Purges and Schisms
By Bryan Caplan
I wrote this in 1993. Still seems correct to me, and unfortunately it’s as relevant as ever.
Purges and Schisms
When I was working this summer at the Institute for Humane Studies, I
spent many hours reading old libertarian periodicals — especially those
from the late 60’s, 70’s, and early 80’s. And one of the things that
struck me was the frequency and violence of the purges and schisms. Of
course, I’d been familiar with the Rand-related purges and schisms for a
long time. But I had no idea that there had been so much bad blood in
the broader libertarian movement as well.
Now I bring this up not to point fingers at this or that faction.
Rather, I want to discuss the harmful effects of purges and schisms, and
propose some tentative remedies. Secondarily, I’d like to open up
further discussion on ways to avoid future purges and schisms.
The Damage of Purges and Schisms
First of all, purges and schisms take up a lot of time and energy that
could be better spent on constructive tasks. I can’t tell you how many
issues of various libertarian publications that I read were devoted
exclusively to falling-outs, betrayals, and selling-outs. Every one of
these articles could have been turned to some positive task, whether
current events in the world, or history, public policy, philosophy, or
what have you. Oftentimes, those writing the book-length
purge-statements were great minds, who produced excellent work before
they embroiled themselves in in-fighting.
Second, purges and schisms prevent great minds and schools of thought
from teaching one another. “Cross-fertilization” is the term that comes
to mind. Frequently, the best ideas lie scattered in the works of many
thinkers. In an open and tolerant intellectual atmosphere, everyone
would feel comfortable to bring the best ideas together, to synthesize.
Every new idea would have the benefit of criticism from many
perspectives. Purges and schisms tend to put a stop to this beneficent
process. Of course, it is conceivable that a person might be
purged, but not his or her works. Conceivable, but rare. I noticed
that every side in every schism tended to re-write history, downplaying
or even scorning the works of the intellectual exiles. Strange as it
sounds, Ayn Rand’s treatment of Nathaniel Branden was actually better
than average. At least she kept his essays in the Virtue of Selfishness
and Capitalism: the Unknown Ideal, though of course she and his inner
circle never cited him again (to my knowledge). It was more typical for
former friends who eagerly referred to one another’s work before a
schism to forever afterwards ignore it completely, or even scorn it.
Third, purges and schisms seriously turn off newcomers. When someone
first acquires an interest in libertarianism, he or she wants to learn,
listen, and discuss IDEAS. When they see that more seasoned
libertarians seem more interested in PEOPLE, they will understandably be
turned off. At its worst, it makes libertarians seem more like a cult
than a community of thoughtful people who value individual liberty.
Fourth, only very rarely did I find a purge or schism based on some REAL
horrible “sell-out” or defection to another political philosophy.
There were roughly two kinds of fallings-out. The first kind was the
clash of personalities. Obviously some people, especially passionate,
ideological people, can get on each others’ nerves. This often led to
schisms and purges. Especially if one of the people involved was
well-known in the libertarian movement, they usually dragged all of
their followers and supporters into the fray, creating permanent
The second kind of falling-out was genuinely based on ideological
differences, but blown all out of proportion. There seems to be an
instinct 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 of
sheer wickedness. Throughout all of the battles that I studied, it is
difficult to remember a single case where I was convinced that someone
had dishonestly taken on a new intellectual stance. Of course, I
often agreed with one side and disagreed with the other, but that is
not the point. The point is that all of the sides seemed like they were
probably sincere, yet libertarian thinkers and activists who had often
known each other for years jumped to the conclusion of willful
Now of course a concern for ideological purity in SOME sense can be
quite reasonable. If Lyndon LaRouche called himself a libertarian
(which I don’t think he ever did), it would upset me, and I would surely
tell others that he wasn’t. But in all of the cases I studied, the
disagreements never took any of the participants outside of the
classical liberal tradition. Their disagreements might not have been
minor (though some were), but they definitely remained disagreements within
a body of thinkers with many shared beliefs and concerns.
A Proposed Remedy for Purges and Schisms
Now I am convinced that this plague of purges and schisms is one of the
most serious long-run problems within the libertarian movement, and I
want to do something about it. Moreover, I think that any viable
solutions must have two properties.
1. Any individual who adopts the solution will (marginally) make purges
and schisms less common, acrimonious, and harmful to the libertarian
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 necessarily
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 and
2. If another libertarian fails to live up to #1, to STILL refrain from
making any sort of personal attack, or responding in a similar way. I
realize that this will be contrversial. Initially, I balked at this
idea myself; it seems to go against everthing Robert Axelrod said in the
Evolution of Cooperation. (Namely, the best way to get Golden Rule
behavior is NOT by following the Golden Rule, but by playing
tit-for-tat.) But this impression is only superficial. Oftentimes,
those who make personal attacks get pleasure out of in-fighting for its
own sake. So responding in kind may just encourage them. Moreover,
there are many better sanctions to impose — loss of reputation, loss of
credibility on serious (i.e., non-purge/schism) issues, etc. And on top
of this, remaining polite and respectful ON PRINCIPLE is somewhat likely
to get others to respond in kind. It is hard to keep calling someone
names if they just ignore it and answer your real argument. On top of
this, there are third-party effects. When you refuse to engage in
personal attacks even when you seem to have every justification to do
so, on-lookers will be impressed by your commitment to discuss only
ideas 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, criticize
it 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’t
make people feel like they are either for you or against you.
Now when I first considered this idea, I was worried that the
libertarian movement would suddenly be filled with every sort of nut —
followers of Lyndon LaRouche, Holocaust revisionists, the works. But
then I thought again. Is there not a spontaneous ordering in
ideological movements as well as in society? Indeed there is. No one
is going to start calling himself a libertarian unless he has SOME
interest in libertarian ideas. No one is going to take the trouble to
engage in dialogue with libertarians if they completely disagree with
us. There are “market forces,” if you will, that automatically create
a reasonable degree of uniformity within every ideological movement,
whether there are purges and schisms or not. What are these market
forces? Simply the affinity of like-minded people for each other’s
company and association. And I think that this force is more than
strong enough to give the libertarian movement all of the cohesiveness
that it needs.
4. If YOU are the victim of a purge or schism, refuse to acknowledge its
importance. Continue to read and cite the valuable works of those who
purged you; continue to encourage others to read them for themselves.
If you have “followers,” don’t drag them in, or treat it as a personal
betrayal if they retain an interest in the works of those who purged you.
Just continue your normal steady stream of positive, constructive work
and don’t worry about it. No reasonable person will think less of you
if you refuse to get into the fray. Naturally, you may respond to
criticisms of your ideas; and if some specific factual charges are made
against you (e.g., that you are a plagiarist, or embezzled funds), by
all means issue a reply. But keep it short, and concentrate on ideas,
I’m not certain that my solution is perfect, but it seems to me to be a
necessary first step. The more I read old periodicals, the more the
present seemed to look just like the past. And the more the present
groupings of libertarians began to make historical sense. As a small,
minority voice, libertarians can’t afford to waste their energy on
anything other than building a complete intellectual alternative to the