Closing the G-File

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"The buffoon…is the slave of his sense of humor, and spares neither himself nor others if he can raise a laugh, and says things none of which a man of refinement would say, and to some of which he would not even listen. The boor, again, is useless for such social intercourse; for he contributes nothing and finds fault with everything. But relaxation and amusement are thought to be a necessary element in life."

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book IV, Ch. 8
(Oxford World’s Classics edition; trans. David Ross)

I recently wondered why it was that Jonah Goldberg put Friedrich Hayek’s works at "the core of modern conservative philosophy."

In response, Goldberg — who is an editor of National Review Online — has done little more than spew forth the worst sort of smears and insults. Reading, writes Goldberg, is "diving for pearls in the manure."

Wow. William F. Buckley, Jr., and Florence King could learn about witticisms from Jonah Goldberg.

To wax philosophical, Goldberg’s attitude is not surprising. None of the windbags deflated by Socrates were very fond of Socrates.

(As an aside, I normally would provide a link to the article I am discussing. I loathe the possibility of artificially inflating the number of readers of the trash which Goldberg passes off as writing, and so this article will link to none of his rants.)

I quit reading NR over two years ago. I had subscribed from age 13 to around age 24. I quit reading because of NR’s editorial support for the British occupation of Northern Ireland, and because NR appeared less devoted to laissez-faire than to markets regulated by people like the editors of NR. If Goldberg’s writing is indicative of the current state of NR, I can only express my contempt at what I once, perhaps without justification, thought to be a classy and reputable magazine.

I bear no animosity toward Mr. Goldberg. He has, however, made a moral choice to behave in the most reprehensible manner, which I must condemn. Although he has been, at times, fair to me as an individual, he has attacked most unfairly and unjustifiably.

I have uncles, cousins, and friends in the Marine Corps and the Navy. I have made them blush with bad language and ribaldry at times. What Mr. Goldberg fails to understand is that a discussion of the differences between classical liberals and conservatives is neither the time nor the place for that sort of thing.

At first, Goldberg referred to me as "angry," claimed that his original column had me "spitting Diet Coke" out my nose, and claimed that I have declared "that Hayek would want nothing to do with, say, National Review-style conservatism."

On the lighter side, I don’t really care for Diet Coke. I drink it, but it is not at the top of my list. Generally, I drink spring water or regular coffee. Coca-Cola is good, as it has a distinctive taste; Pepsi is fine, as are Mr. Pibb, Dr. Pepper, and Mountain Dew. When it comes to diet sodas, however, I prefer Diet Pepsi (not Pepsi One) or Diet W Cola from Wegmans (a grocery store based in Rochester, New York). And I have never in my life "spit" any liquid out my nose besides mucous. I put "spit" in quotations because spitting is done with the mouth, while liquid "shoots" or "runs" out the nose.

On the serious side, see for yourself if my article linked above was "angry." It was not. In fact, it was wholly lacking in emotion. Scan my earlier article for support for Goldberg’s third claim above. There is no support for the claim.

More recently, after an exchange of emails, Goldberg conceded in print that I do not "seem like a crank" and has characterized me as "earnest and serious to a fault." My mother and my wife, if not most people who know me, would probably agree with that, so I’ll take it as a compliment.

I concede that I made a poor word choice in my original piece on Hayek by writing that Goldberg had "very strangely" placed Hayek at "the core of modern conservative philosophy." There is nothing particularly strange about Goldberg placing Hayek in such a position. My argument — which I did not make sufficiently clear — is that it is very strange that Hayek’s work is seen as at "the core of modern conservative philosophy" at all, since Hayek is a) not himself a conservative and b) Hayek argues that there can be no such thing as "conservative political philosophy."

Ironically, amidst the volleys of insults, Goldberg lost sight of his own characterization of Hayek as a libertarian. As Goldberg initially wrote in his "Conservative Canon,"

The libertarians. I’ve got to deal with them. First off, if this was a list of the most important books, The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek would have to be near the top of the list.

In Goldberg’s own words, then, Hayek is a libertarian.

In the next paragraph, he qualified this claim, writing that

I consider Hayek to be much less of a libertarian than the abstraction-loving semi-anarchists who use the label today.

It seems true that Hayek is "less of a libertarian" than Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, but that does not mean that Hayek is not a libertarian.

But of course, if there is anything besides his love of scatological humor which Jonah Goldberg displays in his writing, it is his manifest ignorance of libertarian political philosophy. I will reply to three select passages from the enlightened Goldberg.

First, Goldberg claims that "libertarianism is supposed to reject pre-Enlightenment values."

Supposed to? There’s no supposed to here. Goldberg’s chief stumbling block in understanding libertarians is his own belief that he already knows what libertarians are about.

Some libertarians very likely reject "pre-Enlightenment values," whatever such an amorphous term might encompass. (I suppose it implies Christianity, Judaism, and Western philosophy.) Clearly, not all libertarians do. Libertarians do not all think alike, which is the way things ought to be. Individual — and therefore differing — opinions are a correlate of individual liberty.

As most thinking readers will have already surmised, Mr. Goldberg is yet more misguided than that, as he simply assumes that there are bright-line distinctions available to categorize thinkers as libertarians, classical liberals, and conservatives. In the case of Hayek, the task of classification requires careful analysis and thought. The fact that Hayek is a libertarian is harder to see than the fact that the sun is shining. Some libertarians bill themselves as "pro-choice on everything," and there is an organization called "Libertarians for Life."

Second, Goldberg alleges that "joyfully dances back and forth across the line separating anti-statism and anti-Americanism."

I challenge Mr. Goldberg to reference a single, legitimate instance of anti-Americanism at He will not find any. The reason for Goldberg’s smear is that he fails to distinguish "the government" from "the American people," i.e. "the State" from "the nation." Unsurprisingly, Goldberg did not even bother to define what he meant by the term "anti-Americanism." Not only is there nothing anti-American about criticizing the government, it is a protected right of every American, thanks to the First Amendment. Hello, Officer Goldberg of the Thought Police. Want to find some great anti-government quotes — quotes which have inspired many who write for Read Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson.

Perhaps Goldberg’s reference to "anti-Americanism" at is related to his general dislike of criticism. For example, he criticizes LRC for criticizing National Review, neoconservatives, The Weekly Standard, William F. Buckley, Jr., "and other icons of what most people consider mainstream conservatism in America."

Well, so what?

Does Goldberg contend that these "icons" are infallible?

Of course, Goldberg himself has no difficulty in brutally attacking for being outside the mainstream as he sees it. This is yet another indicator of the fact that Goldberg is not a deep thinker. Unless "mainstream conservatism" is immutable, then it can be criticized. If it cannot be criticized, it cannot change. Goldberg, then, is even more of a "conservative" than he lets on.

Third, and most revealingly, Goldberg writes that

The tendency of libertarians generally and the Rockwellites specifically, [sic] is to get so hung up on ideological hair-splitting and irrelevant and often lunatic sectarian squabbles that they let the world continue creeping in a direction they don’t like. Then, they have the unmitigated chutzpah to scream at conservatives and Republicans for not doing enough to stop the creep. This purist approach to politics is quite simply juvenile. Nobody cares in what direction you want the wagon to go if you won’t get out of it and help push.

Stunning as it may be, this man actually used the word "juvenile" to describe someone other than himself. That being said, I will disassemble his paragraph one piece at a time.

First, it is false that the material on represents "hair-splitting," is irrelevant, or is properly characterized as "lunatic sectarian squabbles." Goldberg’s infantile whining merely demonstrates that he is not a serious thinker, either about political philosophy or economics. Rather than actually strive to understand why it is that Abraham Lincoln could be regarded as a war criminal, or why the United States today is more an empire than a republic, or why Southern secession was indeed a noble political experiment, the open-minded Goldberg dismisses these ideas out of hand.

He also mischaracterizes the substance of what has been argued on; if there is a piece which calls "the American military…a hotbed of criminal imperialism," I have not seen it. On the other hand, I have seen a great many articles which decry the imperialism practiced by the politicians in Washington, DC. Apparently, Mr. Goldberg has not bothered to consider the difference.

Second, none of us at are letting the world creep to socialism. If I wanted to do that, I would stop writing. Instead, I strive to provide food for thought for people who are interested in politics and philosophy.

More importantly, the food for thought that I attempt to provide is a principled defense of individual liberty and private property. Conservatives like Jonah Goldberg tend to blather about limited government and freedom, but when questioned, like Gorgias and other sophists, they are unable to define how the limits on government are to be determined, or how government is to be kept within any limits once they have been defined.

Just as many journalists who write about the Supreme Court are not lawyers (and it shows), many journalists who dabble in political philosophy are not philosophers — and it shows.

Because I am able to do so, I have a moral obligation to articulate the philosophy of freedom and lambaste "conservatives and Republicans" for doing exactly nothing to stop the growth of Leviathan. I should point out that if conservatives and Republicans had done anything to stop the growth of Leviathan, I would not have stopped calling myself a conservative and a Republican.

Third, with respect to Goldberg’s claim that libertarians take a "purist approach to politics," and that we should "get out of the wagon and help push," it should be remembered that this firefight began with a debate over the proper characterization of Friedrich Hayek.

It should be noted that Hayek eschewed politics.

As has been chronicled in various places, when Antony Fisher, an English veteran of the Battle of Britain who was inspired by The Road to Serfdom, asked Hayek whether he should enter politics, Hayek advised Fisher against it.

Fisher stayed out of politics.

Bad Fisher! Bad!

In 1955, Fisher founded the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. He later founded the Atlas Foundation in the United States. Both are leading free market organizations to this day.

But of course, the mere fact that Hayek eschewed politics, and that he advised Antony Fisher to do the same, is not sufficient to rebut the drumbeat of politics.

A more developed case, then. Politics will never solve anything. Politicians will only do a) what they think will get them votes and b) what they think they can get away with. Richard Fenno’s classic work Home Style, and Bill Bianco’s Trust, are worth consulting in this regard. Politicians exist to get elected, then reelected, and then to be sainted by having public works named after them.

If you want to change the world for the better, do not waste your time on politics. Politics will be changed as a result of peoples’ minds being changed.

Ultimately, Goldberg’s problem is that he is not only a poor excuse for an entertainer, but he is not by any stretch a serious political thinker. Goldberg could have chosen to approach the divisions between libertarians and conservatives with seriousness. Instead, he opted to be flippant, vulgar, and puerile. As he started his most recent tirade against,

There’s the old Murphy’s Law, "Never argue with an idiot, people may not be able to tell the difference." But what exactly is the rule governing arguments with very smart and committed people so ideologically bound up, you’d need a truckload of Metamucil just to get them off a minor point? Frankly, I have no idea, so I’m just gonna wing it.

Wow, that Metamucil joke was really funny. Also, I trust that readers are able to tell the difference between Goldberg and myself.

The conclusion of every one of my columns announces that I am a PhD candidate in Philosophy, and yet it is a revelation to Goldberg that I am an "earnest and serious" thinker. If I were not "earnest and serious" about philosophy, I can tell you that I would not pursue a PhD while practicing law and raising a family.

I can also tell you that despite the joys of being Sports Editor of the Notre Dame student newspaper, I decided to earn a PhD in Philosophy instead of going into journalism. The reason for this was that I did not want to be an empty-headed blowhard, like so many journalists. I wanted to have actual knowledge, rather than simply sneer with the simulacra of knowledge. This is not to be insulting. If one has no knowledge upon which to base disagreements, then disagreements will usually devolve into the exchange of insults.

In closing, I fail to see why Jonah Goldberg chose to make personal attacks where reasoned argumentation would have sufficed.

I also fail to see what makes the sort of filth written by Jonah Goldberg appropriate to a self-proclaimed conservative or traditionalist like Goldberg. If anything, it makes Goldberg seem like the evil twin of Paul Begala, Sid Blumenthal, or Jim Carville.

Mr. Dieteman is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

© 2001 David Dieteman

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