Libertarians enjoy accusing each other of blind devotion to their favorite ideas and thinkers.
In fact, it almost seems like a major pastime in the liberty movement to make this charge, and to revel with others in self-congratulatory “gotcha!” moments directed toward members of the outgroup.
I find this state of affairs frustrating, all the more so because in many cases (and I assume everyone knows of at least a few examples) neither side is really interested in reaching an accord. The result is that both accusers and accused perpetuate disagreement and factional conflict.
With that in mind, I’d like to draw attention to some problems relating to the accusation of dogmatism.
To begin, accusing people of uncritical devotion is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. It starts with one side saying: “Look how crazy those supporters of X are!” In response, the supporters of X fight fire with fire. They passionately deny being crazy and make their own accusations. In doing so, they end up seeming to prove the first group right. The first group then declares victory.
The accusation is bait. In fact, even attempting to respond to unfair criticism can mean rising to the bait and playing into the accuser’s hands, and genuine discussion becomes impossible.
Then again, isn’t it true that some people genuinely are dogmatic, and that this trick, though somewhat devious, only brings such views to light? Of course it is: some people are eager to set the trap, but often many more are eager to walk into it.
For example, we sometimes advance a cause so often or so fervently that others come to think that we support it blindly. We tend to receive this kind of accusation especially when defending people that we greatly admire: someone criticizes one of our heroes, and we instantly rush in to defend his or her reputation. Unfortunately, in the era of instant global communication, it’s all too easy to do this hastily or superficially. Rather than calm and informed critics, we end up looking like doctrinaires ready to lash out at any criticism that passes by (hence, the charge of dogmatism).
In some ways this is a natural, understandable response: of course we care about defending our deeply held convictions. Yet if we do so doggedly and without reflection, we can end up not only failing to rebut criticism, but seeming to confirm the critics’ worst suspicions.
Some obvious recent examples involve Murray Rothbard. I’m too young to have known Rothbard, so I can’t comment on his personal views or relationships. But I have for a long time been a reader of his scholarly economic work, which I admire and in which I find a great deal of originality and value. To give an example, I’m currently writing a paper on Austrian economics and social entrepreneurship, and I’m finding Rothbard’s discussion of economic organization in Man, Economy, and State quite helpful in thinking through some of the problems involved. Yet precisely because I find value in his research, it’s also disheartening when others criticize his abilities as an economist.
As a result, I’m often skeptical about criticism of Rothbard’s economic work. The trouble, however, is that honestly defending his research from certain attacks often invites the criticism of blind devotion. The reason is that weak criticisms of his ideas are often met with even weaker defenses. Here’s a common story: someone criticizes Rothbard on social media, and like clockwork, supporters appear to defend him with a handful of stock responses, usually along the lines of, “You just need to read Man, Economy, and State”, or, “you’re not a real libertarian”, or everyone’s favorite: “statist!” I hope I don’t have to point out that these replies are not very helpful in making the case for either Rothbard’s scholarly value, or for the reasonableness of people who admire him.
In light of such exchanges, it’s easy to see why critics might be quick to dismiss Rothbard’s ideas. But of course, it’s possible to defend him or any other thinker in a substantial way without being a mindless follower. We can defend a position because we believe it to be true, and not because we think some kind of personal devotion requires us to. Furthermore, defending a person against unjust attacks is not the same as endorsing every opinion held by that person. Finally, we should never forget that not every criticism is worth responding to. Opportunity cost exists. So do trolls.
These points are simple, but sadly, they seem to elude people on all sides of these debates. Maybe the best thing we can do then is to let ourselves be guided by Bastiat’s saying: “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.”