Liberventionism for Fun and Profit
by Daniel McCarthy
by Daniel McCarthy
Years ago, Murray Rothbard coined two terms to describe the worst sort of dubious libertarians. The Luftmenschen were people without a visible means of support, while the "modals" were the wild-eyed, ill-groomed types for whom libertarianism was more a lifestyle than a philosophy. This latter kind happened to be the most prevalent — the mode — at any semi-sizeable libertarian gathering. Often enough, Luftmenschen were modals and, predictably, it was a rare modal indeed who earned anything like a steady income.
Today one of these types is endangered, thanks to the triumph of neoconservatism. The Luftmensch is on her way out. Any otherwise unemployable libertarian willing to forget about principle and embrace the military-industrial complex now has a bright future ahead of her at one nominally libertarian Beltway outfit or another. Even the venerable Institute for Humane Studies, founded by F.A. "Baldy" Harper back in 1961, has become an employment agency for junior neocons. Or so it seems to judge from a recent article in TechCentralStation by Max Borders, program director for IHS.
Borders makes herself out to be both libertarian and Hobbesian. That she knows nothing about libertarianism or Hobbes does not dissuade her from this pose any more than a demonstrably limited familiarity with the English language dissuades her from writing. (Am I unkind? She writes pace when she means per, but that's Latin. The English is graceless, confused, and occasionally flat-out wrong — check out that "alas" in the third paragraph — but maybe she's just heard one speech too many by George W. Bush.) According to Borders, "spaces untouched by globalization...are like a state-of-nature" and "it behooves us to try to make our enemies more like us...and then let globalization proceed apace."
No libertarian, or anyone else, should much care if Borders wants to be a Hobbesian, but for what it's worth, Iraq was not in a Hobbesian state of nature. On the contrary, Iraq was a very good illustration of Hobbesian political theory put to practice. A modicum of peace and, before U.S. sanctions, even prosperity was enjoyed by Iraq under the brutal rule of a strong monarch, who kept rival religious and ethnic factions suppressed. What Hobbes would call anarchy came to Iraq when Saddam was overthrown — of course, what Hobbes would call anarchy anybody else would call civil war, a bloody struggle for control over the very sovereignty that Hobbes contended would limit conflict.
Hobbes as a proponent of globalization is hard to imagine. Harder still is figuring out why anybody should make a fetish out of globalization unless it is a peaceful process of advantage to all of its parties. Indeed, since Cobden and Bright a large part of the classical liberal case for globalization has been that free trade brings peace and protectionism war. But for Borders globalization is an end in itself and war a means toward that end. The children of Iraq may be missing their arms and legs — not to mention their parents and grandparents and brothers and sisters — but they'll be able to eat delicious McDonalds hamburgers. Or maybe Halliburton Hamburgers, since that company seems to have a special advantage within the Iraqi market. In the old days this used to be called imperialism. For Borders, it's globalization.
The streamlined, new-fangled libertarianism that Borders has adopted contains many provisions that would have startled the best libertarian scholars of the past, most notably Murray Rothbard. The rehabilitation of Hobbes into a guiding light for libertarians is the least of it. Borders has also debunked the natural-law libertarianism that Rothbard favored while similarly dismissing utilitarianism; in place of these, we get "social contract theory" which "splits the difference between libertarianism and conservatism." If you don't remember signing the social contract, don't worry, someone else has signed for you — without your permission and without consulting you as to the terms of this agreement. Oh, and this signatory is imaginary, by the way. She only exists in the minds of Rawlsians like Borders. "The social contract," Borders says, "is an idea that people would rationally choose certain constraints on their behavior, constraints which culminate in certain reciprocal rules under which to live." The subjective theory of value that Austrian economics has articulated might suggest that, in fact, different people want different constraints on different behaviors; and just looking around the world as it exists might confirm such a theory to just about anyone's satisfaction.
Indeed, even Borders has noticed that, which is why certain people just aren't people in her world. "If you stand outside the covenants of Man" — why the sexist language, Max? — "you are presumed ‘enemy.'" Or as Borders says elsewhere, "there are limits to those on whom we can ascribe rights." Iraqis are not, or were not, part of the covenant (they were in the state of nature), so blowing them up was perfectly fine. They don't have rights. To judge from some of Borders's other remarks, nor do persons designated as "enemy combatants." (Borders scoffs at the idea of extending Constitutional protections to those so termed, but that's a straw man. The basic right to which these prisoners are entitled is that of habeas corpus — they should get a hearing to determine whether they are, in fact, enemy combatants. Just because President Bush calls someone an enemy combatant does not mean that she is one. Borders talks about bringing the "Rule of Law" to Iraq, but there's precious little evidence to suggest that the Bush administration understands how that concept applies even to the United States.)
Max Borders has stitched together a new libertarianism out of old scraps of Thomas Hobbes and John Rawls, a libertarianism that denies a right not to be killed to people who are not liberal democrats or who do not live in liberal democracies. The ethical bankruptcy of the mind that conceived this nonsense is on display when Borders reveals that the best argument she can see against the war is one that relates to Hayekian notions of spontaneous order — rebuilding Iraq might fail because the attempt is too bureaucratic. No, Max, that's not the best argument against the war. The best argument against the war is that it is wrong to aggress against another nation and to kill people have done nothing to harm you. If your ethics don't reach at least that far, you don't really have any ethics at all.
Borders fears that "there is a reticence among many libertarians to speak out about their bellicosity." Again, this suggests that she isn't wholly familiar with the English tongue: "bellicosity" means "favoring or inclined to start quarrels or wars." No one in her right mind would want to declare her own bellicosity, any more than she would want to announce her mendacity or stupidity. But then, allowing for subjective preference, maybe I can't say this about Borders. She is half right, anyway, to say that many libertarians are reluctant to speak out about their love of war. This may in part be for fear of being shunned but in larger part, one suspects, it is for fear of being made to look like a hypocrite and a fool for claiming to be a libertarian while professing such illiberal views.
(The sad fact that all too many young libertarians are indeed bellicose became clear to me a few months ago when a friend who had tried to establish a nationwide libertarian youth organization told me that he quit when he discovered how many of the young libertarian leaders on campuses he contacted were pro-war. I wonder, will the neocons be able to find jobs for them all.)
Much more could be said about this fashionable new libertarianism that Borders offers, but it hardly merits the attention. It would not warrant comment at all were it not for the ammunition that it gives to the critics who have always claimed that libertarianism is an amoral, anything-goes philosophy — and an ideology that will put abstractions before the lives of real human beings, which is what Borders does when she deploys asinine arguments about the threat Saddam Hussein might, one day, somehow, potentially have posed to justify the real death and destruction wrought by the war. "Libertarians" who make that kind of case perhaps should not be taken too seriously, but they should not be left unchecked, either. Libertarians like that are little better than neocons on drugs.
p.s. Readers might wonder why I have used feminine pronouns and modifiers to refer to Borders, who is apparently a man. Well, I didn't want to be priggish, that's all.
September 11, 2004