Those Beltway ‘Libertarians’

Response to Alexander McCobin

by Walter Block

Recently by Walter Block: Advice for Ron Paul

On 10/9/11, I wrote this blog: "Reason Foundation Is Not libertarian; for Shame"

On 10/16/11 Alexander McCobin wrote me as follows in response:


I just read your recent blog post on LRC that claims “Reason is anti libertarian” and goes on to recommend people shouldn’t give money to Reason, which is, in essence, a way of saying you don’t think Reason should exist. I have to say, I was surprised and disappointed by the post given our past conversations when you expressed a strong desire for the libertarian movement to avoid infighting and work together to advance liberty. What’s more, when we last spoke, you said that your criticism of other libertarians was meant to advance the search for truth and was done with a sense of respect for those you criticized. I am having a difficult time interpreting a post like this as either overcoming infighting within the liberty movement or written with respect for Reason or Bob Poole, in particular.

On a different note, I also think your criticism of Poole’s article is wrong. There is a difference between promoting libertarianism as a philosophy and promoting liberty as a cause for a freer society. I think it both poor strategy and unprincipled to say that we should only promote libertarianism as a philosophy at the expense of liberty by requiring people to make decisions and judgments using the same philosophical rationale as us. If we want more people to support the cause of liberty and make a difference in the world, we need to use persuasive techniques and analysis that goes beyond quoting our favorite libertarian figures. Just because “[i]t could have been written by any mainstream urban analyst” does not mean it is not advancing liberty. In many ways, because its analysis is not indebted specifically to libertarian figures, it can appeal to more individuals and shows that liberty is a sound position simply on face.

Sincerely & For Liberty,

Alexander Alexander McCobin Co-Founder & Executive Director Students For Liberty

The present essay is an attempt to reply to this critic of mine.

I answer McCobin under three headings.

First, Katherine Mangu-Ward. If this Reason editor was really a libertarian who thought Ron Paul has a poor chance of becoming president of the US (not a totally unreasonable stance) she could have praised him to the skies, and then said something along the lines that there simply aren't enough libertarians in the populace to give him a win in 2012. She could have gone on to say that if any person could create enough libertarians for this purpose, and has almost done so, it would be the very Ob-Gyn from Texas under discussion. Did Mangu-Ward do that? Did she even come close? Not at all. Instead, she stated that even Ron Paul, along with everyone else, knows that he won't be president, and that explains his supposed lack of coverage. Her proof? Dr. Paul "has no plan for becoming president." But that is a blatant falsehood. His plan, reiterated over and over again, and over and over many times again, is peace with foreign nations (pull the troops home), economic freedom at home via a sound money (no Fed), limited government (eliminate some half dozen federal departments plus HUD), lower taxes (no IRS), personal liberties (end the drug war), and Constitutionalism. How did Miss Mangu-Ward ever get to be a political commentator for Reason and not be acquainted with these basics of his plan for becoming president? We either have to conclude that Miss Mangu-Ward is very stupid, which I do not for a moment believe, or something far worse. More evidence in this regard: Mangu-Ward extols the candidacy of Gary Johnson, a libertarian lightweight with far less of a chance of becoming president than Ron Paul. If the likelihood of being elected is so important, how can her support for Johnson be explained?

Liz Trotta, no libertarian she, was by far more sensible. No eye rolling at Congressman Paul's expense for her. Instead, a fair assessment: that the Texas congressman was tapping into something important, a new interest in liberty, and tiredness with all of those wars, none of which are defensive. Indeed, a fair minded commentator who didn't know better might well have concluded that Trotta was the libertarian, and Mangu-Ward anything but. I listened to that Trotta – Mangu-Ward tape again before responding to Alexander McCobin, and, let me tell you, it really made my blood boil at Reason for unleashing this woman upon the public. She was just so totally unfair to the man who is now promoting liberty to a greater extent, perhaps, than any individual in the entire history of the world. She would fit in, fine, at a place like CNN, ABC, PBS, NBC, CBS, the New York Times, etc. Has Reason fired this virago for her attempted trashing of Ron Paul, and thus diverted her career toward a more appropriate employer, such as one of the above? No, they have not. Have they even publicly upbraided her? Again, alas, no. Instead, they issued a mealy mouthed semi apology, semi explanation, along the lines of upholding diversity of opinion. Diversity of opinion on a periodical supposedly devoted to promoting liberty? Well, yes, perhaps, on a complicated issue where eminent libertarians cannot agree. But the contribution of Ron Paul to promoting liberty, surely, cannot be considered one of these.

I had no difficulty, then, when I wrote this critique, in concluding that Reason is not a libertarian organization on this basis, nor do I now, Alexander McCobin's views to the contrary notwithstanding. In fact, in reconsidering this episode, I am far more sure of my ground than before.

For more on this, see here, here and here

Second, Bob Poole. He is, if anything, guilty of far more a serious breach of libertarian propriety than is Mangu-Ward. He is a veteran, presumably of our movement; she, far younger than he, is a mere beginner. We can be far more justified in excusing an error made by an apprentice, than by a supposed master of the craft.

Bob Poole has for many years now been an efficiency expert for the state, not a libertarian. In the specific issue under debate, Poole takes the position that government should not subsidize high speed rail. Well and good. For a libertarian, that is surely a no brainer. But why not? Is it based on the libertarian case that such government subsidies are predicated on compulsory taxes (or unjust government land grant subsidies) which are incompatible with libertarianism? Not at all. Instead, Poole's opposition stems from cost considerations, passenger miles, population densities etc. This is not a libertarian argument at all. Indeed, if cost considerations and population densities were the only relevant consideration, then private enterprise should not invest in these amenities either. In contrast, the libertarian view on the matter, the only libertarian view on the matter, is that private individuals should be free to invest their hard earned money in whatever economic areas they wish, and the free market with its profit and loss considerations will properly settle the issue of whether or not this was a wise decision. When Reason was begun, all its well wishers hoped for the day when its spokesmen would have the ear of the readers of a periodical such as USA Today, where Poole published his statist screed, so as to be able to promote liberty far and wide. To think that the day has finally come upon us, where people like Poole are given a national podium, and for them to promote not free enterprise, but pretty much its very opposite. Oh how the gods must be laughing at our feeble attempts to promote liberty.

But McCobin is not at all happy with these critical comments of mine on Poole. Instead, he takes the not unreasonable position that we should not try to force every jot and tittle of our own philosophy down the throats of others, only its main focus. For example, if I am a deontologist, and reject government subsidies to high speed rail because they violates rights, and Poole is a utilitarian, and opposes them on the ground that population densities simply will not support such investments, then it is improper for me to criticize Poole for leading us to liberty via a slightly different route than my own. This at least, is how I understand McCobin's objection. If my interpretation is correct, his point fails. For Poole is not opposing government subsidies to high speed rail solely on utilitarian grounds. As he concedes, there are some areas where such investments would actually be justified. For example, Boston – NYC – Washington D.C. and San Francisco – L.A. Here, Poole's analysis does not support the libertarian solution at all.

McCobin also accuses me of demanding that Poole "quot(e) … our favorite libertarian figures." But I made no such demand; I wonder from whence this charge springs? My critic further avers: "Just because u2018[i]t could have been written by any mainstream urban analyst' does not mean it is not advancing liberty." Nonsense. No, nonsense on stilts. Mainstream urban analysts are without exception supporters of urban socialism, central planning for cities, etc. To say that Poole's analysis is indistinguishable from theirs is to clearly assert that this author is one of theirs, not ours.

Third, should Reason exist at all? McCobin interprets my remarks in precisely this way: "You (Block) go … on to recommend people shouldn’t give money to Reason, which is, in essence, a way of saying you don’t think Reason should exist." Certainly, my critique of this organization is compatible with a desire that they close shop, but it does not at all logically imply any such thing. Indeed when I wrote my critique of Mangu-Ward and Poole, I did not have that in mind at all. I was hoping, first, that these two would see the error of their ways, apologize for their mistakes, resolve to take a more libertarian path in future, etc. Failing that, I would have welcomed Reason firing whichever of these two remained adamant in their error. It is only if Reason stood behind both of these miscreants that I would even contemplate this more radical solution. But I would have done so only reluctantly. Reason magazine, and Foundation have been in business since 1978. They have done many, many good things over the years. It would be a crying shame if such an organization were to come to an end. However, I am not closed-minded. Now that McCobin has raised the issue, I am willing to at least contemplate the demise of this organization, even though, frankly, I did not really have any such thing in mind previously.

At the outset, I think it would be difficult to make the case for Reason closing its doors. I am guided in this, as I am on so many other things, by Murray Rothbard, who was a "big tent" libertarian. Many is the time I have heard Murray say, "Every dog gets one bite." What Murray meant by this is that if a person deviated from plumb line libertarianism on one or even a few important issues, he was still a libertarian. Surely, the peccadilloes of Mangu-Ward and Poole, and even Reason's refusal to upbraid them for these, would not rise to the level necessary to consider them nonlibertarian. Of course, you can only take this so far. When an organization becomes guilty of "a train of abuses and usurpations" then perhaps it is time to consider whether they belong in the movement at all, big tent as it is. Then, we might well consider alternatives.

So, would the libertarian movement be better or worse off if the Reason enterprise came to a halt? In part this depends upon where the money that otherwise would have accrued to them would go instead. If to the Brookings, American Enterprise, Hoover or Heritage Foundations, well, then, maybe, better Reason than those other worthies. Sure, Reason is a son of a bitch, but at least they are our son of a bitch. On the other hand, if these monies went, instead, to the Independent Institute, or to, or to the Mises Institute, or to the Ron Paul campaign, then we have pretty much of a no brainer. These latter groups have been stalwart undeviating supporters of liberty for decades. On the other, other hand, if Brookings, AEI, Hoover, etc., were financially strengthened at the expense of Reason, at least no one would be able to use that old charge, "Well, even libertarian Reason concedes…." Friedman and Hayek, bless their souls, have been used as a stick with which to beat up on libertarians for lo these many years in such a manner. With no Reason in existence, at least we might spared this stab in the back.

Do the two episodes of Poole and Mangu-Ward, heinous as they both were, rise, or rather fall to the level where libertarians should seriously consider cutting Reason off at the knees and encouraging its dissolution. Of course not. These are only two Rothbardian "bites," after all. However, thanks to McCobin's challenge, I have done a bit of research, and come up with a horrendous list of many other "bites." Read them and cringe. On the basis of all of them, and I have been assured by my researchers that even all of these comprise, merely the tip of the veritable iceberg, I say, Down with Reason. This organization has been doing its level best to undermine liberty, from a supposed libertarian point of view, for years. Libertarians, do please send your contributions elsewhere. Here is the evidence upon which I base such a conclusion:

Kinsella on Poole on the TSA; Klein on Poole on Buckley; Vance on Poole on McCain/Bush; Gregory on Reason on inflation; Woods on Reason on Ron Paul; Rockwell on Reason; Kwiatkowski on Reason on Ron Paul; Parfitt on Reason; Kinsella on Reason on IP; Rockwell on Reason on Libertarian Heroes; Kinsella on Reason on rights of patients; Mortellaro on organ donations; Wicks on Rand Paul and slavery; Raimondo on Reason and Ron Paul.

I thank Skyler Collins and Dick Clark for providing me with this information.