Libertarian Strategy and Principle:
A Long-Term View
by Anthony Gregory
It didn’t take long for the shift to transpire. The conservatives, after eight years defending the obscenely criminal and authoritarian Bush regime to the most degenerate depths, have rediscovered their role as rigorous defenders of Constitutional federalism, boasting that dissent is the highest form of patriotism, questioning the very legal and moral legitimacy of governmental and even executive power, daring to hope aloud that the regime fails. The left-liberals, meanwhile, have resumed their role as the most enthusiastic admirers of American leviathan, calling for its expansion in a hundred different directions, questioning the patriotism of those who oppose their commander in chief and even, at times, calling dissent treason. The transition concerning who plays opposition is typically awkward but usually has the pretense of being gradual and organic. This time, it came rather quickly right after Obama’s inauguration and, in the last two years, has taken on a surreal character.
Now it is the beginning of the 2012 election season and the same maddening hypocrisy will surely escalate. We will hear absurdities that would cause a saint to lose his composure in frustration. Much of the dissonance arises because both Bush and Obama have been unspeakably energetic and abusive with government power, and because more than 95% of their policies are identical. And so when those who a few years back lobbied for loyalty oaths today question the legitimacy of the president, cheering on some of the most histrionic and irreverent displays of political protest since Vietnam – and when those who once called the president a war criminal today declare that those who deride the president are anti-American and should be censored – all of this is much more frustrating since the domestic and foreign policies are fundamentally the same.
One could say the conservatives are more jarring in their metamorphosis given how completely brown-shirted they could be at the height of the Bush years, and just how Jeffersonian they pretend to be today, some of them even comfortable with the ideas of challenging the Federal Reserve. You turn the radio’s dial to the right and it’s all about the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence and the Tenth Amendment. The blather is intolerable.
But the liberals can be, in their own way, just as perplexing to ponder. All the wars and surveillance and detention abuses they decried for years continue on their guy’s watch, and although some protest, most are at best vaguely discontent with the murderous bombings, but much more preoccupied with defending the president’s war on the American economy.
So let us consider what some would call a strategic matter. Whether in terms of activism or educational outreach, what exactly do we make of this phenomenon of yesterday’s neoconservatives sounding like libertarians today? What kind of inroads can be made into the chaotic conservative movement, defined by a fractured and vacuous party and a sort of crisis of identity? What are the dangers of being co-opted?
At first, it may have been encouraging to see the Tea Party phenomenon, which was, at its best, independent from the Republican machine. But soon enough it came to resemble nothing very different from the conservatives’ presumed anti-government antics of the 1990s, which themselves culminated in one of the worst presidential administrations in history. And then many of these activists lined up behind the same old Republican creeps and con artists as usual. Early polls showed Newt Gingrich to be a Tea Party favorite. Polls after the 2010 election revealed that so-called Tea Party types were much less unhappy with the federal government than only months before. It turns out that just as the antiwar movement of 2003 was largely an anti-Bush movement pretending to stand for something more principled than partisanship, the anti-government rhetoric of the anti-Obama populist right was largely so much subterfuge.
In a time somewhat reminiscent of our own – 1965, the height of the Great Society, as the conservative opposition resisted some of LBJ’s domestic program while whooping it up for the warfare state – the great libertarian Murray Rothbard addressed the fundamental problem with political conservatism:
The Conservative has long been marked, whether he knows it or not, by long-run pessimism: by the belief that the long-run trend, and therefore time itself, is against him. Hence, the inevitable trend runs toward left-wing statism at home and communism abroad. It is this long-run despair that accounts for the Conservative’s rather bizarre short-run optimism, for since the long run is given up as hopeless, the Conservative feels that his only hope of success rests in the current moment. In foreign affairs, this point of view leads the Conservative to call for desperate showdowns with communism, for he feels that the longer he waits the worse things will ineluctably become; at home, it leads him to total concentration on the very next election, where he is always hoping for victory and never achieving it. The quintessence of the practical man, and beset by long-run despair, the Conservative refuses to think or plan beyond the election of the day.
We see the same thing today. The conservatives are obsessed with every single battle, as though it’s the defining one between civilization and living under tyranny. Whether it’s a judicial appointment, an amendment to legislation, a slight procedural change in indefinite detention policy, a given military engagement, a fight between two budget plans that are virtually identical, or a midterm election, victory or defeat determines whether the human race will be saved or forever doomed. When they were in power, every crackdown on the Bill of Rights and move to aggrandize the military was advertised as absolutely essential to our national security, lest we all be consumed in mushroom clouds and anthrax.
Indeed, these individual instances can carry great importance, and I too have strong opinions about most of them, and sometimes agree with the conservatives. But the point is there is a myopic perspective in the conservative outlook. "For the first time in my life, I worry for my country," is something I’ve heard many conservatives say – as though their dread Soviet enemy or Bill Clinton didn’t cause them great alarm in their own time, and as though George W. Bush kept the country safe and free.
Meanwhile, it also seems true that most conservatives suffer long-term pessimism. Human nature is inherently evil, they seem to think, having adopted the core Hobbesian belief that the state must force people into civility, order and peace, whether by taser, electric chair, predator drone or nuke. Thus they believe freedom to be inadequate concerning a wide range of questions – law and order, national defense, drugs, immigration, agriculture, roads, zoning, occupational licensure, family relations, intellectual property, international trade. On these many crucial areas, most conservatives are essentially as statist as most liberals.
The importance of conservative and liberal statist ideology is paramount. Ideology determines the nature of the state, as Oppenheimer, Mises and others have long noted. In particular, conservatism, warned Rothbard, is the ancient enemy of freedom. That is not to say it is the only one.
Today’s left-liberalism, like all liberalism of the modern era, is corrupt, incoherent, managerial, envious, puritanical, utilitarian and oppressive. It is forever interested in invading every aspect of your life to make you a better person, so long as it does not trample on those freedoms that are politically correct. It is relentless in its obsession to make life fairer, safer, cleaner and socially manageable, all at the barrel of a gun. It is the philosophy that leads to bans on plastic bags, glorious incandescent light bulbs, deliciously flavored cigarettes, and Happy Meals.
Left-liberalism is also at best unreliable in opposing war, since it accepts most of the fundamental precepts involved, including the power of government force to remake societies for the better. The way so many left-liberals jumped on the bandwagon for war with Libya underscores this. They were enthusiastic about the prospect of their liberal government, once again, stopping genocide. They swallowed whole all the state propaganda, as though Obama and NATO would never lie the way Bush did.
The dominant strain of the American left is progressivism – international do-gooderism, secular Puritanism, thorough-going unionism, belief in good government, corporate socialism, and faith in bureaucracy with a near worship of the capacity of the nation-state to advance society.
The far left is even worse on most economics questions. It is a horror to me that socialism continues to bamboozle swaths of the youth. Seeing Mao glorified by college students is sickening. It is frustrating that often the better a lefty is on civil liberties and war, the worse he is on economic science and property rights.
But hard socialism is not dominant and the far left has to some degree served as a boogeyman. The rightwing fear that Obama represents the politics of New Left agitators, the Marxists, and Jeremiah Wright is off the mark – as is the bizarre accusation that he is a shill for the Islamists. Similarly, the progressive left attacks the far right, demonizing those who, for better or worse reasons, are somewhat extremist – as in, principled. From a libertarian perspective, however, Obama’s subversive reverend is probably one of the most inspiring things about his political identity, just as Sarah Palin’s husband once having an interest in Alaskan independence is a cause for celebration, not condemnation.
The radical left, while in some ways most naïve about economics, are sometimes the best at following the money, analyzing the corporate state, and revising the U.S. record on war and police abuses. The truly traditional conservatives, whatever their failings, long for a time of localism and individualism. The far left and far right would perhaps be as bad as, even worse than, our current masters if they wielded power. But in general, they do not dominate.
It is the center left most in power right now, and this gives us more perspective and makes sense of the fact that the Republicans and Democrats govern so similarly. It also shows us that the biggest political evils we must actually fear are all rooted in mainstream American political culture. The leadership of both parties, and most supposedly respectable thinkers on left and right, and sadly most Americans, share a devotion to interventionism both at home and abroad.
There is an answer to this problem, and it can be found in our ideological heritage: classical liberalism, predating the Old Right and New Left by well over a century. Something rather akin to radical individualist libertarianism could be seen in 19th century American anarchist thinkers. Earlier than that we of course see our ideas in the Western legal tradition, in the Scholastic thinkers, in the Levellers, the better of the Founding Fathers and the abolitionists. The point is, we hail from an ideological origin much more venerable and impressive than anything touted by today’s American left or right...