Caleb Brown: This is the Cato Daily Podcast for Sunday, December 25, 2016. I am Caleb Brown. Some people who oppose liberalism broadly speaking don’t oppose it for typical reasons. They oppose it because they fundamentally don’t believe in broad human liberty. Tom Palmer, in a new essay in Cato Policy Report, details the challenge of taking seriously the thinking of the contemporary fascist thinkers.
A lot of people have tried to tie together Brexit, the departure of Great Britain from the European Union, the election of Donald Trump, and this move of populist movements in Europe as all sort of part of the same rejection of established authority. Now in Europe of course these movements are radically different but they do have sort of a more powerful state at their heart.
Tom G. Palmer: I’m not sure that’s the right way to look at it. Let’s begin with something that should be obvious, which is that there were local reasons for Brexit and local reasons for Trump winning Kentucky by such a margin and so on that had nothing to do with these wider concerns, but what we should look at if we are interested in politics is what happens on the margin. That’s where the activity is, what tips it from one to the other. And there I think there are some commonalities. Not that it’s a rejection of a common authority by any means. In fact they tend to be strong authoritarian elements that want authority, but there’s a rejection of modernity that’s involved that is a theme throughout these. And again I don’t want to overpaint this. There are other things that account for particular electoral outcomes, even the rain in London on the day of the Brexit vote, which slightly suppressed the London vote, which was overwhelmingly in favor of Remain. So these are complex matters. What I do think we are seeing, though, is emerging an authoritarian populist movement around the world that is making a difference. It is tipping the balance in many, many countries and it is strongly opposed to the classical liberal values of peaceful cooperation, of trade for mutual benefit, of toleration, and of a rules-based legal order, as opposed to a legal order based on assertions of will or power. And that’s a common theme. It’s very disturbing and it reminds me of nothing more than the 1930s, a very dangerous time. Stephen Bannon, the incoming White House chief strategist, was excited about that. He said this is as exciting as the 1930s. I do not share his excitement about the 1930s. I think this was a terrible time for the principles of liberty and the American enlightenment and I fear he’s right and that what will be exciting for him will be a horror and a nightmare for people who believe in freedom.
Caleb Brown: So in your recent piece in Policy Report, published by the Cato Institute, you identify three threats to liberty that you believe are the ones that people who care about liberty should be thinking about.
Tom G. Palmer: We should look at this as a complex whole, if you will. There’s not just one threat to freedom out there. We were accustomed for many years for thinking it as socialism or communism. That’s gone now and we’ve seen an emergence of a new kind of anti-libertarian threat. Now the first point is this is not just a matter of a lack of education. We’ve been coasting, if you will, on the model that if we explain to people how markets work and how legal order based on protected, well-defined, legally secure individual rights functions that they will get it and we will move further in the direction of liberty. That has worked fairly well for some time. We face something different, people who reject the idea of mutual benefit, people who reject the idea of live and let live. They reject the idea of letting people flourish in their own way. So those three are on the one hand we could identify with the Left, a Leftwing identity politics that emerged and has really taken over almost all of the American academic scene and a great deal of intellectual life in the media and so on. And that means that there’s a special and protected identity for each group and that has called forth, as we see in the foolishness on college campuses, a counter identity politics that is a populist, white nationalist movement, if you will, that said you know if you are going to play that game there are a lot of us, too. And people have been enraged by safe spaces, areas that white students are not allowed to go into and so on, and this, it’s almost as if it was calculated to create a very ugly backlash. And it has. The consequences that each of these movements fuels the other, as one rises the other one rises in response to it, and what is losing out is what we might call the classical liberal middle ground of people who really do want to live and let live. The third element that’s interacting with these is radical Islamism and this generates a great deal of energy for populism in Europe and to a lesser extent in America, but here as well, the fear of this other group. As a statistical matter, Islamist violence is a very small threat in the United States. It’s real but it’s quite tiny and smaller than all kinds of other domestic threats that we face, but it’s on the 24-hour news cycles. We see it every time there is an explosion in Belgium it dominates the news for weeks on end, and that generates a feeling of being besieged. These things are symbiotic. As one rises, the other rises in response to it. And Islamism, very strongly in Europe, has fed on populism and been fed by populism. As people come out with anti-Muslim statements, moderate, mainstream, assimilated Muslims who want to live in peace with their neighbors find themselves being rejected, and their children feel that and are ripe for recruiting by Isis and other monstrous terror groups. And then finally there are common intellectual roots in the rejection of classical liberalism or libertarian views that all three of them share. One of them is a fascination with the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, I consider one of the most malignant intellectual figures of the twentieth century, and we find him constantly being cited by all three of these groups. And the other one is another Nazi, Carl Schmitt, leading juridical thinker of the Third Reich, who believed that politics is constituted by inherent antagonism, but what defines political is the conflict between friends and enemies. That’s what makes politics. And we find that in the social justice warriors, or the politically correct Left. We find it in the identity politics of the populist far Right, or white nationalists. And, unsurprisingly, it is at the root of the intellectual foundation of modern Islamism as well, which was not a revival of traditional Islam, it’s a modern, contemporary ideology founded on fascist roots and European thinkers such as Heidegger and Schmitt.
Caleb Brown: So you argue something that I think is probably a chilling and easy to accept, really, once you think about it. And that is that people don’t reject libertarianism, people don’t reject liberty broadly necessarily because they don’t understand economics or they don’t appreciate the human flourishing that can occur under it, but they actually oppose the principles and practice of liberty.
Tom G. Palmer: That’s right. They uphold different values and for one is the value of conflict. The warrior ethic, per se, that it’s the highest life, is to kill and destroy your enemy and that is fundamentally at odds with the view of libertarianism, that there are other things in life, running a business, and raising a family, and love, and music, and art, and science, and all of these other expressions of human creativity. Those are denigrated by people who uphold this view. They see constant struggle, struggle against others, as what makes life worth living. So that is a very important distinction or differentiation at a value level. They don’t share the values of people who want to live in peace with others. They don’t want to live and let live. They want to triumph, to crush, to destroy the enemy. And they live for struggle. This is the ethos, the aesthetic ethos, of Nazism, of National Socialism, of fascism, articulated by such figures as Ernst Jünger, who was a cult hero on both the far Left and the far Right. One of the most important novels of the twentieth century was called in the Storm of Steel. Jünger was a storm trooper in World War I and he exulted in violence and conflict and created an aesthetic of constant warfare and conflict, which infused German and European intellectual thought. He was the one who came up with the idea of total war, total state, total mobilization. And unsurprisingly, also an intellectual cult hero on the far Left. There is a huge Carl Schmitt industry on the far Left and what they see is that all political life is suffused with inherent antagonism. It’s just different groups that they choose. It is rich and poor, white and black, gay and straight. One could go down the whole list. Those groups live in constant struggle. There cannot be coexistence in their understanding of the world. And they share that with the far Right, who view that on national groups, ethnic grounds, racial grounds, or some other distinction, so that that idea of rejecting positive sum games and having a zero sum view of the world is at the foundation of all of these anti-libertarian intellectual and political movements.
Caleb Brown: If it doesn’t work, or may not work for certain people who are deeply committed to opposing liberty, we’ll say it broadly, what does work? You argue for a moral defense.
Tom G. Palmer: Well I think that there is a moral defense. We need to strip bare what it is that they are arguing for, and that means that thinkers on the libertarian and broadly classically liberal side of the divide need to spend more time reading those guys and not dismiss them as morons or fools. The far Right thinkers have successfully argued oh, we’re not those skinheads. So, they’ve had the view that Nazism, or National Socialism, or fascism is a movement for tattooed skinheads with swastikas on their foreheads, real scary moral people. The leaders of these movements aren’t like that. They are multilingual, they are university-educated, they are smooth, they are articulate, they are like the original fascist intellectuals themselves who were professors at universities and smooth, articulate people. We need to take those ideas seriously, and that means reading them and thinking about them and then understanding what buttons they are pushing in the population. So that leads me to another element of this, which is to look at it not merely as a political theoretical dispute, but to understand the moral psychology involved that they tap into. Human beings have the capacity for conflict and the capacity for cooperation. And it has been a big surprise over the last decades people have discovered more and more mental and moral machinery of cooperation, and that’s made us feel very good. We can be cooperative creatures. But as it turns out, much of that, not all, is oriented towards creating cooperation among groups that are in competition with other groups. And this has been observed very well. Human beings can form groups and fight with other groups fairly easily. Joshua Greene, in his book Moral Tribes, explores this in very interesting ways. What has happened now is that those cooperative modes of solidarity and so on are being harnessed by authoritarians in order to create cooperation within groups to fight other groups. And that is what we need to understand. And it means delving into moral psychology, empirical psychology, the entire literature and studies of authoritarianism. Emily Ekins at Cato has been doing very important work in this, along with Jonathan Haidt, who is a most interesting moral psychologist now at NYU. There are others looking into this and we need to pay attention to that literature and understand what they are tapping into so that we can counter it with messages of live and let live, of laissez-faire, of cooperation for mutual benefit. Finally there’s something else common. All of these groups reject free trade, all of them consistently. And the reason is free trade is the most important mechanism for overcoming conflict between groups. That is one of the reasons why classic liberals have always favored free trade. It is economically rational, it makes you wealthier, it has all those benefits, but it has this other one that we need to bring to the fore. It overcomes conflict between groups. When goods cannot cross borders armies will is a very important old adage of the free trade movement. Or, as it was pointed out by others, if we could see other people as potential customers, we would be less likely to shoot them. And we need to stand up strong for free trade as a strategic, and moral, and rational alternative to this rising conflict among groups and nations.
Caleb Brown: Tom Palmer is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and is Executive Vice President for International Programs at the Atlas Network. Subscribe to this podcast at iTunes, Google Play, and with Cato’s iOS app. And follow us on Twitter, @CatoPodcast.