The Damage of Purges and SchismsFirst of all, purges and schisms take up a lot of time and energy thatcould be better spent on constructive tasks. I can’t tell you how manyissues of various libertarian publications that I read were devotedexclusively to falling-outs, betrayals, and selling-outs. Every one ofthese articles could have been turned to some positive task, whethercurrent events in the world, or history, public policy, philosophy, orwhat have you. Oftentimes, those writing the book-lengthpurge-statements were great minds, who produced excellent work beforethey embroiled themselves in in-fighting. Second, purges and schisms prevent great minds and schools of thoughtfrom teaching one another. “Cross-fertilization” is the term that comesto mind. Frequently, the best ideas lie scattered in the works of manythinkers. In an open and tolerant intellectual atmosphere, everyonewould feel comfortable to bring the best ideas together, to synthesize. Every new idea would have the benefit of criticism from manyperspectives. Purges and schisms tend to put a stop to this beneficentprocess. Of course, it is conceivable that a person might bepurged, but not his or her works. Conceivable, but rare. I noticedthat every side in every schism tended to re-write history, downplayingor even scorning the works of the intellectual exiles. Strange as itsounds, Ayn Rand’s treatment of Nathaniel Branden was actually betterthan average. At least she kept his essays in the Virtue of Selfishnessand Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal, though of course she and his innercircle never cited him again (to my knowledge). It was more typical forformer friends who eagerly referred to one another’s work before aschism to forever afterwards ignore it completely, or even scorn it. Third, purges and schisms seriously turn off newcomers. When someonefirst acquires an interest in libertarianism, he or she wants to learn,listen, and discuss IDEAS. When they see that more seasonedlibertarians seem more interested in PEOPLE, they will understandably beturned off. At its worst, it makes libertarians seem more like a cultthan a community of thoughtful people who value individual liberty. Fourth, only very rarely did I find a purge or schism based on some REALhorrible “sell-out” or defection to another political philosophy. There were roughly two kinds of fallings-out. The first kind was theclash of personalities. Obviously some people, especially passionate,ideological people, can get on each others’ nerves. This often led toschisms and purges. Especially if one of the people involved waswell-known in the libertarian movement, they usually dragged all oftheir followers and supporters into the fray, creating permanentruptures. The second kind of falling-out was genuinely based on ideologicaldifferences, but blown all out of proportion. There seems to be aninstinct to assume that those who disagree with you, or — even worse –who change their minds and cease to agree with you — MUST do so out ofsheer wickedness. Throughout all of the battles that I studied, it isdifficult to remember a single case where I was convinced that someonehad dishonestly taken on a new intellectual stance. Of course, Ioften agreed with one side and disagreed with the other, but that isnot the point. The point is that all of the sides seemed like they wereprobably sincere, yet libertarian thinkers and activists who had oftenknown each other for years jumped to the conclusion of willfulintellectual dishonesty. Now of course a concern for ideological purity in SOME sense can bequite reasonable. If Lyndon LaRouche called himself a libertarian(which I don’t think he ever did), it would upset me, and I would surelytell others that he wasn’t. But in all of the cases I studied, thedisagreements never took any of the participants outside of theclassical liberal tradition. Their disagreements might not have beenminor (though some were), but they definitely remained disagreements withina body of thinkers with many shared beliefs and concerns. A Proposed Remedy for Purges and SchismsNow I am convinced that this plague of purges and schisms is one of the
most serious long-run problems within the libertarian movement, and Iwant to do something about it. Moreover, I think that any viablesolutions must have two properties. 1. Any individual who adopts the solution will (marginally) make purgesand schisms less common, acrimonious, and harmful to the libertarianmovement. 2. And if the solution were to become widely accepted among libertarians,the problem of purges and schisms would for the most part disappear. (Those familiar with game theory will see why the two are not necessarilylinked.)What then is my proposed solution?1. In the event of a disagreement, to always criticize only the ideas,never the person; and moreover, to always criticize in a polite andecumenical way. 2. If another libertarian fails to live up to #1, to STILL refrain frommaking any sort of personal attack, or responding in a similar way. Irealize that this will be contrversial. Initially, I balked at thisidea myself; it seems to go against everthing Robert Axelrod said in theEvolution of Cooperation. (Namely, the best way to get Golden Rulebehavior is NOT by following the Golden Rule, but by playingtit-for-tat.) But this impression is only superficial. Oftentimes,those who make personal attacks get pleasure out of in-fighting for itsown sake. So responding in kind may just encourage them. Moreover,there are many better sanctions to impose — loss of reputation, loss ofcredibility on serious (i.e., non-purge/schism) issues, etc. And on topof this, remaining polite and respectful ON PRINCIPLE is somewhat likelyto get others to respond in kind. It is hard to keep calling someonenames if they just ignore it and answer your real argument. On top ofthis, there are third-party effects. When you refuse to engage inpersonal attacks even when you seem to have every justification to doso, on-lookers will be impressed by your commitment to discuss onlyideas and listen only to reasonable arguments.3. To never initiate a purge or schism. If you don’t like someone,don’t hang around them; if you disagree with their work, criticizeit or ignore it. But don’t go beyond this. Don’t write denouncements,don’t discourage people from at least reading their works, and don’tmake people feel like they are either for you or against you. Now when I first considered this idea, I was worried that thelibertarian movement would suddenly be filled with every sort of nut –followers of Lyndon LaRouche, Holocaust revisionists, the works. Butthen I thought again. Is there not a spontaneous ordering inideological movements as well as in society? Indeed there is. No oneis going to start calling himself a libertarian unless he has SOMEinterest in libertarian ideas. No one is going to take the trouble toengage in dialogue with libertarians if they completely disagree withus. There are “market forces,” if you will, that automatically createa reasonable degree of uniformity within every ideological movement,whether there are purges and schisms or not. What are these marketforces? Simply the affinity of like-minded people for each other’scompany and association. And I think that this force is more thanstrong enough to give the libertarian movement all of the cohesivenessthat it needs. 4. If YOU are the victim of a purge or schism, refuse to acknowledge itsimportance. Continue to read and cite the valuable works of those whopurged you; continue to encourage others to read them for themselves. If you have “followers,” don’t drag them in, or treat it as a personalbetrayal if they retain an interest in the works of those who purged you. Just continue your normal steady stream of positive, constructive workand don’t worry about it. No reasonable person will think less of youif you refuse to get into the fray. Naturally, you may respond tocriticisms of your ideas; and if some specific factual charges are madeagainst you (e.g., that you are a plagiarist, or embezzled funds), byall means issue a reply. But keep it short, and concentrate on ideas,not people. –I’m not certain that my solution is perfect, but it seems to me to be anecessary first step. The more I read old periodicals, the more thepresent seemed to look just like the past. And the more the presentgroupings of libertarians began to make historical sense. As a small,minority voice, libertarians can’t afford to waste their energy onanything other than building a complete intellectual alternative to thestatus quo.