Saturday, April 19, 2014

McCobinism: Libertarianism Without the Principles

By Ryan Griggs
Students For Liberty President Alexander McCobin is the original author of a piece attacking Ron Paul's position on Crimea. In reading his articles and speeches, I’ve come across what I believe to be the source of the SFL-RPI Crimea-secession split, and what is likely to be a source of disconnect among libertarians in generations to come: what McCobin calls “Second Wave” or “Millennial” libertarianism, but what I’ll call simply McCobinism. I’ll use this term throughout the piece not in an attempt to promote it as a new, better, or different form of libertarianism, but to distinguish it as the system of political thought espoused by its founder, which is characteristically non-libertarian.
McCobinism is characterized by a focus on (often political) institutions, non-government organization (NGO) and government policies, gender and marriage ethics, punishment for non-violent drug users, and peace between the political left and right–all the usual targets for a minarchist philosophy that promotes working within the system as the best means to change, in this case limit, the same system.
McCobinism impels its followers to action–action, action, and ever more action. In his 2014 ISFLC, the year’s largest event for McCobin’s SFL, McCobin said “we need a government that will take action, a government that does better than it is doing now, a government that is more efficient”–a perhaps devastating notion to IRS tax victims. He “strongly desire[s] active politicians, active legislation, and active efforts by people involved with government to
limit the overreaches and abuses of government.” His proposal to achieve this is to “limit government, dramatically!” However, in the same breath McCobin acknowledges “how corrupt and abusive government is these days.” Thus, McCobinism calls for “active politicians” and “active legislation” necessarily from “corrupt and abusive government” as a means of “limiting” that very same government, with those very same “active politicians” whose salary is derived from the government involvement they should be limiting, in order to achieve the overarching goal of stripping that government of its corruption and abuse, supplanting it with activities it has the “moral authority to be involved in,” all the while assuming that the “active politicians” in the “corrupt” government know morality when they see it. Laden in contradiction, here we have McCobinism shining at its brightest.
Another facet of McCobinism is an offshoot of its primary focus on social and political activism: absolute unrestricted free speech, especially on college campuses, the focal points of SFL activity. McCobin bemoans those who “deface, destroy, and oppose free speech walls that pro-liberty campus groups display on their campuses.” He cites a number of instances where pro-liberty posters have been removed by school staff or campus police. Curiously though, McCobin does not discuss the agreements these protesting students made in electing to attend their college of choice. Many colleges have broad, comprehensive codes of student conduct, copies of which students must sign in their freshman year, which heavily restrict a student’s behavior on, and sometimes even off, campus. Whether this is fair, nice, or kind of school administration is irrelevant. True to libertarian form, liberty advocating students on college campuses, if they wish to be consistent in their protest, ought to adjust their behavior in accordance with voluntarily agreed upon contracts, or not sign in the first place. Unchecked advocacy of absolute free speech, contracts be damned, smacks much more of a diluted egalitarianism than libertarianism.
Some may object here that I am an advocate of silencing protest. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, I only point out that a serious libertarian should adhere primarily to contract theory before advocating unrestricted free speech.
McCobinism provides a path forward for those intrigued by it’s message of activism. At the 2014 ISFLC McCobin told us: “All you have to do is go to [McCobin’s] SFL table outside and say that you’re interested in applying for a leadership position, and [McCobin’s] SFL’ers will help you go through the process.” Got that? Inspired by the message of liberty, freedom and activism? Has McCobin got you sufficiently excited? Wonderful! Come join his organization.
Contrast this with an organization like the Mises Institute in Auburn, AL. Sure, it’s affiliated scholars promote the Institute in speeches, books, and articles. But agreement with the teachings of the Mises Institute does not then require that inspired individuals work for it. Lew Rockwell does not ask that supporters sign up to start other Mises Institutes on college campuses, promoting the Mises Institute brand. It’s as if the mission at Mises is getting to the truth, while the mission at SFL is effective branding and recruitment.
The difference in method of the example of the Mises Institute above and McCobinist organizations like SFL again is traced back to the core of McCobinist theory, namely it’s utter lack of principle. McCobin remarks:
“We {McCobinites] challenge the notion that people can only be libertarian if they are motivated by a particular argument either derived from the Non-Aggression Principle or that came from the mouth of a historical figure like Ludwig von Mises.”
Though McCobinism challenges the Non-Agression Principle (NAP) as a litmus test for libertarianism, it offers no alternative. In fact, it challenges the notion of “purity tests” that McCobin thinks “many have tried to impose” on the liberty “movement.” In quintessential McCobinite egalitarian form, McCobin writes in response to a  piece by Daniel McAdams, managing director of the Ron Paul Institute that “Students For Liberty was founded with one purpose being to bring disparate factions of the libertarian movement together to share their ideas and focus on the 95% we have in common rather than the 5% we disagree upon” (emphasis added). In an age when varying ideologies–Marxism, socialism, fascism–all merge in their support of the state, McCobinism decries principled objection, substituting instead a lukewarm bear hug to all who feign interest in liberty. After all, Austrian Economics teaches that it is impossible to quantify interpersonal subjectivity; in other words, there is no way to know the percentage level of libertarian agreement between two people. “Big tent” and 95-5 are just metaphors meant to make SFL appealing to as many as possible. Can you guess the department in which McCobin worked in his time as a Koch Associate at the Cato Institute after finishing his undergraduate degree? Marketing.
McCobinism is not libertarianism. It is an ideologically empty philosophy replete with a salary-paying international branding organization that pats any moderately pro-liberty individual or person on the back. Libertarianism is not about popularity, activism, institutions, and especially not about achieving freedom by promoting some government policies over others. Libertarianism is about truth. At it’s core it is about maximizing human prosperity, whatever that may mean in the individual minds of men. It’s proposal for human organization in order to achieve this goal is the elimination of coercive violence and an adherence to private property rights. In so doing, it provides the only road map to a conflict-free state (no pun intended) of humanity under conditions of scarcity of economic resources.
McCobinism’s absence of principle is appealing to those uninitiated in the history and theory of libertarianism. It only requires that individuals have some interest in freedom and it offers special acceptance to those who advocate particularly for things like gay marriage equality or marijuana decriminalization without calling into question whether the state ought to be involved in marriage or substance consumption in the first place.
This brings me to Crimea. McCobin’s Panam Post op-ed, in which he claims that “Ron Paul … gets it wrong when he speaks of Crimea’s right to secede” is the unsurprising manifestation of a political philosophy (McCobinism) that lacks principle.
First, the link to which McCobin attributes Paul’s position on Crimean secession doesn’t even link to statements by Paul. It links to a Daily Beast article by James Kirchick, who in his first three sentences manages to resurrect Paul’s totally irrelevant criticism of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and “racist and conspiratorial news letters to be published under [Paul’s] name;” of course, any breathing human with two hands and an internet connection would know that Paul is the polar opposite of the conspiracy theorist, bigot, and racist Kirchick makes him out to be (see here and here). But McCobin linked to this particular article anyway, an odd choice for someone who claims he has “a tremendous amount of respect for Ron Paul and what he has done.” McCobin might have linked to Paul’s own words on the topic, which you can find here, but chose not to.
Then, McCobin implores his readers to “[m]ake no mistake about it, Crimea was annexed by Russian military force at gunpoint and its supposedly democratic ‘referendum’ was a farce.” True to McCobinist form, as evidence of his “farce” claim, he links to a Huffington Post article co-authored by Carina Perelli, who used to be “head of the UN’s Electoral Assistance Division, an agency we know that United States Federal Government has no constitutional authority to be a member of in the first place. Perelli no longer holds her UN post because in 2005 she received a letter "informing her of the [UN] Secretary-General’s decision to summarily dismiss her for misconduct.” The “complaints included allegations of harassment, including sexual harassment, and abuse of authority.” In his condemnation of the perfect gentleman Ron Paul, Ms. Perelli is who McCobin chose to evidence his conviction that the Crimean elections were farcical. Again, an odd move for one so eager to proclaim the greatness of Dr. Paul.
McCobin never gets around to addressing which particular statement of Dr. Paul’s he actually disagrees with or why.
In another blog post, McCobin “believe[s] there is such a thing as a right to revolution and secession given the proper conditions” (emphasis added); however, he does “not believe that the conditions in Crimea meet that criteria.” McCobin doesn’t tell us what those criteria are or how Crimean conditions could have met them. Could it be that McCobin lacks the principle that would allow him to so?
This is where McCobinism leaves us. Evidence from questionable sources is used to combat a loosely paraphrased opposing viewpoint, without addressing any possible objections. McCobin even goes so far as to imply that Dr. Paul “applaud[s] an autocrat [Putin] for the sake of blaming our own government,” a remarkable stance, since Dr. Paul never mentions Putin in his article.
I may have never written this piece if McCobin hadn’t arrogated himself to spokesman for the “new generation of libertarians [that] is developing, forming our own identity and crafting a new strategy for social change.” Notice the possessive pronoun. “Our” spokesman McCobin continues, describing what he sees arising as “a libertarianism of a different stripe than that which was advocated throughout most of the 20th century.” This part may be true. That different stripe is called McCobinism.
In coming out against Paul, McCobin has joined the legions of bloggers, students, authors, and professionals who think they’ve uncovered a new panacea in libertarian social theory. Unfortunately for the SFL President, McCobinism is an unsatisfactory alternative to that plain, yet logically consistent and universally applicable libertarianism of old.
The analysis above should demystify recent articles from McCobin’s SFL-affiliated colleagues. For example, Eglė Markevičiūtė, McCobin’s co-author in the Panam Post op-ed that started it all, proposed in anarticle for the Daily Caller “economic sanctions … [as a] means to deal with Putin’s regime.” Markevičiūtė leaves out who precisely she believes has the moral authority to implement government prohibitions of trade between individuals on the international scale and voluntarily transacting Russians. So too does she leave unexplained how increasing costs to Russian consumers as a result of higher barriers to trade mean an effective blow to Putin, even going so far as to acknowledge that “imposing economic sanctions on Russia would harm Russian citizens more than their tsar-like leaders who are not easily motivated by the suffering of others,” leaving the inquisitive reader perplexed at the obvious contradiction.
Then there’s the kicker:
“Limited military presence, such as an increased NATO presence in the Baltic States and Poland or troop deployment in Ukraine, is something that liberty-minded individuals should reconsider as a preventive measure to stop the spread of Putin’s conquests further into Eastern Europe.”
Markevičiūtė is silent on which foreign power should constitute this “military presence,” no matter how limited it may be. Who in the international community would Markevičiūtė nominate to risk their lives in a foreign country for the cause she’s identified? Markevičiūtė doesn’t tell us.
We can contrast these points to what Ron Paul has consistently stated regarding economic sanctions and preemptive military intervention at any magnitude: the former only serves to debilitate the citizenry, the latter is a proscription for escalated conflict and diminished military members, and both are acts of war. But by now it should be no mystery as to how Markevičiūtė and Paul could possibly come to conclusions so heavily at odds with one another: Markevičiūtė is a McCobinist while Paul is a libertarian.
I hope by now that the difference between McCobinism and libertarianism is clear, and more importantly what subscribing to the former can mean to an individual committed to holistic logical coherence. If you’re excited about the notion of popularizing liberty in the mainstream–politics, the media, etc.–or climbing the ladder in institutions like government and NGOs, and if one can accept some of the positions on free speech, social ethics, and minarchy as discussed above, then perhaps McCobinism is for you. But if your goal is to determine the optimal system of societal organization, of how individuals can peacefully interact with one another despite personal differences concerning race, gender norms, or other social phenomena, then you might consider libertarianism.
You just might find that property rights and the Non-Aggression Principle, the tenets of the libertarianism of the first wave, of the pre-Millennial, are just as good for liberty-lovers in 2014 as they were for those hundreds of years ago.
The above is an abridged and slightly edited version of an essay that originally appeared at


  1. Astroturf, all the way down. RP is poison to them, they can't find an antidote, so "dilute it, dilute it, dilute it"!
    Good piece!

  2. Neo-Conservatives or Neo-Libertarians are people smart to enough to know what they are but are too ashamed to admit it.

  3. Sigh, I guess they're (SFL, Tucker, etc.) are bound and determined to so bastardize the definition of libertarianism that we'll be forced to abandon it. Are we really going to have to state the underlying principles every time in lieu of a single word label to ensure that somebody else doesn't co-opt the name? I suppose so.

    That's going to become quite clumsy and annoying.

  4. There are a number of factual inaccuracies here, the most blatant being quotes attributed to McCobin which he has never said. For starters, “we need a government that will take action, a government that does better than it is doing now, a government that is more efficient" and “strongly desire[s] active politicians, active legislation, and active efforts by people involved with government to
    limit the overreaches and abuses of government.” To claim McCobin made these statements, at the International Students For Liberty Conference no less, is completely false.