A Few Comments on A Strange Liberty

Jeff Deist, the former president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, has brought out a collection of his speeches and occasional writings in a volume that is well worth reading: A Strange Liberty: Politics Drops Its Pretenses. Deist writes incisively about immigration, economics, “pandemic government,” secession, and decentralization while presenting strategies for resisting the further inroads of the administrative state. He engages these subjects while demonstrating extensive legal training and a clear knowledge of Austrian economics.

Interwoven in his work is the influence of his many mentors and colleagues, including Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, Lew Rockwell, and Ron Paul. The issues that Deist targets go well beyond the evils of state intervention in economic cycles and the distorting effects of the actions of the Federal Reserve. The author views the modern administrative state as a wrecker of all inherited social relations and believes that unless means are found to arrest its encroachments on human interactions, this tyranny will become worse. Deist’s ideal is “private government,” which, he believes, cannot be advanced unless the state as it now exists is disempowered.  

I wrote the foreword to this anthology and praised its contents in those pages. But I would like to focus here on two points in the book that warrant further comment. First, in his discussion of Yoram Hazony’s defense of nationalism, Deist notices that Hazony’s identification of “liberalism” is a crude imitation of the real article. But there is no reason to assume that this ugly caricature is the realization of what earlier generations, going back to the 19th century, assumed was a “just and wealthy society” built on constitutional freedom. Deist asks, “Would Kamala Harris or Rachel Maddow argue that freedom ought to include the ability to enact localized abortion or gun laws?” And further, “Would Joe Biden, supporter of Black Lives Matter, condemn the burning of auto dealerships in Kenosha as a dangerous prelude to that most illiberal possibility: namely outright civil war?”

Our bogus “liberalism” is either the ideology of mislabeled leftist totalitarians or the selective defense of freedom of opinion coming from wokesters who are pushing back against other, unfriendly leftists. One might ask whether Deist’s original “liberal blueprint” is even relevant any longer. Perhaps he doesn’t believe it is, at least not at the present time in the U.S. Whence his repeated defense of a secessionist option.

Second, Deist offers a truly informative account of the evolution of Murray Rothbard’s thought on “open borders” and immigration. Rothbard’s study, Man, Economy, and the State (1962) argues strenuously from a libertarian economic perspective against immigration restriction. This early work of Rothbard’s treats immigration restrictions as an arrangement that “confers gains at the expense of foreign workers” without necessarily enriching the domestic economy. He insisted that there would be no likely reduction in the standard of living produced by immigration, nor any harm inflicted on native inhabitants by virtue of newcomers taking jobs. In 1962, Rothbard did not take seriously the danger of overpopulation in countries that were flooded with immigrants. He maintained, not always convincingly, that different societies have successfully adjusted to different demographic levels.

According to Deist, evidence of Rothbard’s sea change on immigration can be found in his essay, “Nations by Consent,” written in the fall of 1994, shortly before his death. In this article, Rothbard rejected an unduly generous immigration policy because “the welfare state increasingly subsidizes immigrants to enter and receive permanent assistance.” Rothbard also argued against the existing immigration policy for reasons that his disciple Hans-Hermann Hoppe later made famous, namely that it violates the property rights of those whose resources the immigrants will be taking. In other words, immigration is not something that comes without a heavy cost. It occurs at the expense of those who are already living in a country and who constitute its property holders.

Deist reviews the differing opinions among Austrian School economists who draw on Rothbard’s writings about immigration. While the pro-open-borders Rothbard of Man, Economy and the State finds in Walter Block a defender, other Rothbard disciples uphold his later argument about the incompatibility between state-sponsored immigration and property rights.

Worth noting as well is that in “Nations by Consent,” Rothbard adopts a traditionalist perspective in addressing his subject. He was furious that “ethnic Russians had been encouraged to flood into Estonia and Latvia in order to destroy the cultures and languages of these peoples.” And he was strongly moved by Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints, a graphic novel “in which virtually the entire population of India decides to move, in small boats, into France, and the French, infected by liberal ideology, cannot summon the will to prevent economic and national destruction. As cultural and welfare-state problems have intensified, it became impossible to dismiss Raspail’s concerns any longer.”

It should be plain to the reader that these late-life reflections were not those of an asocial ultra-individualist. They were paleoconservative thoughts. They may also account for why the immigration-happy Wall Street Journal and other friends of almost-open-borders politics have never recognized Rothbard’s prodigious achievements, even within his own technical discipline. In the end, Rothbard sounded like a conservative regarding both legal and illegal immigration. Deist’s book reminds us of that.

(Correction: Jeff Deist recently stepped down as president of the Mises Institute. This article has been updated to reflect that in the first paragraph.)

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