Leftist criticisms of libertarianism have surged lately, a phenomenon warranting explanation. We libertarians could justifiably find it all quite confusing. For decades we have thought our battle a largely losing one, at least in the short term. We are a tiny, relatively powerless minority. The state has raged on, expanding in virtually every direction, for my entire lifetime and that of my parents. Yet nearly every week our beloved philosophy of non-aggression is subject to some progressive’s relatively widely read hatchet job. On the surface, it appears at least as misdirected as the rightwing hysteria about Marxists during the Cold War. But at least Marxism was the supposed tenet of the Soviet Union, a regime with thousands of nukes ready to launch. Why all this concern about little ol’ us?
We could go through all these critiques line by line and expose the many factual errors and gross misinterpretations, whether disingenuous or unintentional. But it might be more worthwhile to ask, Why all this focus on the supposed demonic threat of libertarianism in the first place?
It was not too long ago that the Slate’s Jacob Weisberg declared the end of libertarianism. Time of death? The financial collapse, which proved our "ideology makes no sense." Not three years later, the same web publication is exposing "the liberty scam": "With libertarianism everywhere, it's hard to remember that as recently as the 1970s, it was nowhere to be found."
Funny, I thought libertarianism was dead. Now it is an insidious scam worthy of multiple articles exposing the danger that lurks beneath the façade. In 28 months our defunct ideology has resurrected into a ubiquitous threat.
If only. Despite the leftists’ hysteria that libertarianism is permeating the Tea Parties, defining Republican politics, and central to the message espoused by Glenn Beck, this is so far from the truth, so paranoid a delusion, that it makes Beck’s most incoherent sketches upon his notorious chalkboard appear like plausible, sensible political analysis by comparison.
The government grows bigger every day and every year, no matter how you measure it. There are more laws, more police, and more prisoners than ever. The empire and presidential power have been on the rise for decades. Spending has increased at all levels. New bureaucracies, edicts, social programs, and prohibitions crop up continually. Almost no regulations are ever repealed – yes, back in the late 1990s, Clinton signed a partial deregulation of certain bank practices (opposed by Ron Paul, as it was phony to begin with), which had nothing to do with the financial meltdown and yet is blamed for every economic problem that unfolded in the last decade. Yes, back in the early 1980s, Reagan cut marginal tax rates while increasing other taxes and positioning himself to double the federal government, and, according to the left-liberals, we’ve been in a laissez-faire tailspin ever since. But anyone who really thinks libertarianism has been dominant in this country clearly has very little understanding of what libertarianism is – or is utterly detached from reality.
Weisberg was wrong in 2008 when he predicted the demise of our philosophy after an era of major influence, and his fellow-traveling writer at Slate is wrong now when he thinks he sees it everywhere. It is telling, however, that when they choose to go after the Tea Party conservatives, the beltway think tanks, and the GOP rightwing, they do not generally attack these people for their many unlibertarian views (views that the left claims to oppose as well): Their love of the police state, their support for the drug war, their disregard for the Fourth Amendment, their comfort with torture, their demonization of immigrants and foreigners, and, above all, their unwavering penchant for warmongering. No, you see, these positions, while unfashionable in some liberal circles, are at least within the respectable parameters of debate. But if some conservative ever mentioned the Tenth Amendment favorably, questioned the legitimacy of the welfare state, or said perhaps the budget deficit should be cut by at least a third this year – horror upon horrors! This is far beyond the bounds of reasonable discussion. And, as it so happens, these are positions that libertarians would find somewhat agreeable, and so we see the real problem with Glenn Beck isn’t his flirtations with fascism and militarism; it’s the quirky way he wonders aloud if government has gotten a bit too big and might pose a threat to freedom. The populist conservatives are not exposed for being protectionists – that much is tolerable – but rather for clinging to their guns and localism. The neolibertarian policy wonks are attacked not for being soft on war but for being too hard on the state.
The fact is, most left-liberals do hate and fear libertarianism more than they oppose modern conservatism. It makes sense. For one thing, the conservatives and liberals seemingly agree on 90% of the issues, certainly when compared to the views of principled libertarians. They all favor having a strong military. We tend to want to abolish standing armies. They all think the police need more power – to crack down on guns, if you’re a liberal, and to crack down on drugs, if you’re a conservative. We libertarians think police have way too much power and flirt with the idea of doing away with them altogether. The conservatives and liberals all want to keep Medicare, Social Security, and public schools intact, if tweaked around the edges. We see these programs for what they are: the parasitic class’s authoritarian and regressive programs to control the youth and foment intergenerational conflict.
Second of all, conservatism is a much better foil for liberals to attack than libertarianism is. They can deal with the friendly rivalry between red-state fascism and blue-state socialism. With the central state as their common ground, the two camps enjoy hurling insults at each other, playing culture war games, vying over power, doing what they can to expand government knowing that even should they lose control, it will eventually come back to them. This might explain why when leftists condemn conservatism for its hypocritical claims to libertarianism, they seldom follow up by saying true libertarianism would in fact be preferable. To the contrary, the argument is usually that since the conservatives are collectivists after all, they should warm up to the liberal flavor of collectivism espoused by Democrats. The left correctly says the right does not embrace genuine free enterprise, but socialism for the rich, and that the right is not really for small government, not when it comes to imposing its values. But then does the left conclude that libertarianism is not so bad, after all? Not usually. For in the end, the more anti-government the right is, the more a menace it is to the left’s project of social democracy and humanitarian militarism.
But libertarianism, however weak its influence today, is a much greater long-term threat to the left than is any form of conservatism, and the leftist intellectuals sense this even if they can’t articulate why. Leftism, whether they know it or not, is a distorted permutation of the classical liberal tradition. The statist left did their deal with the devil – the nation-state, centralized authority of the most rapacious kind – supposedly with the goal of expediting the liberation of the common man and leveling the playing field. More than a century since the progressives and socialists twisted liberalism into an anti-liberty, pro-state ideology, they see that they have made a huge mess of the world, that, as they themselves complain, social inequality persists, corporatism flourishes, and wars rage on. As the chief political architects of the 20th century in the West, they have no one to blame but themselves, and so they target us – the true liberals, the ones who never let go of authentic liberal idealism, love of the individual dignity and rights of every man, woman and child, regardless of nationality or class, and hatred of state violence and coercive authoritarianism in all its forms.
But Barack Obama is really what has made the left-liberal illusion fold under the weight of its own absurdity. Here we had the perfect paragon of left-liberal social democracy. He beat the centrist Hillary Clinton then won the national election. He had a Democratic Congress for two years. He had loads of political capital by virtue of following a completely failed and unpopular Republican administration. The world welcomed him. The center cheered him. And what did he do?
He shoveled money toward corporate America, banks and car manufacturers. He championed the bailouts of the same Wall Street firms his very partisans blamed for the financial collapse. He picked the CEO of General Electric to oversee the unemployment problem. He appointed corporate state regulars for every major role in financial central planning. After guaranteeing a new era of transparency, he conducted all his regulatory business behind a shroud of unprecedented secrecy. He planned his health care scheme, the crown jewel of his domestic agenda, in league with the pharmaceutical and insurance industries.
He continued the war in Iraq, even extending Bush’s schedule with a goal of staying longer than the last administration planned. He tripled the U.S. presence in Afghanistan then took over two years to announce the eventual drawdown to bring it back to only double the Bush presence. He widened the war in Pakistan, launching drone attacks at a dizzying pace. He started a war on false pretenses with Libya, shifting the goal posts and doing it all without Congressional approval. He bombed Yemen and lied about it.
He enthusiastically signed on to warrantless wiretapping, renditioning, the Patriot Act, prison abuse, detention without trial, violations of habeas corpus, and disgustingly invasive airport security measures. He deported immigrants more than Bush did. He increased funding for the drug war in Mexico. He invoked the Espionage Act more than all previous presidents combined, tortured a whistleblower, and claimed the right to unilaterally kill any U.S. citizen on Earth without even a nod from Congress or a shrug from the courts.
The left-liberals who stand by this war criminal and Wall Street shill have made their choice: better to have the militarism and police state, so long as it means a little more influence over domestic politics, even if that too is compromised by corporate interference, than it is to embrace a radical antiwar agenda that might complicate their domestic aspirations.
Our critics complain that America has "moved to the right" in the last three decades, and that would supposedly include Obama’s record so far, which appears in most part like a third Bush term. Yet not a single one of the egregious policies above passes libertarian muster. They are all anathema to the libertarian. And so are almost all policies embarked upon in the last three generations. And surely, this is true most of all for the wars. The few honest folks on the left recognize this. As the iconoclast Thad Russell puts it:
I’m a man of the left. I was raised by socialists in Berkeley. I’ve always been on the left. I stumbled upon Antiwar.com about three years ago. . . . This is what the left should be doing. This is what the left should be saying. . . . Libertarians like Antiwar.com, like Ron Paul, have been the leading voices of the antiwar movement. They’ve been the most principled, the most consistent, no matter who’s president. They’ve been saying again and again and again: "These wars are disasters. The empire must end." And the left shuns them because they either think they’re shills for corporations or they're racists or they don’t care about people. How could they not care about people if they’re the leading voices against killing people in our name?
Indeed, if we truly did not care about people, why would we libertarians waste so much time fighting what often seems to be a Sisyphean battle? Why not just lobby for federal contracts in Washington? Why not get government jobs and live off the taxpayer? Why not just ignore politics altogether, instead of fretting day and night about oppressive policies whose direct effects are most often borne by other people? The fact is, libertarianism is an ethical system whose discovery tends to compel its adherents to fight – and not mostly for themselves, but for the freedom of their fellow man, for perfect strangers.
Unfortunately, most of the left would rather not focus on the 98% of the Obama agenda that mirrors that of George W. Bush, including all the war on terror excesses they condemned for seven years. Or they comically attribute Obama’s Bush-like record as being part of the "culture of individualism" that we libertarians are somehow responsible for. Libertarianism, you see, can be found in the Obama White House as much as it lurks behind every Bush. You can expand government in every area but if you say something nice about the market or cut taxes by a couple percent, everything bad that happens on your watch is to be blamed on libertarianism.
Whether a willful misdirection or not, these leftists target their animus upon those who dare think that a nearly four-trillion-dollar federal government is too big, blaming Republicans for being too libertarian and blaming libertarians for being too idealistic or selfish. They even go after Ron Paul, who has always promised to scale back the warfare state and drug war immediately, while being more gradualist on welfare. They’ll even attack him for his heroic stand on legalizing heroin. Why? They have to challenge the very idea of libertarianism, even if it means bashing us for positions we thought they shared, such as on drug reform.
During the Bush years, many libertarians, myself included, said we would happily tolerate, for the time being anyway, the Democrats’ welfare state if it actually meant the end of the neocon war machine and police state. Of course, now we have all three in fuller force than in many decades. While for the sake of peace, many of us would tolerate welfare, the liberals are different: For the sake of welfare, they will tolerate war or at least the emperor waging it. Karl Hess was right: "Whenever you put your faith in big government for any reason, sooner or later you wind up an apologist for mass murder."
Everyone who votes for Barack Obama, a man with the blood of thousands of innocents on his hands, all to avoid another Republican administration that will presumably (but unlikely) slash back the domestic state, would seem to have some sorry priorities. You really care about the poorest, most innocent people? Throw your party, your president, your social democratic dreams under the bus – threaten to withhold your votes from any Democrat who lends his support to any war ever again.
Such talk about withdrawing consent from the state frightens the statist left, who may also be quite embarrassed that the most principled opponents of empire and oppression are obviously not the economic interventionists, but those whose philosophy lies somewhere on the spectrum between anarchism and anti-Federalism. Aside from their sheer embarrassment there is another explanation for their deflection, for their attacks on libertarianism while their president shreds the Bill of Rights, bankrupts the country, and slaughters in their name: The left knows that in the very long run, libertarianism really is the great philosophical adversary it must contend with. Conservatism is categorically the ideology of the past. The future clash will be between those who seek freedom from the state and those who seek salvation through the state, those who see the state as the enemy and those who somehow think the state can protect the masses from the ruling class. As libertarians, our dream is more utopian and our ideals are loftier, but our understanding of reality is also much more grounded and justified. Voluntarism and the market are far more humane and productive than any coercive alternative. The state is the enemy of the little guy. This is an immutable truth of the human condition. Obama, like Bush before him, only demonstrates the impossibility of divorcing the party of power from the party of privilege. Eventually the young, the idealistic, and those who hope for real change will retreat from the lying promises of leftist statism and embrace the radical and realistic program of individual liberty. It has already begun to happen, which is why the other side is frantic and scared.