The failures of foreign interventionism litter the world stage. Libya is disintegrating into an inter-tribal battlefield, with rival militias shooting it out Wild West style. Iraq is collapsing into chaos, as the country’s postwar order frays and splits along sectarian religious lines: and in Afghanistan, scene of our initial foray into the endless abyss we call a “war on terrorism,” the trumpets are sounding the call to retreat.
Going further back into the history of America’s obsessive foreign adventurism, let’s revisit Kosovo – a Mafia-run “state” that is the cold sore on Europe’s lower lip. It’s the center of Europe’s booming heroin trade, its Prime Minister a gangster straight out of “The Sopranos.”
Yet still the War Party presses ahead with its prescriptions for certain disaster: Syria, Iran, Russia, China – the world is filled with endless enemies, “rogue states” requiring a little “shock and awe,” just enough to make them fall in line with Uncle Sam’s plan for “world order.”
One would think that, with this record, the interventionists among us would have long since been discredited – but no. The abolition of history is one of the War Party’s signal achievements: no sooner have we suffered the consequences of our reckless hubris than the memory of it is erased, like a hangover “cured” by the hair of the dog that bit us.
Is Baghdad in flames? Then on to Damascus! Is Kabul a ruin? Next stop – Tehran!
The discovery that Iraq’s fabled “weapons of mass destruction” didn’t exist – and never existed – failed to provoke a general reexamination of the policies that culminated in the worst strategic disaster in American military history – or, indeed, any interrogation of the policymakers who made it possible. There was no criminal investigation, no congressional hearings, not even much of a journalistic probe into how we were lied into war and by whom. Just as there was no inquiry into and prosecution of those who instituted a torture regime and set up what previous generations would have scoffed at as impossible – an American gulag.
In America, if you’re a member of the political class, there’s no need to worry about being held accountable for a policy that not only failed miserably, but also involved illegal actions on your part: only the Little People are held up to a strict standard of law enforcement. If you are a Nobody, and you torture and murder and are caught, you wind up in jail – or in the electric chair. If you’re a Policymaker, however, you not only get off scot-free, you may even be honored at a memorial dinner at which waterboarding jokes are the highlight of the evening.
This is the kind of country we live in nowadays, the kind of world we live in: where a moral compass that ought to read “north” instead reads “south,” and the normal ethical standards that endured for generations have been lost, discarded and forgotten along with the Constitution and the rule of law.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that, not so long ago, any administration caught spying on the American people in the massive way this one has would’ve been swept out of power without so much as a second thought: yet the criminals are in charge of this vast prison we call the United States, and it’s the law-abiding citizens who live in fear – fear of their own government. I saw a news story the other day that reports writers censoring themselves due to the chilling effect of government surveillance. Who could’ve imagined such an Orwellian state of affairs as little as a few years ago?
A country, like an individual, can lose its character: it can betray itself, and become something less than it was. In America, this process has been occurring over a period of decades, as the culture came to accept what was previously not only unacceptable but also unheard of. The values that drove the frontiersmen across a continent – self-sufficiency, independence, an indomitable contrariness that no tyrant could ever hope to tame – have long since given way to the sullen apathy of a herd of cattle unsure of their overseer and impatient to be fed.
In this atmosphere, surprisingly, there is a bit of a libertarian revival – or, rather, a libertarian reaction. Some are even going so far as to proclaim a “libertarian moment.” And it’s true: politicians who repeat the libertarian litany of complaints against the Surveillance State are enjoying widespread support for their stance. Not only that, but among the younger crowd there is a revival of interest in the ideas of liberty, and this movement is so informed that it naturally incorporates opposition to foreign intervention as a central pillar of the new libertarianism.
It wasn’t always so: for a long time there was an internal division in the organized libertarian movement over the proper foreign policy of a free country. Within the Libertarian Party, throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, there was a huge fight over interventionism, with the more conservative elements tending to downplay opposition to foreign wars and the “left” or more radical types insisting on the centrality of anti-interventionism to the ideology as a whole. This fight was eventually won by the so-called radicals, but that battle was re-fought in the wake of 9/11, when the “right” raised its head again and suggested that maybe the “war on terrorism” wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
I won’t re-fight that battle here: suffice to say that, in the run up to the invasion of Iraq, there were some prominent libertarian voices raised in support of “liberating” the Iraqi people by force of arms. As far as I know, Antiwar.com was the only libertarian venue to come out against the invasion of Afghanistan – which is now ending so disastrously.
I bring up this history now because libertarians, who are having their moment in the sun, are increasingly the recipients of advice from both opponents and fellow travelers: one recent piece in Salon, which has been devoting lots of space to libertarianism of late, suggests that if only we would reconcile ourselves to “the workers taking over the means of production,” all would be well! (Thanks, but no thanks!) Another polemic labels us the “new communists,” and proceeds downhill from there.
On the positive side, however, our fellow travelers have some very helpful suggestions to make. Journalist Timothy P. Carney’s muckraking exposés of crony capitalism have given birth to an innovative way of looking at politics: through the lens of “libertarian populism,” which focuses on the depredations of the political class and the price paid by the rest of us. Likewise, fellow traveler Conor Friedersdorf, a writer for The Atlantic, recently spoke before a libertarian student group with some words of advice, most of which I completely agree with.
Friedersdorf wants us to dialogue with non-libertarians as if we really mean to persuade them, rather than satisfy ourselves with an emotional rant that does nothing but make us feel self-righteous – and nothing to convince our audience. These are words to live by: however, something struck me as I read over the partial text of his speech, and the following jumped out at me:
“Look for allies, not heretics. Someone who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is an ally, not an enemy to denounce for not being a true libertarian. Someone who agrees with you 1 percent of the time, on just a single issue, is someone you can work with in good faith on that issue. And if you do, odds are they’ll listen more closely to your other ideas.”
Well, yes – and no. Looking for heretics is a waste of time because they’ll usually come looking for you, and are therefore not too hard to find. They pop up whenever the going gets rough: that is, whenever the conventional wisdom militates against libertarian ideas being taken seriously by all the Very Serious People in Washington, D.C.
The smoke had hardly cleared from the rubble of the World Trade Center when one libertarian columnist wrote that just as there are “no atheists in foxholes, perhaps there are no true libertarians in times of terrorist attacks.” She went on to denounce computer encryption technology as “scary.”
I have no doubt that when it comes to domestic issues such as taxation and regulation, I’m in fundamental agreement with this particular libertarian well over 80 percent of the time. However, at that moment – a few weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks – the remaining 20 percent had attained crucial importance: the country was howling for vengeance and the neocons were denouncing anyone who opposed their war plans as a terrorist sympathizer. In retrospect, as we look back from a vantage point afforded by Edward Snowden’s recent revelations, my point is underscored: sure, it’s nice to be able to agree with someone 80 percent of the time, but we can’t make a judgment about their reliability or worth as allies unless we take a good look at the remaining 20 percent where we’re in disagreement.
As good part of my wayward youth was spent in an organization known as the Libertarian Party Radical Caucus (LPRC), founded by Eric Garris, our present web master, and myself sometime in the late 1970s. Aside from our campy fixation with the leftist rhetoric of the 1970s, and dramatic excesses typical of our age group, the LPRC did one important thing in its tumultuous and short-lived history (1978-83): it published a ten-point program that still, today, serves as a model for a reasonable libertarian radicalism. Among these ten pillars of libertarian wisdom, the sixth echoes down through the years with a certain urgency and even a hint of prescience:
“Anti-lmperialism and Centrality of Foreign Policy -Because the United States government aspires to world-wide control of events, foreign policy is always potentially the most important issue of our time. The Libertarian Party should bring to the public the truth about the U.S. government’s major responsibility for the cold war and the continuing threat to world peace posed by US foreign policy. No one should be deceived by the notion that any government, like the American, which has a relatively benign domestic policy, therefore has a relatively benign foreign policy. Our goal is to build an international revolutionary libertarian movement, and our task is to hold up the banner of liberty so that all the world’s peoples and races can rally around it.”
How to put this principle into practice was demonstrated by the LPRC’s mentor, Murray Rothbard, who joined our “Central Committee” – I warned you we were campy – soon after the Radical Caucus was founded.
In the dreary 1950s, of which the year 1956 was the low point, Rothbard was a lone Manhattan libertarian (except for Leonard Liggio!), and Adlai Stevenson was running for President. In spite of the fact that Rothbard’s economics were the exact opposite of the Stevensonian prescription of state intervention, it was dear old Adlai’s opposition to US intervention overseas that put the founder of the modern libertarian movement in Stevenson’s camp.
The idea that anti-imperialism is central to libertarianism was played out when the libertarian movement began to spread beyond Rothbard’s living room, in the 1960s. The conservatives of the day wanted a massive State in order to fight the cold war and the gang centered around National Review was intent on going to war with the Soviet Union. Libertarians in the conservative youth group Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) broke with the YAF leadership in 1969 over the key issues of the draft and the Vietnam war: sure, they agreed with the YAFers on economics and other issues, say, 60 percent of the time – but the remaining 40 percent was over issues of life and death. The YAFers were hot to abolish the income tax – and even hotter to nuke Hanoi.
Coexistence with them in the same organization was inconceivable, and the logic of a split was inevitable, as Rothbard pointed out in a seminal polemic, “Listen, YAF!” Rothbard denounced the conservative movement as a bunch of ex-Trotskyite warmongers and reactionary monarchists with no more real belief in the free market than Richard Nixon on his best day, and he urged libertarians to pack up and leave.
They listened, or at least some of them did, and this led to the creation of a libertarian movement that was organizationally independent as well as programmatically unique. The Ron Paul movement, today, is Rothbard’s legacy: a broad-based truly mass movement, by traditional libertarian standards, that is in total agreement with the key “sixth point.” Even when talking about economic issues, such as the debt, Ron Paul invariably brings in foreign policy by pointing out that we could retire the debt if only we’d give up the Empire.
In the moral and political calculus of deciding which political candidates to support, what single-issue movements to endorse, and which to ignore or oppose, the centrality of foreign policy must be the decisive factor. If we have forgotten the history that confirmed Randolph Bourne’s famous dictum then recent events have surely reminded us “War is the health of the State.”
So, no, don’t go looking for “heretics” – but when they make their presence known, by all means let them have it. Because in the dizzying heights of the “libertarian moment,” the temptation to cut corners – important corners – will inevitably present itself. Oh, if we can only ditch this “isolationist” business, how happy and successful we’ll be! If we can just bring ourselves to cut poor little Israel some slack, and look the other way while Netanyahu and his American supporters gin up a major new war in the Middle East – our candidate will be a shoo-in! If we can but reconcile ourselves to living under a politically correct quasi-dictatorship we’ll get to live in a paradise where pot is legal and gay marriage is a universal right! If we can just manage to get along with these crazed warmongers who nevertheless believe in the free market we’ll get to take over the Republican party!
These various forms of opportunism, both the “right” and “left” varieties, have popped up from time to time in the history of the libertarian movement, but they never went anywhere for the simple reason that “get rich quick” schemes never do.
Sectarianism is a serious affliction, and when a political movement catches it – usually in bad times, when activists turn inward for the lack of opportunities – the consequences can be fatal. Yet, for historical reasons, sectarianism was never much of a problem for libertarians: being so few in number, and so organizationally weak, libertarians in the 1930s and onward to the modern era never had much choice about working within broader coalitions. As we gained in numbers and organizational heft, however, libertarians were presented with a broader range of strategic choices: in short, we could afford to be choosier about our associations.
As the backlash against the Surveillance State and our foreign policy of endless war gathers momentum, libertarians are playing a crucial role in the political life of the nation. As long as they remember the history of their movement, and the lessons it has to teach, heresy ought to be the least of their problems.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
Check out my latest piece for The American Conservative: “JFK, Warmonger.”
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.