If you’ve spent even a minimal amount of time on the libertarian oriented interwebs, you are bound to have come across the phenomena of “libertarian fascism”, “reactionary libertarianism”, and a variety of other mashed up terms. Maybe you even consider yourself a member of one of these newly formed tribes. If that is the case I will admit right from the start that this post is probably not for you. Not because I intend to engage these various ideas directly, but rather offer some general musings on their (unfortunate) origin. The keyboard battle for ideological coherence must be postponed for a later date.
So with all that out-of-the-way, if you are one of the two or three remaining readers, let’s get on with it.
What in the world is “Exoteric” Libertarianism, and why would anyone care? Besides just being a rather cool looking word, what does it mean? As a first step, let’s check in with our friends over at Google, and see what they can tell us:
exoteric: adjective, formal – (especially of a doctrine or mode of speech) intended for or likely to be understood by the general public.
So “exoteric libertarianism” would seem to mean “libertarianism intended to be understood by the general public”. Right off the bat this may come across as an elitist attitude, and while that is probably one valid interpretation, it is not the interpretation that I want to pursue. What other interpretation could there be then? I’d like to offer an interpretation of “exoteric” as meet-people-where-they-are. To see how I got there, we’ll have to take a quick detour.
Just as any other RadicalCentristLibertarian™, I was spending a quality Friday night alone in my parents’ basement, engrossed in an herbally enhanced deep dive of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (The extent of the accuracy of that description must be left to posterity). One thing led to another and I found myself reading a random article entitled “Leibniz’s Exoteric Philosophy“. Let me assure you that for our purpose here we have no use, or interest in, the actual content of Leibniz’s metaphysics, or his philosophy in general. What is useful to us are his thoughts on the need for exoteric presentation.
All that we really need to understand about Leibniz’s metaphysics is that it was densely systematic and far removed from the common thoughts and experiences of the general public, as well as at odds with much of the accepted philosophy of his time. In this regard we can claim a similarity between his system and modern libertarianism. Not in the actual content, but certainly in the systematic character (no matter which particular school you hail from), and in the sense that its central tenets are drastically at odds with general public opinion, as well as the received doctrine of today’s intellectual and ruling classes.
Leibniz was well aware that he was at a great disadvantage in presenting his system due to its foreignness and maze of subtleties. He understood that a philosophy that had more in common with contemporary “common sense” would have a much easier time being accepted (say for example Locke’s),
“He [Locke] is more popular whereas I am sometimes forced to be a little more esoteric and abstract—which is no advantage for me, particularly when writing in a living language.”
It’s all too easy for libertarians, especially those of a more analytic persuasion [raises hand], to start explaining their positions based on presupposed knowledge that their intended audience simply does not possess. How can you be persuasive if the person you are trying to persuade doesn’t know what you’re saying? Maybe using the language your interlocutor knows would be a better strategy. Leibniz again (emphasis added),
“I never write anything in philosophy that I do not treat by definitions and axioms, though I do not always give it that mathematical air, which puts people off, for one must speak in a familiar manner to be read by ordinary people..“
Related to understanding is a notion of intended understanding. By this I mean, when trying to make a case for a system of thought, the more foreign it is to someone, the easier it will be for a misinterpretation or a misunderstanding to occur, or as Leibniz puts it:
“For I write not so much to make an impression as to investigate the truth, which it is often useless, and even harmful, to publish—on account of the uninitiated, who are incapable of appreciating it, and quite capable of taking it the wrong way.”
The word “incapable” here could be troubling. Incapable how? I think the best way to explain this is to say something like: incapable given their current state of knowledge. So in this interpretation, it is not that someone is too stupid or will never be able to understand, but that they are simply unprepared to understand. This necessary preparation is the goal of an exoteric presentation of ideas.
How does any of this relate to the issue I opened with, that being the rise of reactionary elements in libertarianism? I will present as one plausible explanation an example that I think perfectly illustrates the pitfalls of trying to present too much pure theory, too soon. But before that there is one more point to make about libertarian thought that will be crucial in understanding the emergence of “the fashies”.
It is unavoidable that libertarianism at its core is a web of interrelated ideas. Even in the schools that attempt to reduce it to a single concept (e.g. “property”, “action”, or “autonomy”), the root concept is developed into an intricate system of interacting concepts. There is no understanding a part without understanding the whole, because everything relies on everything else. So many of the, admittedly sometimes funny, mischaracterizations of libertarianism are the result of taking a single concept in isolation, and the neglect of its supporting context. Leibniz knew this as well,
“My views certainly are connected with each other in such a way that no link can be removed without the chains being broken.”
I can’t think of a more perfect example of failing to grasp the system as a whole, and, willful or not, misinterpretation of libertarian thought than the rise of racism under the guise of “racial realism” in pseudo-libertarian circles. I take as fact that libertarianism is anti-racism at its foundation, as it is anti-collectivism in any form (collectivism in the sense of groups as actors, not in the sense of doing-things-together). Debate on this point is far outside the scope of this post, so.. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
It is a well established paleolibertarian marketing plank that “the Civil Rights Act is unlibertarian”, or put another way “anti-discrimination laws are rights violations.” On its face this idea is so far outside the mainstream, how can it not be interpreted as “libertarianism = racism, yay!”? Of course libertarianism does not advocate racism, but to understand this you have to understand that the complaint is in regards to the means not the ends. And it is this subtle knowledge requirement that is completely overlooked when opposition to anti-discrimination laws is used as a recruitment tactic.
What is the goal of such a marketing ploy? The majority of the uninitiated public rejects this as backwards and racist, and a minority perks up. We already know they don’t understand the subtlety of the position since that is what it means to be uninitiated. So the only individuals this tactic is likely to recruit are those that oppose anti-discrimination as an end, and not simply the means in which it is carried out. And once you recruit racists with a shallow at best understanding of your underlying system of thought, it seems inevitable that, depending on your success, you are sowing the seeds for a reactionary element to evolve.
But how then should we talk about anti-discrimination laws if the considered position really is in opposition to them? To this I say, what if we didn’t talk about them at all? If the public is so far removed from the amount of preparation required to understand our position, why take the risk? Hold off until your audience is prepared to understand!
I’d offer that the general problem of presenting too much of the hardcore to those that aren’t in a position to understand it is behind not just the recruitment of reactionaries, but also the existence of the multitude of memes, that while funny, are gross mischaracterizations of the underlying ideas. #MuhRoads, #ChildSlaves, #McNukes, #LibertarianMadMaxWorld, etc are all examples of this (I’m making up most of those hash tags, but I’m assuming that if you are with me so far, you know what I’m referring to).
What’s the solution then? Am I advocating some watered down version of libertarianism? No, not in the slightest. I’m not saying we should advocate unlibertarian positions. My idea is simply that if a large base of uncommonly possessed knowledge is required to understand the libertarian position on a given issue, it may be better to not address it all, at least until the preparation has been laid.
Maybe if more focus is put on exoteric presentations with the goal of getting people prepared to understand the central arguments, there will be a more sustainable growth of the movement. I don’t have any answers as to what a proper exoteric presentation would be, but in my defense the title of this post does say that I’m “musing”. It’s more or less just food for thought. There is definitely a place for the development of the Pure Theory of Libertarianism™, but if that is all we have I fear we will forever be talking amongst ourselves.