Libertarians and the Warfare State

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When I was a fledgling libertarian, I came to realize how lucky I was to live in America. Of all the places and times I could have been born, I was born in one of the freest, wealthiest, most harmonious of settings in all of world history.

I scoffed at those leftists who wanted to burden America with such programs as a socialist healthcare system. Never in America, I thought. Not in my free country!

I also defended libertarians against my leftie schoolteachers, who branded us as paranoid extremists. We libertarians had a baseless fear that the government was out to get us, I was told, and we had an unfounded aversion to anything governmental. If I dared to say that the War on Drugs was turning America into a police state, I would quickly be told that I shouldn’t use the phrase so lightly. I would be reminded that America is still the freest country on earth, and that we had a ways to go before we would have military tribunals, searches of persons and property without a warrant, or significant erosions of the most basic of human rights. This wasn’t Argentina, after all.

I disagreed back then, saying that the Drug War, gun control, creeping economic socialism, Waco, and the war in Kosovo were all signs that we were losing our freedoms, however slowly.

My leftie journalism teacher in high school tended to agree with me on Kosovo and, in fact, most wars, and on civil liberties. He disagreed with me on the social spending issues. He was a typical Bay Area liberal — good on some things, bad on others.

At one moment he turned to me, after spending the last twenty minutes mocking my anti-government "paranoia," and he said (I paraphrase): "You know what, though. I will say this. I’m glad you libertarians are around, because you serve as a reliable check on the government. If the government ever does get out of hand, I’ll be happy America has libertarians."

That made me quite glad. As loony as he thought I was, he could always count on me and my libertarian brothers and sisters to defend his freedom from the state. And he realized that, even though he was mostly comfortable with Clinton — whom I detested — that if someone truly despicable ever grabbed power and did try to turn America into the police state I was warning about, libertarians would be there, screaming louder than ever.

I must admit, at times I feel that he overestimated the libertarian movement, or at least many of those people who consider themselves part of it.

Throughout the 1990s, libertarians warned about the dangers of consolidated government. They warned about the gradual erosion of the Bill of Rights, the deterioration of free markets, the taxation, gun laws, asset forfeiture, and other symptoms of the social-democratic US government that would, slowly but surely, turn America into a nightmare.

Unfortunately, a good number of these people jumped ship once the nightmare came.

The warfare state is the greatest enemy of liberty. To have to write this again, when it has been affirmed and repeated by every great thinker of the classical liberal tradition from Thomas Jefferson to Ludwig von Mises, is a frustrating reality. But it must be repeated, again and again.

Warfare employs and magnifies every single state crime that libertarians claim to oppose. Taxation, domestic spending, civil liberties encroachments, speech suppression, private property destruction, state propaganda, torture, mass murder, and, often, involuntary servitude, are introduced in times of war in ways we rarely, if ever, see in times of peace.

It isn’t good enough for libertarians to champion the Bill of Rights and yet forgive the communist-style star chambers for designated "enemy combatants." It will not do for libertarians to oppose taxation for the purpose of wealth redistribution but to excuse it for the funding of aerial bombardment of cities. It is pathetic for libertarians to oppose the concept of totalitarianism and yet accept its emergence in America so long as it is done in the name of war.

The freedom America lost during its wars — especially the War Between the States, the World Wars, the Cold War, and the War on Terrorism — dwarfs the freedom lost in times of peace. Libertarians who complain about our big government should read how it got this way. Yes, the Progressive Era, New Deal and Great Society were horrific times of government expansion. And yet, if America had had ten million libertarians decrying and successfully defeating each of those domestic abominations, only to cheer on the warfare state during each of the big wars, the US government would be nearly as large as it is today.

The growth of domestic government, too, always hits hardest during wartime. And we see, now, that many of the more adamantly hawkish liberventionists are willing to tolerate Bush’s Medicare expansions and farm programs. Why? Because, for them, giving up liberty in the domestic sphere is okay, so long as we also get the warfare state. Many of them voted for Bush on this basis. Had Bush’s first term been as socialistic without the factor of the War on Terrorism — certainly, had a Democrat been as domestically bad as Bush — it would be hard to find a single self-proclaimed libertarian to endorse him. And yet, we see many such people, claiming to play the role of freedom’s defender, supporting this administration, all for the satisfaction they somehow get knowing that Bush has killed tens of thousands in the name of "self defense."

This "self-defense" charade makes me sick to my stomach. The Iraq War is so far removed from any correct understanding of self-defense, I never become used to hearing the two conflated.

I often wonder if the pro-war libertarians really believe that the warfare state is all it’s cracked up to be — if they have indeed fallen for the Big Lie that the state’s projects of mass killing keep them safe.

For some of them, I think they do. For others, I think they simply aren’t aware of what’s going on. The latter group can often be swayed to reason. I’ve seen many liberventionists change their minds once they confront the uncomfortable facts. And every one of them who does so deserves our open arms.

But I think something else is coming into play here. Most of the vocal pro-war libertarians are not libertarians at all, and many of them never have been. The warfare state is a difficult thing to oppose. At a minimum, you’ll occasionally be called a traitor, and asked to flesh out the arguments repeatedly. The bigger the warfare state becomes, the more of an actual threat it becomes for dissenters. Opposing tax increases, farm subsidies and business regulations is relatively easy and safe. Challenging the very essence of the total state — the killing component of it — is quite another story, and can, at times, become risky and dangerous to those who dare do it.

Pro-war libertarians think of those of us who oppose the warfare state as deluded, pacifist, even cowardly. This is not the case, however. If the gulags ever do come, we won’t have an easy out. We won’t be able to say, "Well, I opposed your spending increases, but I stood by you as my Commander-in-Chief, the man who I knew would defend me from the terrorists and liberate the Middle East." We won’t be able to say, "I never meant to challenge the entire system; I only had some well-intentioned proposals on how to better run the country." What we, the opponents of the warfare state won’t be able to say, the liberventionists will.

The idea some of them cling to, that it is more dangerous and brave to speak out against foreign enemies than your own government, is simply nonsense. It was not very risky for Northerners to condemn the Confederacy during Lincoln’s war, for Americans to insult the Germans during Wilson’s war, to denigrate the Japanese during Roosevelt’s war, or to belittle the Communists during Johnson’s and Nixon’s war. During each of these conflicts, however, dissent against the US warfare state could result in having one’s newspaper banned, becoming a target of federal spies and harassment, or even being imprisoned or deported.

Another argument I hear from the pro-war crowd is quite ludicrous. If we libertarians don’t unite behind the warfare state, mainstream America won’t take us seriously. Even if this is completely true, I see no point in being a libertarian if our only goal is to be accepted, our principles be damned. Libertarianism is not supposed to be about defending oppression, no matter how popular.

Unfortunately, the pro-war libertarians are quite loud, doing a greater disservice to liberty than many other political activists, for they defend the complete negation of all our principles — from our utilitarian distrust in government central planning to our moral opposition to aggression — and they do so in the name of our cause, discrediting us insofar as they are heard. My friend returned recently from Mexico, and a woman he met there said that libertarians were the worst people, since they oppose social programs and yet support the government’s wars. Now, certainly, in a sense, it is worse to support government social programs and war than to support only war, and yet the misconception that libertarians want to have it both ways is quite a burden on our movement. Once my friend told the Mexican woman that libertarians in fact oppose war, she immediately became infinitely more open to our way of thinking. She realized that we weren’t hypocritical, after all. We are the consistent defenders of liberty and opponents of the state. Liberals can live with that. They can learn from that. And we have a much better chance teaching them the failures of the welfare state when they are not approaching us with the notion that we love warfare, even as we inconsistently preach the gospel of free markets and limited (or no) government.

This anecdote is somewhat of a diversion from my main point, and yet it speaks to a general truth. It also brings back the earlier anecdote of my high school journalism teacher, who appreciated the role of libertarians as principled opponents of the state, even if he was never one himself.

The warfare state provides us libertarians with a challenge but also an opportunity. For years we have all been warning against the encroachment of our liberties, and have been jealously defending our wealth and freedoms from the ravages of government. Now that the stakes are higher than they have been in a long time, we must reaffirm our commitment to liberty and opposition to the state. Right after 9/11, I felt disenchanted with the libertarian movement, only to be reenergized by the writings available from LewRockwell.com, Antiwar.com, The Independent Institute, The Future of Freedom Foundation, The Mises Institute and a number of other courageous individuals and groups that recognized that the amassing of power in Washington in the wake of the terrorist attacks posed a greater danger to liberty, in the long run, than the terrorists themselves. The Iraq War has only brought more people around to realizing the truth behind what the most principled libertarians were saying from the beginning.

Half of America is disillusioned by the warfare state’s more obvious excesses in its last adventure, in Iraq. We should never give up on the other half, but we must also not neglect the opponents of empire by forsaking our role as the principled, relentless defenders of the individual against the arrogant violence of government. The more the warfare state grows, the more we must oppose it.

Now is the time for the true defenders of liberty to stand up, and repeat the self-evident truth that war is the health of the state and the principal scourge on civilization. My journalism teacher thought that we would never see the total state that libertarians feared, but he believed that we libertarians stand as an indispensable check on such a total state emerging. Now is the time to work hard to prove that my teacher was right about the second part, in hopes that he will be proven right about the first.

Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research assistant at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.

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