Do libertarians apologise for autocracy?

Michael Lind has a long post on on “Why Libertarians Apologise for Autocracy”. The piece is rather long, and has been getting some attention online. In my view it is a rather bad piece. In this post I want to reply to some of the most important claims that it makes. His post is a little incoherent, so forgive me if my reply doesn’t work well as a standalone piece. I encourage readers to take a look at Lind’s piece before reading this.

Lind’s thesis is that libertarian objectives are incompatible with the democratic system of governance that most people value. This is a valid argument, and indeed one that has been made by some libertarians. Where Lind gets it wrong is in his seemingly-wilful misreading of key libertarian thinkers (like Mises and Hayek) and his shallow understanding of the libertarian movement in general.

Lind opens by quoting Ludwig von Mises’s Liberalism. This book, written in 1929, contains a discussion of fascism in which Mises appears to praise this system. Lind quotes Mises:

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.

It’s a pity that Lind’s article links to the Amazon page for Liberalism, rather than the free download from If he had linked to the full version, the meaning of this strange statement would have become clear. Cato at Liberty have the full quote:

Fascism can triumph today because universal indignation at the infamies committed by the socialists and communists has obtained for it the sympathies of wide circles. But when the fresh impression of the crimes of the Bolsheviks has paled, the socialist program will once again exercise its power of attraction on the masses. For Fascism does nothing to combat it except to suppress socialist ideas and to persecute the people who spread them. If it wanted really to combat socialism, it would have to oppose it with ideas. There is, however, only one idea that can be effectively opposed to socialism, viz., that of liberalism.

It has often been said that nothing furthers a cause more than creating martyrs for it. This is only approximately correct. What strengthens the cause of the persecuted faction is not the martyrdom of its adherents, but the fact that they are being attacked by force, and not by intellectual weapons. Repression by brute force is always a confession of the inability to make use of the better weapons of the intellect — better because they alone give promise of final success. This is the fundamental error from which Fascism suffers and which will ultimately cause its downfall. The victory of Fascism in a number of countries is only an episode in the long series of struggles over the problem of property. The next episode will be the victory of Communism.

The ultimate outcome of the struggle, however, will not be decided by arms, but by ideas. It is ideas that group men into fighting factions, that press the weapons into their hands, and that determine against whom and for whom the weapons shall be used. It is they alone, and not arms, that, in the last analysis, turn the scales.

So much for the domestic policy of Fascism. That its foreign policy, based as it is on the avowed principle of force in international relations, cannot fail to give rise to an endless series of wars that must destroy all of modern civilization requires no further discussion. To maintain and further raise our present level of economic development, peace among nations must be assured. But they cannot live together in peace if the basic tenet of the ideology by which they are governed is the belief that one’s own nation can secure its place in the community of nations by force alone.

It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aiming 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. But though its policy has brought salvation for the moment, it is not of the kind which could promise continued success. Fascism was an emergency makeshift. To view it as something more would be a fatal error. (From Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism, section I:10)

As Jason Kuznicki says, ‘The word I’d reach for wouldn’t be “fascist.” It would be “prophetic.” Especially given that these words were written in 1927.’ The Mises Institute blog links to a long New York Times Magazine piece from March 1933 – six years after Mises wrote, and two months after Hitler’s rise to power – that praised Mussolini effusively:

One may object to any form of dictatorship, but one cannot help being stimulated by the phenomenal vitality of this man who, in his role of dictator, has commanded the barren soil of Italy to produce wheat within a given time. … Here I had the feeling that there is no limiting condition imposed on any Fascist project; a strange impression that whatever Mussolini commands is executed without being hampered by problems, practical or financial.

While the establishment was praising fascism, Mises was denouncing it as the violent evil that it was. For Lind to quote Mises out of context in order to make it look as if he was praising fascism is disingenuous. It’s also a bit rich for someone like Lind, who has written much on his desire for a revival of nationalism in the US, to try to smear other people as sympathetic to the fascism of the 1920s.

Next is Hayek and Friedman’s supposed admiration for Augusto Pinochet, the dictator of Chile during the 1970s and 80s. Lind quotes the historian Greg Grandin:

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.

How Grandin knows that Friedman and Hayek viewed Pinochet as “the avatar of true freedom” is unclear, since their public statements never showed this.

Friedman has been famously smeared by people like Naomi Klein as an apologist for the Pinochet regime. In fact, his involvement with the regime extended to an hour-long meeting with Pinochet during a lecture tour in the country, and a letter he sent to Pinochet outlining the country’s key economic problems.

That criticism has always puzzled me. Was Friedman supposed to have refused to help Chile? Certainly, you can argue that his policy recommendations were wrong, but is Lind’s argument that economists should not try to help evil regimes to make their people richer? In fact, there is widespread agreement among historians that it was Chile’s rising middle class that drove Pinochet out of power. What does Lind think of the many economists who have tried to help the Chinese government hurt its people less through bad policies?

Hayek’s defences of Pinochet are more dubious but, again, misrepresented by Lind. Hayek’s defences of Pinochet were always framed in comparison to the alternative – the socialist Allende regime, which brought Chile to its knees in the early 1970s by collectivizing much of Chile’s industry and land, setting wage and price controls that made unemployment skyrocket, and creating hyperinflation by attempting to print money to finance government expenditure.

Allende used the police to break strikes against his actions – which was ruled unlawful by the Chilean Supreme Court – and ultimately drove the country to deep recession (an average contraction of 5.6% every year between 1971 and 1973). Many feared that Allende would become another Castro, whom he was diplomatically close to.

All this excused neither the Pinochet coup nor his regime’s murder of dissidents. But it highlights the fact that Pinochet was seen not as an ideal, but as a lesser of two evils. This thinking was present on all sides during the Cold War, where the Third World’s choices of government were widely viewed as being between communism or right-wing autocracy. The “lesser of two evils” realist approach to foreign policy is unpleasant, but it has many supporters on both the left and right. As Harry Truman said, “He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard.”

Even if Mises, Hayek and Friedman had been the collaborationists that Lind accuses them of being, what would that mean about libertarian philosophy? Sheldon Richman says:

Lind’s article contains much to comment on, but here I want to make just one or two points. Even if Mises, Hayek, and Friedman really approved of fascist regimes (one can disagree with them while maintaining that things aren’t quite so simple), it would take more than that to indict libertarianism. Lind never explains why this alleged record doesn’t merely reflect on the particular named individuals who for one reason or another departed from their stated libertarian principles.

If Hayek had been a crack cocaine addict, what would that say about his business cycle theory? If Mises was a gambler, would his theory of money and credit be discredited? No. Lind’s desperation to play the men makes him miss the ball entirely.

Lind goes on to claim that:

When it comes to American history, 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.

Sadly, this is a very blatant and false straw man. A minority of libertarians argue that the legal right of secession was legally preeminent during the American Civil War. I don’t agree – slavery nullified the Southern states’ right to legal recognition, in my view. But the debate is a complex legal argument that returns to the American Revolution: if it was just for the American colonies to secede from the Crown, why is it unjust for an American state to secede from Washington DC?

Lind again misleads his readers by quoting David Boaz, the Vice-President of the Cato Institute:

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.

Where was this controversy? Lind doesn’t say. Certainly, I have not encountered it anywhere among American libertarians.

I cannot believe that anybody with any knowledge of the historical debate around the American Civil War could believe, as Lind claims, that the defence of the right to secede is down to people disliking tariffs more than slavery. This goes beyond the disingenuousness of the rest of the piece. It is a simple, wilful smear that should bring Lind’s integrity as a journalist into question.

Moving onto 20th Century politics, Lind says:

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.

Steve Horwitz – an Austrian school economist and libertarian who is also a staunch advocate for gay marriage – has nicely skewered this claim:

Which US political party was the first to have a gay rights plank in its platform? It wasn’t the Democrats, Michael, it was the Libertarian Party, back in 1980.

Indeed. And few other policies hurt more innocent people – and, disproportionately, innocent African-Americans – than the War on Drugs. Where is Lind’s on that? Where are his political allies?

And if Michael Lind had done more than read the Wikipedia page on libertarianism, he might have read about civil rights advocates like Moorfield Storey, the first president of the NAACP (National Associate for the Advancement of Colored People), who was a classical liberal; Zora Neale Hurston, the African-American feminist and libertarian, a committed opponent of the New Deal and interventionist foreign policy; Karl Hess, who fought the Vietnam draft; and the early women whose writings helped to create popular libertarian movement like Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson and, of course, Ayn Rand.

Milton Friedman was instrumental in the abolition of conscription in the United States.David Warsh writes:

Three months after he was elected, in the midst of a hugely unpopular war, Nixon named a fifteen-member “Advisory Commission on an All-Volunteer Armed Force.” Among its members were Friedman and his old friend Allen Wallis, president of the University of Rochester. … Five members were avowed supporters of the draft, five advocated an all-volunteer force, and five were said to be uncommitted. Former Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates was the chair….

General William Westmoreland appeared before the commission to testify. Like most military leaders, Westmoreland opposed the idea of an all-volunteer force. … At one point, Westmoreland declared that he wouldn’t wish to command “a band of mercenaries.”

In his memoirs, Friedman recalled, “I stopped him and said, ‘General, would you rather command an army of slaves?’ He drew himself up and said, ‘I don’t like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves.’ But I went on to say, ‘If they are mercenaries, then I, sir, am a mercenary professor, and you, sir, are a mercenary general; we are served by mercenary physicians, we use a mercenary lawyer, and we get our meat from a mercenary butcher.’ That was the last we heard from the general about mercenaries.”

And so the Gates Commission went forward, recommending unanimously … in February 1970, just a few weeks before the Cambodian invasion, that the draft be abolished.

It isn’t surprising that Lind makes no mention of this in his piece at all, but it is depressing that such an omission made it past the editors at

Like John Stuart Mill, Hayek was fearful of the tyranny of the majority – the ability of a majority to use a democratic system to infringe on the rights of minorities. Mill and Hayek both recognized that the argument for democracy is the outcomes that it brings, not the democratic process in and of itself. Liberals value individual liberty above all else; the strength of democracy is that it tends to deliver the most liberal outcomes compared with other systems. The process of choosing leaders should be judged by its outcomes.

This is important, because it shows Lind’s key error: to focus on process rather than outcome. I don’t know what Lind values, but if an electorate voted to enslave all redheaded people I would hope that he would oppose it, and denounce it as an infringement on the rights that all people should have in a civilized society. That 51% – or even 91% – of people voted for it is would be irrelevant. It would still be wrong.

If libertarians are sceptical about unlimited democracy, and refuse to praise democracy in and of itself, it is because they value the rights and welfare of the minority as well as the majority. This doesn’t imply that a benevolent dictator would be better (or even possible), just that fetishizing democracy can lead to illiberal outcomes that we don’t like. Zachary Caceres outlines the desperately poor record of democracies in protecting weak members of society in an excellent post here. And the idea that democracy is not intrinsically just is not unique to libertarianism – see Richard Arneson’s paper on this topic for one example. (H/T to Rajiv Shah for this link.)

There are no libertarians that I am aware of who want to overthrow any democratic regime. Indeed, I can think of no political movement that focuses more on debate and education than the libertarian one. I can’t put it any better than Roderick Long: “libertarians don’t oppose democracy (in the conventional sense) because they hanker after autocracy; they oppose democracy because it is too much like autocracy.”

Lind’s other error is to focus on individuals rather than ideas. This is lazy, unpleasant smear tactics. But it should be taken as a good sign by libertarians. People like Lind, who promotes nationalism and corporatist economic policy, are scared of our ideas, and are reacting to their rise. More than anything, Lind’s post reminds me of an overused but apt quote: First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.