard. He was at the time easily the most visible libertarian anarchist, hence the obvious target for her attack, as well as the libertarian most closely associated with many of the ideas she is objecting to. Several of the letters to Reason in response to her article, including the one from Rothbard, took it for granted that he was the anarchist she was chiefly attacking, as did my letter to her. But her article mentions him only once, in the context of an anecdote attributed to him about a failed past attempt to work with the left.
The other puzzle is that anecdote, which he denied. She wrote:
And thereby hangs a tale, told to me by Murray Rothbard a number of years ago. It seems that he had a shocking experience in the late 1960's, when he joined a leftist political party led by that distinguished ex-rapist and then advocate of racial and class murder known as Eldridge Cleaver. Murray assumed that because the members of this party were raging at America for conducting the Vietnam War and for maintaining racist institutions, they were his allies. He knew, of course, that they were scarcely advocates of capitalism — indeed, he knew Cleaver was a communist and that most of his new associates were collectivists. But, as he told me, he thought he could gradually sneak up on them, teach them economics, and, in effect, take them over. One day Murray got involved in an internal party squabble about a candidate for some office, and found a gun stuck in his ribs.
To which Rothbard’s response was:
There is not one word of truth in her alleged report of our private conversations. I never tried to "take over" any party of which Eldridge Cleaver was the head; and, in the course of working with leftists against the draft and the Vietnam War, I never once had the absurd idea of converting them to capitalism or the free market, sneakily or in any other way.
Above all, no one has ever pulled a gun on me, in the ribs or in any other way. How she dreamed up that lulu the Lord only knows.
And Efron’s response:
Murray Rothbard did indeed tell me that story.
The Lord may or may not know where she got the story, but I have a pretty good guess. In Chapter 14 of The Betrayal of the American Right, published in 1970, Rothbard describes his attempts at left/right alliance. That included joining the Peace and Freedom Party. The party nominated Eldredge Cleaver as their presidential candidate, which comes close to Efron’s “led by.” Rothbard mentions that, at one point thereafter, a Black Panther pulled a gun on the Peace and Freedom Party's senatorial candidate to force him to withdraw, since the Panthers were supporting a different candidate. The same story appeared a little earlier in Rothbard’s The Libertarian (later The Libertarian Forum). Either Efron distorted the story in her memory or Rothbard, in telling it to her, made a better story of it by giving himself a central role.
For a detailed account, see “Rothbard’s Time on the Left” by John Payne, Journal of Libertarian Studies 19, No. 1, (2005), webbed at https://mises.org/library/rothbards-time-left-0
For Rothbard’s description of his efforts, see The Betrayal of the American Right, Chapter 14, https://www.lewrockwell.com/1970/01/murray-n-rothbard/the-later-1960s-the-new-left-chapter-14-of-the-betrayal-of-the-american-right/
Rothbard’s journal, the Libertarian Forum, had multiple favorable mentions of both Hayek and Mises prior to Hayek’s 1974 Nobel. Its comment on Friedman getting a Nobel prize was positive, other references to him mostly negative.