The alt-right and the Austrian School

By now if there is anything people agree upon concerning the socio-political phenomenon known as the alt-right, it’s that it is nearly impossible to define precisely what the alt-right is and what it stands for. According to a news brief from The Economist, “[t]o the extent that the [alt-right] dabbles in economics it is highly protectionist.” In a piece from American Renaissance (a racialist commentary site), Jared Taylor explains the alt-right in purely racial terms; nothing it espouses can be divorced from its commitment to both promoting the idea of inherent racial differences and using those alleged differences as a basis for social policy. Given that, it is hard to imagine the alt-right being particularly favorable to the idea of the “free market” where everyone has a “free chance” at wealth maximization, especially if that “maximization” should appear to favor a non-white racial group (e.g., Jews). On the flipside, some alt-right proponents favor crafting social programs, including entitlement programs, in ways that expressly contemplate race with idea that certain groups require differentiated assistance. And then there are those who claim to be a part of the alt-right and see no immediate contradiction between their often vague and reactionary political commitments and the tenets of the so-called “Austrian School” of economics.

“Austrianism” is almost exclusively associated with libertarianism, an ideology which reduces government to two primary functions: providing basic physical protection for citizens and enforcing contracts. That this is the case may strike some as odd since “Austrian Economics” purports to be “value free”; it proclaims the “is,” not the “ought.” (This is in sharp contrast to neoclassical welfare economics which issues value judgments in terms of “efficiency,” either Pareto or Kaldor-Hicks.) For example, an “Austrian” might maintain, on the basis of economic theory, that raising minimum wages will invariably increase unemployment, but he cannot—or, rather, should not—say, on the basis of that theory, whether or not the minimum wage ought to be increased; that decision will depend on external value judgments, informed or otherwise.

The story of how “Austrianianism” and libertarianism became best friends is beyond the scope of this post, though the distortion of natural-law theory by the likes of Murray Rothbard had a great deal to do with it. Libertarians, not surprisingly, are less-than-enthused about the alt-right. For instance, the heterodox Catholic writer Jeffrey Tucker has taken pains to distinguish libertarianism from the alt-right, concluding that the former is an enemy in the eyes of the latter. He’s probably correct. But if so, why are certain segments of the alt-right impressed with “Austrianism”? Do they believe that its pretension to be “value free” makes it an attractive intellectual resource that can be molded and applied to their racialist ends? Or is it something else?

If I may be so bold as to speculate on what this “else” could be, let me suggest that it comes down to a mixture of ignorance and immaturity. Starting with immaturity first, while the alt-right does appeal to a long tradition of racialist, nationalist, and reactionary thinking, it often does so in confused and contradictory ways. Some alt-right adherents flock to the writings of the German legal theorist Carl Schmitt for the same reason they claim to embrace Martin Heidegger: they were both Nazis. (Never mind of course that the most important installments of Schmitt’s corpus were penned before and after his brief period as a National Socialist; the same is arguably true of Heidegger as well.) Similarly, self-professed members of the alt-right will cite favorably counterrevolutionary writers like Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald, and Juan Donoso Cortes while remaining at arm’s length from their adherence to Catholicism—an adherence which animates almost the whole of their thinking. What many aligned with the alt-right seem to be most concerned about is coming across as “edgy” or “unsettling”; they have no unified vision with a cohesive center. Because “Austrianism” is considered to be a heterodox school of economics that remains on the periphery of academia, it is ripe for appropriation by the alt-right. The fact that “Austrians” are fond of making iconoclastic claims about business cycle, the gold standard, and empirical research doesn’t hurt, either; it only contributes to their alt-right attractiveness.

This is where ignorance comes in. “Austrianism,” even prior to its full-on fusion with libertarianism, went hand-in-hand with liberalism, the sort which many who count themselves among the alt-right find weak, ineffectual, and effeminate. Many of the founding fathers of the “Austrian School,” including Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, were opponents of the sort of authoritarian, centralized governance structure typically promoted in alt-right circles. And, as noted, the alt-right tends to be protectionist—a position which “Austrianism” lends no support to. Finally, given the kneejerk anti-Jewish rhetoric that can be found throughout the alt-right, it is strange to see any alt-right followers hitch their wagons to an intellectual movement that owes much of its foundation and flowering to Jewish intellectuals.

All in all it is doubtful that “Austrianism” will ever grow deep roots into the alt-right. If anything, “Austrianism” will supply some one-liners alt-right polemicists (or trolls) can use against certain dominant trends in economic thinking and policy that they happen to not like. Because of its internal instability and intellectual casualness, it is also doubtful that the alt-right will ever produce anything resembling a stable and theoretically rich economic vision. Disaffection, not detailed reflection, is at the heart of their game; the sooner it is over, the better.