A Compromise for the Libertarian Hawks

What to do about the clash over the word "libertarian"? Many who support the war continue to claim the label as their own, denying that their pro-war agenda conflicts with basic libertarian theory, or even suggesting that we antiwar libertarians are the real disgrace to the title.

Some on the pro-war side, however, have had the integrity to stop calling themselves "libertarians." They realize the label does not suit them. Whether contemptuously or politely, they have willingly left the term in its unadulterated form for those of us who oppose the warfare state, and have even tried on a number of alternatives ranging from "neo-libertarian" to "freedomist." They know what they believe in, and they know it’s not libertarianism.

This is all to the good. After all, nearly everyone claims to want the maximum feasible amount of freedom. Everybody claims to believe in liberty. But libertarianism is more than that: it is a radical belief system that is, by its nature, wholly at odds with the notion that such foreign interventions as the Iraq war are proper and healthy for freedom. It is an ideology that not only prescribes certain ends as desirable; it also proscribes certain means as unethical. Those who have abandoned libertarianism nominally as well as theoretically recognize the incompatibility between their views and the strict libertarian adherence to the classic liberal tradition of peace and non-intervention. They have concluded that, while they favor "liberty" in some abstract sense, they actually believe that libertarianism is bad for liberty, that the zero aggression principle will lead to more aggression, that government encroachments on freedom can protect greater freedoms in the long run. So they consider themselves advocates of freedom, but no longer call themselves libertarians. We must thank them for their intellectual honesty.

There remain many stubborn ones, however, who refuse to relinquish the label. I propose we offer them a compromise.

Before I reveal my proposed taxonomical compromise, let us briefly consider the views of most of those hawks who obstinately continue to call themselves libertarians.

We obviously know that they are pro-war. We know that this means they are effectively pro-government, for the indefinite duration of the war. They will put up with horrendous abuses from their own government if they believe it protects them from being conquered by alien peoples. If the abuses have an ostensible direct relation to the war effort — such as "free speech zones," surveillance of the antiwar movement, or even secret evidence, Kangaroo Courts, torture of detainees, and dreadfully unreasonable searches and seizures — the pro-war libertarian will embrace or at least not worry too much about them. If the abuses have no necessary connection to war — such as farm subsidies, Medicare expansion, or protectionist tariffs — the pro-war libertarian will often look the other way, since the war is more important than such petty domestic issues. If the abuses clearly weaken American security — such as with the drug war, which helps terrorists in their funding, or gun control, which disarms the innocent and thus empowers foreign and domestic aggressors — the pro-war libertarian will reason that, on balance at least, the government’s wars make him safe more than its admittedly counterproductive measures endanger him. The state is seen not only as less of a threat than the wartime Enemy, but also as its only realistic solution. Consequently, the pro-war libertarian, dedicated to the war effort, the most central and crucial of all the state’s programs, will soon find himself devoted to defending the state itself, and championing, ignoring or at least tolerating virtually all its intolerable acts.

Pro-war libertarians tend to have favorable impressions of most U.S. wars and martial vagaries, going all the way back to Jefferson’s stupid escapade in the Barbary Coast. They see wars as often or usually resulting in more freedom. They will outright denounce few major U.S. wars and defend or idolize most of them — from the "Civil War" and the First World War to World War II and even Vietnam. In these cataclysmic historical events of explosive U.S. government activity, massive inflationism, taxation, economic regimentation, crackdowns on dissent, conscription, and strategic targeting of civilians, pro-war libertarians find an awful lot to admire. The U.S. warfare state and its legacy are to be championed and lionized: they are even greater and more beautiful than free market capitalism and civil society itself: we owe our lives, liberty and property mostly to the state’s engines of slaughter, rather than to business, community and human kindness. For the pro-war libertarian, militaristic organization triumphs over freedom of association; the most coercive of all government programs becomes synonymous with civilization; war, and not peace, is the mother of freedom and social progress.

What else do we know about the average pro-war libertarian? He believes his right to self-defense includes a right to hurt innocent people. He typically leans Republican. He has lots of nice things to say about politicians like Ronald Reagan, yet forever loathes relatively powerless leftists like Michael Moore. He often overlooks abuses committed by the corporate state and sometimes confuses state capitalism for the free market. He views the federal government as his enemy, apart from himself, when a Democrat uses it to manage the economy, but refers to it as "we" when discussing military actions led by Republican administrations. He complains about big government but, in the end, considers Washington, D.C., and especially its imperial military to be the embodiment of American liberty.

So what is the compromise I suggest to alleviate some of the hard feelings over the label "libertarian" that still exist between the pro-war libertarians and those of us on the antiwar side? It would almost appear, from what I’ve written above, that I would view no compromise as possible.

Given the reality of the pro-war libertarian philosophy, I propose that those of us who are antiwar continue to be called libertarians, and those on the pro-war side simply adopt a new name: conservatives.

That’s what they are, really. They are run-of-the-mill, hawkish conservatives. Like most conservatives, they say they believe in liberty and limited government, but in the end they side with the state in its worst pursuits and orchestrations. We know that conservatism has a long, respected history, so these warmongers should have few reservations accepting the label.

Some might complain that the real conservatives, the paleos, the Old Rightists, are not nearly so bloodthirsty as the liberventionists.

I will not right now address the many taxonomical issues surrounding conservatism. I will say, however, that there is apparently nothing inherent in conservatism that necessarily precludes statism and bloodthirstiness, which might help to explain why most self-proclaimed conservatives these days are such collectivists and are hardly akin to Nock, Mencken and Garrett in their foreign policy outlook. So whatever we might think about so-called conservatism at its best, we should agree that it is clearly possible to be a conservative and pro-war.

Meanwhile, we also know that warmongering is inherently contrary to libertarianism. And so, while I doubt that my compromise will immediately gain acceptance, I hope that the hawks who claim to love the free market and individual rights will eventually realize that there has long been a suitable label for them, and it is not "libertarian."