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The Austrian School did not create the alt-right

The points which Eladio Bobadilla makes in his recent Chronicle guest column on accepting Koch Foundation money is troubling in that it assigns cause for the rise of violent nationalism in this country to a school of thought that is, based on its underpinning tenets, fundamentally at odds with the alt-right movement. It furthermore paints a caricature of Nobel Prize winner Friedrich Hayek that is inconsistent with his most famous writings. I expect more from the history department at Duke.

In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek notes that “equality before the law and material equality are therefore not only different but are in conflict with each other; and we can achieve either the one or the other, but not both at the same time. The equality before the law which freedom requires leads to material inequality.” As such, Hayek further noted that the term “liberal” in the 20th century, used by those seeking further government intervention into daily life, no longer aligned with the concept of classical liberalism, which claims a set of principles that maintain individual liberty at its core, and advocates for free markets and minimal government interference.

Hayek was well aware that the effect of increasing unchecked political power—even in the name of equality—and governmental market interference could have deleterious results. Hayek noted that the command economies of Communist states in the 20th century, lacking free market price signals that allow for both the efficient allocation of resources and reflection of consumer preferences, would be condemned to economic disorder and ultimately failure. He was right.

When looking at former Soviet states, it is easy to see that the development of coercive political power, in an effort to achieve equality of outcome, further stripped humans of their dignity and substituted the rule of law—which ensures and preserves liberty—with the arbitrary rule of man. The Soviet gulags are an example of how unrestrained political power advances the worst tendencies of humans. 

This is why Hayek, and many modern day libertarians and proponents of the Austrian school of economics, promote the notion that freedom can only exist in the absence of coercion.

Young Americans have seen a wave of nationalism sweep the United States and Europe, evoking the same fears and producing the same sinister tone that marked the darkest days of the modern West. Some view the nationalist sentiment in America as a healthy form of patriotism; that is, politicians’ concern with putting “America First” addresses the plight of average Americans by expressing displeasure with the elites who have both sold the U.S. out to foreign interests and turned their back on American tradition. Nevertheless, history has demonstrated that nationalism is an antecedent to conflict, evident in the rise of National Socialism in Germany and fascism in Italy, events which eventually mired Europe in war.

Populist movements which seek to make swift change by building up and utilizing the most extreme of coercive governmental powers leads to a violent expansion of government that curtails individual liberty and the free market principles that Hayek posited. The violence associated with the alt-right is thus incompatible with the points put forward by Hayek and other economists from the Austrian School.

By aligning the alt-right with the Austrian school and Hayek himself, Bobadilla conflates the principles of liberty, individualism and cooperation with an authoritarian movement that seeks to espouse populist rhetoric and promote blind nationalism. In the end, it feels as though Bobadilla’s column ignores many of the philosophical underpinnings of the Austrian school in favor of a simplified set of statements that fit a particular political narrative. That is worrisome.

Tyler Bonin is a Duke alum, masters of arts '14. 


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