On Jonah Goldberg's Youthful Phase

"If you're not a liberal when you're in your twenties you haven't got a heart; if you're not a conservative by the time you're 40 you haven't got a brain."

Conservatives, especially neo-conservatives and former leftists, are fond of repeating this cutesy adage. Not having gone through a youthful leftist stage myself, and indeed viewing former leftists with some suspicion, I do not fully agree with it. The first half is clearly bunk. It seems designed to assuage the guilty consciences of former lefties who, like David Horowitz, whitewash the evil of their earlier leftism by describing it as "noble" and "high-minded," albeit naive. This part of the adage ought to be replaced with something like, "If you're not a liberal in your youth, you're not an economic illiterate herd-follower run solely by emotion."

The part about the brain contains a germ of truth, however, and it can be distilled down to this libertarian proposition: any good, honest, intelligent, justice-seeking person can hardly fail to recognize that the state is a criminal or near-criminal enterprise, run by snake-oil salesmen and hucksters, which rides roughshod over the rights of its own citizens; and, at the very least, that the state must be watched closely, and limited as much as possible.

In Jonah Goldberg's most recent attack on libertarians, "The Libertarian Lobe" (National Review Online, June 22, 2001), he seeks to stand the saying on its head. Instead of equating youthful immaturity and soft-headedness with pro-state liberalism, as the adage has it, Goldberg equates it with anti-state libertarianism. As the subtitle to his article snidely puts it, "Libertarianism tells kids everything they want to be told."

Goldberg's implication here is that libertarianism is somehow fallacious, if it can only attract the attentions of the naive and inexperienced, if clever and passionate, young. (He conveniently forgets that Murray Rothbard, whom he recognizes as being a key libertarian figure, was a radical libertarian well into his sixties.) I say "implication," because Goldberg never quite specifies what is wrong with libertarianism, much less does he try to provide an argument. Instead of an argument, he offers merely his own self-contradictory opinions, which are laced with condescension, attitude, smug snideness, and ad hominem, and full of confusion and misstatements about the nature of libertarianism.

Note Goldberg's smugness, but vacuity, when he equates libertarians and their passion for liberty and rights to those teens who "realize for the first time what Pink Floyd's u2018The Wall' is really about"; those deluded youngsters who "convince themselves that just because they've thought of something for their first time they believe they've thought of it for the first time, period. This translates into a kind of arrogance where some kids think no one else can really understand something as well as they can." I am not sure how this is supposed to be an argument. It may be an effective way of expressing Goldberg's personal opinions, but given that he is not a libertarian and not even a very good conservative (he apparently loves Lincoln and hates federalism/states' rights), and simply an intellectual lightweight neocon, it is not clear why anyone would care.

Goldberg's confusion about libertarianism is manifest. Take, for instance, his notion that "Libertarianism is an ideology best suited for young folks. It compellingly tells kids everything they want to be told." Were it only so! If the young naturally hated the state and fervently supported individual rights, it is unlikely as many of them would support, in their later years, the degree of statism prevalent today. Unfortunately, however, twenty-somethings seem to be at least as statist as older adults. They do not rally in sufficient numbers around libertarian principles and corollaries such as:

  • You have no right to education, a car, a home, food, support, etc. from the state;
  • every person is responsible for his own sustenance, and actions;
  • if you commit an act of aggression, you deserve severe punishment;
  • you have no right to outlaw behavior of others that you do not like, unless it amounts to aggression;
  • the lies you have been told in school about Lincoln, "democracy," and so forth are just that;
  • we live under an illegal, tyrannical government, and most of our fellow citizens are semi-socialists who help support it, and there is no end in sight; etc.

Goldberg is apparently ignorant about the basic principles of libertarianism, leading him to attack straw men. It is not about "indulging" self-interest, or rejecting experience, wisdom, and tradition. It is, instead, about scrupulously adhering to justice by refusing to participate in or condone the initiation of violent force against the body or property of innocent victims.

Clearly, libertarians are not opposed to force per se, as Goldberg presumes. We are not pacifists at all; we adamantly support the right to use force in response to aggressive force, to defend or retaliate against the aggressor. To mount a substantive attack on libertarianism, Goldberg would have to argue that it is permissible to initiate force against an innocent person who has not himself violated anyone else's rights. But he does not even hint at an alternative theory showing that the aggression is justified, other than his befuddled paean to "principled" "compromise with reality." And of course he cannot do it, because libertarianism is correct. Yes, he can ignore libertarianism, participate in statism, and advocate neocon views. But he cannot justify the mixed economy he advocates. Paraphrasing the great Roman jurist Papinian, "It is easier to be a neocon (or socialist) than to justify it."

Further examples of Goldberg's incoherence and illogic abound. He writes, of a recent debate between himself and libertarian Michael Lynch: "neither of us fit the caricatures of our respective causes. He's neither a radical libertine individualist nor a Lincoln-hating states' rightser who confuses nostalgia for a fictional past with an achievable agenda for the future (golly, who could I be talking about?)."

The most consistent and principled libertarians – anarcho-capitalists and paleolibertarians – are not libertine, nor do we have any nostalgia for a slave-ridden past, nor do we harbor any naive, utopian notions that any kind of radical improvement is around the corner. Goldberg's breezy "golly" comment almost certainly refers to paleolibertarian Lew Rockwell & co, revealing his mischaracterization of libertarians to be disingenuous. Goldberg also here demonstrates his non-conservative, neocon credentials with his implied endorsement of Lincoln, war, and centralization.

Goldberg adds, "Lynch is a principled libertarian who understands progress comes only by making compromises with reality." I have no idea what a "compromise with reality" is; I thought people made compromises with each other. Reality is there, whether we compromise or not. If Goldberg means that libertarians do not recognize reality, then he is just wrong again; we recognize that aggression cannot be justified, and that the current state largely rests on aggression. It is Goldberg who refuses to recognize reality, for example in his glib dismissal of the critique of the tyrant and war-criminal Lincoln and in his implicit assumption that aggression can be justified.

Elsewhere, Goldberg writes of libertarians: "Just as they consider u2018state violence' to be always and everywhere evil, they fetishize change, assuming it to be always and everywhere good." Goldberg is doubly wrong here. First, we libertarians do not claim that state violence is necessarily wrong; rather, it is aggression that is wrong, whether committed by individual or group (such as the state). In the case of the state, all libertarians recognize that most state laws and actions, such as laws against drugs, are aggressive, and cannot be justified. This state violence is impermissible because it is aimed at innocent victims.

Moreover, anarcho-capitalist libertarians recognize that the state is inherently aggressive, if only because it rests on a compulsory monopoly (you cannot "opt out" of its jurisdiction) and coercive taxation. Under this view, any government action, even delivering the mail, is illegitimate – not because the action itself is violent, but because the existence of the agency carrying it out depends on violence. Thus, the anarcho-capitalist does not believe that laws against murder and rape violate the rights of murderers and rapists; but simply does not believe the state has the right to tax and assume a monopoly enforcing such laws.

Second, our author is just plain wrong that libertarians, especially paleos and anarchists, necessarily "fetishize change." True, some libertarians, such as Virginia Postrel, do favor "dynamism" and oppose "stasists." But this preference is not implied by libertarianism, as pointed out by paleolibertarian David Gordon; and, ironically and bizarrely, Goldberg praises Postrel's "excellent book," The Future and Its Enemies, which sets forth Postrel's pro-dynamist thesis, in the same column decrying libertarian dynamists.

Our critic's "tried-and-true trick question" that he uses to reveal libertarian inconsistency also does not do the trick. "Imagine a very close friend of yours were suicidal. She just broke up with her boyfriend, lost her job, had been drinking, and is depressed. If you knew she would feel better in the morning, would you physically restrain her to keep her from killing herself?" Goldberg answers, "Now the correct answer, of course, is u2018Well, yes I would.' Because, free will and individual liberty aren't always right." Sure, most decent people would intervene in the manner suggested. But there are other ways to view this intervention. One, the friend is deemed to be irrational and to have implicitly or tacitly appointed you to make decisions for her, in her own interest, in such cases, much like a husband can make life-or-death healthcare decisions on behalf of an incapacitated wife. Or, two, the intervener is willing to risk prosecution for a relatively minor offense to save his friend's life, assuming that when she comes to her senses the next morning, she will almost certainly forgive, maybe even thank, him.

Another misstatement about libertarians is that we "see freedom as the highest, best value." This is not true at all. We simply maintain that unprovoked aggression against the person or property of others cannot be justified, and may be countered by responsive (defensive or retaliatory) force. Again, I doubt Goldberg can provide the justification for aggression that he would need, in order to show that libertarianism is wrong.

If this is the neocon critique of libertarianism, it looks like we have already won the debate.