Some Factual Errors in the Latest “Reason” Attack on the Slate Attack on Libertarianism

Matt Welch over at “Reason” aggregates the supposed factual errors identified by his libertarian friends in the Metcalf critique of libertarianism I posted about two days ago. Worth taking a look, no?


Will Wilkinson, in The Economist, on Metcalf’s claim that Ludvig von Mises and F.A. Hayek were “in with the nutters and the shills,” because “between them, Von Hayek and Von Mises never seem to have held a single academic appointment that didn’t involve a corporate sponsor”:

This attempt to marginalise two great thinkers is as lazy as it is dishonest. A little light googling is enough to establish the basic facts, but it seems Mr Metcalf could not be bothered.

[much evidence cited] [...]

If only a levee separated polite discourse from the sort of ax-grinding indifference to fairness and truth Mr Metcalf displays in his essay.

Note that the “much evidence cited” saccade in Welch’s quote of Wilkinson conveniently lets readers fail to notice that Wilkinson offers no conclusive evidence at all. Instead, he writes sentences like the following:

My understanding is that after Mises fled Nazifying Europe and resettled in America, he was offered a number of academic posts in the interior of the country, but preferred to stay in New York City, where his visiting post at NYU was funded by several businessmen.

This is after he notes:

Mises left Vienna for Geneva in 1934 to accept an academic appointment at the Graduate Institute of International Studies, which was offered to him by William Reppard, the Institute’s co-founder

Which conspicuously fails to actually address the question it claims to of who funded his academic appointment. My “light googling” (to borrow Wilkinson’s words) didn’t turn anything up, and, yes, it’s Metcalf’s responsibility to justify the statement now that it’s been challenged, but this isn’t counterevidence yet.

Turning to Hayek:

As for Hayek, his post at the London School of Economics, from which he famously debated Keynes and cemented his reputation in the world of “polite discourse”, did not involve corporate sponsorship, as far as I know.

As far as you know? Did it, or didn’t it? Will: You promised me disproof from “light googling.” So far I’m getting nothing.

Again: Metcalf — clear this up for us, buddy.

And this pattern goes on. In his final engagement with Mises and Hayek’s academic appointments, no actual disproof is offered of the claim that Hayek’s position at the School of Social Thought was corporate funded:

In any case, if the LSE or the University of Chicago’s Committee for Social Thought survived, like art museums and symphony orchestras, by the good graces of wealthy benefactors

Sounds to me like equivocation if not a straight up granting of Metcalf’s point in this case. Where are “the facts,” Will? Tell me.


Brad DeLong, on Metcalf’s claim that John Maynard Keynes “scribble[d] in the margins of his copy ofThe Road to Serfdom[...]: ‘An extraordinary example of how, starting with a mistake, a remorseless logician can end up in Bedlam’”:

Keynes did not write this on the margin of any book. He did not write it by hand. He said it in print [...] in 1931 in the journal Economica–13:34 (November), pp. 387-97, “The Pure Theory of Money: A Reply to Dr. Hayek”, and it was of Hayek’s Prices and Production. It was about Hayek’s business-cycle theory [...] and not about his moral philosophy[.]

If in fact it did not also appear in the margins of his copy of Hayek’s book, fair point. Must’ve slipped past the fact checkers. What’s indisputable, though, is that it’s absolutely true that Keynes wrote it and that he wrote it about Hayek’s work. Where he wrote it has no effect on the substantial point Metcalf is making.


* David Boaz, at Cato, on Metcalf’s central thesis that Robert Nozick “disavow[ed] libertarianism”:

Shortly before his death in 2002, young writer Julian Sanchez (now a Cato colleague)interviewed him and had this exchange:

JS: In The Examined Life, you reported that you had come to see the libertarian position that you’d advanced in Anarchy, State and Utopia as “seriously inadequate.” But there are several places in Invariances where you seem to suggest that you consider the view advanced there, broadly speaking, at least, a libertarian one. Would you now, again, self-apply the L-word?RN: Yes. But I never stopped self-applying. What I was really saying in The Examined Life was that I was no longer as hardcore a libertarian as I had been before. But the rumors of my deviation (or apostasy!) from libertarianism were much exaggerated. I think this book makes clear the extent to which I still am within the general framework of libertarianism, especially the ethics chapter and its section on the “Core Principle of Ethics.”

So Nozick did not “disavow” libertarianism.

Whether or not he disavowed the word “libertarian,” the quotes Metcalf draws from his later writings make it clear that he wouldn’t find r/libertarian (Reddit’s libertarian hub, which brought Welch’s bullshit to my attention) to be anything more than obnoxious and misguided idiocy. Specifically, its anti-democratic / anti-public sphere strain. So whereas he didn’t disavow libertarianism as he understood it, he understood it in a much more philosophically mainline way, maybe even in terms similar to how Metcalf characterizes it in this paragraph:

Calling yourself a libertarian is another way of saying you believe power should be held continuously answerable to the individual’s capacity for creativity and free choice. By that standard, Thomas Jefferson, John Ruskin, George Orwell, Isaiah Berlin, Noam Chomsky, Michel Foucault, and even John Maynard Keynes are libertarians. (Orwell: “The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians.” Keynes: “But above all, individualism … is the best safeguard of personal liberty in the sense that, compared with any other system, it greatly widens the field for the exercise of personal choice.”) Every thinking person is to some degree a libertarian, and it is this part of all of us that is bullied or manipulated when liberty is invoked to silence our doubts about the free market. The ploy is to take libertarianism as Orwell meant it and confuse it with libertarianism as Hayek meant it; to take a faith in the individual as an irreducible unit of moral worth, and turn it into a weapon in favor of predation.


Conor Friedersdorf, in The Atlantic, on Metcalf’s notion that libertarianism is equivalent to caring about nothing beyond “naked self-interest”:

Let’s devise an empirical test to see if this accurately characterizes the ideology. Over at Reason, America’s leading libertarian magazine, I see that the story atop the Web site asks, “Why is the government doing so little to end sexual assault in prisons?” It’s part of their July issue, dedicated to the criminal justice system, which it labels America’s “national disgrace.” OnReason‘s June cover is Sen. Rand Paul, who has recently tried to end America’s war in Libya and to add civil liberties protections to the Patriot Act. The magazine’s May cover story is about teachers’ unions as an impediment to reform of public schools.

Over at the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, recent cases have been fought on behalf of DC tour guides, Florida interior designers, Louisiana casket makers, Nashville limo drivers, and Utah hair braiders keen on practicing their chosen professions without having to obtain a professional license. I fail to see how IJ lawyers or their libertarian donors benefit personally from lowering barriers to entry for far flung, mostly working class clients.

Meanwhile at the Cato Institute, David Boaz is trying to end the war on drugs, my friend Julian Sanchez is paid to explain how the federal government is using its power in the war on terrorism to expand the surveillance state, and his colleague Gene Healy is a critic of executive overreach and editor of a 2004 book on the federal government’s over-criminalization of American life. [...]

[Y]ou’re just misinformed if you think that libertarians as a whole care for nothing more than their self-interest. Countless libertarians are working to advance the freedom and fair-treatment of people other than themselves. Often they do so more consistently than some of the liberals who sneer at them.

I think Friedersdorf’s critique is on point, but the quote it uses as its jumping off point was a (maybe bad) joke, and incidental to Metcalf’s core line of argumentation. It’s a criticism of Metcalf’s tone, nothing more.


E.D. Kain, in the League of Ordinary Gentleman (from which I harvested some of the above links):

I fear it represents a great deal of confirmation bias on the left. A lot of liberals who see all libertarians as less-lovable Ron Swansons nod along with Metcalf as he makes one clichéd assertion after another and the end result is a bunch of readers happily cheering a piece that makes no attempt at all to treat its subject with any sort of seriousness or grace. It affirms deeply held opinions and distrust, and helps cement the language barrier between liberals and libertarians in ultimately a very destructive and unfortunate way.

It seems clear that he wasn’t able to get past the tone to the meat of the argument, which is partially on Metcalf for choosing such an alienating tone. But again, critiques of tone (which is what ED Kain’s reduces to) aren’t substantive. He leaves the argument untouched.


Finally, while we’re talking factual errors, Welch misidentifies Metcalf as a liberal. As a long-time listener of the Slate Gabfests and reader of his articles, Metcalf’s positions consistently fall on the Marxist side of the ideological spectrum — an ideology that is much more coherently philosophically opposed to liberalism than libertarianism.


Update: From the Slate Culture Gabfest Facebook page (4 hours ago as of 11:43 on Thursday the 23rd):

…I’ll be addressing the “factual error” meme on Slate later today/tomorrow. In the meantime, YES, I don’t think Nozick was necessarily a big inspirer of the movement –correct me if I’m wrong, but he is vastly secondary to Hayek. (I will be writing an essay on Hayek.) However, I have to add, the idea that Nozick did not repudiate libertarianism in ’89 is going to make people look foolish for promoting it. That essay is thoughtful, not short, and unequivocal; and though he may have tacked back in a later interview, he was quite definite in print in The Zig Zag of Politics. Anyone who thinks they have me in a gotcha ought to read it before they pipe up. (SM)

SM = Stephen Metcalf