While watching the events of September 11th as they played out on my television screen, two currents of thought raced through my mind. The first had to do with absorbing the utter brutality of the attacks, the viciousness with which some people were prepared to deal with men and women who were total strangers to them; to destroy out of a sense of anger that ran so deep that they were prepared to kill themselves in order to express it. The second related to the even more troubling thought as to the likely consequences of these attacks.
Perhaps the most disturbing — albeit not surprising — outcome of all this has been the nearly total collapse of support, among most Americans, of such values as peace, individual liberty, and distrust of political power. After 9/11, newspaper editors, radio and television talk-show hosts, spokespersons of so-called "think tanks," religious leaders, academicians, and that most revered of all personages, the "man in the street," were stumbling all over one another’s Guccis to get to a microphone to advocate an even more repressive statist proposal than had the previous speaker.
There was one group from which I had hoped for a more rational response: individuals and organizations that are fond of calling themselves "libertarians." I must admit, at the outset, that it has been decades since I have used this word to describe my views. When the likes of Ronald Reagan, radio talk-show hosts who continually praise the police and the military, and candidates of a "Libertarian Party" who propose to run the state according to their principles, identify themselves as "libertarians," I know the word has no meaning to my life. In fact, I have found no label that adequately describes me, for labels always lose something in translation. I will content myself, therefore, with considering myself a "fellow traveler" of libertarians, for many of whom I have the utmost respect.
Unfortunately, far too many self-styled "libertarians" have picked up the guidon for a military response to the nation-state’s latest hobgoblin: terrorism. Such people are apparently not well-versed in how the state has always had to create fear-objects so as to elicit strict obedience and a sense of sacrifice to state authority. For nearly half a century, the American state relied on the Soviet Union to play this role, just as the Soviet Union employed the United States to perform this function for their citizenry. With the collapse of the Soviet Union came the fleeting possibility that peace might actually break out in the world, and peace — as Randolph Bourne advised us — represents a terminal illness for statism.
Now the state has discovered a new specter, terrorism, with which to bamboozle fearful men and women into giving up even more of their liberties, more of their income, to fight a war that, in the words of statist leaders themselves, will go on forever and be directed against the entire world!
One would have thought that "libertarians" would have been the first to see through this deadly spectacle. To their credit, many did, pointing out how war and liberty are diametrically opposed to one another. But those who have been bold enough to make this known to others have been labeled, by what I choose to call the "make-believe libertarians," everything from "America haters" to "delusional," "nave," "anti-free market," and "anti-American." The war apparently having freed their minds from the shackles of disciplined thinking, some have gone on to argue that "human freedom" is dependent "upon raw force," that "coercion" safeguards "freedom," and that the "invisible hand of spontaneous order" can operate only on the basis of "rules coercively enforced by government." Such thinking is not far removed from that of a radio talk-show host who opined that "pacifists cause war."
Do you begin to understand how the war system, in fostering mass-mindedness, is able to energize the unconscious forces of the "dark side" of the human psyche; to allow us to become eager participants in mob behavior which, when mobilized by fear and anger, can cause us to do and say things that our intelligence would reject?
Are we witnessing, perhaps, the same corruption of language, so well analyzed by George Orwell, that allows statism to parasitically nourish itself upon the very attitudes of peace and liberty that its actions betray? We have seen such practices, as statists of the political Left co-opted the classical meaning of the word "liberal" — a term that embraced free markets, private ownership of property, and individual liberty — and turned it into a tool of state socialism. In contrast with a 19th century liberal, today’s "liberal" has no response to the question: "what are you liberal about, other than with other people’s lives and property?" Is modern "libertarianism" now being taken over by statists from the Right?
I have been criticized by some for being too "ideological" in my insistence that "liberty" and "peace" are inseparable — in fact, I would contend synonymous — concepts. But it is not ideology that drives me. I do not engage in murder, rape, robbery, or other acts of violence because of some logical extrapolation from a set of philosophic premises. Belief systems are afterthoughts to predispositions that lie deep within our very sense of being. Such sentiments are so deeply engrained within us that we imagine them to represent some kind of universal truth, and seek to communicate this insight to others.
Ideologies, in other words, are attempts to express this inner sense through carefully defined concepts and logical reasoning. But this process can never rise any higher than the inner dispositions that dispose us to undertake the task. Hitler’s Mein Kampf, Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto, and Tom Paine’s Common Sense, were all extensions of some inner sense each had about the world, even though they came to quite different conclusions.
I have long had an aversion to ideologies of any sort, because (1) none precisely coincide with my inner views, and (2) to create an ideology is to lock one’s mind into a prior state of understanding about the world. I have, therefore, been the sort who will shop around for the insights of others, with my preferences influenced by the demands from my inner sense of life. I have noticed, over the years, that this "inner sense" is rather inflexible, which permits me to be quite flexible in considering the viewpoints of others: endorsing those that harmonize with, and rejecting those that conflict with, this predisposition.
What, then, are the predispositions from which I evaluate the world around me? Keeping in mind the difficulty associated with putting such matters into words, I would say that, even as a small child, I had a sense of the fundamental sanctity of life, and have since realized that individual liberty and peace are essential conditions if life is to be allowed its full expression. My attraction to a system of free markets and private ownership of property — equally synonymous terms – derives from this same awareness. No ideology, no church, not even my parents, taught me to think this way. My conclusions have been reached not through a process of reasoning and logic, but from what we all loved to do as children, observing life in its myriad efforts of expression.
From a perspective that regards the sanctity of life as an immutable given, where is there any room for war — or, for that matter, any form of statism, given that all political systems are premised upon forcing life to be, in the words of Theodore Roszak, "what it would not be?" If it is "anti-American" to insist upon peace and liberty as conditions essential to the fulfillment of life itself, what are the implications of being "pro-American?" If "pacifists cause wars," what do war lovers produce? Ought we to be thankful for all the SAC bombers, nuclear missiles, Marine Corps ground troops, aircraft carriers, and nuclear submarines, who are saving us from the warmongering pacifists? If "human freedom" is dependent "upon raw force," then how do we distinguish "freedom" from "non-freedom"? What is the meaning of "freedom" in a society in which people are subjected to the "raw force" of state power?
Is there a Chapter 11 procedure for intellectual bankruptcy?
Such are the sentiments that underlie my opposition not only to war, but to the state in all of its manifestations. I favor only those social arrangements that respect the sanctity of life, which includes respect for the inviolability of the individual, for life expresses itself only through individuals. "Peace" and "liberty" are as inseparable attributes of a life-oriented society, as "war" and "tyranny" are to the institutionalization of death.
The world — including our children and grandchildren — needs nothing so much as our energized intelligence and focused clarity of thought. It doesn’t need any more jingoes flying flags from either their speeding cars or "think-tank" offices.
It is time that each one of us looked deep inside our inner nature for a sense of what it is we want to advocate as the conditions upon which human society will function. I have offered you the best of what I can find within myself. I am curious what others would find at the core of their being were they to look. What inner voices inform the judgments of those who, while clinging to the "libertarian" label, continue to express, through their words and actions, dispositions that speak of the necessities of war and other forms of "brute force."
April 15, 2002
Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law.