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Do classical liberals ‘pave the way for white nationalists’?

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Matthew Schmitz’s article “How classical liberals paved the way for white nationalists” in the Catholic Herald borrows a conceit from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: Both place two unrelated phenomena in their titles for dramatic effect. Pirsig admitted his fictionalized autobiography “should in no way be associated with that great body of factual information relating to orthodox Zen Buddhist practice. It’s not very factual on motorcycles, either.” It is a pity Schmitz was not as forthcoming about his column.

Some arguments are so poorly sourced and feebly supported that they do not deserve a response. Nevertheless, since this author is a Christian who believes in grace, Schmitz’s argument will receive one.

Schmitz, a senior editor at First Things, describes himself as a “socialist Roman Catholic.” Since Pope Pius XI wrote in Quadragesimo Anno that “[r]eligious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist,” it may be gathered that he has little trouble reconciling conflicting ideologies. He also has little use for “classical liberalism,” a philosophy that upholds the inalienable rights of humanity and limits the role of the state.

How, then, does Schmitz link limited government to a totalitarian ideology? As proof of their harmony, he cites the angry dispute between Turning Point USA leader Charlie Kirk and Alt-Right leader Nick Fuentes. Schmitz argues that both small-government conservatives and white nationalists have “one point of absolute agreement: the value of free speech.” He then references Kirk’s statement that he would defeat Fuentes through “dialogue.”

Anyone who believes that fascists and Nazis value free speech failed twentieth-century history. Hitler’s rejection of free speech was so complete that he felt no need to lie about it before his election. “We demand legal opposition to known lies and their promulgation through the press,” said the 23rd plank of the 25-point Nazi Party platform, released in 1928. It demanded non-German newspapers obtain “the express permission of the State to be published” and favored “the closure of organizations opposing the above made demands.” In power, he ruthlessly persecuted dissent.

The sandcastle of Schmitz’s argument crumbles upon the lightest touch of the wind.

Yet Schmitz continues:

It is important to note this agreement because many classical liberals have assumed that the way to defeat white nationalism is to double down on freedom: free trade, free speech, free love. They assume that in the “marketplace of ideas” (unlike in real markets) bad currency somehow will not drive out good.

First, this author is unaware of any “classical liberal” who has argued the answer to white nationalism is sexual licentiousness. The Nazis were not especially marked by sexual restraint.

Second, one gets a sense of how his insufficient grasp of economics leads to deeper logical errors. Schmitz’s “marketplace of ideas” analogy does not work, because government fiat currency is (in our system, at least) the one good in which there is no meaningful competition. Furthermore, counterfeiting is not competition.

Those of us who value expression over repression do so because the “marketplace of ideas” (just like real markets) allow people to make comparisons. Demonstrating the superiority of better ideas to poisonous ones is possible only if both are allowed to make their best case.

It’s hard to imagine this somehow conflicts with Christianity in general or Catholicism in particular. The greatest work of scholastic theology, the Summa Theologica, would have been much shorter had Aquinas omitted all those pesky opposing arguments, refused to engage in a “dialogue” by making counter-arguments, and simply written a declarative treatise. Schmitz’s view brands the life’s work of apologists such as St. Justin Martyr as at best straw, at worst collaboration via “dialogue” with paganism.

Schmitz writes that opposing censorship assumes “that we cannot and should not distinguish between good and evil, argument and obscenity, truth and falsehood.”

But it is precisely this distinction – something the Greek patristic fathers called διάκρισις, or discernment – that every believer must cultivate. Christianity best expresses itself, not by silencing dissent, but by confounding it. Light distinguishes itself in contrast with the darkness.

Free speech is merely an accelerant for thought. If Schmitz bans one, he inhibits the other. Since God created the human person with a rational soul, capable of reason and designed for “thinking God’s thoughts after Him” (as Kepler put it), anything short of  freedom to choose the good and reject evil is unworthy of human dignity. A forced faith is no faith.

Perhaps realizing his argument is threadbare, Schmitz asserts that “[c]lassical liberals bear some blame for the rise of white nationalists,” because they “spent years decrying censorship and according prestige to ‘edginess.’” This contradicts his previous assertion that the philosophy of limited government and human rights makes no distinction between – or lends no prestige to – good and evil. In reality, a limited state allows all sides to express themselves equally, confident that the truth will prevail.

Which ideas are considered prestigious depends on the surrounding culture in which the mechanism of the free market operates. Some societies reward transgressive ideas, others praise conformity, as Tocqueville wrote of the early (and quite classically liberal) United States.

But this has become Schmitz’s modus operandi. He takes pains to link limited government with every evil. Last June, he wrote that “Satanic” capitalism somehow caused Irish voters to legalize abortion.

Schmitz may have indulged his latest sleight-of-hand linkage in part because the Alt-Right has far more in common with his own brand of statism. This author has dived deeply into the cesspool of contemporary white nationalist thought for his annual Acton University lecture on “The Alt-Right: A Christian Perspective.” Racists are statist to the core.

Take it from the man who coined the term Alt-Right. Just hours before his “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville turned deadly, Richard Spencer said:

To be honest, I’m not totally opposed to socialism when done right. I think we actually should use the government to benefit ourselves, the people of this country. I think we should have a national healthcare system. I think we should quadruple national parks.

One of Spencer’s comrades, Greg Johnson of Counter-Currents, similarly advocates a single-payer healthcare system. In an interview on “fascist medicine,” he described his plans for such a system: “My attitude about abortion, to put it in the most provocative way is this: I think that some abortions should be illegal, I think other abortions should be mandatory.”

White nationalists similarly deplore economic liberty. They believe “the wealth distribution system in America is designed” to benefit perfidious Jews. Academic Kevin MacDonald began his tenure as editor of The Occidental Quarterly with a contest offering $1,000 for the best essay describing how libertarianism is incompatible with “racial nationalism.”

An influential white nationalist who writes under the pseudonym Yggdrasil advocated “higher tax rates on the super wealthy,” including a 90 percent top marginal tax rate, a 75 percent tax on estates exceeding $100 million, and an alternative minimum tax on corporations. This would fund social welfare programs and government make-work jobs, because “the best middle class jobs would be created by government funding of infrastructure.”

The substance of their program overlaps far more with Schmitz’s than ours.

Schmitz and his fellow “Catholic socialists” have no intention of facilitating a white nationalist takeover of the United States – the likelihood of which is, to say the least, remote. However, as Ludwig von Mises documents in his book Omnipotent Government, the Nazis merely strengthened and racialized the existing statist apparatus erected by previous social democratic governments.

Should Schmitz ever succeed in creating a Catholic integralist state – saints preserve us! – I’m sure his national healthcare plan would not fund abortion, much less make it mandatory. (It will not succeed any better more than any other single-payer system for that fact.) However, Schmitz will promptly be knifed by more vicious, more power-hungry aspirants who will re-gift the superstructure he presented as tribute to Christ the King to new gods: Der Fuehrer, or the Maximum Leader, or the Ayatollah, or whomever.

Schmitz may wish to order a copy of my 2018 Alt-Right lecture here to familiarize himself with white nationalists’ true views.

Until he demonstrates greater familiarity with white nationalism and their classical liberal opponents, he may wish to stop driving out good ideas with bad via his commentary.

(Photo credit: Robert Thivierge. CC BY-SA 2.0.)

 

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Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Managing Editor of the Acton Institute's flagship journal Religion & Liberty and edits its transatlantic website.

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