Which Way for Liberty?

An interview request from a famed center-left publication allowed me to put together some further thoughts on the rise of red-state fascism in America, and the libertarian response. So here are my notes on the topic, prior to publication.

Our times are much like the 1930s, when it was widely assumed that there are only two viable ideological positions: communism or fascism. Liberalism of the old school was considered to be a failure, and not even worth considering.

Why does libertarianism never entirely disappear, despite every attempt to kill it? In part, because a strain of American ideology from the colonial period to the present supports it. Murray N. Rothbard’s 4-volume Conceived in Liberty demonstrates that the theory and practice of radical libertarian thinking can even be thought of as the very core of American political values.

Just to cite one case, the preachers and religious leaders who spoke out prior to the American revolution were knowledgeable of and friendly toward the liberal tradition. They cited Locke as freely as they cited the Bible. Americans of all classes resented the smallest intrusions on liberty and property as tyranny itself. After the revolution, we enjoyed some 10 blissful years of near-anarchy under the Articles of Confederation.

This is our heritage. It is also why every president appeals to libertarian ideals to gain public backing. Clinton did, and Bush does as well. They all invoke Jeffersonian rhetoric. The problem is that the middle class continues to be bamboozled by this rhetoric, even as the power elite continues to conspire for ever more money and power.

The interests of all classes, not just the middle class, are for liberty. The heartland bourgeoisie is the most supportive of libertarian economics, but it is also the most easily distracted by nationalist and cultural appeals. These days, they tend to back the Republicans. For this reason, they don’t notice that the Republicans are actually worse than the Democrats when it comes to expanding government power and shredding all sorts of liberties, including the economic ones.

Rethinking the Left, for Now

The extent to which the Bush regime owns the conservative middle class is a wonder to behold. Again, it is probably for cultural and nationalist reasons, and not because the typical American household is for slaughtering foreigners, suppressing free speech, and bankrupting the country.

These days you are far more likely to find libertarian sentiments expressed on the left-side of the political spectrum: outrage about what’s happened to civil liberties, truth-telling about the war, and even disgust at the spending and regulating machine of the Bush regime.

Some of the strongest resistance to American fascism right now comes from African-Americans, who have suffered disproportionately in this war. Polls from a year ago show black support for the war dipping below 20%; today it must be even lower. Defense Department studies have expressed alarm that 41% fewer blacks are willing to sign up to be fodder, which is why the Army is behind in its recruiting goals.

Women too provide strong resistance to war fever. As more women are drawn to the expectation of a full-time professional life, women voters are also going to increasingly develop a commercial-class consciousness concerning taxes and regulations. The victim mentality that agitates for privilege in the workplace could give way to a free-market feminism. If this is united to a consistent anti-war view, resistance against the state could increase among women.

Also, libertarians increasingly find themselves in sympathy with a range of interest groups they would otherwise oppose.

Many people find themselves in circumstances, for whatever reasons — whether personal difficulties, life choices, and other factors — that bring about associations that fall outside the Bush-approved bourgeois family arrangements. No libertarian can support federal penalties against such people. Freedom of association is a first principle of civilization, and it is a disgrace to see that principle attacked in the name of family values.

Also, the Bush administration wants to feed tax dollars to private schools, religious charities, and hand-picked mutual fund companies. Even if the teachers unions, the religious left, and the AARP oppose these plans for different reasons, we can’t but cheer them on.

I used to complain about the universities and their indoctrination of students in leftist theory. But these days, one has to be grateful that there are at least some pockets of resistance remaining.

It is no accident that both parties make an appeal to libertarian notions about the dangers of power. Love of liberty is what unites us as Americans. Our most important job right now is to work to show how nationalist warmongering, cultural agitprop, and government belligerence of all sorts work at cross purposes with libertarian ideals.

Also, the left needs to learn a lesson from the Bush regime: the answer to fascism is not socialism but freedom itself. They need to lose whatever romantic attachments to power they still have.

Cooperating With the State

I’ve been asked many times about the role of a leading DC libertarian think-tank and its unfortunate cooperation with the Bush administration. I’ve always declined to comment, but this interviewer convinced me that it can’t be ignored.

The problem is this: In the hours and days after 9-11, the cause of liberty cried out for defenders to stand up and say: this crime is not a license for government to grab power.

Instead, and notoriously, this libertarian think-tank went the other direction and backed the wholly unwarranted invasion of Afghanistan and otherwise offered only utilitarian cautions about the creation of massive new bureaucracies.

To some extent, I can understand the fear factor. In those days, sedition trials didn’t seem out of the question. One wrong word and you risked destroying every relationship with government you had worked to achieve for 25 years. But even then, was it really necessary, two months later, for a think-tank spokesman to say that increased public support for the federal government “makes sense” since it is “concentrating on protecting individual rights”?

This was one of many such pronouncements in which this think-tank made it clear that it would not stand in the way of what the Bush administration planned. In the meantime, of course, they have further speeded the revolving door between their offices and the government. This is hardly unusual for DC think tanks, but it is especially injurious given the source.

People look for libertarians to provide a principled alternative. When they do not, the perception is that there are no legitimate reasons to resist the state. What’s more, the state knows that if the libertarians are not making trouble, the regime can pretty well do what it pleases. It is in the state’s interest to keep a tame libertarian wing alive and thriving for precisely these times. It is for the same reason the state has always courted the church: it needs moral cover from a credible source.

Log-rolling with the state also does intellectual damage and harms recruitment among students. It is as if some libertarians want to live up to the leftist caricature of capitalist intellectuals in league with the state, cheering on war and imperialism, and taking money from Wall Street to back corporate boondoggles such as Social Security privatization.

Libertarians Contra Fascism

It is as important for libertarians to be anti-socialist as it is for them to be anti-fascist. But first we need to recognize that fascism is a reality, not just a smear term.

What began as expedience in the Bush administration has turned, over time, into a full-blown program. Militarism, of course, is an old Republican standby, useful, for example during the Cold War to keep the masses distracted from noticing what was happening to their liberty. What makes it different today is how it is united to an overarching ideology, a distinctly right-wing form of central planning, which takes careful thought to understand.

The ideology of the late Bush regime is nationalist and culturally conservative. It is consistently anti-leftist in the sense that it rejects egalitarianism, cultural toleration, free speech, and overt appeals to socialist envy. It is religious and Christian in rhetoric. It makes an appeal for family, country, patriotism, and traditional American values. It is pro-business. It is anti-intellectual. It backs middle-class welfare to the hilt.

Behind the rhetoric you find the iron fist of the state, forcing conformism and regimentation. Bush-style fascism has created a kind of cult of personality too, in which the public is led to believe through hints and nudges that the president has a direct line to God. More than any president in my living memory, he peppers his speeches with personal pronouns: “I will defend America.”

What the Bush regime has taught us is that there is a difference between being anti-leftist and being pro-liberty. They have demonstrated that the threats to liberty emanate not only from leftist thought but also rightist thought in which the state is used to impose a particular view of the good at home and abroad. I don’t think the US has ever had a left-wing president as convinced as the Bush administration of the ability of government to work miracles.

The confluence of these ideological factors and their success in appealing to the middle class can only prompt us to look at history to find its predecessors. Where do we find right-wing central planning, right-wing war mongering, right-wing justifications for cracking skulls on a global scale? The 20th century offers many examples of dictatorial anti-left regimes. It is not a stretch to call these fascist or national socialist.

Just as socialism is different in every country, so too is fascism. We don’t see the appeal to racial solidarity of the Nazis at work here. The Italian and Spanish cases of interwar right-wing dictatorship come to mind, but there are differences there too. In the case of Chile or pre-Castro Cuba, you had business working with government to monopolize the economy.

So while the Bush case borrows from all of these, it is its own unique variety of fascism: evangelical Christianity and a global crusade, with anti-leftist but pro-statist policies that show complete contempt for individual liberty at home and abroad.

The Bad Seed on the Right

How did conservative intellectuals and activists go from hating big government in the 1990s to loving it and celebrating it today? There is a bad seed in the ideology of American conservatism that spawns power worship. If you can get a group of people to pledge the government flag and sing the murderous Battle Hymn of the Republic in their churches, and to take a position on war that is Mark Twain’s War Prayer come to life, the rest is just a mop-up operation. The Germans too were a very religious and conservative people.

There is also an American precedent. Reagan played the war card to great effect, and Nixon manipulated the cultural issues to his advantage. FDR, Wilson, and Lincoln demonstrated that presidents can ignore the Bill of Rights in wartime, and historians have faithfully celebrated their legacies. Bush invokes this American tradition and thereby taps into the form of patriotism inherent in conservative ideology. It is as cynical as it is effective.

We will have to wait to see what follows the Bush regime to discover the closest historical analogy. Is he a Nicholas II who will inspire a bloody backlash of leftwing dictatorship? Will his successor be even worse? Or is he a Pinochet who inspires revulsion against militarism and dictatorship of all sorts, so that his rule will be eventually followed by normalcy, liberalism, and peaceful commercialism?

The Role of the Neoconservatives

I’m actually of the opinion that the “neo” part of conservatism has been overplayed. The problem is really just plain old conservatism. But speaking as a matter of history, the neoconservatives made two unique contributions to conservative ideology. They convinced conservatives and Republicans to make their peace with the domestic welfare and regulatory state. And they convinced the same groups that democracy represents a political ideal that can and should be imposed on the world.

American fascism doesn’t need these two additives to exist and thrive, but the inclusion of them helped round out the ideology, and helped it become particularly dangerous for the world.

More and more, I fear that the Bush administration is doing terrible ideological damage, demolishing what remained of the old liberal impulse in the middle class and shoring up support for imperialist practices in the post-Cold War world.

The allure of Bush has corrupted evangelicals, homeschoolers, the pro-family movement, the pro-life movement, the tax-cut lobbies, the gun lobbies — all these groups that hated Washington only the day before yesterday are suddenly the storm troopers of the regime. Every day that goes by, the resistance to power on the right weakens, even as it strengthens only marginally on the left.

Future Prospects

The libertarian tradition stretches from the ancient world through the middle ages to our own day. But I do think we are living through a high point in intellectual development and recruitment. The body of theoretical work is vast and the intellectuals are hardened and ready for battle. The web and blogosphere give us the means to compete in the world of ideas as never before.

There is no sure blueprint for success other than for libertarians to do what each individually does best, whether that means teaching students, organizing antiwar rallies, writing large books on technical economic topics, or tirelessly managing a compelling blog.

I’m wary of all formal alliances but I do think libertarians need to be strategically flexible and entrepreneurial in finding intellectual allies, even if it means admitting that far better arguments are being made by CounterPunch than National Review.

What desperately needs to be rethought is this tendency of libertarians to avert their eyes from the reality of what’s going on at places like National Review. Their main dishes consist of calling for ever more war, approving the killing of civilians, backing the surveillance state, and even torture. Libertarians have traditionally provided the side dishes that call for petty deregulatory measures and tax cuts. This really must stop.

The libertarian revolution will come when we least expect it, and it will unfold in a way we cannot fully anticipate. In the mid 1980s, everyone assumed that the Soviet empire would last forever. Five years later, it was gone without a trace. So too, the expectation of eternal world rule by Washington, DC, could evaporate very quickly.