Regime Libertarians

If you haven’t seen this, it is really an outrage.

It is a plan for dealing with the Iraqi fiasco that involves gradual withdrawal of troops from Iraq only to station the troops in Turkey, Bahrain, Egypt, and Oman, followed by new foreign aid to Iraq (at "substantial cost to the American taxpayers") which is said to be "essential for the creation of viable infrastructure" and dealing with the problem of widespread unemployment (think: New Deal).

We are told that the "direct aid program will give Iraq vital assistance while giving the Iraqi people, through their government, control over the disbursement of funds." But surely the Iraqi political situation provides an excellent illustration that government and the people are separate, and not united as in some Rousseauian fantasy.

The plan further assures us that the money will be used "efficiently and effectively." Sure. For the first time in the history of the world. As for infrastructure, there’s nothing like a government project to hold back progress. It can only crowd out private suppliers. Same with government aid to cure unemployment: it’s more likely to do the opposite by preventing market adjustment.

If the failure to understand these points doesn’t sound exactly outrageous to you, but rather like the naïve blatherings of any run-of-the-mill statist Keynesian interventionist imperialist, consider this: this plan has actually been proposed by the national arm of the Libertarian Party. That’s right, the party that claims to represent Jeffersonian liberalism and a radical alternative to right and left has proposed a realpolitik "plan" for Iraq that, like all such plans, will be buried by events.

There is some good material in the plan, of course. It is critical of the invasion and the lies. But what matters is not a good assessment of the past; the critical thing is what it recommends for the future, and here it becomes completely unworkable. More seriously, it completely contradicts the LP platform, which is very good because it takes principled stands against all warmongering, militarism, foreign troop placements, foreign aid, and outrageous spending in the name of defense.

The LP should not have to be told that playing strategy games with foreign troops, shoveling out foreign aid, and bolstering lackey authoritarian regimes are incompatible with liberty.

There has been widespread outrage at the LP’s Iraq plan. State-level parties are increasingly annoyed at the ideological drift of the national party, which is located in DC and has developed a bad case of beltway brain. That’s the mentality that imagines only one kind of intellectual activism, that which regards the powerful — as versus just regular people — as the target audience of all one’s ideological work.

Now, it is obvious that hardly anyone outside libertarian circles has noticed this breach, and there probably is no reason for any normal person to care either way. Sadly, however, the deviation from principle is a symptom of a larger problem for advocates of liberty. A vast number of them, mostly in beltway circles, have gone a similar route toward seeking respectability through echo-chamber rhetoric such as this.

In fact, people sailing under the libertarian banner have achieved some degree of notoriety in recent years by identifying with the state and pushing its interests. Not that it is really doing them any good personally or professionally. The state still distrusts these people. But that doesn’t stop them from positioning themselves in a way to make themselves more politically palatable.

How to account for this tendency? Of course power is seductive. Beltway libertarians quickly tire of being dismissed within their social circuit for taking "unrealistic" stands that would harm the interests of the governing class. They tire of being thought of as marginal and crazy. They imagine themselves as serious commentators on tv and radio, and blame their ideological convictions for holding them back. They begin to look for ways to pitch their point of view to the power elite in hopes of mainstreaming their careers.

These social and career pressures often account for why libertarians sell out. But it is not the whole reason. There are also intellectual confusions having to do with one’s view toward government itself. Some believe that while freedom is a good thing, it has a precondition in good government and state institutions that bring about the core conditions of liberty. This is a view that freedom cannot care for itself and that society and civilization cannot arise on their own. Freedom needs government police, judges, legislatures, and presidents, they believe, to establish the conditions that make freedom possible in the first place.

So that we are clear, we are not speaking here of merely the belief in limited government, or what is sometimes called "minarchism." There is a difference between believing in the need for government to preserve and protect freedom, and the view that government is the first condition of society, responsible for giving birth to freedom. In one view, some government is unavoidable; in the other view, power is the benefactor of freedom, the force to which all liberty owes its conception. There is a difference between seeing government as a necessary evil, and viewing liberty as the offspring of power.

Who holds this view? It is typically associated with the Chicago School of economics, which is market friendly but expends enormous intellectual energy concocting plans for government institutions to control monopoly, settle disputes, reduce transaction costs, and set up phony markets for a huge range of services from education to communication to environmental management.

But the theory goes way beyond the Chicago School. It typifies a whole tendency within the liberal tradition, broadly considered, the belief that our attention should be directed toward converting the powerful to our views, seeking to become powerful ourselves, or otherwise maneuvering in a way that will appeal to the powerful.

In foreign policy, these people also believe that we need the US to act as leviathan in bringing "free-market prosperity" to foreign countries like Iraq. Though they see themselves as pro-liberty, their dominant impulse is toward creating an alternate source of central plans in the name of establishing liberty. In domestic policy, they are hip-deep in every policy trend on Capitol Hill, every court decision, every appointment, and every Washington Post editorial. They celebrate centralization as much as any statist, because having the center of the world in their hometown conforms to their view of their own importance.

A good name for this school of thought is Regime Libertarianism. The modifier identifies the means they choose to bring about their view of what constitutes freedom. It identifies the target audience of their urgings and pleadings. It identifies the institution that they believe to be the first condition in the advance of civilization. It spells out precisely where their ultimate loyalties lie. Thus do all plans for freedom come down to redirecting the attentions of power but not uprooting it altogether.

Regime Libertarianism stands in contrast to another school we might call Laissez-Faire Libertarianism. This is the view that the one and only job of government is to withdraw, wholly and completely, not just from one sector but all of them, and not at some point in the future but right now.

Laissez-Faire Libertarians have complete confidence that freedom is a self-organizing principle, and are always ahead of the curve in expecting great achievements from people left to organize their own affairs. The blessings of freedom are not due to the prior existence of the right regime. On the contrary, freedom is nothing more than the de facto condition that exists in the absence of the parasitic state.

Laissez-Faire Libertarianism can be anarchist of course, but it can also hold the view that the state is necessary to intervene in conflicts over property rights and personal crime. In neither case does this position hold that the regime is capable of doing good for anyone or anything. It is not the creator of order but the enforcer of conditions that exist already in the absence of the state. It is only there to prevent the freed society from being mauled and attacked by its enemies. But it should never go beyond that, nor should the state be credited somehow for creating freedom.

This group sees no tactical advantage in appealing to the state and its minions. It sees them as a different class that is mostly beyond hope. The hangman is what he is; with his hood and taste for blood, he is not an agent of compassion or good management of society. He is only there to bring justice when necessary. But no more.

What Laissez-Faire Libertarians seek is the removal of the state from society — indeed a complete separation is necessary. No government courts need to be on hand to decide how property rights might be divided up in order to maximize efficiency. The state’s managers need not establish phony markets such as "Social Security Accounts," school vouchers or any of the many schemes hatched by Regime Libertarians. It just needs to go away.

The split between these two groups is the real source of the tension among libertarians that goes back decades and longer. Even in the interwar years, Mises dealt with this problem. Some of his colleagues imagined themselves as running the state; others imagined themselves dismantling it. Some people love the state; others have a love/hate relationship with the state; others rightly hate it for what it has done in history and continues to do every day.

The national Libertarian Party has embraced Regime Libertarianism. They may claim that this is more "realistic" than a more radical approach. But consider how pie-in-the-sky is the view that the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department, the CIA, and the several dozen other agencies involved, along with the Congress, are going to be surfing the web, stumble on the LP’s plan for Iraq, and agree to follow it point by point.

More likely, the only use that the state has for the LP plan is to provide reassurance that even the LP is too afraid of the regime to fundamentally oppose it. And here is the tragic result of Regime Libertarianism: insofar as it permits itself to be used in a state propaganda effort, it unwittingly becomes an adjunct of state power itself. It becomes the libertarian wing of the governing power.

What we need is not libertarianism with a plan. There are too many regular politicians out there who have traded their love of liberty for a chance at gaining a hearing among the powerful. We need more Laissez-Faire Libertarians who understand that society needs no top-down rule. No society in the world needs good government in order to be free; it needs sectors of society that government cannot touch.

To be confident in the miracle of human liberty means having the courage to call for the government to do nothing but go away, and to do it now. By saying that, we can make a contribution to increasing the government’s fear of public opinion, which is the best restraint on power. Is it asking too much that the LP be part of the radical opposition, rather than aspire to be part of the inner circle of power?

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