2014-08-27

Do Vile Views Matter?

This morning, Bryan Caplan favorably quotes H. L. Mencken at EconLog. This is hardly the first time an EconLog author has done so, so we shouldn't be too hard on Caplan in this one case. Here's an example of the late Murray Rothbard writing glowing praise of Mencken. Here is Jeffrey Tucker doing the same. Here is Donald Boudreaux calling Mencken "great." Here is Peter Boettke. Here's Thomas DiLorenzo quoting Mencken to make a case against democracy.

This is a who's-who list of notable libertarians. I could cite additional examples, but I think I've made my point. One seemingly hasn't proven one's libertarian bona fides until one has read and quoted H. L. Mencken.

Meanwhile, Wikipedia.org attributes the following H.L. Mencken quote to a work entitled Men Versus the Man: A Correspondence Between Robert Rives La Monte, Socialist, and H.L. Mencken, Individualist.
I admit freely enough that, by careful breeding, supervision of environment and education, extending over many generations, it might be possible to make an appreciable improvement in the stock of the American negro, for example, but I must maintain that this enterprise would be a ridiculous waste of energy, for there is a high-caste white stock ready at hand, and it is inconceivable that the negro stock, however carefully it might be nurtured, could ever even remotely approach it. The educated negro of today is a failure, not because he meets insuperable difficulties in life, but because he is a negro. He is, in brief, a low-caste man, to the manner born, and he will remain inert and inefficient until fifty generations of him have lived in civilization. And even then, the superior white race will be fifty generations ahead of him.
Have any libertarians out there considered the possibility that no one who is capable of such thoughts ought to be considered a libertarian if the word "libertarian" is to mean anything at all?

In refreshing contrast to the above, this laudable take-down of Stefan Molyneaux at Buzzfeed.com (of all places) uses direct quotes and first-hand accounts to make clear the fact that there are people out there who might be despicable people despite the fact that they nominally share one's policy preferences.

The question is, does it ultimately matter that key libertarian thinkers are ultimately revealed to be racists, sexists, megalomaniacs, etc.? On the one hand, we can take the position that no men are angels, including those who wrote a lot about libertarianism. On the other hand, we can define libertarianism in such a way that it excludes jerks from qualifying.

What I mean is, racism is perhaps the most un-libertarian mode of thinking I can imagine. It's tribalistic, primitive, unscientific, and cruel. It's opportunistic and tyrannical. It is a blight on the human psyche. The way I think about libertarianism is that libertarianism is the opposite of all of that; it's the solution to all of that. So what does it mean to know that many high-profile libertarians are also racist? Does it matter?

On a related note, we are told ad nauseum that Ayn Rand turned her inner circle into a cult. Assuming that claim is true, and applying equivalent reasoning to the the Buzzfeed account of Molyneaux, and observing the cultish fervor that some libertarians apply to Murray Rothbard, we start to run into problems here. Libertarians are traditionally the rebels, the individualists. What does it say about this great collection of individualist free-thinkers that they tend to be so susceptible to cults of personality?

Perhaps this is the dawn of my de-coupling with libertarianism. After all, how comfortable can a person be with an association that puts one in the same camp as a racist like Mencken or a sexist like Molyneaux? I'm tolerant of a wide array of opinions, but at a certain point, don't we have to stop and think about whose side we're on?

Eradicating bigotry would be a huge win for liberty. Writers can serve this goal by finding non-racists and non-sexists to quote when they're making their points. One needn't quote Mencken to make a good point, so why tarnish a good idea by attaching it to a vile racist? If we don't hold ourselves to this standard, no one else will. But more importantly, what is liberty to you if it does not include an unequivocal damnation of bigotry? Hollow rhetoric!