Libertarianism’s illusions

I have recently read some interesting blog posts on liberalism and libertarianism. (And as several of those posts mention, the November 2008 conversation at Cato Unbound is worth reading.) I don’t care to address any of those pieces directly. But I feel like mentioning a couple of things about libertarianism that cross my mind periodically.

An article in Reason in November 2008 by Todd Seavey was my first exposure to the suggestion that libertarians in the US exchange their alliance with the conservative movement for an alliance with liberals. There are good reasons for the suggestion, and I have encountered it several times since. But I doubt it can work any better than the alliance with conservatives, which seems not to have served the interests of libertarians at all.

I think that a better suggestion is for libertarians to give up libertarianism. My problem with libertarianism as a political ideology is that it seems incoherent. Many political ideologues either eschew idealism while sticking to utilitarianism or view their ends as both ideal and practical. In contrast, libertarians seem to hold an ideal that they consider impractical; there’s nothing wrong with that. But rather than uphold the ideal while compromising for the practical, they choose to adopt a new ideal that they consider attainable. They try to fudge the gap between idealism and pragmatism.

Specifically, it seems to me that libertarianism is an attempt to fuse liberalism with anarchism and then renounce both. I suspect that most self-identified libertarians hold anarchy (αναρχος — anarchos) as an ideal in their hearts but recognize that anarchy is unattainable. In the context of a well-established and permanent leviathan state, they are sympathetic to the tenets of liberalism, which is utilitarian. (I am talking primarily about classical liberalism, but concessions could be made to social liberalism; I am not referring to any aspect of the neoliberalism of the two-party plutocracy in the US.)

Liberalism, however, excludes skepticism about the fundamental value and legitimacy of the state project. So some people feel torn between anarchy and the liberal state, as between thesis and antithesis. They could choose to accept both, if only with caveats, and some do. But most people are uncomfortable with paradox, so some search for a synthesis to resolve the dialectical tension. Libertarianism is that synthesis.

It might help to define what I mean by libertarianism since it is used in various ways. I’ll use what Karl Hess wrote in “The Death of Politics”:

“Libertarianism is the view that each man is the absolute owner of his life, to use and dispose of as he sees fit: that all man’s social actions should be voluntary, and that respect for every other man’s similar and equal ownership of life and, by extension, the property and fruits of that life, is the ethical basis of a humane and open society. In this view, the only — repeat, only — function of law or government is to provide the sort of self-defense against violence that an individual, if he were powerful enough, would provide for himself.”

“If it were not for the fact that libertarianism freely concedes the right of men voluntarily to form communities or governments on the same ethical basis, libertarianism could be called anarchy.”

And, as Christopher Beam put it in an article about libertarianism that New York Magazine published at the end of December, libertarians seek “minarchy,” i.e., “government responsible for a standing army, local security, and a courts system, and that’s it.”

The idea of minarchy seems based on the artifice that two incongruous elements, anarchy and a liberal state, are reconcilable. And this is worse than the original illusion obscuring the conflict between the ideal and the utilitarian disappear.

Libertarians understandably want to distinguish themselves from statists (i.e., those who believe that the state project is noble). But if minarchy is the goal of libertarianism, any distinction between libertarians and statists is spurious.

Once authority is constituted, even if only to defend against aggression, it cannot but be used to manipulate, coerce, and violate others, including – perhaps especially – those that it purports to defend. And constituted authority is expansive by nature. Only competition from other authorities restrains its expansion. But competing authorities tend to look for and find ways to ally with one another to expand their authority. So the state, once conceived, must expand perpetually. Its subjects cannot restrain it. Power consolidates until it overreaches and makes itself vulnerable to toppling.

Minarchy (i.e., formal government responsible only for a standing army, local security, and a courts system) is a mirage, an apparition. An army, local security forces, and courts will inevitably be used not to defend all members of society equally, but to secure advantages for some at the expense of others. Pretending that minarchy is attainable and sustainable just facilitates that which libertarians, like anarchists, are most adamant about opposing.

I think it is better to embrace, paradoxically, both anarchy and liberalism without pretending that they are compatible. Anarchy is an ideal, and liberalism is utilitarian. Until a plurality of people repudiates the state and espouses anarchy, a liberal (i.e., democratic, constitutional, pluralistic, tolerant, etc.) republic seems to be the least terrible form of modern state.

Some object that the perfect is the enemy of the good. But anarchy, upheld as an ideal, does not have to be an enemy that destroys the liberal state and hurls society into the grip of a totalitarian surveillance-security state. It is possible to maintain an idealist perspective and a utilitarian stance simultaneously. Yes, it is paradoxical, and it is difficult to know which deserves precedence at any particular moment. But this tightrope walk seems best to me.

A combination of philosophical anarchism and pragmatic liberalism seems better than libertarianism at facilitating a defense of liberty and the individual. It opens a space for working meaningfully with classical liberals for a less insane, less oppressive, less invasive, less intolerant, less inequitable organization of society, if that sort of thing appeals to you. Libertarian politics, in refusing to uphold the ideal represented by the dreaded a-word and similarly marginalizing classical liberalism, unwittingly paves a road to authoritarianism.

Strauss, statism, secrecy, leaks, and public good

The New Republic is running an article by Mark Lilla titled “Reading Strauss in Beijing,” in which the author discusses the popularity of the writings of Leo Strauss and Carl Schmitt among intellectuals in Beijing and throughout China. He also mentions Strauss’ influence on American neoconservatives such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle.

The article made me think about utilitarianism and the first paragraph of my previous entry: “The hundreds of US State Department cables released so far by WikiLeaks and its newspaper partners reveal a world in which power factions work for their own good rather than for the common good. Each state seeks to strengthen its hand against other states. None of them have any qualms about acting against the interests of their citizens or humanity as a whole.”

I’ll quote a few pieces of Lilla’s article that stood out (bold emphasis mine) and then his last three paragraphs:

…everyone I spoke with, across the political spectrum, agrees that China needs a stronger state, not a weaker one—a state that follows the rule of law, is less capricious, can control local corruption, and can perform and carry out long-term planning. Their disagreements all seem to be about how a strong state should exercise its power over the economy and how its newfound power should be exercised in international affairs.

[Chinese conservatives’] reading of history convinces them that China’s enduring challenges have always been to maintain territorial unity, keep social peace, and defend national interests against other states.

In agreement with Schmitt, they dismiss the “the autonomy of self-sufficient individuals” and see “the most defining characteristic” of humans as “the ability to distinguish friend and adversary.

Schmitt’s conclusion—that, given the naturally adversarial nature of politics, we would all be better off with a system of geographical spheres of influence dominated by a few great powers—sits particularly well with many of the young Chinese I met.

Schmitt’s political doctrine is brutal modern statism, which poses some problems in China. Though he was a jurist with a lot to say about constitutions and the rule of law, nothing in his thinking recognizes natural limits to state authority or even explains the aims of the state beyond keeping itself together and besting its adversaries. The Chinese tradition of political thought that begins with Confucius, though in a way statist, is altogether different: Its aim is to build a just social hierarchy where every person has a station and is bound to others by clear obligations, including the ruler, who is there to serve. Central to the functioning of such a state are the “gentlemen” (or “gentry” in some Confucius translations), men of character and conscience trained to serve the ruler by making him a better one—more rational and concerned with the people’s good.

Enter Leo Strauss, again. The most controversial aspect of Strauss’s thought in the United States over the past decade, given the role some of his devotees played in concocting the latest Iraq war, is what he had to say about the “gentleman.” Taking a cue from Aristotle, Strauss distinguished between philosophers, on the one hand, and practical men who embody civic virtue and are devoted to the public good, on the other: While knowing what constitutes the good society requires philosophy, he taught, bringing it about and maintaining it requires gentlemen. Aristocracies recognize this need, democracies don’t—which is why the education of gentlemen is difficult in democratic societies and may need to take place in secret. Much was made of this gentlemanly idea in Straussian circles after his death, and as young Straussians became part of the Republican foreign policy apparat, beginning in the Reagan administration, many began seeing themselves as members of an enlightened class guiding America through the “crisis of the West.” (This episode still awaits its satirist.) In this sense there was indeed a connection between Straussianism and the Iraq war.

But for the young Chinese I met, the distinction between sages and statesmen and the idea of an elite class educated to serve the public good make perfect sense because they are already rooted in the Chinese political tradition. What makes Strauss additionally appealing to them, apart from the grand tapestry of Western political theory he lays before them, is that he makes this ideal philosophically respectable without reference to Confucius or religion or Chinese history. He provides a bridge between their ancient tradition and our own. No one I met talked about a post-Communist China, for obvious reasons. But students did speak openly about the need for a new gentry class to direct China’s affairs, to strengthen the state by making it wiser and more just. None of them seemed particularly eager to join the Party, which they said co-opted even the most independent thinkers. For the moment, they seem content to study ancient languages, get their Ph.D.s, and take teaching jobs where they evidently hope to produce philosophers and gentlemen. They are not in a hurry. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

A nice companion to this article is one written by Jim Lobe for Alternet in May 2003 about the influence of Strauss on the neoconservatives who orchestrated the US invasion of Iraq. Again, I quote a some key pieces (my emphasis in bold):

[Neocons Abram Shulsky and Gary Schmitt (not to be confused with Carl
Schmitt)] argued that Strauss’s idea of hidden meaning, “alerts one to the possibility that political life may be closely linked to deception. Indeed, it suggests that deception is the norm in political life, and the hope, to say nothing of the expectation, of establishing a politics that can dispense with it is the exception.”

While professing deep respect for American democracy, Strauss believed that societies should be hierarchical – divided between an elite who should lead, and the masses who should follow. But unlike fellow elitists like Plato, he was less concerned with the moral character of these leaders. According to Shadia Drury, who teaches politics at the University of Calgary, Strauss believed that “those who are fit to rule are those who realize there is no morality and that there is only one natural right – the right of the superior to rule over the inferior.”

This dichotomy requires “perpetual deception” between the rulers and the ruled, according to Drury. Robert Locke, another Strauss analyst says, “The people are told what they need to know and no more.” While the elite few are capable of absorbing the absence of any moral truth, Strauss thought, the masses could not cope. If exposed to the absence of absolute truth, they would quickly fall into nihilism or anarchy, according to Drury, author of ‘Leo Strauss and the American Right’ (St. Martin’s 1999).

According to Drury, Strauss had a “huge contempt” for secular democracy. Nazism, he believed, was a nihilistic reaction to the irreligious and liberal nature of the Weimar Republic. … Strauss viewed religion as absolutely essential in order to impose moral law on the masses who otherwise would be out of control. … “Secular society in their view is the worst possible thing,” Drury says, because it leads to individualism, liberalism, and relativism, precisely those traits that may promote dissent that in turn could dangerously weaken society’s ability to cope with external threats.

Like Thomas Hobbes, Strauss believed that the inherently aggressive nature of human beings could only be restrained by a powerful nationalistic state. “Because mankind is intrinsically wicked, he has to be governed,” he once wrote. “Such governance can only be established, however, when men are united – and they can only be united against other people.”

Not surprisingly, Strauss’ attitude toward foreign policy was distinctly Machiavellian. “Strauss thinks that a political order can be stable only if it is united by an external threat,” Drury wrote in her book. “Following Machiavelli, he maintained that if no external threat exists then one has to be manufactured (emphases added).”

“Perpetual war, not perpetual peace, is what Straussians believe in,” says Drury.

Strauss’ neoconservative students see foreign policy as a means to fulfill a “national destiny” – as Irving Kristol defined it already in 1983 – that goes far beyond the narrow confines of a “myopic national security.”

As to what a Straussian world order might look like, the analogy was best captured by the philosopher himself in one of his – and student Allen Bloom’s – many allusions to Gulliver’s Travels. In Drury’s words, “When Lilliput was on fire, Gulliver urinated over the city, including the palace. In so doing, he saved all of Lilliput from catastrophe, but the Lilliputians were outraged and appalled by such a show of disrespect.”

The image encapsulates the neoconservative vision of the United States’ relationship with the rest of the world – as well as their relationship as a ruling elite with the masses. “They really have no use for liberalism and democracy, but they’re conquering the world in the name of liberalism and democracy,” Drury says.

That last statement makes for a nice segue to Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks. I have read and heard quite a few comments about the published US State Department cables along the lines of: “the US diplomatic corps comes off looking very professional, competent, reasonable, decent, etc.” My first impression was similar. But after reading more and more of the cables, and starting to read more carefully rather than just skimming for the juicy bits, I noticed something contrary: there is a near total absence of authentic regard for the public good. Plenty of cables have portions that give the impression that the individual author and the State Department as a whole are interested in promoting the public good. But each time I have read a cable that contained signs of an interest in promoting the public good, it always looked by the end of the cable like a handy way to obscure and achieve a higher goal: increasing leverage for the US state against other states.

And even if we set aside the ideal of equality and wanting the best for all people, there is an important distinction to be made between improving the lot of the US and improving the lot of the citizens and residents of the US. Strengthening the state almost always comes at the expense of the people over whom the state claims jurisdiction. Yes, the people get incidental benefits from a stronger state, e.g., people feel safer when the state is working to prevent terrorist attacks. But an individual resorts to terrorism against a state typically when that state has encroached on the individual or his or her kith and kin in some way and when the individual cannot find restitution and remedy through existing political channels. And the population that the state works to protect from terrorism probably gives up more than what they would lose in the event of periodically successful terrorist attacks. After all:

If in a province you see the poor oppressed, right and justice violated, do not be surprised. You will be told that officials are under the supervision of superiors, who are supervised in turn; you will hear talk of “the common good” and the “service of the king.” (Ecclesiastes 5:7–8)

But I digress. Returning to Jim Lobe’s article, it was meant as an indictment of American neoconservatives’ devotion to sinister elements of a Straussian mindset. But I think that the cables leaked, allegedly by Bradley Manning, and published so far show that this mindset is rampant throughout the US State Department. It might be disappointing but unsurprising to find evidence of the prevalence of this view in, for example, the military and intelligence branches. But I think that there is a widespread perception that the US State Department is a component of the American state, perhaps the last component, in which classical liberalism can still be found. Of course, it has always contained the likes of Richard Holbrooke and his ilk. But I am struck by the absence of classical liberalism in the cables I have read.

I don’t want to overestimate the importance of Strauss. I don’t imagine that America’s state apparatus is full of people who have studied and subscribe explicitly to the ideas of Strauss. But I do assert that his utilitarian notions of statism; rule by aristocracy; and the political virtues of secrecy, deception, and contrived conflict seem to be ingrained deeply in the institutions of power and the people who populate them — in the US and in the PRC, and probably just about everywhere else.

Constituted authority everywhere seems to be uniting toward an absolute refusal to countenance genuine dissent, as opposed to trivial quarrels within narrow bounds. Constituted authority has never been quite magnanimous about dissent. But there was an era of classical liberalism, which, as mentioned in Lobe’s article, is associated with individualism and dissent, which utilitarians assume “could dangerously weaken society’s ability to cope with external threats.”

The era of classical liberalism, as Lilla remarked, seems to be over. He attributes this in part to “political Islamism and Western responses to it.” The implication is that many people in the Western liberal democracies lack the courage of their professed liberal convictions. Are some things worth dying for? Some say yes, but it seems that far more say no.

In my previous post, I tried to frame that division in terms of utilitarian vs. ethical. I stand by that, but it is overly broad. A more specific framing is Strauss’ perception that the masses are unable to cope with classical liberalism’s presumed agreement to suspend belief in absolute moral truth when engaging in politics with people whose conception of moral truth may differ from our own. In other words, we identify friends, synchronize with them, crown a king, and then — with an undying “loyalty to power even when it is acting corruptly, lawlessly, and destructively” — set our collective face like flint against everyone else. Everything becomes a familiar struggle of us vs. them in which the masses wish “to be told what they need to know and no more,” and the ruling elite are pleased to oblige. But, as Emiliano Zapata said, “Ignorance and obscurantism have never produced anything other than flocks of slaves for tyranny.”

Thus, we have not only the ruling elite globally united against Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks, but a large swathe of the public as well. I quoted Nietzsche in my previous entry: “A state is called the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies also; and this lie creeps from its mouth: ‘I, the state, am the people.’ It is a lie!” Yes, it is a lie. But after the call comes the response: “We, the people, are the state.” And who dissents incurs the wrath of the state and the masses.

American democracy

Institutions vs. people

The hundreds of US State Department cables released so far by WikiLeaks and its newspaper partners reveal a world in which power factions work for their own good rather than for the common good. Each state seeks to strengthen its hand against other states. None of them has any qualms about acting against the interests of their citizens or humanity as a whole.

Government is an association of men who do violence to the rest of us. — Leo Tolstoy

The state is an institution whose purpose is to violate rights in order to secure benefits to a privileged class. — Wendy McElroy

The modern state no longer has anything but rights; it does not recognize duties anymore. — Georges Bernanos

A state is called the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies also; and this lie creeps from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.” It is a lie! Creators were they who created peoples, and hung a faith and a love over them: thus they served life. Destroyers are they who lay snares for many, and call it the state: they hang a sword and a hundred cravings over them. — Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

So the US bargains with other states to strengthen its position vis-à-vis those states. It is willing to prop up tyrannies that it finds useful employ any means to defend and increase its power. This has always been apparent to the conscientious observer, but it is valuable to have it now in fuller view of the public.

But as Jacques Ellul said: “What seems to be one of the disasters of our time is that we all appear to agree that the nation-state is the norm. … Whether the state be Marxist or capitalist, it makes no difference. The dominant ideology is that of sovereignty.” So I’ll turn momentarily from repudiating the state and look beyond the content of the cables to speak in terms that may be more pertinent to those who prefer to focus on improving the state.

Ethical vs. utilitarian

I think that the greatest significance of the recent controversy surrounding Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks (BMWL) is how it seems to illuminate the respective weights given to the ethical and the utilitarian in an individual’s worldview.

People who give precedence to the ethical are confident in ideals such as truth, freedom, and justice. They appreciate the good that can come from the publication of this material. Most can also acknowledge that there are legitimate concerns that should be contemplated and debated. But whatever their views in that respect, they can see that prosecuting WikiLeaks or Julian Assange for espionage or the like is a dangerous and unacceptable precedent.

In contrast, those who subordinate ethics to utilitarianism seem to idolize power. They refuse to make value judgments about constituted authority and its actions. They seem compelled to defend that authority without considering the reasons for opposition or the implications of the means employed to quash opposition and the various possible outcomes of the conflict. This is the seed of authoritarianism, which Glenn Greenwald recently identified as “an instinctively servile loyalty to power even when it is acting corruptly, lawlessly, and destructively.” And the intensity of an attack on BMWL seems to indicate the degree to which the attacker is in thrall to power.

Brittle authoritarianism vs. authoritative strength

But those in the ethical camp need not discard utilitarianism, and it is the utilitarian perspective that leads to recognition that it is impossible to eliminate vulnerability. This leads to decisions about which vulnerabilities to accept based on ideals and priorities. And this maximizes strength without focusing on strength as the ultimate end.

In contrast, a strictly utilitarian perspective leads one at every moment to maximize short-term strength above all else. This self-inflicted myopia serves only to reduce strength in the long term.

I believe that an individual who does the hard work of living ethically is more likely to attain true happiness in the end than an unethical person is. Likewise, a nation whose people conduct politics ethically grows stronger than nations whose politics are rigidly utilitarian. Neither happiness for the individual nor strength for the nation can be attained through direct pursuit.

Democracy vs. plutocracy

And so I turn back to the US, where so many people believe that democracy “impresses its character on everything it touches” and that “nothing can touch democracy” (see my post of 10 December regarding Jacques Ellul’s Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes).

Despite mythology about the US being a place of freedom and democracy, the country has always been haunted by authoritarianism and plutocracy. I associate this with the failure to combine independence for the nation with manumission for individuals. The issue goes far beyond the struggles of African-Americans through slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights, etc. Successive generations in the US have faced iterations of the abominable choice between living on one’s knees or dying on one’s feet (¡viva Zapata!). Kent State and Watergate, McCarthyism, WWII concentration camps (in the US), Hooverville, the Espionage Act of 1917, and continual labor struggles (e.g., the Ludlow massacre, the Pullman strike, the Haymarket affair, and so on). Even Lincoln, virtual patron saint Americana, suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War.

But each time that authoritarianism ascended, people rebelled and turned it back before a point of no return was reached. Likewise, we must now reassert the ideals that Americans have long claimed their nation embodies and defends — starting with freedom and openness:

A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives. — James Madison

Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. — Thomas Jefferson

Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as public liberty, without freedom of speech. — Benjamin Franklin

Who are we now?

There are real threats to freedom and security. But the threat is not just from terrorists; the state itself is a threat when it operates in secrecy and without accountability. Bradley Manning and fellow leakers and a free press (which includes WikiLeaks) are not threats to freedom or security.

We must oppose injustice without perpetrating injustice. This means that sometimes determined enemies will succeed in their attacks. We need to have the courage of our convictions and a tolerance for opposition. Adhering to our convictions must take precedence over prevailing against evil. And contravening our convictions equates to surrendering to evil and becoming complicit with it in the end.