The conversation surrounding Jeffrey Tucker’s Freeman article “Against Libertarian Brutalism” resurfaced once again recently, this time from Wendy McElroy in a piece entitled “Relationship of Politics to Morality.”
In Tucker’s article, published back in March, he divides libertarians into two main groups: humanitarians and brutalists — good people and bad people. Humanitarians “seek the well-being of the human person and the flourishing of society in all its complexity” whereas brutalists are “rooted in the pure theory of the rights of individuals to live their values whatever they may be.” If we were to go off of these descriptions alone, Tucker’s dichotomy would be merely laughable since benevolent and rights-based justifications for liberty are hardly mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, he takes the distinction a step further by attaching opposing moral and aesthetic visions to the two invented camps, with far more troubling implications.
Tucker pinpoints the supposed tension between the two groups by explaining that humanitarians stress the “beauty, complexity, service to others, community, the gradual emergence of cultural norms, and the spontaneous development of extended orders of commercial and private relationships” that develops in a free society while brutalists advocate for liberty because it “allows people to assert their individual preferences, to form homogeneous tribes, to work out their biases in action, to ostracize people based on ‘politically incorrect’ standards, to hate to their heart’s content so long as no violence is used…to be openly racist and sexist.”
He uses the label “brutalist” to identify this nefarious cabal of (unnamed!) libertarians because of the parallels he draws between their supposedly uncivilized ideological underpinnings and the brutalist architectural style of the 1950s through the 1970s which, according to Tucker, emphasized “large concrete structures unrefined by concerns over style and grace.” Brutalists, says Tucker, “valued inelegance, a lack of pretense, and the raw practicality of the building’s use” because they “reject beauty on principle.”
If it seems odd to you that he characterizes those with reactionary views with a modern architectural style, you’re already overthinking it. This taxonomy is more about making a break with views Tucker was formerly associated with and would now like to distance himself from. It’s entirely a matter of marketing. Those who acknowledge the question of scale are brutalists; to say a libertarian order necessarily permits a certain amount of evil to exist rather than tolerate the power required to eradicate it is now a suspect idea — the cardinal sin of a humanitarian libertarian is suggesting things may not work out in the end. In contrast, Tucker’s brave new humanitarian world is a cornucopia of blog posts about structural oppression and hosannas to the conveniences of consumer culture. Surely you can’t be against that!
It is impossible to deny the correlation Tucker claims to identify between a purist political belief in individual rights and the more unseemly moral impulses described above since as McElroy notes, he “provides no names, events or other identifiers.” Indeed, Tucker acknowledges that his brutalist description is “an ideal type, probably not fully personified in any particular thinker.” Provided without context, Tucker’s “manufactured conflict” fails to accomplish anything apart from identifying caricatures. So when he writes later that he doesn’t understand why people reacted so strongly to his piece — “[t]he brutalist mind samples that of the state” — it’s as if he doesn’t understand that he’s creating a theoretical weapon for cosmopolitan libertarians to beat everyone they don’t like over the head with.
Tucker also seems to slip in an implicit argument that moral beliefs that are unpopular today (conservative or otherwise) are inherently opposed to libertarianism when he criticizes so-called brutalists for being “generally malcontented with modernity,” their rejection of “civil standards of values and etiquette in favor of antisocial norms,” their “desire to abide in racial and religious homogeneity, “the moral permanency of patriarchy,” and “the revulsion against homosexuality.” He mocks such “brutalists” by saying, “After all, what is liberty if not the right to be a boor?”
Yet, libertarians’ own beloved Ludwig von Mises, according to a younger Tucker, held such conservative views on cultural issues such as equality, gender norms, and cultural relativism “that today he would be regarded as a reactionary.”
Now that he’s penning Freeman pieces about how Mises was a feminist, one assumes Tucker no longer considers him a member of the brutalist Khalsa.
McElroy is spot on in calling Tucker’s conflation of politics and morality theoretically reckless. Here, I would like to defend those who Tucker criticizes for loudly asserting the “right to be racist, the right to be a misogynist, the right to hate Jews or foreigners, the right to ignore civil standards of social engagement, the right to be uncivilized, to be rude and crude.” The majority of libertarians who “strip down the theory to its rawest and most fundamental parts and push the application of those parts to the foreground” should not be mislabeled as “brutalists” who lack refinement or harbor ill intentions. A more compelling architectural analogy for those who recognize the unadorned reality that the only way to safeguard liberty in the long-run is to respect the distinction between politics and morality can be found in Virginia Postrel’s The Future and its Enemies.
As a supporter of dynamic, innovative systems, Postrel argues that the foundational rules and principles on which we build our secondary institutions must be extremely general to be flexible enough to allow nested sets of more-specific rules to grow. She uses an example from Stewart Brand’s book, How Buildings Learn, to explain how buildings are adapted to new uses over time and to explore what makes for resilient architecture that can “learn.” Brand explains:
Buildings contain six nested systems: site, structure (the foundation and load-bearing elements), skin (the exterior), services (wiring, plumbing, heating, etc.), space plan (the interior layout), and stuff. The farther out the system, the more permanent the feature. Moving around furniture (stuff) is easy; altering a foundation (structure) is extremely difficult. [In a building] the lethargic slow parts are in charge, not the dazzling rapid ones. Site dominates Structure, which dominates the Skin, which dominates the Services, which dominate the Space plan, which dominates the Stuff. How a room is heated depends on the energy efficiency of the Skin, which depends on the constraints of the Structure…The quick processes provide originality and challenge, the slow provide continuity and constraint. A well-designed, adaptable building respects the different speeds and different functions of these nested layers. It keeps them separate, allowing ‘slippage’ so that the quick inner layers can change without disrupting the more permanent systems.
In the same way that you want to make sure you don’t have to tear up the foundation of your house to fix the plumbing, you want to ensure that a good political system will stay constant even as moral habits evolve and personal beliefs come into conflict. Good architects recognize that they don’t know the one best purpose for a building, so they build an enduring general structure that will allow other individuals to use the space for diverse and innovative functions. This way of thinking described by Brand could be labeled “adaptationism.” Adaptationists recognize the importance of allowing a plurality of moral systems to compete, so they are wary of people who try to tie the political philosophy of libertarianism to broader societal questions that are unrelated to state violence. A self-styled “humanitarian” like Tucker is worried about Stuff, but adaptationists correctly identify the importance of Site and Structure.
Tucker tilts at windmills in defining brutalism as “a closed system of thought in which all relevant information is already known.” Truly, his “humanitarianism” more fully fits the definition, as it assumes all moral questions have been settled and the losers must be apprehended. It is the height of arrogance to claim that “a theory of the social order should provide a framework for a life well lived.” As Murray Rothbard said, “Libertarianism does not offer a way of life; it offers liberty, so that each person is free to adopt and act upon his own values and moral principles.” When people try to widen the scope of libertarianism beyond individualism, property rights, and free association, they compromise the stable foundation by eliminating the “slippage” between politics and morality which creates the conditions that allow voluntary, peaceful interactions to flourish.
Libertarians are free to advocate for the moral causes that they care about. They are not free, however, to ignore the categorical difference between politics and morality. Nor should they “portray themselves as fuller, more consistent, or more complete libertarians” while attempting a new fusionism of libertarianism with their moral ideologies, as Lew Rockwell has argued.
Similarly, libertarians are free to concern themselves with issues of presentation and messaging. Meeting people where they’re at is important. Our ideas are counterintuitive and go against the grain of the technocratic mentality permeating our society so it is especially key for us to find compelling ways to convey with clarity what an overwhelmingly positive force liberty has been for the human race. However, adaptationists recognize that simply appealing to people’s pet moral causes is not how our ideas will take root in the grand scheme of things. Doing so only wins us superficial converts who will abandon the cause of liberty when they find out there is also room in a classical liberal society for people who hold opposing and even morally despicable views to freely associate. Such people are the opposite of tolerant and our cause gains nothing from their shallow support. At the end of the day, adaptationists do abide by the belief that “[l]iberty must be accepted or rejected based entirely on its reduced form” (at an institutional level) if it is to have any staying power in our society.
Tucker can wax poetic about decades-old architectural movements in a misguided attempt to smear unnamed libertarians who adhere to classic libertarian principles, but encouragingly, it seems that most libertarians are refusing to choose between his false dichotomy. Let’s continue to focus on what is actually relevant to advancing liberty: the foundation.
Out with brutalism, in with adaptationism.