The Role of Ideas

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Back in March and again in April on Salon.com, Timothy Noah, an advocate of disarming the American people, asked "If there are so many guns in Iraq, why is it still a dictatorship?" when as the New York Times reported "Most Iraqi households own at least one gun." Iraq experts and gun advocates were invited to explain this condition, which appears to implode a hallmark of libertarian political theory which states that the people should have in their hands the power, and not just the vote, to compel the obedience of their so-called representatives and thereby forestall tyranny. An armed citizenry is believed to do just that.

Thomas Jefferson, writing in 1787, asked

" . . .what country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time, that this people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms . . . ."

The benefits of an armed citizenry had such a consensus in the liberated ex-Colonies that even an old Nationalist like James Madison acknowledged in the Federalist no. 46 that

"Notwithstanding the military establishments in the several kingdoms of Europe, which are carried as far as the public resources will bear, the governments are afraid to trust the people with arms."

But if the people were armed and organized "the throne of every tyranny in Europe would be speedily overturned in spite of the legions which surround it."

(There is no mention, however, that Americans should be enserfed to fund the conquest of foreigners to provide them with fictitious "liberty.")

In media reports, Iraqi’s appeared to have ready access to handguns, shotguns and AK-47’s and the ammunition for each, seemingly fulfilling the classical ideal of an armed citizenry advocated by both the founders and American opponents of the United States, so the question remains why did Iraqi’s submit to Saddam’s tyranny?

An argument could be made that facing several well-armed standing armies of regular and special forces (just like Americans do), as well as the cadres of secret police and informers, that any Iraqi plotting against the regime could be singled out and eliminated in the dead of night, and tens of thousands were, in fact, disappeared in this way. A de-moralized citizenry is always the aim of every tyranny, but that doesn’t explain how Saddam’s tyranny came to be.

The answer lies in the genius of Western Civilization, which reformed politics on the basis of decentralization and autonomous private organizations. In Iraq, like in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and other regimes, and increasingly in America itself, these two principles were destroyed as the 20th century model of the total state invaded and controlled virtually all areas of life and community. In Iraq, reformers lacked the ability to form organizations and peacefully assemble to formulate ideas and strategies to reform or replace the regime. Without this ability to communicate for fear of spies and informers, and the feared secret police and torturers, the ideas available to Iraqi’s were limited and probably favored the familiar and tested, rather than the unfamiliar, even if the familiar was the centuries old model of dictatorship common in the region’s history. Who or what would replace Saddam? Fear of the unknown is a powerful and constant brake on progress. Anyone attempting to explain the superiority of the stateless society has quickly found that out.

So even though the Iraqi’s held the means to act, to what would they put purposeful action towards? Lacking the ability to organize, and living with the ever-present fear of minders and informants, and not having the ideas of what the end goal should be, the reason Iraqi’s could be well armed yet live under a tyrannical regime is that few could conceive of a better system. They likely lacked the essential ideas of change. Who has it? Who will lead it? How to achieve it? Realize it, structure it and implement it, and all the other questions of reform. Without the ideas necessary to improve the conditions of life, the status quo looks acceptable. Even now, the lack of liberal-libertarian ideas among Iraqi’s goes far in explaining the deterioration in the quality of life there, as most, if not all Iraqi’s, believe that the state, in this case, the US military and its provisional authority, just like the regime that preceded it, are responsible for employment, security, electricity, food, water, and the other necessities of modern life. The chaos in post-invasion Iraq did not disprove libertarianism or anarcho-capitalism. The chaos only showed that Iraqi’s lacked the ideas necessary to be a free people. Do Americans still have these ideas, for that matter?

As Ludwig von Mises wrote

The choices a man makes are determined by the ideas that he adopts. . . . The genuine history of mankind is the history of ideas. It is ideas that distinguish man from all other beings. Ideas engender social institutions, political changes, technological methods of production, and all that is called economic conditions. . . . Ideas determine what are to be considered more and less satisfactory conditions and what means are to be resorted to alter them.

This also explains why Iraqi’s are fighting American troops when they failed to fight against Saddam’s armies. With the demise of Saddam’s regime and the establishment of a somewhat more liberal military dictatorship under U.S. auspices, Iraqi’s are now able to meet and organize, to formulate plans and strategies and issue appeals for reform and manifestos for change. And many Iraqi’s, likely the vast majority, have decided the foreigners must leave. The only difference is that some aren’t willing to act on their decision, and others are.

By now, finally, it’s no secret (and no thanks to the mainstream media, who slept through the buildup to the invasion of Iraq), that the motives of the central planners who conned and schemed Americans into the invasion and occupation of a third-world country, were enthralled by their grand scheme to transform the Middle East through violence and terror. The goal, as neoconservative tyrant’s like Michael Ledeen, Bill Kristol and the other neocon’s repeatedly tell us, is to create by force — both military and bureaucratic — new national cultures in these areas that will embrace as their own the values imposed by the new overlords. The marketing slogan of neoconservativism seems to be Better Living Through Military Despotism.

The neocons claim that the values they wish to impose are political and social liberty, equal rights and free markets, although the neocon concept of these ideas leaves the usual meaning of these words left behind in the dust, but in any event it is the "historic mission" of the United States government to "advance" them. But it should not surprise anyone that the neocons take a favorable view towards the welfare state, FDR and the return to LBJ’s guns-and-butter welfare-warfare statism. For the U.S. to attempt to reconstruct the world you would have to believe that central control and central planning, and the resulting mass violations of individual and property rights, has been great for American culture and civilization.

To change a foreign culture would require forcibly altering what those people — those individual persons with inalienable rights to life and liberty — believe and think. This is not what could be called a conservative project. Libertarians would suggest that rather than those of the Western intellectual tradition, these invaders, occupiers and central planners are adopting the anti-liberal cultural values of their victims in these "failed states."

The neocons claim, illegitimately, to be the vanguard of the tide of liberty. The reality of the neoconservative creed is that while very good with the rhetoric of liberty, free markets, limited government, and federalism, their practice of these tenets of Western thought is virtually non-existent as they champion greater and greater domestic and foreign centralization and militarism. At the core of their great plan for humanity is the destructive killing power of the permanent military complex, but how on earth could a socialist bureaucracy like the U.S. military bring about a free society, in Iraq or in America for that matter?

Unfortunately for the neocon project, cultures and civilizations differ, and change only slowly, over generations, and imposing new ideas at gunpoint cannot transform a society overnight. In the unlikely case that the neocon project succeeds, it will require occupying and dominating these foreign lands and cultures for generations. By now it is obvious that the neocons did not even consider the economic cost and consequences of such a foolhardy crusade for even a few years, let alone for generations. The British could stamp out certain practices and introduce parliamentary systems and socialism in India after 150 years of occupation, but Indians did not have access to automatic weapons, RPG’s and 100 years of guerrilla strategy theory.

The neocon view, which so favorably grades the United States federal government, which they incorrectly call America, as an ideological force comparable to the Soviet Union (as Irving Kristol recently reminded us), ignores the role of culture in developing, disseminating and preserving the Western (liberal) ideas of individualism and liberty. Instead, the neocons see America as an artificial society, like the USSR, with no indigenous cultural contribution to developing and maintaining a culture of personal liberty and free enterprise. In the neocon view, the liberties of America are a creature of the bureaucracies of Washington, D.C., rather than the remnants of America’s early libertarian culture and history, and can be transferred by these same bureaucracies anywhere in the world. This is the argument of the neocon project and Mr. Ledeen’s non-Schumpeterian version of "creative destruction." Just as the Soviet Union was imposed on a defeated Russia by the Bolsheviks in Moscow, the neocon Washington project of World War IV will attempt to impose a new culture by redefining and reconstructing Islam and contemporary Muslim society at gunpoint.

Neocon protestations to the contrary, they appear to have a near limitless faith in violence. And in this way resemble al Qaeda and other terror and political groups. But it is not violence, whether the armed might of an evil cabal of invaders or the resistance of an armed citizenry that wins the day, but rather ideas that change the world for ill or for the better. And although they favor military force as the preferred method to advance ideas, contact and exchange, rather than invasion and destruction bring forth constructive social change.

The neoconservatives and the project of a benevolent global hegemony and reconstruction of third-world societies at gunpoint is clearly based on very bad and discredited ideas. Discredited not just by the fallout from their latest adventure, but throughout history their ideas have born nothing but terror and despair. Writing about the rival socialist sects of his time Frdric Bastiat commented on their similarities:

"They quarrel over who will mold the human clay, but they agree that there is human clay to mold."

Classical liberals and libertarians, both present and past, challenge the planners, whether they call themselves Bolsheviks, Trotskyites, Republicans, Democrats, liberals, progressives, or neoconservatives. As Bastiat wrote "The plans differ; the planners are all alike . . ." But in response we say that men are not clay, that Man is an end in himself. Only the individual is great. Everything else on Earth pales in comparison. Even the dream of "National Greatness."

Adam Young [send him mail] writes from Ontario, Canada.

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