Bryan Caplan  

Purges and Schisms

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I wrote this in 1993.  Still seems correct to me, and unfortunately it's as relevant as ever.

Purges and Schisms

When I was working this summer at the Institute for Humane Studies, I spent many hours reading old libertarian periodicals -- especially those from the late 60's, 70's, and early 80's. And one of the things that struck me was the frequency and violence of the purges and schisms. Of course, I'd been familiar with the Rand-related purges and schisms for a long time. But I had no idea that there had been so much bad blood in the broader libertarian movement as well.

Now I bring this up not to point fingers at this or that faction. Rather, I want to discuss the harmful effects of purges and schisms, and propose some tentative remedies. Secondarily, I'd like to open up further discussion on ways to avoid future purges and schisms.

The Damage of Purges and Schisms

First of all, purges and schisms take up a lot of time and energy that could be better spent on constructive tasks. I can't tell you how many issues of various libertarian publications that I read were devoted exclusively to falling-outs, betrayals, and selling-outs. Every one of these articles could have been turned to some positive task, whether current events in the world, or history, public policy, philosophy, or what have you. Oftentimes, those writing the book-length purge-statements were great minds, who produced excellent work before they embroiled themselves in in-fighting.

Second, purges and schisms prevent great minds and schools of thought from teaching one another. "Cross-fertilization" is the term that comes to mind. Frequently, the best ideas lie scattered in the works of many thinkers. In an open and tolerant intellectual atmosphere, everyone would feel comfortable to bring the best ideas together, to synthesize. Every new idea would have the benefit of criticism from many perspectives. Purges and schisms tend to put a stop to this beneficent process. Of course, it is conceivable that a person might be purged, but not his or her works. Conceivable, but rare. I noticed that every side in every schism tended to re-write history, downplaying or even scorning the works of the intellectual exiles. Strange as it sounds, Ayn Rand's treatment of Nathaniel Branden was actually better than average. At least she kept his essays in the Virtue of Selfishness and Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal, though of course she and his inner circle never cited him again (to my knowledge). It was more typical for former friends who eagerly referred to one another's work before a schism to forever afterwards ignore it completely, or even scorn it.

Third, purges and schisms seriously turn off newcomers. When someone first acquires an interest in libertarianism, he or she wants to learn, listen, and discuss IDEAS. When they see that more seasoned libertarians seem more interested in PEOPLE, they will understandably be turned off. At its worst, it makes libertarians seem more like a cult than a community of thoughtful people who value individual liberty.

Fourth, only very rarely did I find a purge or schism based on some REAL horrible "sell-out" or defection to another political philosophy. There were roughly two kinds of fallings-out. The first kind was the clash of personalities. Obviously some people, especially passionate, ideological people, can get on each others' nerves. This often led to schisms and purges. Especially if one of the people involved was well-known in the libertarian movement, they usually dragged all of their followers and supporters into the fray, creating permanent ruptures.

The second kind of falling-out was genuinely based on ideological differences, but blown all out of proportion. There seems to be an instinct to assume that those who disagree with you, or -- even worse -- who change their minds and cease to agree with you -- MUST do so out of sheer wickedness. Throughout all of the battles that I studied, it is difficult to remember a single case where I was convinced that someone had dishonestly taken on a new intellectual stance. Of course, I often agreed with one side and disagreed with the other, but that is not the point. The point is that all of the sides seemed like they were probably sincere, yet libertarian thinkers and activists who had often known each other for years jumped to the conclusion of willful intellectual dishonesty.

Now of course a concern for ideological purity in SOME sense can be quite reasonable. If Lyndon LaRouche called himself a libertarian (which I don't think he ever did), it would upset me, and I would surely tell others that he wasn't. But in all of the cases I studied, the disagreements never took any of the participants outside of the classical liberal tradition. Their disagreements might not have been minor (though some were), but they definitely remained disagreements within a body of thinkers with many shared beliefs and concerns.

A Proposed Remedy for Purges and Schisms

Now I am convinced that this plague of purges and schisms is one of the most serious long-run problems within the libertarian movement, and I want to do something about it. Moreover, I think that any viable solutions must have two properties.

1. Any individual who adopts the solution will (marginally) make purges and schisms less common, acrimonious, and harmful to the libertarian movement.

2. And if the solution were to become widely accepted among libertarians, the problem of purges and schisms would for the most part disappear. (Those familiar with game theory will see why the two are not necessarily linked.)

What then is my proposed solution?

1. In the event of a disagreement, to always criticize only the ideas, never the person; and moreover, to always criticize in a polite and ecumenical way.

2. If another libertarian fails to live up to #1, to STILL refrain from making any sort of personal attack, or responding in a similar way. I realize that this will be contrversial. Initially, I balked at this idea myself; it seems to go against everthing Robert Axelrod said in the Evolution of Cooperation. (Namely, the best way to get Golden Rule behavior is NOT by following the Golden Rule, but by playing tit-for-tat.) But this impression is only superficial. Oftentimes, those who make personal attacks get pleasure out of in-fighting for its own sake. So responding in kind may just encourage them. Moreover, there are many better sanctions to impose -- loss of reputation, loss of credibility on serious (i.e., non-purge/schism) issues, etc. And on top of this, remaining polite and respectful ON PRINCIPLE is somewhat likely to get others to respond in kind. It is hard to keep calling someone names if they just ignore it and answer your real argument. On top of this, there are third-party effects. When you refuse to engage in personal attacks even when you seem to have every justification to do so, on-lookers will be impressed by your commitment to discuss only ideas and listen only to reasonable arguments.

3. To never initiate a purge or schism. If you don't like someone, don't hang around them; if you disagree with their work, criticize it or ignore it. But don't go beyond this. Don't write denouncements, don't discourage people from at least reading their works, and don't make people feel like they are either for you or against you. Now when I first considered this idea, I was worried that the libertarian movement would suddenly be filled with every sort of nut -- followers of Lyndon LaRouche, Holocaust revisionists, the works. But then I thought again. Is there not a spontaneous ordering in ideological movements as well as in society? Indeed there is. No one is going to start calling himself a libertarian unless he has SOME interest in libertarian ideas. No one is going to take the trouble to engage in dialogue with libertarians if they completely disagree with us. There are "market forces," if you will, that automatically create a reasonable degree of uniformity within every ideological movement, whether there are purges and schisms or not. What are these market forces? Simply the affinity of like-minded people for each other's company and association. And I think that this force is more than strong enough to give the libertarian movement all of the cohesiveness that it needs.

4. If YOU are the victim of a purge or schism, refuse to acknowledge its importance. Continue to read and cite the valuable works of those who purged you; continue to encourage others to read them for themselves. If you have "followers," don't drag them in, or treat it as a personal betrayal if they retain an interest in the works of those who purged you. Just continue your normal steady stream of positive, constructive work and don't worry about it. No reasonable person will think less of you if you refuse to get into the fray. Naturally, you may respond to criticisms of your ideas; and if some specific factual charges are made against you (e.g., that you are a plagiarist, or embezzled funds), by all means issue a reply. But keep it short, and concentrate on ideas, not people.

I'm not certain that my solution is perfect, but it seems to me to be a necessary first step. The more I read old periodicals, the more the present seemed to look just like the past. And the more the present groupings of libertarians began to make historical sense. As a small, minority voice, libertarians can't afford to waste their energy on anything other than building a complete intellectual alternative to the status quo.

COMMENTS (6 to date)
cerebus writes:

Yes, Kirk's "chirping sectaries" description is often all too apt. One thing I've always appreciated about Brian Doherty is his ecumenical approach, though he is also very much an ideologue which I think can blind him to the failings of e.g. the Pauls and so on.

The truth gestured at in the old TAC article "Marxism of the Right" is that libertarianism is a highly ideological movement, and it doesn't take much familiarity with the history of the far-left to know what happens in (especially small) highly ideological movements when disagreements occur. Splitters!

Daniel Krol writes:

cerebus: To a large extent I actually liked the splitting aspect of it. I feel like it allows us to go after plans of attack at all sides, so long as we think of it as a "free market of ideas".

For instance, in the Free State Project, there are some that like civil disobedience, some that like running for office and voting. Some in the former camp believed that voting was a lost cause, but they were convinced otherwise when they saw that there was actually some tangible success from the political camp.

I think libertarians don't tend to make grand plans, we don't need vanguard parties or anything like that. So "splintering" *need* not really be divisive. However I agree that it can be.

MichaelT writes:

It's interesting to see that certain libertarians (i.e. Hoppe, Rockwell, etc.) have been purged from some libertarian circles for having questionable views on race, which have nothing to do with libertarianism as a political philosophy. But, there are many libertarians who supported the Iraq War, Libyan intervention, and the current war against ISIS, (which to me seem like much larger diversions from the philosophy), that were not so much as questioned for their views.

It seems to me that in the case of modern schisms and purges in the movement (I am younger and therefore was not around for the Rothbard or Rand days), a lot of it has to do with making the movement more palatable to DC and the general public, and less about the debate of ideas. Regardless of you opinion of Hoppe or Rockwell, they are not advocating the use of force on minorities, while plenty of other libertarians have supported a war that killed at least hundreds of thousands of people without consequence.

Tracy W writes:

How long did these purges and schisms tend to last? Reading your description, I get the impression that in short order the libertarian movement had rapidly devolved to a set of individual libertarians each writing and publishing and exclusively reading their own individual periodicals. But presumably this didn't happen, so was there some off-setting centralising force?

Daublin writes:

I agree with you on an intellectual level, but I think the social context bears considering. A purge or schism only makes sense if the participants are in some sort of bubble and are competing with each other for resources such as grants. In such a case, the effects can be life-altering for anyone that loses out.

For example, let's suppose, Bryan, that someone starts saying that you are unqualified to be an economics professor, due to various practices and modes of thinking that you put forward, and due to fundamental misunderstandings of the subject you are supposed to be an expert about.

Would you meekly wander off into the sunset and just run your blog from home, talking with whoever wants to bother still interacting with you? Or would you fight them, and say *they* are the ones that do not understand what a real economics professor does?

JJ writes:

"A purge or schism only makes sense if the participants are in some sort of bubble and are competing with each other for resources such as grants."

Doesn't that describe the Libertarian movement and the Koch money? They were competing for Koch money.

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