This talk was delivered on June 1, 2007, at the Future of Freedom Foundation‘s Conference on "Restoring the Republic: Foreign Affairs and Civil Liberties."
There are two clear and present dangers to liberty in America. One is known as the left, and the other is known as the right. They are dangerous because they seek to use government to mold society into a form they seek, rather than the form that liberty achieves if society is left on its own.
I’m going to assume that the left and the right come to their views sincerely, that their passion for using government is driven by some fear that the absence of government would yield catastrophe. So the burden of my talk today will be to identify and explain the common thread that connects the worldview of the left and the right, and suggest that they are both wrong about the capacity of society, whether it is defined locally or internationally, to manage itself.
Let us begin with the question: why should we have confidence in the notion that society can develop on its own, that it contains within itself the capacity for self-management? Another way to ask the question: why do the advocates of leviathan believe that the members of society are incapable of achieving cooperative engagement in the absence of the state?
The discovery of this capacity for cooperation was the great intellectual contribution of the classical liberal school that gave rise to the American Revolution. It grew out of a belief that whatever imperfections social self-organization had, there was nothing that centralized government could do to improve it. They took the daring step of tossing off the rule of the state in favor of complete self-government. They didn’t fear chaos. They looked forward to liberty.
This event was the product of the liberal idea, as held by most all sectors of society. Liberalism did not seek utopia. It sought liberty under the conviction that society had a built-in mechanism that permitted individual members to achieve a harmony of interests. They believed it to be true because they lived it. The belief in this harmony of interests was the great passion of the old liberal intellectuals, of which Thomas Jefferson was a leading exponent.
After the revolution, when government began to regroup and reconsolidate, the liberal idea began to gain detractors. John Adams, whom Jefferson beat in the great presidential election of 1800, never stopped resenting Jefferson’s suspicions toward power and opposition to practically everything the federal government wanted to do. It was Jefferson’s conviction that liberty yielded social cooperation; it was Adams’s view that liberty could only be established and sustained through government authority. These two opposing views persist to this day.
Adams went so far as to level a familiar accusation against Jefferson’s faith in pure liberty. Adams wrote him in 1813: “You never felt the terrorism of Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts,…. You certainly never felt the terrorism excited by Genet in 1793, when ten thousand people in the streets of Philadelphia, day by day, threatened to drag Washington out of his house and effect a revolution in the government…. I have no doubt you were fast asleep in philosophical tranquility when…Market Street was as full of men as could stand by one another, and even before my door when some of my domestics, in frenzy, determined to sacrifice their lives in my defence…. What think you of terrorism, Mr. Jefferson?”
So we can see, then, how Shays’ Rebellion served the government in the same way that 9-11 does now: it is held up as an example of the kind of terror that will befall us if we refuse to give government the power and money necessary to make the world peaceful and wonderful. What Adams conveniently overlooked is that the rebellion of which he spoke was actually sparked by taxation and government-backed credit expansion. There would have been no need for a revolt had government not created the conditions that led to it.
And so it is with 9-11. It was government that created the motives that led the hijackers to give up their lives, and it was government that had so regulated airline security that passengers and crew were defenseless in the face of criminals with box cutters. The right response would have been to roll back the conditions that created the motives for 9-11, and to unleash the power of private enterprise to prevent such attacks in the future. Instead, the impulse of the state as backed by uninformed public ideology was to escalate the conditions that breed terrorism and put government ever more in charge of airline security.
From Shays’ Rebellion to 9-11, we see two worldviews of society at work. One sees the government as a source of liberty and order, and fears society without the state more than any conceivable alternative. The other sees government as a source of disorder that uses that disorder to enhance its power and material resources at the expense of society.
The left and the right in this country hold to the first view. The successors to Jefferson hold to the second view, which in Jefferson’s time was called the liberal view, and which today is called the libertarian view.
There are international parallels in each of these positions. Conservatives are of the view that a world without a single superpower is chaos and darkness. The left believes in internationalizing their version of the domestic welfare state under the management of a single supra-national institution. Libertarians, on the other hand, believe that international society thrives best without either a superpower or a supranational manager. I maintain that these two views of order constitute the decisive ideological conflict of our time, that which pits the libertarians against the two prevailing ideologies.
The old liberal view lives in the writings of such people as John Locke, Frdric Bastiat, Lord Acton, Alexis de Tocqueville, and, in the 20th century, in the work of Mises, Hayek, and Rothbard. Hayek himself traced the liberal tradition from Cicero, through the Middle Ages, to John Locke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant. The thread that connects all their thought is the idea that society is more capable than government elites in shaping a prosperous order. In the same way that Locke believed that the nation-state was a threat to human rights and social peace, so Kant envisioned an international order that was unmanaged from the top down but rather generated its own orderly peace.
What was critical for Hayek in the liberal tradition was the conviction that liberty and law could exist in harmony with each other. Law itself emerged spontaneously from within society as its members sought better ways of managing their own affairs. The law of which Hayek speaks is law adhered to as a matter of voluntary contract, or what we more commonly refer to as rules. We have rules that govern the management of subdivisions, or civic organizations, or businesses, or churches. Or think of merchant law that emerged over many centuries of international trade. This law exists apart from the state, and reflects the desire of individuals to cooperate toward their own betterment, and the rightful conviction that their own betterment is consistent with the flourishing of society.
In contrast, writes Hayek, there is another tradition of law that sees all rules in society as rising from the state, and always and everywhere must amount to a restriction on the liberty of individuals. The exponents of this view include the tyrants and despots of the ancient world, and, in modern times, Thomas Hobbes and Karl Marx. The writings of the latter two are the preeminent influence over what we today call the right and the left.
It is impossible to understand this view of government without first understanding the illiberal view of society. The illiberal view regards society as essentially unworkable on its own because it is riddled with conflicting interests.
Let us begin with the left. They believe society has fundamental flaws and deep-rooted conflicts that keep it in some sort of structural imbalance. All these conflicts and disequilibria cry out for government fixes, for leftists are certain that there is no social problem that a good dose of power can’t solve.
If the conflicts they want are not there, they make them up. They look at what appears to be a happy suburban subdivision and see pathology. They see an apparently happy marriage and imagine that it is a mask for abuse. They see a thriving church and think the people inside are being manipulated by a cynical and corrupt pastor. Their view of the economic system is the same. They see poor peasants in the third world drinking a Coke or making Nikes, and they cry foul. They figure that prices don’t reflect reality but instead are set by large players. There is a power imbalance at the heart of every exchange, domestically and internationally. The labor contract is a mere veneer that covers exploitation.
To the brooding leftist, it is inconceivable that people can work out their own problems, that trade can be to people’s mutual advantage, that society can be essentially self-managing, or that attempts to use government power to reshape and manage people might backfire. Their faith in government knows few limits; their faith in people is thin or nonexistent. This is why they are a danger to liberty.
The remarkable fact about the conflict theory of society held by the left is that it ends up creating more of the very pathologies that they believe have been there from the beginning. The surest way to drive a wedge between labor and capital is to regulate the labor markets to the point that people cannot make voluntary trades. Both sides begin to fear each other. It is the same with relations between races, sexes, the abled and disabled, and any other groups you can name. It is the same with international relations. A tariff or trade sanction is nothing but war by another means. The best path to creating conflict where none need exist is to put a government bureaucracy in charge.
This view is the very heart of the old socialist vision. They believed that the key conflict in history was between those who owned capital and those who worked for capital. The gain of the capitalists always comes at the expense of labor; similarly, the advance of labor can only come from the expropriation of the capitalist class through a revolution that is just because the laborers are only taking back what was expropriated from them.
Now, as time has passed, we’ve come to see the error of this view. Capital and labor do not exist in fundamental conflict. Their relations are managed by contract in the same way that relations between laborers and capitalists are managed by contract. Moreover, these two groups are not hermetically sealed off from each other. Capitalists are workers, and workers can be capitalistic owners of their own property. Only in the most primitive stages does it appear otherwise.
Once it became obvious that Marxism had mischaracterized the workings of capitalism, the left looked for other forms of conflict to confirm their worldview. Most recently, they have begun to advance the idea that man’s interests can only be pursued at the expense of nature. The flourishing of one occurs at the expense of the other. Thus it is that a seemingly happy and prosperous people could in reality be doing deadly damage to the earth, the interests of which can only be advanced at the expense of prosperous consumers and producers. The left accepts the reality that this will make everyone poorer, as all forms of socialism do, but they tell us that this is good for us and good for the planet.
The traditional and correct answer to the conflict theory is that there is essentially nothing government can do to improve the workings of society. During the Great Depression, for example, most everyone on the left thought that government was the only way out. The hard left favored Communist revolution. The soft left favored the New Deal. The old liberals pointed out that it was government itself that brought about the crisis, and that more government intervention could only make matters worse. This was a rational response, but it did not carry the day.
After the Second World War, we saw the emergence of a strange creature in American life, something that called itself conservatism. It was opposed to the left in American life, particularly that branch that was sympathetic to Communism. It counseled vagaries like prudence in public affairs. But in a crucial way, it adopted one tenet of the leftist worldview: it rejected old liberalism as a vision for how society can work in absence of government. It adopted a conflict view of society, a different brand rooted in the assertions of Hobbes rather than Marx. The idea that conflict was at the very heart of society, absent government, was a key aspect of this.
This new thing called conservative adopted some of the rhetoric of the old right. It defended property and enterprise in economic affairs. But what was critical was the introduction of a notion that society, if left to its own devices, would collapse into chaos. This was particularly true in international affairs. So while the Cold War was originally an invention of the Democrat Harry Truman, it was tailor-made to appeal to conservatives who were looking for an ideological enemy to slay. It is one thing to say that Communism is an evil ideological system; it is another to say that we cannot rest until every communist is killed and every Communist government wiped off the face of the earth.
What happened to the non-interventionist views of the old right? They were predicated on the idea that there could be a leaderless world order, that nations could get along without one overarching authority and source of law. But after the war, that too began to change. A new conviction arose.
Russell Kirk wrote in 1954 that “civilized society requires distinctions of order, wealth, and responsibility; it cannot exist without true leadership… society longs for just leadership….” He contrasted this view with what he considered the erroneous opinion of Ludwig von Mises, whom he attacks over the course of many pages. Mises, wrote Kirk, had exaggerated faith in the rationality of individuals. Kirk, in contrast, sees that all of history is governed by two great forces: love and hate. Neither are rational impulses. In order to achieve the triumph of love over hate, wrote Kirk, the conservative “looks upon government as a great power for good.”
And so conservatives threw themselves behind the force of government to achieve their aims, and no matter how many wicked things government did over the years under conservative control, they always told themselves that it was surely better than the much-feared alternative of an unmanaged society.
Kirk became more explicit as the years went on, and after the old liberalism was refashioned by Rothbard as libertarianism, conservatives began to define themselves in opposition to all forms of liberalism. The government had many things to do in this world, they said. The police were the thin blue line that separated chaos from order — and forget just how awful the police often are in reality. The US military empire was all that stood between us and Soviet domination — and pay no attention to the fact that the Soviet economy was itself a basket case. They became cheerleaders of government power of a different sort.
Frank Chodorov was so fed up with tendencies on the right that he once said: “anyone who calls me a conservative gets a punch in the nose.”
We have lived through six years of a Republican president who was backed by conservatives but who still escapes fundamental criticism by them. After promises of a humble foreign policy, war and war spending define our era. We’re told that every problem with war can be solved through more force, there is nothing necessarily wrong with imprisoning people without cause and without legal representation, that torture can be a legitimate wartime tactic, that some countries have to be destroyed in order to be made free, and that we can have all the warfare and welfare we desire at virtually no cost, thanks to the miracle of central banking and debt-driven economic growth.
Some people say that the real problem with the Bush administration is that it is too far left, and that a genuine right-wing government would be better. I’m disinclined to believe that, for I detect in the Bush administration a philosophy of governance that departs from that of the left in many ways, except in its unlimited faith in government to keep order, that is, to exercise force and the threat of force.
Elsewhere, I’ve referred to members of political groups that support the conservative right as “red-state fascists,” and I don’t use that phrase merely for rhetorical purposes. There was and is such a thing as fascism as a non-leftist form of social theory that puts unlimited faith in the state to correct what they see as flaws in society and the world.
Let’s look more closely at the conservative view of police power. While it is true that law itself is critical to freedom, and police can defend rights of life and property, it does not follow that any tax-paid fellow bearing official arms and sporting jackboots is on the side of the good. Every government regulation and tax is ultimately backed by the police power, so free-market advocates have every reason to be as suspicious of socialist-style police power as anyone on the left.
Uncritical attitudes toward the police lead, in the end, to the support of the police state and, in turn, to the celebration of American imperialism as somehow filling a void in the world. And to those who doubt that, I would invite a look at the U.S.-backed regime in Iraq, which has been enforcing martial law since the invasion even while most conservatives have been glad to believe that these methods constitute steps toward freedom. I don’t see this as a contradiction of conservative principles; it appears as the fulfillment of their essentially Hobbesian view of how society must function.
The problem of police power is hitting Americans very close to home. It is the police, much militarized and federalized, who are charged with enforcing the on-again-off-again states of emergency that have characterized American civilian life. It is the police that confiscated guns from New Orleans residents during the flood, kept residents away from their homes, refused to let the kids go home in the Alabama tornado earlier this spring, and will be the enforcers of the curfews, checkpoints, and speech controls that the politicians want during the next national emergency.
If we want to see the way the police power could treat US citizens, look carefully at how the US troops in Iraq are treating the civilians there, or how prisoners in Guantnamo Bay are treated. A leading contender for the Republican nomination received wild cheers when he proposed to double the capacity of Guantnamo.
This ideology of power that is inherent in postwar conservatism is particularly clear when it comes to war. In the 1970s, there developed a myth on the right that the real problem with Vietnam was not the intervention itself, but the failure to carry it out to a more grim and ruthless end. This seems to be the only lesson that the Bush administration garnered from the experience.
So the solution to every problem in Iraq — at least I can’t think of an exception to the rule — has been to apply more force through more troops, more bombs, more tanks, more guns, more curfews, more patrols, more checkpoints, and more controls of all sorts. They believe that another surge will work wonders because they are out of ideas. It’s as if the administration were on an intellectual trajectory that it cannot escape.
Even after all the evidence that the war on terror has produced ever more terrorism — and this evidence is offered up by the government’s own statistics — the champions of the war on terror cannot think their way out of the intellectual trap into which their ideology of force has locked them.
How is it that the war planners and their vast numbers of supporters do not question the underlying assumption that government is capable of achieving all its aims, provided that it is given enough time and firepower?
Let’s look more carefully at their crude form of Hobbesianism. Thomas Hobbes’s book Leviathan was published in 1651 during the English Civil War in order to justify a tyrannical central government as the price of peace. The natural state of society, he said, was war of all against all. In this world, life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Conflict was the way of human engagement. Society is rife with it, and it cannot be otherwise.
What is striking here is the context of this book. Conflict was indeed ubiquitous. But what was the conflict over? It was over who would control the state and how that state would operate. This was not a state of nature but a society under Leviathan’s control. It was precisely the Leviathan that bred that very conflict that Hobbes was addressing, and he proposed a cure that was essentially identical to the disease.
In fact, the result of the Civil War was the brutal and ghastly dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell, who ruled under democratic slogans. This was a foreshadowing of some of the worst political violence of the 20th century. It was Nazism, Fascism, and Communism that transformed formerly peaceful societies into violent communities in which life did indeed become "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Leviathan didn’t fix the problem; it bred it, and fastened it on society.
What is striking about Hobbes is that he thought not at all about economic problems. The problem of human material well-being was not part of his intellectual apparatus. He could not have imagined what England would become a century to a century and a half later: a bastion of freedom and rising prosperity for everyone.
He wrote at the tail end of an epoch before the rise of old-style liberalism. At the time that Hobbes was writing, the liberal idea had not yet become part of public consciousness in England. In this respect, England was behind the Continent, where intellectuals in Spain and France had already come to understand the core insights of the liberal idea. But in England, John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government would not be written for another thirty years, a book that would supply the essential framework of the Declaration of Independence and lead to the formation of the freest and most prosperous society in the history of the world.
Because Hobbes didn’t think about economic issues, the essential liberal insight was not part of his thinking. And what is that insight? It is summed up in Frdric Bastiat’s claim that “the great social tendencies are harmonious.”
What he means by this is that society contains within itself the capacity to resolve conflicts and create and sustain institutions that further social cooperation. By pursuing their individual self-interest, people can come to mutual agreement and engage in exchange to their mutual benefit. A critical insight here, one that needs to be taught to every generation, relates to the law of association.
The law of association points out that people of radically different abilities, backgrounds, religions, races, and capacities can successfully cooperate to achieve ever-higher levels of social welfare through negotiation and trade. The law of association is what explains the method by which humans were able to move out of caves, away from isolated production, beyond the hunter-gatherer stage, and into what we call civilization. This law makes it possible for people not to steal from each other and kill each other but cooperate. It is the basis of society. It is also the basis of international order.
Note that the law of association does not suppose that everyone in society is smart, enlightened, talented, reasonable, or educated. It presumes radical inequality and points to the paradox that the world’s smartest, most talented person still has every reason to trade with his polar opposite because scarcity requires that the tasks of production be divided between people. Under the division of labor, everyone plays an essential role. It is the basis of families, communities, firms, and international trade. Another fact that needs to be understood is this: the law of association is a fact of human existence whether or not there is a state. Indeed, the foundation of civilization itself precedes the existence of the state.
What the law of association addresses is the core problem of freedom itself. If all people were equal, if everyone had the same skill level, if there were racial, sexual, and religious homogeneity in society, if people did not have differences of opinion, there would be few if any problems in society to overcome because it would not be a human society. It would be an ant heap, or a series of machine parts that had no volition. The essential problem of social and economic organization, aside from scarcity, is precisely how to deal with the fact of inequality and free will. It is here that freedom excels.
Let us be clear. The old liberals were not saying that there are no such things as criminals. They were saying that society can deal with malevolence through the exchange economy, and in precisely the way we see hinted at today: private security companies, private production of locks and guns, private arbitration, and private insurance. The free market can organize protection better than the state. Private enterprise can and does provide the police function better than the state. As Hayek argued, the state is wildly overrated as a mechanism of order keeping. The state is and has been in history a source of disorder and chaos.
This essential insight of liberalism is what led the founding fathers to take such a radical step as throwing off the rule of Great Britain. They had to be firmly convinced that chaos would not ensue, that the American people could manage their own affairs without overarching Leviathan control. They believed that the source of any conflict in their society was the central state, and that society itself could be self-regulating. In place of control by the king, they put the Articles of Confederation, which was a type of government that more closely approximated anarchy than any system in the modern period. The central government was barely in existence, and had essentially no power.
Why did anyone believe it could work? It was the new science of liberty that led to this conviction. The American consensus was that Hobbes was wrong. In the state of nature, life is not nasty and brutish, or, rather if it is, there is nothing that a nasty and brutish state can do to improve it. The only way a society can advance out of barbarism is from within by means of the division of labor.
This logic has been forgotten by the American right. Instead they have bought into the view that society is fundamentally unstable and rife with a conflict that only the state can solve. That root conflict is between those who adhere to the law and those who are inclined to break it. These they define as good guys and bad guys, but it is not always true, since "the law" these days is not that written by God on our hearts, but rather the orders handed down by our political masters.
This seemingly important point is completely lost on the Republican mind, since they believe that without the state as lawmaker, all of society and all the world would collapse into a muddle of chaos and darkness. Society, they believe, is a wreck without Leviathan. This is why they celebrate the police and the military far more than merchants and entrepreneurs, and why they think that war deserves more credit than trade for world prosperity.
The conviction that society, no matter how orderly it appears, is really nothing more than a gloss on deep-rooted conflict, expresses itself in the romantic attachment to the police power and war.
But it also affects the right’s attitude toward religion. Many people are convinced that, in the end, it is not possible that society can be religiously heterogeneous. In particular, these days, most conservatives believe that the United States cannot abide the presence of Muslims and other religious minorities.
I’m sure you have heard, as I have, conservatives telling us that there can be no peace in the world so long as the Muslim religion exists. It is inherently bent on violence. They have always been our enemy and always will be. When I hear such claims, I can’t help but think of Orwell’s 1984, in which the enemies were always changing and the history always being rewritten. For it wasn’t too long ago that we were told that Islam, and its fundamentalist branch in particular, was a wonderful ally in the war against Communism, and, moreover, that they share with us the virtues of faith and family.
So with a sigh, we must point out that so long as Western troops are not invading their countries and starving their people, we tend to get along rather well.
Indeed, in conditions of freedom, there is no reason why all religions cannot peacefully coexist. The current-day view of conservatives that we are in an intractable war against Islam also stems from the conflict-based view of society. In absence of the state, people find ways to get along, all preserving their own identities. Religious heterogeneity presents no problems that freedom cannot solve.
And yet, conservatives today are disinclined to accept this view. They seem to have some intellectual need to identify huge struggles at work in history that give them a sense of meaning and purpose. Whereas the founding generation of old liberals was thrilled by the existence of peace and the slow and meticulous development of bourgeois civilization, the right today is on the lookout for grand morality plays in which they can throw themselves as a means of making some mark in history. And somehow they have come to believe that the state is the right means to use to fight this battle.
In short, their meta-understanding of politics bypassed the liberal revolution of the 18th century and embraced the anti-liberal elements of the Enlightenment. Liberty is fine but order, order, is much more important, and order comes from the state. They can’t even fathom the truth that liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order. That thought is too complex for the mind that believes that "the law" alone, legislated or by executive fiat, is what separates barbarism from civilization. Freedom, to them, is not a right but something conferred as a reward for good behavior. The absence of good behavior justifies any level of crackdown.
At the end of the Cold War, many conservatives panicked that there would be no more great causes into which the state could enlist itself. There were about 10 years of books that sought to demonize someone, somewhere, in the hope of creating a new enemy. Maybe it would be China. Maybe it would be the culture war. Maybe it should be drugs. At last, from their point of view, 9-11 presented the opportunity they needed, and thus began the newest unwinnable war: The Global War on Terror.
So must government rule every aspect of life until every last terrorist is wiped off the face of the earth? Must we surrender all our liberty and property to this cause, as the regime and its apologists suggest?
This view of society is certainly not sustainable in these times and in the future. Ever more of daily life consists in seceding from the state and its apparatus of edicts and regulations. In the online world, billions of deals are made every day that require virtually no government law to enforce. The technology that is pushing the world forward is not created by the state but by private enterprise. The places we shop and the communities in which we live are being created by private developers. Most businesses prefer to deal with private courts. We depend on insurance companies, not police, to reduce the risks in life. We secure our homes and workplaces through private firms.
What’s more, these days we see all around us how liberty generates order and how this order is self-sustaining. We benefit daily, hourly, minute-by-minute, from an order that is not imposed from without but rather generated from within, by that remarkable capacity we have for pursuing self-interest while benefiting the whole. Here is the great mystery and majesty of social order, expressed so well in the act of economic exchange.
Many Republicans by contrast live intellectually in a world long past, a world of warring states and societies made up of fixed classes that fought over ever-dwindling resources, a world unleavened by enterprise and individual initiative. They imagine themselves to be the class of rulers, the aristocrats, the philosopher kings, the high clerics, the landowners, and to keep that power, they gladly fuel the basest of human instincts: nationalism, jingoism, and hate. Keeping them at bay means keeping the world of their imaginations at bay, and that is a very good and important thing for the sake of civilization.
I’ve spoken about the problem of those who look at society and see nothing but conflict and no prospect for cooperation. It is a view shared by the left and the right. Truly there is an actual conflict at the root of history but it is not the one most people understand or see. It is the great struggle between freedom and despotism, between the individual and the state, between the voluntary means and coercion. But we know where we stand. We stand with the future of freedom.