Grande Conservative Blogress Diva frontrunner Ann Althouse attends a Liberty Fund conference and decides libertarian and conservative intellectuals are scarily like the 9/11 hijackers. (My response to her specifics is in the comments.) It does seem rather divalike...What did I actually say?
I am struck ... by how deeply and seriously libertarians and conservatives believe in their ideas. I'm used to the way lefties and liberals take themselves seriously and how deeply they believe. Me, I find true believers strange and -- if they have power -- frightening. And my first reaction is to doubt that they really do truly believe.Is the Postrel paraphrase apt? It does omit the fact that I made a closer comparison between libertarians and conservatives on the one hand and lefties and liberals on the other. And, in context -- what terse context there is -- you can see that I'm talking about the ideologues and hardcore fundamentalists of either stripe.
One of the reasons 9/11 had such a big impact on me is that it was such a profound demonstration of the fact that these people are serious. They really believe.
I mean to say -- and it's there to be seen if you are a sympathetic reader -- that I instinctively think of my fellow human beings as sensible and practical. We have some ideas and principles but we also watch how things play out in the real world and are prepared to modify what with think and correct our course when things aren't going well. People who embrace an idea with a death grip scare me, and they should scare you too. Look at history. Look what happens when people believe so deeply they lose sight of where their ideas are taking them and go along with their ideas even if they require other people to suffer and die. I don't trust the true believers and ideologues. I find them strange when they don't seem to feel the pull of common sense and human empathy. I don't want them to have power. They can sit around thinking and talking or praying and brooding, but I don't want to see what they would do with the world. That said, obviously, most people who are attracted to religion or politics of the left and the right are ordinary practical, sensible people. I still think that. It will still surprise me to encounter anyone in a death embrace with an idea.
Let's look at what Virginia said in the comments:
I don't know who was at this conference, and I've never read Frank Meyer, but I have been to dozens of Liberty Fund conferences and, more often than not, found them to be genuine conversations where disagreements are invited. The point is the conversation, and no one is invited to a conference in order to be "persuaded" or tested for ideological purity. (Lately, Liberty Fund has, however, been interested in including bloggers.)That was true here, and I never said otherwise. But no one was invited to represent the liberal or left positions, and things were set up to create a sense that we were honoring Meyer.
But, and this may be why Ann is so uncomfortable, assumptions that go without questioning in some contexts--like Madison, Wisc.--do not necessarily enjoy such lack of scrutiny around a Liberty Fund table.Well, that completely misunderstands what I wrote! I said that people at the table shared assumptions that would have been instantly challenged in my usual place of Madison, Wisconsin, and that I continually felt I needed to voice positions that were quite obvious and needed to be said and that would have been ignored if I hadn't taken on something of the role of resident liberal. By the way, if they had wanted to persuade me or proselytize, it would have been a horrible mistake to leave that vacuum, which I got sucked into. That left me feeling far more antagonistic than I would otherwise have been.
On the specific issue of civil rights, in my experience libertarians then and now have been divided about the question of public accommodation (as opposed to desegregation of government facilities like schools). Some, including myself, are acutely aware of the need to break the racial caste system that had been enforced through a combination of legal strictures and legally tolerated terrorism in the South. We are therefore willing to make the tradeoff in sacrificing freedom of association.And, in that case, I won't classify you with the fundamentalists and ideologues who scare me. But you concede that you've got some libertarian friends who -- even today -- in the name of property rights, would have allowed private businesses to continue to discriminate based on race for as long as they felt like it. I was amazed to encounter people who not only thought that and admitted it, but insisted on fighting about it with idealistic fervor.
But, unlike our blog hostess, we explicitly recognize that such a tradeoff exists.I don't know where that comes from. Explicitly recognize? Maybe that only means that I didn't write out a sentence in my post saying that I am capable of seeing something. So what? Obviously, I know that if you tell a restaurant owner he can't exclude black people that diminishes his autonomy and personal freedom. Telling people they can't rape and murder also limits individual choice, but I don't have to explicitly recognize that every time I write about it.
Others, most notably Richard Epstein among contemporaries, think that tradeoff has had too many negative consequences, including tangled arguments about whether private employers should be allowed to implement affirmative action. (He thinks they should be allowed to.)I'm not encountering these arguments for the first time. I teach about them every year when we do Heart of Atlanta and Katzenbach v. McClung in Con Law. What is shocking is to encounter walking relics who are in love with the ideas that were used back in the 1960s to fight off the Civil Rights movement... and who aren't ashamed to declare their love publicly.
As for the argument about whether economic pressures would or could have ended Jim Crow, it's hard to know how such a counterfactual would have worked out in practice; certainly there is some evidence, e.g., from the steel industry in Birmingham, that "foreign" (i.e., northern) firms resisted segregation. It's hard to picture a South full of segregated McDonald's, but one never knows. Certainly outsiders who wanted to integrate their customer bases or workforces were freer to do so than locals, who were subject to financial pressures (local banks could be nasty enforcers) and, in many cases, physical threats.
It can indeed be shocking to encounter such arguments for the first time, but that doesn't mean those arguments aren't worth thinking about, if only to understand why, other than knee-jerk "this is what everybody I know thinks" reasons, you believe they are wrong. The quality of the discussion at a Liberty Fund conference depends largely on exactly who the 16 people are and whether they are willing and able to enter into the spirit of the discussion.
I'm not referring to everyone at the conference, it should be noted. Generally, people were smart, articulate, and decent. The conference was extremely well-run, interesting, and valuable. I don't want my following up on this point to cause anyone to think otherwise.
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