Thursday, January 3, 2008

Is Rockwell a "creative anachronist"?

It must be a slow week, as Lew Rockwell, the Dean of Downmarket Libertarianism, had time to put together fifteen hundred words of trite bombast about "socialism", particularly the increasingly rare and comical cocktail-party socialist.

I wasn't able to spot any new insight, nor was the exposition particularly fresh, but I did learn a couple of things about Lew Rockwell: he doesn't get away from his fellow ideologues enough, and he hasn't taken Tyler Cowen's advice to heart.

Rockwell tells us neither who these cocktail-party socialists are nor why he concludes socialism is still "fashionable". Contra Cowen, we're told none of the author's personal anthropological experience with the people in question. I spend most of my time around academics and generally progressive-minded folk, I've dated quite a few left-leaning women and am marrying an ex-leftist, and for a few years until recently was rather highly involved with the ACLU at the local and state levels. I have found (and it would surprise the teenaged me) that social-democracy, let alone real socialism, is on the wane on the American left. Most leftists one encounters, at cocktail parties and elsewhere, believe that markets, in general, are desirable, and get hung up on specific instances, having never developed the intellectual capacity to devise a solution to either a market failure or a social problem that doesn't involve permanent government intervention. Lack of imagination, lack of exposure to the alternatives, and a certain lack of confidence, not a secretly believed far-left ideology, is what tends to make the leftist a leftist. If one wants concrete evidence of the shift, witness the support of many left-leading folk for carbon trading!

One could say that socialism is about as fashionable as Ben-Gay and Geritol: the major group exception to the above observation is the soixante-huitard academics and associated movement New Leftists over 60 years old. The others are trivial: maladjusted European ex-pats and angry, pathological youngsters of the sort who like to wear black, chant slogans, and pretend they're going to "drive out the Bush Regime".

Holed up with like-minded ideologues at Auburn, isolated by choice and personality even from mainstream libertarians, let alone the current political discussion, Rockwell has no way of knowing that, in the USA, parlor socialism has gone the way of Freudianism: a one-time intellectual fad now reserved to fools and the deranged.

Unlike the modern left: economic interventionists, "capabilities" theorists like Martha Nussbaum, and utilitarian soft or single-issue social-democrats, socialism is an easy target for the Austrian ideologue. Just as he fancies himself an "economist", he deludes himself into thinking that one of his own predicted--"precisely", in Rockwell's words--the mechanism of socialism's downfall. But the astute observer of Austrianism will note that, since Austrians reject quantitative work, they could not possibly have predicted such a thing, as they have no way of saying whether difficulty of economic calculation, as opposed to the socialist system's numerous other problems, would be its downfall. Moreover, historians will note that calculation was not the downfall of any of the 20th Century's socialist regimes, nor even the driver of reform in the social-democracies. Austrians may have predicted that socialism would fail, but their guess is akin to that of a kook who predicts anthropogenic global warming to be primarily caused by the cattle industry, if not to a stopped clock's twice-daily accurate time.

Easy target, indeed. Haven't we heard this same line before from the Austrians? "Socialism is stupid. It failed in Russia and the Warsaw Pact. It failed in India. Von Mises wrote a book called Socialism. He said it would fail. We like Von Mises." Does Rockwell have a program on his computer that automatically denounces either of socialism or Keynesianism? Does his target audience read these essays or merely scan them for key-words and conclude that Rockwell is still one of theirs?

I'm not a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, but if I were, I'd nominate Lew Rockwell to be its president. He's fighting yesteryear's battle, with gusto, even accurately preserving the errors of his chosen side!

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