In the last essay I argued that libertarians have the wrong approach to advancing their cause. I could have quoted libertarian godfather Murray Rothbard: “While Marxists devote about 90 percent of their energies to thinking about strategy and only 10 percent to their basic theories, for libertarians the reverse is true.” Rothbard observed that the libertarian strategy amounts to an intellectually satisfying but strategically impotent method of talking at people. “Most classical liberal or laissez-faire activists have adopted, perhaps without much thoughtful consideration, a simple strategy that we may call ‘educationism.’ Roughly: We have arrived at the truth, but most people are still deluded believers in error; therefore, we must educate these people — via lectures, discussions, books, pamphlets, newspapers, or whatever — until they become converted to the correct point of view.”
Libertarians not only suffer from a lack of strategy for winning, they have little to offer in the way of maintaining authority should they some day emerge victorious. This is important to consider because American liberty (and I am largely confining this to be an American question, though many of my comments apply to libertarians in other countries) has enemies both internal and external.
Start with external enemies — the host of armed authoritarian states that would relish an opportunity to seize American wealth and liberty. There is no gentle way of saying this: libertarians sound like absolute fools when they talk about foreign policy. I have heard libertarian thinkers much smarter than me give brilliant, sophisticated, world-wise discourses on libertarian domestic policy, only to sound like naive sophomores when the talk turns to foreign affairs.
Libertarians like to pretend, for example, that the U.S. could have avoided World War II without consequence for liberty. At best they argue from historical accident rather than principal — the claim that Hitler would have lost by virtue of his failure in Russia, for example, or that Britain could have survived without the American Lend-Lease program.
Likewise comes the libertarian claim that American adventures in the Cold War were misguided. In this they display an ugly penchant for concerning themselves with the liberties of white Americans, which explains the view of many that the U.S. Civil War represents the earliest great infringement on liberty (as if the liberty of slaves doesn’t count in the balance).
These arguments against foreign intervention derive from the libertarian principle that coercion is wrong, which is really no fixed principle at all, because nearly all libertarians admit that a military financed through taxation is a necessity for the protection of liberty. Somewhere in their calculus, however, they conclude that this coercion shouldn’t extend to financing the liberation of non-Americans. Perhaps this is principled, but it is certainly not the only viable alternative for a true lover of liberty. To tell people languishing in states like China and the former Soviet bloc that our commitment to liberty prevents us from opposing their masters is the height of churlishness and foolishness.
Perhaps the worst is the libertarian position on Israel, which amounts to a replay of Joe Kennedy’s see-no-evil, hear-no-evil approach to Hitler in the 1930′s. Sure, without American support every man, woman, and child among the Jews might have their throats slit by Muslim thugs, but it’s not like they got that country fairly in the first place, and really, it’s none of our business. That’s not a caricature, by the way. At an event in Washington I heard a prominent libertarian argue that we shouldn’t support Israel because what happens to them is their problem, not ours. And libertarians wonder why nobody takes their views on foreign policy seriously.
The libertarian response to this critique is to point out examples of failed U.S. intervention. Yes, the CIA sowed seeds of anti-Americanism in Iran by supporting the Shah. Admitted, we supported a tyrant in Haiti. True, we armed the mujahaddin in Afghanistan. But we also dealt the death blows to Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, and accelerated the self-destruction of the Soviet Union while controlling its expansion. These are not trivial events in the history of liberty. Libertarian academics have developed a cottage industry, however, to produce counterfactual histories which amount to claiming that all of the good things would have happened anyway without American intervention, and probably would have happened faster.
Of course one can just as easily tell a story in which American isolationism leads to the emergence of totalitarian states that divide the rest of the world, restrict trade, and make all of us worse off. The point is that in the area of foreign policy libertarians are most likely to argue from principle, yet this is the area where consequentialism is most required. Nobody cares about principle if it leads to enslavement or death. When libertarians do argue from consequence, they have no experience or expertise to speak from, nor do they associate with people who do. Name the libertarian scholars with serious expertise in foreign or military affairs. Name the libertarian activists with considerable experience in foreign or military affairs. You get the point.
To be taken seriously as a philosophy of governance, libertarianism must grapple with foreign affairs, and with the possible reality that liberty depends on strong military power. Suggest this at a libertarian gathering, however, and you’ll hear chuckles of derision. Perhaps they are right. The fact that they chuckle, however, but have yet to answer this question in a convincing manner, is evidence of the libertarian closemindedness on this issue.
But let’s assume that most libertarians would support a military large enough to fend off foreign enemies. They would still have to confront the reality that they have no viable model of power maintenance against domestic enemies of liberty. To see what I mean, imagine that libertarians have nominated a slate of charismatic, well-funded, highly networked candidates (indulge me — it’s a Friday) who have won the Presidency and a solid majority of Congress. These revolutionaries proceed to create the libertarian wet dream — drug legalization, plans for phasing out government schools and Social Security, isolationist foreign policy, no more ATF . . . and did I mention drug legalization?
In this fantasy the economy booms but foreign states are deterred by our minimal armed forces, people are happy, and sales of Atlas Shrugged go through the roof. It is the End of History.
Except, people get older. Memory fades. The Left remains committed to brainwashing children and co-opting public and private organizations. A child overdoses on heroin. Drugs are slowly re-criminalized. Some idiot old babyboomers (sorry for the triple redundancy) starve to death because they could never be bothered to save for old age. Others lose their savings when they invest them all in Bill Clinton Enterprises. Hello Social Security and financial regulation. The schools stay private because the Left realizes how much easier it is to peddle garbage by McDonaldizing it (i.e., by becoming the low-cost provider and pandering to human weakness).
So, in a generation or less, the revolution is slowly dismantled, and libertarians are blamed for the ills of society. They go back to holding their convention in a Motel Six in Las Vegas, and cheering when their candidate for Sonoma County Commissioner comes in a close third in a three-man race.
The Left doesn’t face this problem. Deprived of principle, integrity, or honor, they are happy to snip the bottom rungs as they climb the ladder of power. You can already see this in Europe, where EU thugs are slowly transferring decision-making authority from quasi-democratic legislatures to unelected Brussels technocrats. We saw a hint of it in the U.S., when supposed children of the free-thinking sixties proved strikingly willing to use the power of the federal government to punish and stifle opposition.
But libertarians are all about individual liberty. Thus they face a quandary: How to maintain their state once it’s built? This question should be especially pressing, insofar as their model implies that government tends to grow and become oppressive.
There appear to be two avenues open: the first is to adopt a variant of the Left’s strategy, and eliminate unfavored options for future generations. Libertarians might, for example, replace the Constitution with a mirror document that does not contain any provision for amendment. This would leave the states open to adopt all manner of idiocy, however. Perhaps libertarians at the state level could adopt similarly permanent protections of individual rights as well. Thus libertarians could effectively ban most opposition parties, without suffering the guilt that Third World dictators endure when they do so more directly. I’m not sure if this would be acceptable in the libertarian paradigm. No matter, however, for the point is that they don’t discuss it.
The second avenue for maintaining the libertarian state is culture. If children and new citizens are thoroughly educated in logic, economics, and other foundations of libertarian thinking, then perhaps they can be trusted to maintain liberty even in the face of very persuasive demagogues. But then certain topics become central: childrearing, childhood education, individual self-censorship and discipline, community norms, and reciprocal obligations. It would also require a consideration of the place religion plays in all of the aforementioned. Nearly all of these topics, however, are ignored by individualist libertarians, who furthermore routinely deride — almost as a condition for membership — those who call for their rigorous pursuit either as policy or personal practice.
Libertarians have less that’s interesting to say about childhood education, for example, than does the Democratic Leadership Council. But childhood education is probably the linchpin of the libertarian society. How many libertarians, however, give much thought to where even their own children will go to school? Sure, they want safety and effectiveness, like any other parent, but how many give serious attention to finding or building schools that inculcate in children the ability to think critically, along with a sense of moral responsibility? Precious few.
If libertarians were serious about taking and maintaining power — truly serious — then they would drop the caterwauling over drug criminalization and focus every drop of energy on building schools. The latter is hard work, however, and forces consideration of messy things like moral instruction, and self-discipline, and what makes for good parenting. It’s far easier to toke up in the discounted hotel room at the Libertarian Party Convention and rail against the DEA. Thus libertarianism remains less a force for change than a tool for self-expression.
This is in part a product of the natural individualistic nature of libertarianism. The solution isn’t to eliminate — or even drastically reduce — the individualism that underlies libertarian philosophy, but it does require reconciliation with the social nature of human beings. It also requires acceptance of the fact that people are not only communal in nature, but spiritual. I will address this in my next essay.