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Thursday, August 24, 2017

Libertarianism Rejects Anti-Semitism

Liberty should leave no one behind.

Like Ludwig von Mises, I am a Jew and I am a libertarian. And like Mises, I am proudly cosmopolitan, and I am universalist in my aspirations for liberty. In 1927, Mises penned this pithy credo:

“The ultimate ideal envisioned by liberalism is the perfect cooperation of all mankind, taking place peacefully and without friction. Liberal thinking always has the whole of humanity in view and not just parts. It does not stop at limited groups; it does not end at the border of the village, of the province, of the nation, or of the continent. Its thinking is cosmopolitan and ecumenical: it takes in all men and the whole world. Liberalism is, in this sense, humanism; and the liberal, a citizen of the world, a cosmopolite.” –  Ludwig von Mises, Liberalism

Whatever might differentiate us by our biology and the circumstances of our birth, we are all moral equals. Each of us is deserving of the liberty that libertarianism aspires to, and we are all capable of exercising that liberty with responsibility and in ways that contribute to human betterment. Liberty should leave no one behind.

It is no exaggeration to say that the modern libertarian movement would not exist were it not for these Jews.For over 25 years, I’ve watched with great sadness as elements of the libertarian movement have flirted, sometimes subtly and sometimes more obviously, with the forces of anti-Semitism (not to mention racism, misogyny, and xenophobia) that have long been an unfortunate part of the American political scene. To be clear, the recent growth in anti-Semitism in North America and Europe is hardly coming from only self-proclaimed “libertarians.” That growth has also come from the traditional left and right. And as noted, anti-Semitism is hardly the only ugliness from which libertarians need to distance ourselves.


Unfortunately, the events of the last few months, culminating in the violence in Charlottesville, have now put all of that ugliness into the national spotlight, as libertarianism has become associated with the very worst of human bigotry and hatred. I have already offered my own take about how we have arrived at this place, so here I want to talk about how we move forward.

It is not a coincidence that among the leading libertarian thinkers of the 20th century, we have a large number of Jews, starting with Mises, Milton Friedman, Israel Kirzner, and Robert Nozick. And despite the ways in with both rejected their Judaism, we should not forget Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard. They are only the tip of the iceberg of the disproportionate number of Jews who have been instrumental in forwarding the ideas of classical liberalism in the last century. It is no exaggeration to say that the modern libertarian movement would not exist were it not for these Jews.

I do not wish to argue that Jewish values should produce a libertarian politics, but it is true that many of the elements of Jewish thinking and practice are strongly consistent with some of the values of the broad liberal tradition. The disproportionate presence and influence of Jews in the libertarian movement should not be that surprising.

What Jews Believe

The most simple summary of the teachings of the Torah is: “That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor.” This injunction to treat others as we would wish to be treated has its own history in the liberal tradition from Immanuel Kant forward. The Jewish emphasis on the dignity of the individual and the idea that we should be judged by our actions, not our beliefs or faith, are also compatible with the liberal tradition.

The Exodus story that we recall each year on Passover is a celebration of human freedom from the bondage of the state.The Jewish emphasis on family and private charity (the Hebrew word for which translates as “justice”) also speaks to the long-standing liberal concern with the importance of the institutions of civil society as a means of education and social support. For Jews, preserving the life of the individual takes precedence over rules and ritual, as those who are unable to fast or stand for prayers for health reasons are always exempt from those expectations.

In addition, the God of the Jews is the God of all people. The Jewish prayer for peace refers to “all the inhabitants of the earth.” Jewish teaching has long reminded Jews that we were once strangers in the land of Egypt so we should be mindful about how we treat strangers in our midst. And the story of the exodus from Egypt includes God scolding the Jews for celebrating the death of the Egyptians because they too are God’s children.

The Exodus story that we recall each year on Passover is a celebration of human freedom from the bondage of the state and of the universal promise of such freedom for all of the earth’s inhabitants.

Finally, Jews believe that the ability to repair and improve the world is in our hands. Judaism celebrates human happiness and progress and there is no requirement that we should live ascetically. There is no disapproval of making money as long as it is done ethically. Jewish businesspeople and entertainers have played an enormous role in creating the wealth and culture that have brought so much pleasure to the US and other liberal democracies. As people who understand markets and wealth creation, libertarians should be celebrating these things.

Liberty and Judaism

Again, Judaism is not libertarianism, but it is consistent with the long liberal tradition. It should not surprise us that Jews, especially ones who learned some economics, would find libertarian ideas particularly attractive.

Yet, here we are. Actual Nazis and their alt-right junior partners, some of whom either did or still do refer to themselves as “libertarians” (and on national television) are marching in the streets of a major American college town. Synagogues feel they have to ask for more police protection, and then do not get it. A friend of my wife’s, in another major college town, awakens to find the word “Jew” scrawled on her driveway. I drop my kids off at Sunday School and feel my adrenalin rise when I see a police car pulling around the back of the synagogue.

Part of the problem is that too many libertarians think that claiming to believe in the Non-Aggression Principle is sufficient to establish someone’s libertarian bona fides.  If this summer should teach us anything, it’s that the NAP, while a good rule of thumb and summary of an aspect of ethical teaching, is not enough. Libertarians have apologized far too often and far too long for those who claimed that their anti-Semitism or racism is compatible with their libertarianism because it’s just a “private view” and they don’t wish to enforce it with political power. That excuse making needs to end.

Anti-Semites and racists have rarely separated their personal views and their political ones so neatly, as the underlying hatred and distrust eventually become political because they are ineffective when done only in private. One need only look at the history of some of the former “libertarians” at the center of events in Charlottesville to see this.

Plus, exercising those views through political power is not the only way to engage in aggression and the threat thereof. Ask the members of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville if seeing neo-Nazis and alt-righters walking around and observing their synagogue felt like aggression, or the threat thereof. Ask Heather Heyer if political coercion is the only kind of coercion that matters.

The purpose is to manufacture an object of hate and a reason for why some group is failing in its power aspirations. Why does all of this matter? Well for one thing, consider the words of Lord Rabbi Sacks, another major Jewish classical liberal: “This matters because anti-semitism is not really about Jews. It is about how societies treat the Other, the one-not-like-us.” This is why anti-Semitism and nationalism and xenophobia are so often found together. They share the fear of the stranger, and in response to that fear, they cast blame and make excuses so as to undermine the stranger’s virtues and falsely brag about their own.

It is for this reason that in many times and places, anti-Semitism has taken the form of an ideology invented to serve the particular purpose of creating a demonic foil to some other group’s political aspiration. The purpose is to manufacture an object of hate and a reason for why some group is failing in its power aspirations. The Jews, they say, constitute a malevolent collective of belief, running a conspiracy to drive us down via their power in society (banks, media, government, corporate capitalism, and so on). This power can only be countered with power. You must know your enemy, they say, and combat the Jew at every turn. This outlook – which has made an appearance under special historical circumstances in many countries through many centuries – becomes a central postulate of an opposing tribal totalitarianism.

A Barometer

As a result of both Jewish cosmopolitanism and the moral acceptance of profit-seeking, Jews have long been seen as the Other in the context of the nation-state. The degree of a society’s anti-Semitism is, in this way, a barometer of its moral commitment to our common humanity. That same moral commitment is at the very heart of the liberal tradition, and the libertarian branch of that tradition included.

Anti-Semitism violates the spirit, if not the letter, of centuries of teachings in the liberal tradition and the core values of libertarianism. It’s time to end our toleration of it within our movement. The work that Nicholas Sarwark and Wes Benedict are doing to take away the Libertarian Party’s welcome mat for racists, nationalists, and anti-Semites is an excellent start. This open letter from “Liberty Against Fascism” is also a fine example. More libertarians who find the events of the last few weeks horrifying should also consider exercising their own freedom of association and disassociation.

Framing Arguments

What all of us also need to do is to be mindful of how we make our arguments. It is possible to criticize the Federal Reserve without suggesting that it is a nefarious conspiracy of greedy “banksters.” The language of “banksters” will not help reduce the anti-Semitism in our midst. And while I appreciate the good intentions of my left-libertarian friends, there are ways to raise the many legitimate criticisms of Israel’s policies that do not live up to its liberal promises without language in which anti-Semites can and do find comfort.

Recent events have only fortified my commitment to continuing to call out anti-Semitism when I see it. This is despite the fact that Jews like me who point to this anti-Semitism are often subject to one the oldest of the anti-Semitic stereotypes. When we point it out, we are told we are too sensitive (or “emotional hypochondriacs” in its 21st-century version), and so we are victimized again with the long-standing anti-Semitic trope of the Jew who is always whining about anti-Semitism.

Of course, Jewish silence in the face of anti-Semitism is taken by those same people as a tacit admission of its truth. (Are you listening Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump?) It’s almost as if the enemies of the Jews have set up a game in which there’s no way to win.

If we ignore the anti-Semitism in our midst, we risk losing the very liberalism we treasure.To those who think this is all overreaction, or that I am somehow being unlibertarian in wanting to rid libertarianism of this ugliness, I will only say this: I will not be intimidated and I will not be silent. I can be better than I have at engaging in constructive conversation with others over these issues but do not think for a moment that I plan to stop.

Anti-Semitism is in contradiction with our fundamental beliefs and values, and there is no place for its ethos in any movement that aspires to build a free society. Naming this for what it is and working to get rid of it is my moral obligation as both a Jew and as a libertarian. I care far too much about human liberty to give a brilliant cause over to the practitioners of the oldest form of bigotry. If nothing else, history should teach us that personal anti-Semitism can easily lead to both private coercion and to some of the worst horrors of political violence that humanity has ever known.

Those who have engaged in that violence against Jews have always also been the enemies of liberalism. If we ignore the anti-Semitism in our midst, we risk losing the very liberalism we treasure.

  • Steven Horwitz was the Distinguished Professor of Free Enterprise in the Department of Economics at Ball State University, where he was also Director of the Institute for the Study of Political Economy. He is the author of Austrian Economics: An Introduction.