On Jonah Goldberg's Youthful Phase

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"If
you're not a liberal when you're in your twenties you haven't
got a heart; if you're not a conservative by the time you're 40
you haven't got a brain."

Conservatives,
especially neo-conservatives and former leftists, are fond of repeating
this cutesy adage. Not having gone through a youthful leftist stage
myself, and indeed viewing former
leftists with some suspicion
, I do not fully agree
with it. The first half is clearly bunk. It seems designed to assuage
the guilty consciences of former lefties who, like David Horowitz,
whitewash the evil of their earlier leftism by describing it as
"noble" and "high-minded," albeit naive. This
part of the adage ought to be replaced with something like, "If
you're not a liberal in your youth, you're not an economic illiterate
herd-follower run solely by emotion."

The
part about the brain contains a germ of truth, however, and it can
be distilled down to this libertarian proposition: any good, honest,
intelligent, justice-seeking person can hardly fail to recognize
that the state is a criminal or near-criminal enterprise, run by
snake-oil salesmen and hucksters, which rides roughshod over the
rights of its own citizens; and, at the very least, that the state
must be watched closely, and limited as much as possible.

In
Jonah Goldberg's most recent
attack on libertarians
, "The Libertarian Lobe"
(National Review Online, June 22, 2001), he seeks to stand
the saying on its head. Instead of equating youthful immaturity
and soft-headedness with pro-state liberalism, as the adage has
it, Goldberg equates it with anti-state libertarianism. As the subtitle
to his article snidely puts it, "Libertarianism tells kids
everything they want to be told."

Goldberg's
implication here is that libertarianism is somehow fallacious, if
it can only attract the attentions of the naive and inexperienced,
if clever and passionate, young. (He conveniently forgets that Murray
Rothbard, whom he recognizes as being a key libertarian figure,
was a radical libertarian well into his sixties.) I say "implication,"
because Goldberg never quite specifies what is wrong with libertarianism,
much less does he try to provide an argument. Instead of an argument,
he offers merely his own self-contradictory opinions, which are
laced with condescension, attitude, smug snideness, and ad hominem,
and full of confusion and misstatements about the nature of libertarianism.

Note
Goldberg's smugness, but vacuity, when he equates libertarians and
their passion for liberty and rights to those teens who "realize
for the first time what Pink Floyd's u2018The Wall' is really about";
those deluded youngsters who "convince themselves that just
because they've thought of something for their first time they believe
they've thought of it for the first time, period. This translates
into a kind of arrogance where some kids think no one else can really
understand something as well as they can." I am not sure how
this is supposed to be an argument. It may be an effective way of
expressing Goldberg's personal opinions, but given that he
is not a libertarian and not even a very good conservative (he apparently
loves Lincoln and hates federalism/states' rights), and simply an
intellectual lightweight neocon, it is not clear why anyone would
care.

Goldberg's
confusion about libertarianism is manifest. Take, for instance,
his notion that "Libertarianism is an ideology best suited
for young folks. It compellingly tells kids everything they want
to be told." Were it only so! If the young naturally hated
the state and fervently supported individual rights, it is unlikely
as many of them would support, in their later years, the degree
of statism prevalent today. Unfortunately, however, twenty-somethings
seem to be at least as statist as older adults. They do not rally
in sufficient numbers around libertarian principles and corollaries
such as:

  • You
    have no right to education, a car, a home, food, support, etc.
    from the state;
  • every
    person is responsible for his own sustenance, and actions;
  • if
    you commit an act of aggression, you deserve severe punishment;
  • you
    have no right to outlaw behavior of others that you do not like,
    unless it amounts to aggression;
  • the
    lies you have been told in school about Lincoln, "democracy,"
    and so forth are just that;
  • we
    live under an illegal, tyrannical government, and most of our
    fellow citizens are semi-socialists who help support it, and there
    is no end in sight; etc.

Goldberg
is apparently ignorant about the basic principles of libertarianism,
leading him to attack straw men. It is not about "indulging"
self-interest, or rejecting experience, wisdom, and tradition. It
is, instead, about scrupulously adhering to justice by refusing
to participate in or condone the initiation of violent force against
the body or property of innocent victims.

Clearly,
libertarians are not opposed to force per se, as Goldberg
presumes. We are not pacifists at all; we adamantly support the
right to use force in response to aggressive force, to defend
or retaliate against the aggressor. To mount a substantive attack
on libertarianism, Goldberg would have to argue that it is permissible
to initiate force against an innocent person who has not himself
violated anyone else's rights. But he does not even hint at an alternative
theory showing that the aggression is justified, other than his
befuddled paean to "principled" "compromise with
reality." And of course he cannot do it, because libertarianism
is correct. Yes, he can ignore libertarianism, participate in statism,
and advocate neocon views. But he cannot justify the mixed economy
he advocates. Paraphrasing the great Roman jurist Papinian,
"It is easier to be a neocon (or socialist) than to justify
it."

Further
examples of Goldberg's incoherence and illogic abound. He writes,
of a recent debate between himself and libertarian Michael Lynch:
"neither of us fit the caricatures of our respective causes.
He's neither a radical libertine individualist nor a Lincoln-hating
states' rightser who confuses nostalgia for a fictional past with
an achievable agenda for the future (golly, who could I be talking
about?)."

The
most consistent and principled libertarians – anarcho-capitalists
and paleolibertarians – are not libertine, nor do we have any
nostalgia for a slave-ridden past, nor do we harbor any naive, utopian
notions that any kind of radical improvement is around the corner.
Goldberg's breezy "golly" comment almost certainly refers
to paleolibertarian Lew Rockwell & co, revealing his mischaracterization
of libertarians to be disingenuous. Goldberg also here demonstrates
his non-conservative, neocon credentials with his implied endorsement
of Lincoln, war, and centralization.

Goldberg
adds, "Lynch is a principled libertarian who understands progress
comes only by making compromises with reality." I have no idea
what a "compromise with reality" is; I thought people
made compromises with each other. Reality is there, whether we compromise
or not. If Goldberg means that libertarians do not recognize
reality, then he is just wrong again; we recognize that aggression
cannot be justified, and that the current state largely rests on
aggression. It is Goldberg who refuses to recognize reality, for
example in his glib dismissal of the critique of the tyrant and
war-criminal Lincoln and in his implicit assumption that aggression
can be justified.

Elsewhere,
Goldberg writes of libertarians: "Just as they consider u2018state
violence' to be always and everywhere evil, they fetishize change,
assuming it to be always and everywhere good." Goldberg is
doubly wrong here. First, we libertarians do not claim that state
violence is necessarily wrong; rather, it is aggression that
is wrong, whether committed by individual or group (such as the
state). In the case of the state, all libertarians recognize that
most state laws and actions, such as laws against drugs, are aggressive,
and cannot be justified. This state violence is impermissible because
it is aimed at innocent victims.

Moreover,
anarcho-capitalist libertarians recognize that the state is inherently
aggressive, if only because it rests on a compulsory monopoly (you
cannot "opt out" of its jurisdiction) and coercive taxation.
Under this view, any government action, even delivering the mail,
is illegitimate – not because the action itself is violent,
but because the existence of the agency carrying it out depends
on violence. Thus, the anarcho-capitalist does not believe that
laws against murder and rape violate the rights of murderers and
rapists; but simply does not believe the state has the right to
tax and assume a monopoly enforcing such laws.

Second,
our author is just plain wrong that libertarians, especially paleos
and anarchists, necessarily "fetishize change." True,
some libertarians, such as Virginia Postrel, do favor "dynamism"
and oppose "stasists." But this preference is not implied
by libertarianism, as
pointed out by paleolibertarian David Gordon
; and, ironically
and bizarrely, Goldberg praises Postrel's "excellent
book," The Future and Its Enemies, which sets forth
Postrel's pro-dynamist thesis, in the same column decrying libertarian
dynamists.

Our
critic's "tried-and-true trick question" that he uses
to reveal libertarian inconsistency also does not do the trick.
"Imagine a very close friend of yours were suicidal. She just
broke up with her boyfriend, lost her job, had been drinking, and
is depressed. If you knew she would feel better in the morning,
would you physically restrain her to keep her from killing herself?"
Goldberg answers, "Now the correct answer, of course, is u2018Well,
yes I would.' Because, free will and individual liberty aren't always
right." Sure, most decent people would intervene in the manner
suggested. But there are other ways to view this intervention. One,
the friend is deemed to be irrational and to have implicitly or
tacitly appointed you to make decisions for her, in her own interest,
in such cases, much like a husband can make life-or-death healthcare
decisions on behalf of an incapacitated wife. Or, two, the intervener
is willing to risk prosecution for a relatively minor offense to
save his friend's life, assuming that when she comes to her senses
the next morning, she will almost certainly forgive, maybe even
thank, him.

Another
misstatement about libertarians is that we "see freedom as
the highest, best value." This is not true at all. We simply
maintain that unprovoked aggression against the person or property
of others cannot be justified, and may be countered by responsive
(defensive or retaliatory) force. Again, I doubt Goldberg can provide
the justification for aggression that he would need, in order to
show that libertarianism is wrong.

If
this is the neocon critique of libertarianism, it looks like we
have already won the debate.

Goldberg's
implicit theory, that the natural evolution for intelligent, conservative
minded individuals is a youthful radical libertarianism, followed
by mature, compromising, unprincipled, inconsistent neo-conservatism,
is surely wrong. A better theory, as I suggested above, is that
wisdom and intelligence, combined with passion for justice and right,
leads to a libertarian respect for individual rights and to a profound
distrust for the state. Goldberg is apparently nowhere near 40 yet,
so maybe he still has time to change. I'd welcome him to the libertarian
fold, maybe even forgive him for his former heresy – but would
recommend keeping a close eye on him.

June
27, 2001

Stephan
Kinsella [send him mail]
is an attorney and unabashed libertarian in Houston. His personal
website is located at www.stephankinsella.com.

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