As the host of my own radio show, I have the privilege of discussing important matters with some of the most wonderful minds -- and people -- in the country.
One of my favorite interviews -- and certainly one of the most important for the future of our country -- is my first with Jeffrey Tucker.
If you are of a pro-liberty persuasion, in particular, I invite you to make a cup of coffee, sit back, and enjoy this very incisive discussion...
(In case you're wondering, the double-meaning in the title is entirely intentional.)
ROBIN KOERNER: Welcome to one of the most exciting editions of Blue Republican Radio for the liberty-curious. This is me, Robin Koerner, the original Blue Republican, and today I have an extremely special guest. I don't want to offend anybody else that I've spoken to, but maybe the most special guest so far. Some of you may know him as a publisher for the liberty movement. Some of you may know him as a fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education. Some may know him as a scholar at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Others, as a faculty member at Acton University; and certainly some of you may know him for his days as VP at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Others may just know him as the Libertarian who looks better than any of us in a bow tie. Jeffrey Tucker, welcome to Blue Republican Radio! How are you?
JEFFREY TUCKER: I am just great, and I'm just thrilled that you gave me a call and suggested I come on the show. I'm super excited about this interview! You seem like you're asking the right questions, and I hope we can sort of dig into these topics.
ROBIN: Excellent. Just for my listeners--I should tell them that you and I spoke for about just 10 minutes yesterday, and the one reason I wanted to get you on this show now was because of an article that you wrote that came out last month that I would like to talk about at length. As you just said, I'm asking the right questions, and I think you're giving some of the right answers in this article. The title of the article that was posted at The Freeman (Foundation for Economic Education) was simply, "Against Libertarian Brutalism." You and I don't know each other--save for our 10-minute conversation yesterday--but I think, in some ways, our approach to Libertarianism might be cut from the same cloth, even though you suggested that maybe your politics are somewhat more radical than mine. That's not really what matters here. What's the thesis, Jeffrey, of this fantastic article that you wrote, "Against Libertarian Brutalism"?
JEFFREY: To explain the piece, I'll have to give a just a bit of background. There has been a brand of Libertarian rhetoric that had been bothering me for several years, and I couldn't really put my finger on what it was. It seemed excessively reductionist. I don't mind a hard edge but it seemed to be exclusively interested in a narrow range of issues that sort of artificially truncate the sole vision of liberty. The idea of liberty [encompasses] the whole of civilization and the whole of human life in all of its complexity, its beauty, its spontaneity, and its magnificence. There's a brand of Libertarianism that has sort of a certainty about a narrow range of issues that are emphasized to the exclusion of everything else. I knew it sort of bothered me, but I couldn't put my finger on what it was.
Then I ran across this architectural school that was sort of alive in the 1950s and the 1970s called "brutalism," and it's a very interesting view that comes out as an aggressive stance against making buildings beautiful, aesthetically pleasing, or marketable, or appealing--curbside appeal is out. Instead, buildings should be purely functional and it's wrong and sinful in some way to add anything to a building other than its pure function. All accoutrements are gone; all history is robbed from it. There's kind of a strange primitivism associated with brutalist architecture. When I read about brutalism and architecture, I thought: "Hey, there are some brands of ideological brutalism out there, and they may come from the left and the right." But I began to notice that there is a kind of Libertarian brutalism that does exactly this. It just focuses on, for example--like a truth pencil--like the non-aggression principle, the idea that you should not aggress against person or property. It reduces that to a very narrow range of considerations and then expands from that narrow range out to a series of issues to the exclusion of every other consideration. So you get kind of a strange being, a kind of a weird-looking ideology that is actually unappealing, unbeautiful, and doesn't allow room, for example, for experimentation, for error, for spontaneity, for play, for wider theoretical investigation because it's so sure of itself. If you look at the brutalist school of architecture, one thing you will find is that is catechetically dogmatic.
ROBIN: That was the first word that I wanted to throw at you: "dogmatic." There's a sense in which brutalism seems maybe to depend on dogmatism? It certainly corresponds to an epistemic dogmatism.
JEFFREY: It's a narrow dogma, right? It's a sort of sure-footedness on one or two principles, and it's not curious about anything else. It's not curious about any other inundations, elaborations, special considerations--considerations of aesthetics, of history, of peculiarities of time and place. It's uninterested in letting systems sort of evolve since all answers are already known. This kind of brutalist dogmatism is not interested in research; it's not interested in letting things flower and grow in any kind of spontaneous way. This is a problem for Libertarianism because the essence of human liberty is precisely that it permits the widest possible range within the sphere of human action for play, experimentation, spontaneity, circumstances, time and place, and the organic growth of institutions - precisely because we don't know all the answers. [That] is why we need human liberty - because liberty allows us to discover and gradually evolve.
But a brutalist form of Libertarianism would presume that we know already exactly how the world is going to work, and we're going to shove it down everybody's throat and make it that way. Now this is a threat to people. Why should anybody be threatened by Libertarianism, right? It's not a threatening ideology. It just basically says that you should be free as long as you don't hurt other people: just do what you want. That is not threatening ideology. So why does Libertarianism threaten so many people? I think a lot of it has to do with this sort of brutalistic approach that you see popping up here and there.
People would demand to know really who are the brutalists, "give me one example." Well, the point was not to point to any particular thinkers but to point to a style of thought, a sort of an archetype that variously appears in the course of rhetoric over politics. I want to identify that mental - that intellectual - tendency, and warn against it and essentially say that brutalism is un-Libertarian really precisely because it doesn't allow for the free experimentation - intellectually, ideologically, or in the real world.
ROBIN: It's as if there are some people who believe in, or purport to believe in, a philosophy that celebrates the freedom to behave and to think as one wants, but you're not allowed to apply that freedom to your thoughts about liberty itself or how to achieve liberty. It's kind of self-falsifying.
JEFFREY: It's very interesting. There are really many tendencies within the Libertarian world. I mean, you have some people that just want to let, for example, the legal order play itself out and let juridical history sort of inform the way we deal with issues like restitution, punishment in the cases of crimes. That's just one example of many. There's another form of Libertarianism that already presumes that it knows the answers to all questions, and all we really need to do is sort of sit in armchair with an armful of postulates and spin out all truths from there - regardless of what happens to be going on outside the window. I think that this is one reason why people find Libertarianism strange and alien to the human experience, and - we have to face it - people do find. People are sometimes alarmed when they hear Libertarians talk. I think that this is very reason; it's this sort of brutalistic non-interest in the facilities of human life. This is why I warned against it. The article just exploded. I wrote this, by the way, Robin, as not so much a public article; I wrote it as a private study to myself. I wanted to figure it out. That's why the article has the tone that it has - this is sort of careful, step-by-step approach. I wrote it as a memo to myself because I wanted to figure it out.
ROBIN: I get it. Some of the best articles are written that way.
JEFFREY: I sent to a few friends, and they said, "My god, this is extremely revealing. You can't go another day without publishing it." So reckless and dangerous as I tend to be, I just pushed "submit" and that was it.
ROBIN: I'm so glad you did because I think it's one of the best and most important articles that have been written in a while for the Liberty Movement vis-à-vis actually having some success making our views mainstream. We're going into the break, Jeffrey, we're gonna just carry straight on when we come back.
ROBIN: Welcome back to Blue Republican Radio where I am speaking with Jeffrey Tucker. Jeffrey; we were talking about this wonderful article that you put out recently, "Against Libertarian Brutalism." And we were talking about dogmatism: this sense of there is nothing left for us to learn because as these pure Libertarians, we have found the answers, so we don't really need to look for circumstances in the world where our dogma may not easily fit. We don't have to worry about it because our principles give us everything we know. It strikes me that it's a very unscientific approach to knowledge. Science advances, for example, by having the humility to know that it never has arrived at absolute truth. It gets closer and closer to it by being aware that its approach to it is always asymptotic, right? I think maybe we need a bit of that in our politics as Libertarians.
JEFFREY: This is absolutely true. This is again characteristic of the brutalist architectural movement - they already knew exactly what a building should look like. There's never any question in their minds about experimentation or anything.
ROBIN: Most of the brutalist buildings would be associated with the Soviet era - the 50s, 60s, 70s, right?
JEFFREY: Well, sure, but you can find them everywhere. It was very interesting -- I was just in Atlanta, and there were two buildings next door each other. One was kind of an AT&T building, built in the time when AT&T was kind of a government monopoly and it's an absolutely brutalist structure. The building right next to it was kind of an investment bank and some other things. Most of them were very, very tall. The AT&T building was brutalist, hard to look at, very ugly, and uneventful. The one next to it was absolutely elegant, aspirational, and it just absolutely inspired you to look at it. I think there is an ideological component here: we have to aspire as thinkers about politics, economics and the rest of it to have that sort of aspirational tone and approach. We have to look to building things within our minds that are actually vast, marketable, and more in touch with the human experience than just a narrow range of principles that we forever spin out and apply to all things and all times.
ROBIN: You contrast this ideological brutalism with humanitarianism, or, rather, brutalist Libertarianism vs. humanitarian Libertarianism.
ROBIN: Talk a little about that and just unpack whether you're trying to talk up a certain flavor of the Libertarian ideology or whether you're focused on the way one holds whatever flavor of Libertarian ideology one may maintain.
JEFFERY: I don't think it's just merely a matter of rhetoric or even marketing. There is so much confusion. It's interesting how much commentary this article has generated. So many people were accusing me of saying things that I didn't actually say. I'm not just talking about a matter of marketing here, you know, how we present our message - although that is part of it. Brutalism doesn't care in the slightest bit what people think. You get this with Libertarians all the time: they'll just sort of assert things in internet memes and their own rhetoric--no matter how implausible it may be--and they're self-satisfied [because] they were able to come to this dogmatically true position, assert it, and reward themselves for their bravery in that respect. This goes on all the time. Anyway, it's not just merely a matter of marketing; it's a matter of the style of thought. This is why I wanted to talk about humanitarian Libertarianism. We have to remember that ultimately the purpose of liberty is to serve life itself and to serve real people in their real lives. If we can't come up with an intellectual apparatus that seems to actually encourage this idea of human flourishing and make humanity better off than it would otherwise be, we've got a serious problem. That's where we're going to come off as threatening. It would just be a terrible thing if Libertarianism became an alternative central plan, you know? "We've got better plans than your plans." That's not the idea.
ROBIN: Right. Absolutely! There's a sense in which it has to be like that if it is not a paradigm that is responsive to the environment in which it is applied, right? If something is not being responsive to where it's being applied, then it is just being imposed - by definition.
JEFFREY: That's right. The fact is that the vast majority of human life consists of various contingencies on time and place, on technologies, and things that cannot be known or understood with a purely abstract option. That's sort of timeless and takes no account of situations. So, if we have a sort of Libertarianism that is just really uninterested in the exigencies of technology, time and place, human choice, culture, and all of these kinds of things.... [then] it is essentially something that's very primitive, artificial, and might be actually fundamentally threatening.
ROBIN: Are you making an argument for consequentialist politics, consequentialist Libertarianism as opposed to "deontological"? It kind of sounds that way, right? If we're talking about being responsive, again, to the environment in which we're applying our principles... everything you're saying is essentially consequentialist.
JEFFREY: I've had people ask me this; I don't like to say that. I must tell you that I've never really seen much contradiction between, for example, believing in fundamental human rights and believing that the consequences of your intellectual endeavors and of social order matter just as much as individual human rights. They don't seem apart for me. I do think that a rights-based paradigm that does not pay have any regard whatsoever to the results is a problem. I really do. I would not want to embrace either the consequentialist view or its alternative exclusively, but as a holistic understanding - yeah.
ROBIN: I think it makes sense that the correctness of liberty, Libertarianism as a philosophical position, can be tested on an ongoing basis, empirically - i.e. by looking to its consequences. If Libertarianism works-- if it is right deontologically-- then we should be able to test it as being effective consequentially.
JEFFREY: I think that that is exactly right. I think you're right too that I tend to use consequentialist language because I think that this is the way our minds work. None of us would like to live in a world of massive conflict, violence, contention, and hate. We want to live where there is human cooperation, where there are opportunities to creatively serve others; where violence is kept at bay in some way; where capital can be formed so prosperity can flourish; where human associations of all sorts can take place. That's what I would call a good society. We want to live in a good society. If you can call that consequentialism, okay. I don't find that necessarily contradictory to human rights and that sort of thing. But I do think we can get sort of carried away, asserting that Libertarianism is only about your right and my right to be jerks and to be left unimpeded in our malevolent desires. I bring up, for example, racism. Racism is a very hot topic and maybe one of the reasons why the article kind of went viral in a way. One thing you can always count on a brutalist to do is to come to the defense of racism, sexism, and other kind of socially destructive impulses insofar as they express themselves in non-violent terms. They get very passionate about this issue, but I think what you don't get from the brutalist-style argument here is that these are after all regrettable things.
ROBIN: Hold on to that thought, Jeffrey, because we're going in to the break. We'll carry on when we get back. Thank you.
ROBIN: Welcome back to Blue Republican Radio with me, Robin Koerner, speaking to the awesome Jeffrey Tucker. Jeffrey, when we went into break you were starting to talk about these kinds of defenses-- at least of people's rights to be sexist or racist as long as they don't express that right in a physically aggressive or threatening way. As you were kind of going there, I was recalling something that I read in your article that almost gave me a Gestalt Switch. I don't know if you actually said it, but you began to indicate it. I might call it "extremist" or "epistemically extremist," "purist," or "dogmatic" - you're calling it "brutalist" Libertarianism: it's not so much an extreme or distilled version of Libertarianism or the classical liberal tradition: it's actually decidedly illiberal. In other words, it represents a denial of the classical liberal tradition that has brought us our Libertarianism. Can you talk a little bit about that? I think you were anyway, but I just wanted to pull that out of your article because it's very interesting.
JEFFREY: That's exactly right. The reason liberalism has triumphed in the world has nothing to do with the right of people to hate, or because it's some sort of closed system of thought in which we already know everything. Actually, Liberalism's great gift to the world was precisely that it observed that society is better of when it's not managed from the center. That permits people's highest individual motivations and drives to express themselves associationally in the graduation of society to evermore prosperity and human dignity-universal human dignity. So, for example, Liberalism is what I think rightly considered to be responsible for the liberation of women from all forms of despotisms that have been around from the beginning of time, for the end of slavery, and for the opening up of a more tolerant society. This is what Liberalism granted us. It's very strange to see that Libertarianism has been dragged out as a kind of apparatus in the defence of exactly the opposite impulses--illiberal impulses, intolerance, and so on.
ROBIN: All violent ideologies--I think it is true to say--become violent inasmuch as they are dogmas or purported as dogmas, right? I think a lot of Libertarians think that they can be dogmatic Libertarians because the content of their dogma is Libertarian--and so makes them completely not dangerous. But actually, your dogma is no less dangerous just because it says "Libertarian" on the tin.
JEFFREY: You've really put your finger on it, and this is why it took me so long to write this article. The brutalist voice made me uncomfortable, but rarely do they say things that I can specifically disagree with. It's just a kind of creepy sense of something is going wrong. One thing I've been playing around with in my mind that I didn't actually put in the article is that brutalism and statism have a lot in common with each other. This sense of already knowing how the world should work, believing that there is one model for the whole of society, this sort of denial of people's right to experiment, to learn, and to express their diversity and a range of styles through a gradual organic evolution of life. The state is against that. That's the problem with the state--it's sort of regimented, frozen, and bureaucratic...
ROBIN: Yes, and one size fits all.
JEFFREY: One size fits all. It's got a catechetical teaching about it. The only response is to simply obey. In a strange way, brutalistic libertarianism mirrors that same kind of mentality; it's just that it attaches that word, "liberty," to it. This is one of the reasons why my vision of society is essentially that which functions completely and wholly in the absence of the state: because of the errors and failures of the brutalistic mindset. It creates eyesores all over the world. The state has created eyesores all over the world. It's kind of a dreadful prospect to imagine that Libertarianism in its brutalistic form if on the loose would create similar problems as the state itself has created. Already knowing the answers in advance, already imposing a plan on society that's derived not from experience but rather from just our own wishes and imaginings about how life should work from one or two simple postulates.
ROBIN: It's interesting that you talk about the eyesores that were built on the back of architectural brutalism and were obviously just an analogy to the ideological eyesores, you might say, of Libertarian brutalism. They matter because if you go through history, it has never been the case that more liberties have been won by a purist, dogmatic minority educating enough people in their vision such that all those people decide to make some big change to their political system or the political class. It's always been a much more organic process, in which people, maybe in response to the tyrannical abuse of power that gets into the culture, which then reacts--not because they're trying to establish some dogma that they've all signed up to--but because they're trying to defend something they already take for granted--some freedoms they take for granted--that they think are being threatened. They push back. For us to be able to affect the mainstream action against tyranny, we need those kinds of mass movements that have brought us a thousand years of constitutional liberty in the Anglo tradition. We have to be approachable. We have to be the kind of people whom other people want to be like, whom people want to listen to. So dogmatism is surely going to be self-defeating for the mainstreaming of Libertarian ideas.
JEFFREY: I think that's right. There is another thing too. I really like what you said when you said that people's assertions of liberty - when we achieve more liberty - are often about defending associations and institutions that have already been built that seem to be under attack by an overreach of power. What that implies, I think, for liberty-minded people is that we need to get busy building institutions - whether they're businesses, or technologies, or educational institutions, or just about anything. That's probably more important than writing 5000 op-eds just repeating a very wrong assertion of our rights. It's probably more effective to get out and build liberty rather than just continue to assert this narrow brand of a rights-based, truncated, and reduced form of Libertarianism. By the way, I don't find evidence anywhere in history before the last several decades of a brutalistic form of Libertarianism or liberty-mindedness. If you look back at people like Lord Acton, Frédéric Bastiat, the work of Hayek, Mises, William Graham Sumner, or you could go back to Adam Smith, go back to the list of greats. You don't find this evidence of this brutalism; you find very broad argumentation, very specific argumentation that covers a huge and vast range of human experience that's very compelling. It's about beauty, complexity, service to others, the organic community, and the gradual emergence of cultural norms, "spontaneous order" (as Hayek always called it), about the multifarious private relationships and how graceful they can be in this world. These are the types of arguments that you're going to see throughout the whole of history of liberty. Then in the last several decades, this has begun to change and you begin to see all these considerations dismissed as sort of wimpy, stupid and irrelevant compared to my right to be an asshole.
ROBIN: All of those authors that you mentioned there...certainly I get the sense that they were writing to help us move in a better direction. They weren't presenting some utopian destination, and I think a lot of this kind of brutalist mindset again corresponds to the arrogance of "I already have the answers." It's like: "I already know exactly what the destination is to be" whereas none of those writers were writing in that spirit.
JEFFREY: That's right. Can I just give one very specific example that illustrates your point here? It's been common knowledge in the liberty-minded world for a hundred years, maybe two hundred years, that money needs to be reformed radically, you know, made more sound or fixed-up. Libertarians have had, over the decades, developed these plans for top-down reform. One day, in the blink of an eye, we see something emerge on the internet in the form of cryptographically-based currency. It's run out on a free forum. We're seeing this new money emerge with evermore rigor all over the world as a global institution--in fairly surprising ways. This is not something that would have been predicted by anyone's catechisms, if you know what I mean. This is a surprise, and as a result it was very interesting for me to watch how many Libertarians have sort of been radically resistant to even facing the reality outside their windows about this because it sort of contradicts the theory. This is a problem when your theory gets overly invested in a single reform plan, or a single perspective of how the world should work. You become blind actually to other possibilities.
ROBIN: Yes. One thing we also discussed in the break was that we need to bring these ideas to the mainstream - to not keep them in the purist corner of the Libertarian room. Is there a point where the Liberty movement, broadly, may have to decide, or realize perhaps, that those dogmatic brutalists who call themselves "Libertarians" are actually not our extreme wing, but they're our ideological opponents?! Are we looking at, potentially, a schism here? Would it actually help for there to be one?
JEFFREY: Robin, I would not have said so before my article appeared because I was dealing with archetypes. I argued that there are many ways in which brutalism is compelling. We all wake up on the wrong side of the bed some days and have these sorts of brutalistic impulses. My article is actually more sympathetic with this perspective than I turned out to be 2-3 weeks after the article appeared because a very tiny minority was just darn near violent towards this piece.
ROBIN: I should say, Jeffrey, that was exactly my experience with the piece that I wrote, "Libertarian Purists: Libertarian on Everything - Except Liberty," which covers a lot of this ground. There were a lot of people who really, really saw the importance of the point, but there was this hardcore that basically took it personally and the vitriol that came back was insane.
JEFFREY: Yeah, I couldn't believe the stuff that people were attributing to me. It was just an incredible thing. What was very nice about the reaction in some ways was that some people read my article, Robin, and said, "Well, I don't really see what you mean here," but then over the next couple of weeks, they began to see exactly what I was talking about.
ROBIN: Yeah, just by looking at the comments on the article?
JEFFREY: Yeah, looking at the comments of the article and seeing the things appearing on social media, and they're like: "Oh my god! I guess brutalism is more of a problem than I thought. It does exist and it's a problem."
ROBIN: The way I put this is that Libertarianism as a philosophy really has broadly three dispositions. It has a disposition toward humility, especially toward intellectual humility--"I don't know what's best for you." It has a disposition toward - you might say its only requirement is - tolerance--"you can do what you want as long as it doesn't hurt me even if what you're doing isn't something that I would choose to do." And then, because we want not to have a state but we want to help our fellow man through non-statist means, we talk about civil society, so it also has a disposition toward civility. So you have civility, humility, and tolerance. It turns out that those three things--which to me just drop out of the political philosophy itself--are exactly the things the brutalists don't display towards everybody else, but they are the things that we need to sell our message in a way that can really infect the psyche and change the zeitgeist.
JEFFREY: You exactly said it. Not only do they not emphasize these various virtues, but the brutalist mindset regards them as just outrageous distractions.
ROBIN: And compromises. They're all regarded as compromises of principle, right?
JEFFREY: That's right. Because [the brutalists believe that] they're the only true believers in liberty, but actually I don't think that they are. I think you're right; I think that this brutalistic view is actually reductionist and unthoughtful, uncolored, and uncorrected by human experience. This has no regard for the larger context from which liberty came to triumph over despotism. I don't know that it really is very helpful going forward either. I think that is exactly right. I'm particularly intrigued by the term, "tolerance," because I think I used this term, "tolerance," in my article as kind of being a liberal virtue. By the way, I took this directly from Mises. Mises' book--I think it's from 1927 called Liberalism--is a very, very good starting point for anybody who wants to test whether we're going off the rails or not. It was one of the final statements in his very closing period of the Classical Era.
ROBIN: Jeffrey, hold on. I'm sorry to interrupt. We've got the last break in.
ROBIN: What a great discussion this has been with Jeffrey Tucker. Jeffrey, we're in the last 2 ½ minutes of the show now, but you just raised at the end of the last segment, Liberalism--the book. Mises' Liberalism. What were you going to say?
JEFFREY: I was just going to say that if you forget what liberalism is, go back and visit it and test your current beliefs against what you find in that book because it's in the true liberal spirit. Mises highlights tolerance as a very high virtue within the liberal world. Brutalism is the opposite of tolerance; it is completely intolerant. Robin, let me say something here - I've thought a lot about those questions like "Where does brutalism come from?" The original brutalistic architects--they didn't believe in beauty; they didn't believe in building anything really worth anything, because they assumed that it was all going to be blown up by government anyway because they had just gone through World War II, for example. In other words, they were despairing, and their architectural styles did not express anything like a hope for humanity--quite the opposite.
I think we have to ask ourselves whether or not, perhaps, that is the fundamental problem behind the brutalistic spirit that you find popping up in the Libertarian world. It's an expression of despair. A belief that the world cannot be made better so we might as well blow it up, or at least have fun offending people in the meantime before it blows itself up. This is what I think might actually be behind the whole thing. There's a kind of nihilism really. But once you realize: "No, no - this is wrong. There is hope, the world can be improved, the world can be made more beautiful, made more free--through our own actions and through the social movements that we're involved in, you can get a little more connected to reality; you get a little more connected to the human experience and you begin to understand that liberty is not really--as I've said-- just some sort of catechetical exercise. It really is about the highest wishes for the flourishing of humanity and the social order in a very real way that connects directly with people's lives. People are not our enemies. They're our friends in the cause for liberty, and we need to be looking for friends and recruiting people from all walks of life into this world. I don't think the brutalist experience is going to do that. I think what's going to do it is a broad-based humanitarian form of liberalism. I myself consider myself an anarchist--a humanitarian anarchist, I think. A world without the state is a beautiful place. We're going to get better at expressing that.
ROBIN: Jeffrey, thank you! That is the last word. I have loved talking to you. Thank for you being with me on Blue Republican Radio.
JEFFREY: Thank you very much for having me, Robin.