Libertine Conservatives

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For as long as I’ve been a libertarian, I’ve been hearing a common accusation that libertarians are nothing more than Republicans who want to party and smoke pot. Unfortunately, this perverse categorization not only gets traction among cynical leftists and puritanical rightwingers. No, I have actually heard some self-described libertarians more than willingly adopt this description for themselves. Party-going conservatism is libertarianism, they say with pride.

The problem is that a Republican who wants to party and smoke pot is simply that — a Republican who wants to party and smoke pot — and nothing more, at least categorically. At UC Berkeley, I saw plenty of young conservatives on campus, and, believe me, most of them struggled through the day to cut loose at night at least as much as the nearest bohemian sporting Che on his t-shirt and carrying Chomsky’s newest at his side.

In fact, the young conservatives, often with bigger bank accounts and less interest in actually reading anything, often seemed to have more time and money to party than the leftists. Their fiestas were quite a riot, in fact. I went to one, and when I found that no one wanted to talk about political philosophy or economics, but instead just get really stupid drunk so as to forget by morning what he had done that night, I went home disappointed.

The most striking thing about libertine conservatives is their hypocrisy. It would be hard to imagine how many Republican leaders in this country have snorted lines, found comfort with hired escorts, or at least hit the bong a few times. But to be a libertine with one’s own body does not necessarily imply being libertarian on the relevant issues. If this weren’t the case, the drug war probably wouldn’t last, since it continues thanks to the tacit support and active agitation of millions of hypocrites — people who, when they were young, probably experimented with certain peaceful avenues of decadence and chemical mind alteration over which they today have little compunction about jailing people.

Most libertine conservatives do not believe in personal freedom, except perhaps their own, and so their countercultural actions do not even make them more libertarian by circumstance. Indeed, their hypocrisy and rightwing guilt often render them some of the most outwardly puritanical and fascistic people out there. Afraid to be too far to the "left" in principles as well as actions, these people will call for longer prison sentences for drug users even as they feed their own gambling addiction or even, to be more directly hypocritical, drug addiction. Rush Limbaugh comes to mind.

But aside from the secretive hypocritical types, there is the open hypocrisy. We heard conservatives defending Limbaugh when news of his Oxycontin addiction broke. After all, this was just a personal slip up, he was doing his job fine, he in fact should be admired for his struggles with addiction, and what business is it anyone’s, anyway? I even heard conservatives saying that since Limbaugh did so much to promote the drug war, his own indiscretion should be excused.

Clearly, conservatives can personally defend libertine values for themselves, or for their own, while still being bad on all the issues of freedom related to such libertinism. Just like the limousine liberal politicians who complain that the rich are squashing the poor, only to raise taxes on the little people and funnel more money to themselves and their well-to-do cronies, libertine conservatives generally do not apply their demonstrated values consistently as it concerns political philosophy. They persist in defending a system that cages hundreds of thousands of people for the same activity they themselves have engaged in, sometimes shamelessly, usually with no visible regret.

Unfortunately for those of us wishing to have honest and useful political discourse, many so-called libertarians are just libertine conservatives of one type or another. They believe that American red, white and blue should rule the world by force, but might add in a few colors in accord with the gay-pride rainbow. They have little regard for the radical philosophy of liberty, the heritage of classical liberalism going back hundreds of years, the rich tradition of libertarianism as a principled rebellion against and rejection of corporatism, imperialism, state socialism, privilege, war, and the modern state. They don’t care about economics other than that they have a general belief in smaller, "leaner" and more smoothly running government and would like more of their tax dollars spared so they could spend them on their wild parties with other conservative libertines. They think the US government is always right in an international conflict, or don’t care about the topic at all.

Murray Rothbard used to call people like this modals, and I have heard many use the term "lifestyle libertarianism," but I think these labels can be misleading. First of all, many of these people are not libertarians, except in a sense so broad so as to be nearly meaningless. Some so-called "lifestyle libertarians," on the other hand, really are principled and radical, but also happen to like to have a good time. The distinction is important, for it is a mistake to say a libertine cannot be a libertarian just as it is wrong to say a libertine is necessarily a libertarian or a libertarian is necessarily a libertine.

Shortly after 9/11, Matt Welch at Reason Magazine asked if perhaps the terror attacks and the war on terror made rightwingers more libertine, more willing to defend values of Western decadence against Islamic reactionaries who by comparison make the American left and right appear not to be so culturally divided as was before thought. Since then, we have seen conservatives increasingly willing to embrace socially liberal culture and claim the mantle of defending the freedom of homosexuals, women, racial minorities and so on against the religious fanaticism of the "Islamo-fascists." Thus is the war on terror a supposed war of liberation and for toleration. Thus did the idea of "South Park Republicans" make its way among a new conservative movement more dedicated to being hip and with it, more willing to say bad words and back a "socially liberal" man like Giuliani, than the supposedly curmudgeonly churchgoers who used to dominate the American right.

The war on foreign fundamentalists really has been at the center of this superficial move leftward. But putting aside the consequences of this war so far being the boosting of Islamic extremism in the Middle East and the replacement of Saddam’s secular regime with an Iranian-influenced Sharia-law state — accompanied by less toleration for women and religious minorities in Iraq — the conservatives never really retreated from their fundamental principles when this shift of rhetorical emphasis took place.

The US empire is, and always has been, the main unifying interest of the modern conservative movement, from the beginning of the Cold War on. To the extent conservatives critique one war or another as unwise, it is almost always because they fear it will jeopardize American national greatness and compromise the stability of the empire.

Since 9/11, Republicans and conservatives may have seemed more open to watching Borat and listening to Howard Stern, but they have not abandoned their conservatism at all on the issue of militarism and the imperial nation-state. They might be waxing eloquent on behalf of the poor and oppressed in other countries, but they have done so mainly out of loyalty to the U.S. government’s mass killing abroad — in principle if not always in practice, such as now when many worry the Iraq war might have overextended the war machine, making it harder to wage more war tomorrow.

So-called libertarians who agree with conservatives on the war hate being called conservatives themselves, but that’s what they are. They might try to score points by saying they don’t go to church and instead spend their Sunday mornings hung over — as if that makes someone more libertarian — but there’s not really much substantive difference between their effective position toward the state, which they navely think keeps them safe and secure and indeed is the source of their freedom, and the position of other libertine conservatives. Maybe the pill-popping Republican is more of a hypocrite in principle on whether drugs should be legal, but unlike real radical libertarians, none of the libertine conservative warmongers seem to grasp the real issues here: A state that would dare wage something like a drug war against its own subjects is evil and cannot be trusted to defend you against foreigners; a state of perpetual war guarantees that such programs as the legalization of drugs are unlikely for the duration, anyway.

For years I was confused by this misconception that libertarians were just libertine conservatives, but I understand it now. It is because of all the conservatives who have come to call themselves libertarians just because they want to be free to smoke a joint and have unprotected sex knowing that abortion is always a legal option. And there’s the irony that so many fail to see. Smoking marijuana might be illegal, but most of these conservatives will probably get away with it, anyway. If all they seek in libertarian theory is a cover for their current lifestyles, they might as well just call themselves conservatives, for the status quo allows them most of the freedom they seem to want for their own lives. They might think they’re so radical because they got really wasted last night. But their ability to get intoxicated is obviously something they can conserve without changing much about the current law. Their lifestyle, such as it is, is not in jeopardy the way our more fundamental freedoms are, and it is freedom, not lifestyle, that is after all the real issue at stake in such issues like drug policy in the first place.

If you are concerned about the economic fascism of the current American system, the military-industrial-complex, the perpetual war and ubiquitous American empire, the secret spying, the torture, the fraud of central banking, the massive theft known as taxation, the war on drugs as a threat to everyone’s liberty, the welfare state’s destruction of our economy and social fabric — if you consider public schools institutions of wickedness and tyranny and believe freedom is the only answer to any of these problems — if you think every individual has a right not to be aggressed against, not to be forced to pay for war and not to be killed by US bombs — if you believe that private property, freedom of association, peace, free trade and individual liberty are the recipe for a just world — then, by all means, call yourself a libertarian. I couldn’t care less what you do after work or who you want to sleep with.

But those who think libertarianism is just a libertine brand of Republicanism, please just admit you’re conservatives so we can all move on. Libertarianism is neither libertine nor un-libertine in itself. But in terms of policy and political philosophy, it is not conservative, it is not warmongering, and it is definitely not just a social club for party animals with money. There’s already a group for that kind of animal, a group that is not as sectarian on religion or lifestyle as you might think, a group that will welcome with open arms anyone who will capitulate to the imperial executive and military state, regardless of where he went to bed last night. And, if Rush Limbaugh was any indication, someone at any of their shindigs is bound to have whatever recreational pills you might need to help you get through the day thinking you actually stand for something other than a slightly more decadent version of American imperialism, a groovier variety of the total state.

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

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