Dark Money – What is the Libertarian Agenda?

Now everyone has the right to live
the right to a chance to give what they have to give
the right to fight for the things they believe—
the things that come to them in dreams.

Follow that dream wherever it may lead
Follow that dream to find the love the you need
Come on follow that dream

(Bruce Springsteen’s version of Elvis Presley’s song, “Follow That Dream“)

Sometime around 1976 the leader of a libertarian group in northwestern South Carolina invited my husband (and me) to a meeting at his home. The group were all young, white, and male. As was usual at that decade, their leader addressed my husband and ignored me. I was the fly on the wall that night. Here as I recall now, is how things went.

The leader explained that libertarians believed that we didn’t need government. We could rely on ourselves, friends and family and the free market.

When pushed by my husband about the need for protection from criminals or from foreign invaders, the leader allowed that they might need a standing army, but they would hire their own security force instead of relying on tax-paid police.

In fact they would get rid of nearly every other function of government too, whether that meant public schools, regulations intended to protect people from harm, welfare programs, or—anything and everything that would require Americans to pay taxes for it.

Freedom from taxation apparently justified their use of any means to gain their ends. The leader bragged that he had gotten a mail order certificate of ordination in a church. The group was therefore exempt from paying taxes.

But clearly they were not interested in starting a new church congregation.

When my husband started to argue that not all people could afford to live as they and we did, it was clear there was no meeting of the minds. We left the house, agreeing that they were an “odd bunch of idealists”.

How mistaken we were. We were the idealists. We didn’t realize how powerful this movement would become in the coming decades.

What’s right about libertarianism

Libertarianism is not new. It’s a philosophy that can trace its roots back to philosopher and political economist, John Stuart Mill.  Even further back is Adam Smith, 18th century political economist who wrote The Wealth of Nations, a book every student of economics hears about. More recently it was Ayn Rand’s novels.

On a academic level, well-known Austrian economists on the far right, Friederich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises contributed greatly to the scholarly field of economics—and to the Koch brothers’ brand of libertarianism as well.

James M. Buchanan, American libertarian and the subject of Nancy MacLean’s book, Democracy in Chains, was awarded a Nobel prize for his work.

Professor Gordon Tullock was also nominated for that prize, but Tullock lacked sufficient academic background or the writing skills to win it. Nevertheless, Gordon Tullock’s concepts of free riding (getting something for nothing), rent-seeking (using government for personal gain), externalities (not paying for damage one does to others)  and log-rolling (scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours) are still quite relevant to politics and economics today. I’ve even written about his ideas in previous posts on this site.

In the political arena, Buchanan’s and Tullock’s suggestions for voting reforms have been tried out in several local elections in the United States.

The zeal of the young libertarians I met in South Carolina and older libertarians later on was charming. These communally-oriented libertarians have ideas that would be accepted by some progressives today.

Many libertarians seem more like anarchists than capitalists. They are against big private institutions such as big banks or even some corporations, including those in Silicon Valley, not just against big government.

For example, a quite-visible crypto-currency movement has arisen from bitcoin over the past decade. With crypto-currencies has come a technology called blockchain, a method for adding significantly more security (i.e. privacy rather than transparency) to financial transactions.

Whether blockchain will be used for good or evil in regard to politics and economics remains to be seen.

The fact that big banks like Goldman Sachs and Chase are looking into blockchain and that ultra-conservative politicians are using Internet sites protected with blockchain to communicate with each other are rather troubling even to some who are crypto-currency activists.

What’s wrong about libertarianism

The libertarian academics I listed above weren’t just giving libertarianism a scholarly foundation: they were active in the Koch brothers, strategy to radically change the shape of American democracy and sabotage our Constitution.

As Nancy MacKean emphasizes in Democracy in Chains, their activism was, and is still, rooted in institutional racism. They opposed de-segregation of  public schools.

James M. Buchanan, for example, was funded by the Volker family’s Fund to actively fight to privatize schools in the South and use vouchers to ensure that segregation continued.

All of these academics were heavily funded by millionaires (later billionaires like the Kochs) in legal and illegal ways to secretly sabotage the institutions of all of our governmental structures. For a visceral example of that, please see the movie Dark Money, just out this year, or my review of it.

Henry Manne, Dean of George Mason University near Washington D.C., was a major figure in wealthy libertarians’ efforts to undermine our judicial system starting back in the 20th century. For more about this, please see my previous post, “Libertarian Influence in Academia“.

In addition to arguing in his articles that insider trading by investors should be legal, Manne provided Gordon Tullock and other colleagues of Jim Buchanan with funds (from Olin, Sciafe. and Smith-Richardson family foundations as well as large gas and auto corporations, along with U.S. Steel, Chase Bank, and IBM and others) to use for undermining, “wholesale, not retail,” our entire American judicial system (Democracy in Chains).

While I noted above that income and taxes were the main concern of the libertarians I’m familiar with, Nancy MacLean asserts that property rights have been the main concern of the libertarian academics she writes about. I would suggest that’s because they were funded by mostly white millionaires and billionaires.

These men are about to reach the goal they sought starting in the 1950s by turning the Supreme Court into a hard-right group that will support only the rights of a rich and powerful elite over the rights of the majority of us.

Secrecy, silence, and hypocrisy

Since the beginning, the Koch brothers and many other wealthy libertarians and their academic apologists have been using secrecy as their primary strategy.

They have literally created thousands of non-profit charitable foundations, think tanks, and academic programs to push their political beliefs and thereby grow even wealthier.

They’ve done this because they could not be honest about their intentions. They could not just say, “We’re rich and we want to become richer”. They did not speak openly to outsiders about many of the things they have done to further their aims.

They’ve secretly and illegally funded politicians and judges. That’s shown by the movie about Montana, Dark Money.

Like con men they have deliberately misled others by using deceptive names for front groups like the “Tea Party” that they set up to cover up what they really are about. Like mafia money launderers, they’ve handed out money under the table to corrupt those who we trust to govern us.

They have brought corruption into our political, judicial, and academic systems at every level by funding politicians, judges and even college professors.

Worst of all, they have abandoned their own principles. Wealthy libertarians are not making government smaller. They are using it (by rent-seeking through “pork,” tax breaks, and other means) to grow even richer than ever and make our federal government even bigger.

Wealthy libertarian billionaires are robbing taxpayers and taking our money for themselves and their political lackeys. (For more about how they’ve done this read Dark Money (Jane Mayer) and Democracy in Chains (Nancy MacLean).

Their political lackeys in government pay for this largesse to the rich by cutting government services that serve those of us who are not wealthy. Clean air and water, affordable health care, adequate infrastructure, protection of voting rights, all are under attack, etc.

Libertarian thinkers claim that the human body is the source of private property rights. Yet libertarian politicians are using government every chance they get to deprive women and ethnic “minorities” of rights over our bodies and those of our loved ones.

This is why we have to fight. We cannot just “tune it out” as one musician advised me to do while I was on vacation recently. If the Senate Judiciary Committee allows the vote to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to take place this week and he wins a seat of the Supreme Court, we are likely to be looking at the beginning of the end of our democracy and way of life.

If you have a phone or a computer please use it this week. Call or email someone in Washington and stop this from happening!