Libertarian Reflections


If you had been involved, however tangentially, in a debacle that ended in the murder of over 75 people – wouldn’t you be a little bit ashamed? Wouldn’t you show a little contrition, and conduct yourself with a decent respect for the victims’ relatives? Wouldn’t you have a little class? If so – well, then, you’re just not FBI material, son.

FBI documents recently turned over to the Danforth committee contain a host of revelations about the agency’s conduct at Waco in 1993. The most widely reported item so far has been that FBI agents did in fact fire incendiary devices at the Davidians’ home. But another, less well-covered, revelation from the new documents shows the FBI’s appalling lack of remorse over the carnage at Waco. It seems that FBI officials actually sought medals for the agents involved in the 51-day siege. One memo found at Quantico noted "there may be reluctance to award such a high number of shields of bravery, but the discipline and courage which was exhibited by the HRT [hostage rescue team] for the seven-week siege… cannot be overstated." (Funny, I don’t remember any hostages at Waco).

Just as revealing in its way was a little item printed in the Washington Post’s book review section on October 17. Reviewing A Place Called Waco, written by one of the nine survivors of the 1993 siege, reporter Robert Suro recounts a conversation he’d had recently with "a senior FBI executive." The two spoke on the day the Justice Department seized the documents the FBI had been withholding, and the agent was none too happy about the way things had turned out. "Reflecting on the indignity, the FBI veteran said, ‘David Koresh won.’"

How do you like that? Koresh ends up six feet under, along with dozens of his followers, and some of his children. Six years later, thanks to FBI obstruction of justice, we still don’t know how the fire started at Waco. What we do know is that the agency’s behavior there revealed at best a reckless indifference to human life, and at worst, premeditated murder. Despite that, there have been no indictments for the crimes committed at Waco. And yet, somehow, in the agency’s bunker mentality, Koresh "won." Harvard psychiatrist Alan Stone put it best in Waco: The Rules of Engagement. The problem isn’t understanding the psychology of the people inside the compound; the real trick is trying to fathom the people outside the compound.

"Libertarian Nonsense"

You can learn a lot about Third Way politics by listening Britain’s Tony Blair. Responding recently to criticism of New Labor’s "tough-on-crime" policies – including local curfews, restrictions on jury trials, and compulsory DNA tests for arrestees – Prime Minister Blair averred that he was sick of "libertarian nonsense masquerading as freedom."

Last month, at the Labor Party’s annual conference in Bournemouth, Blair outlined his vision for the coming millennium. According to Blair, "the 21st century will not be about the battle between capitalism and socialism, but between the forces of progress and the forces of conservatism." Nor will these reactionaries be found solely among old-style Tories, Blair tells us; instead progress will be opposed by adherents to the "conservatism of [either] Left or Right." (Hey! Tony’s been reading Virginia Postrel!).

What characterizes these dark forces opposed to progress, motivated by what Blair alternatively refers to as "conservatism" or "libertarian nonsense"? The PM gives some examples: the forces of reaction cling to ridiculous old traditions like fox-hunting, which New Labor promises to ban; they oppose the use of military force in crusades for international human rights; they don’t think crime control should be achieved with the sacrifice of basic freedoms; and worst of all, they resist integration into a monstrous European superstate.

In Blair’s Bournemouth speech, we can see the true nature of Third Way politics revealed. It’s the political Left shorn of its twin redeeming virtues: opposition to war and concern for civil liberties. New Labor’s eagerness for war was made clear earlier this year by Blair’s leadership role in NATO’s attack on Serbia. Pushing for escalated bombing and ground troops in Kosovo, Blair showed himself bloodthirsty enough to draw the adjective "Churchillian" from Bill Kristol, America’s leading talk-show hawk.

Blair’s domestic policy, in turn, demonstrates that left-wing civil libertarianism will be left behind in the great leap forward to the Third Way. Under a telecommunications bill to be introduced next month, computer users who refuse to reveal their passwords to the government will face up to two years in jail. Internet service providers will be forced, at their expense, to make their networks wiretap-friendly, and to keep records showing to and from whom material has been received. One crusty old Tory MP saw the bill as a plan for "a state surveillance system like something out of Orwell’s 1984" (See what Blair means? What a tired old metaphor!).

This, then, is a statism for the 21st century. Intrusive at home, pursuing safety and social justice; violent abroad, with cruise missiles and cluster bombs for foreign forces of reaction – and all of it coated in dulcet phrases about compassion, altruism, the future, and "progress." Meet the new boss; but for the rhetoric, same as the old boss. When G.K. Chesterton wrote that "the old tyrants invoked the past; the new tyrants will invoke the future," he might have been thinking of a character like Tony Blair.

A History of the American People by Paul Johnson HarperCollins, 1998, 1088 pps.

Toward the end of his life, the irrepressible Murray Rothbard ended a speech with the rallying cry: "We shall repeal the twentieth century!" Libertarians who share Rothbard’s quixotic goal owe a debt of gratitude to Paul Johnson for his Modern Times: A History of the Twentieth Century. Never was the case against the twentieth century – the century of collectivism and genocide – so forcefully made. But those who admired Modern Times for its blistering indictment of statism may be disappointed with Johnson’s treatment of American history. His A History of the American People is history as envisioned by the neoconservative mind. Throughout the book Johnson espouses a messianic American exceptionalism and applauds America’s slide from Republic to Empire. Each state-building president, each move toward national consolidation comes about at precisely the right time to move America closer to its destiny as Superpower Savior of the West. Bill Kristol’s "National Greatness" Conservatives will embrace A History of the American People. But those true patriots who love their country and hate their government will find an evening with Johnson’s tome as exasperating as a morning spent listening to NPR.

Consider Johnson’s treatment of the Civil War era. Johnson calls Virginia’s desertion of the Union "shabby beyond belief." But Virginia, which had stayed its hand during the initial secession of the deep South, seceded only when Lincoln determined to keep the Union together by force. As Jeffrey Rogers Hummel put it in Emancipating Slaves, Enslaving Free Men: "Previously unwilling to secede over the issue of slavery, these four states [Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas] were now ready to fight for the ideal of a voluntary Union." The Civil War was in many ways a battle between two competing views of the Constitution, and of political obligation. Johnson needn’t agree with the Southern perspective on these matters, but we might expect him to treat the issue with more subtlety and nuance than Ken Burns’s docudrama.

The real embarrassment in the Civil War chapter is Johnson’s hyperbolic fawning over Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was "a kind of moral genius"; one who, "invariably did the right thing, however easily it might be avoided." He was "of a different order of moral stature, and of intellectual heroism." In fact, "It was as if [Lincoln] were of a different kind of humanity: not a master-race, but a higher race." If the Johnson of Modern Times was the historian as hanging judge, the Johnson of American People is the historian as White House intern.

Those who appreciated Modern Times’ rehabilitation of the much-maligned "do-nothing" presidents Harding and Coolidge, may be unpleasantly surprised by Johnson’s praise for certain other chief executives in A History of the American People. Johnson’s rhapsodizing over Lincoln is echoed later when the author turns to Woodrow Wilson. Of Wilson’s election, Johnson writes: "Thus does providence intervene: for the second time in its history, the United States got itself a great president because the ruling party split." "Great" presidents? Lincoln and Wilson? The first murdered federalism and laid waste to half the nation to secure perpetual, coercive Union; the second was a self-righteous national headmaster, who, in the name of making the world safe for democracy, sent over 100,000 conscripts to their deaths, and contributed to the rise of Hitler. If this is "providence," the Lord certainly works in mysterious ways.

Johnson’s powers of assessment don’t get any better as the book progresses. In Johnson’s paean to Harry Truman he calls him "decent, gentle, thoughtful, prudent" and, the real howler, "a constitutionalist." This about the man who tried summarily to nationalize the steel industry under the rubric of executive authority. The little haberdasher’s power-grab was too much even for a post-New-Deal Supreme Court given to rolling over for the political branches. The Court, in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer (1952), struck down Truman’s order to seize the steel mills, noting gently that "the President’s power, if any, to issue the order must stem either from an act of Congress or from the Constitution itself."

When Johnson decides he likes a particular president, he can be as reflexively partisan as James Carville. For instance, nothing can shake him loose of the idea that the country was gravely wounded when Richard Nixon was driven from office. Of Watergate, he writes: "It was an ugly moment in America’s story and one which future historians… are likely to judge a dark hour in the history of a republic which prides itself in its love of order and its patient submission to the rule of law." (904) What on earth is he talking about? Ousting Nixon was nothing if not a victory for the principle that no man is above the law. The occasional regicide can be therapeutic for a republic. The post-Watergate era, with its heightened cynicism about politicians, illustrates this.

Alas, the book is rife with unintentionally ridiculous statements, always expressed categorically and with disdain for opposing viewpoints. "Without income tax, the United States could not in practice have played an active role in international affairs, or begun to address the inequalities of American society." (640) If there are better arguments against the 16th amendment, I’ve yet to hear them. Left-wing criticism of bombings in North Vietnam was misplaced, since "the proportion of civilians killed [by America in Vietnam], about 45 percent of all war deaths, was about average for 20th-century wars." (882) Wow, not even half! So we hit a few hundred thousand noncombatants – at least we were more careful than Hitler and Stalin!

But disappointment in a historian’s political judgments needn’t translate into disgust with the book. The historian is, in a sense, an artist, and art ought not to be judged by purely political standards. Any libertarian who adopted such a litmus test would find his reading list drastically narrowed. And, in fact, there’s much to admire in sections of A History of the American People. At his best, as in Intellectuals and Modern Times, Johnson has an unerring eye for the grotesque detail, the outrageous quote that captures the spirit of the age. Johnson hasn’t lost that talent entirely. In a passage on Castro-worship by ’60s leftists, Johnson quotes Abbie Hoffman: "[When Castro stands erect] he is like a mighty penis coming to life, and when he is tall and straight the crowd immediately is transformed."

But in the end, the few bright spots in A History of the American People are not nearly enough to redeem it. For one thing, there’s too much missing in Johnson’s treatment of American history: there is no index entry for the Second Amendment, only one cursory reference to federalism, and none whatever to baseball. For another, it’s a lousy read. The book seems pasted together: a series of ad hoc observations on historical events and figures, forcefully expressed yet smacking of an ipse dixit approach to the subject matter. As Johnson grinds on through the 20th century, A History of the American People begins to feel like another exercise in heavy lifting: "You’ve Seen Him Do Christianity, Judaism, and the Twentieth Century – Now Watch Him Tackle the United States of America!" It’s hard not to be impressed with the breadth of Johnson’s learning and the audaciousness of his task. But it should take more than that to convince most readers to join him on the Long March through 1000-plus pages.

It Can’t Happen Here?

After the Berlin Wall fell, Western historians gained unprecedented access to the official records of Soviet Bloc nations. Even the staunchest anticommunists among them were shocked at the number of civilian informants employed by communist states. East Germany’s Stasi, in particular, employed an extensive network of narcs, snitches, and stoolies: according to one estimate, the density of the informer network in the DDR was seven times that of Nazi Germany.

We Americans secretly enjoy such tales. We like to think we’ve got special antibodies against tyranny. Other peoples might turn in their neighbors to curry favor with authority, but we come from hardier stock; in a pinch we’d never turn on each other.

This is a myth, and perhaps it was ever so. During America’s first Red Scare, the Wilson Administration’s Justice Department relied on a privatized, volunteer spy network called the American Protective League. By 1918, the APL had over 250,000 members engaged in narcking on their neighbors for socialistic activity or insufficient Americanism. One APL leader, a Kansan, remarked that the League "had a great Moral Effect on the community by the people knowing that Uncle Sam was among them at all times and they not knowing who was keeping tabs on them."

But we needn’t go back 80 years for examples of domestic finkery. This summer’s newspapers provide plenty of current examples. As drought plagued the Northeast, Maryland, New Jersey, and other states have enacted restrictions on water use reminiscent of Jimmy Carter’s meddlesome and counterproductive energy conservation policies. In enforcing their water restrictions, these states can rely on a level of citizen cooperation that would do the East Germans proud. The Washington Times reports that police and public works departments across the Northeast are besieged with calls from officious do-gooders, seeking to turn their neighbors in for watering their lawns. A woman in Queen Anne’s County, Maryland, complained that her neighbor was collecting condensation from her air conditioner for use in watering her plants. Police in Delaware shut off one offender’s water after complaints that he was repeatedly sprinkling his lawn.

In Maryland – the "Free State," as it’s called – Governor Parris Glendening has instituted one of the most draconian water-restriction regimes, despite the fact that the state’s water reserves are more than adequate to compensate for reduced rainfall. Even citizens importing water from out of state to fill their pools can be fined up to $1,000 and jailed for up to six months. Patricia Darling, of Darling and Daughters, a Maryland water-hauling firm, told the Washington Post that when her company’s trucks have attempted deliveries, neighbors have forcibly intervened: "They have jumped on the sides of the truck. They have threatened the drivers." One particularly aggressive Marylander blocked the road with his car and declared: "You’re not allowed to do this. Don’t move; you’re under arrest."

America is not a totalitarian state, and Gov. Glendening’s water cops are not the Stasi. But in a way, that makes it worse. Eastern Europeans living under communism faced difficult choices, and many were coerced into informing. Americans rat on each other out of latent puritanism, envy, and malice. If ever we go fully Red or Green, the Powers that Be can count on the assistance of many officious little busybodies making social control easier.

Neocons and Kosovo

The offenses of neoconservatism are legion, but chief among them is the neocons’ self-congratulatory "tough-mindedness" about innocent victims of American ordnance. For Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, George Will, et al, qualms about collateral damage reflect weakness of will, and smack of a "blame America first" attitude. When American credibility’s at stake, woe betide the pesky foreign civilian that gets between us and our national interests. A passage on Vietnam in Paul Johnson’s overpraised A History of the American People puts the neocon view pretty starkly: "The experience of the 20th century shows that self-imposed restraints by a civilized power are worse than useless." According to Johnson, namby-pamby concerns about civilian deaths hampered the effectiveness of America’s bombing effort in North Vietnam. Despite all the liberal handwringing, "the proportion of civilians killed, about 45 percent of all war deaths, was about average for 20th-century wars." Well, there you go. Less than half of the people we killed were noncombatants. And we killed fewer innocents than either Hitler or Stalin. Why all the fuss?

Today, as bombs fall on Kosovo, Bill Buckley voices the familiar neocon refrain. In his March 25 syndicated column, "The Only Way to Bomb Milosevic," (New York Post, 3/25/99, p. 33) Buckley espies insufficient toughness in America’s approach toward the current enemy-of-the-week. The one "obstinately unsatisfactory aspect" of NATO action, according to Buckley, is that bombs will only be dropped on "the fighting front." "The reasons we give," he notes, "are conventionally acceptable – you don’t endanger ‘innocent people.’" But, "there really aren’t significant differences between civilian Serbs who are simply going about their duties in Belgrade, making shoes, or serving pasta, and Serbs firing artillery into Kosovo villages." Of course, Buckley’s faith, Catholicism, teaches that there is a significant difference, and has so taught at least since the time of Aquinas. Thus, the Catholic Encyclopedia notes in its entry on "war," that: "in the prosecution of the war the killing or injuring of non-combatants (women, children, the aged and feeble, or even those capable of bearing arms but as a matter of fact not in any way participating in the war) is consequently barred, except where their simultaneous destruction is an unavoidable accident attending the attack upon the contending force…. That "war is hell", in the sense that it inevitably carries with it a maximum of human miseries, is true; in the sense that it justifies anything that makes for the suffering and punishment of a people at war, it cannot be ethically maintained. The defense, that it hastens the close of war through sympathy with the increased suffering even of non-combatants, will not stand."

You needn’t be religious to be appalled at the idea that distinguishing between soldiers and civilians is an unaffordable moral luxury. Americans of every stripe ought to recoil at some of the statements neocons blithely make on the nation’s op-ed pages. They’re telling us that American credibility demands the murder of innocent civilians, in countries with which we have no earthly quarrel. Well, chin up – this is no time to go all wobbly in the crusade against "genocide."

Gene Healy is an attorney living in Virginia. His Libertarian Reflections originally appeared in Liberty Magazine.