The Heroic Joe Sobran

In these times of war in the Middle East, I often think of my late friend, the great and brilliant Joe Sobran.  If Joe could be with us today, it’s clear what he would be saying. Why does the US support Israel uncritically? How is doing so in our national interest? What about the rights of Palestinians to their land?

How do we know he would say these things? Because this is exactly what he did said in 2002.

“In my 21 years at National Review, I had a front-row seat. I watched closely as Bill Buckley changed from a jaunty critic of Israel to what I can only call a servile appeaser. In its early days, the magazine published robust editorials blasting politicians who sacrificed American to Israeli interests in order to pander to the Jewish vote; in those days it was considered risqué to suggest that there was a “Jewish vote.” Today Bill’s magazine supports Israel with embarrassing sycophancy, never daring to intimate that Israeli and American interests may occasionally diverge. It has forgotten its own principles; today it would never dare to publish the editorials written by its great geopolitical thinker of those early days, James Burnham. Cancel Culture Diction... Failla, Jimmy Best Price: $15.61 Buy New $19.68 (as of 07:13 UTC - Details)

But the daily news reports suggest that Israel may not really be the safest place for Jews. Theodore Herzl’s original dream was of a Jewish state where Jews could at last live the normal lives they were denied in the Diaspora. Yet today it’s Diaspora Jews who live relatively normal lives, at least in the West, while they must worry about the very survival of Israel. And far from being the independent state Herzl hoped for, Israel depends heavily on the support not only of Diaspora Jews but of foreign gentiles, especially Americans.

Israel insists that its “right to exist” is nothing more than the right of every nation on earth to be left in peace. This right is allegedly threatened by fanatical Arabs who want to “drive the Jews into the sea,” as witness the recent wave of Palestinian terror. But in truth, Israel’s claimed “right to exist” is much more than it seems at first sight. It means a right to rule as Jews, enjoying rights denied to native Palestinians.

We are told incessantly that Israel is a “democracy,” and therefore the natural ally of the United States, whose “democratic values” it shares. This is a very dubious claim. To Americans, democracy means majority rule, but with equal rights for minorities. In Israel and the occupied territories, equal rights for the minority are simply out of the question.

Majority rule itself has taken a peculiar form in Israel. The original Arab majority was driven out of their homes and their native land, and kept out. Meanwhile, a Jewish “majority” was artificially imported. Not only the first immigrants from Eastern Europe, but every Jew on earth was granted a “right of return”–that is, “return” to a “homeland” most have never lived in, and in which none of their ancestors has ever lived. A Jew from Brooklyn (whose grandfather came from Poland) can fly to Israel and immediately claim rights denied to an Arab whose people have always lived in Palestine. In recent years Israel has been augmenting its Jewish majority by vigorously encouraging Jewish immigration, especially from Russia. Ariel Sharon has told a group of American senators that Israel needs a million more Jewish immigrants.

In recent negotiations, Israel has flatly rejected demands for a “right of return” for Palestinians exiled since 1948. It frankly gave as its reason that this would mean “the end of the Jewish state,” since an Arab majority would surely vote down Jewish ethnic privileges. If Israel remained democratic, it wouldn’t long remain Jewish.

This confirms the contention of hard-line Revisionist Zionists from Vladimir Jabotinsky to Meir Kahane that in the long run, Israel must be either Jewish or democratic; it can’t be both. And in order to remain Jewish, it must reject the equal rights for its minorities that Jews everywhere demand where they are a minority. Israel must be the only “democracy” whose existence depends on inequality.

Put otherwise, Zionism is a denial of the “self-evident truths” of the Declaration of Independence. To acknowledge those truths, and to put them into practice, would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state. Again, honest and rigorous Zionists have always seen and said this.” See this.

Joe had the gift of being able to state obvious truths in a way you would never forget, once you had read him. The truths were ‘obvious” once he had pointed them out, but you wouldn’t have seen them by yourself.

Chris Manion plays tribute to exactly this feature of Joe’s work:

“At the annual luncheon in Joe Sobran‘s honor, held recently by the readers of his monthly review, writer Tom Bethell offered a fascinating observation in his introduction:

Joe Sobran invites us to see the clear, obvious truth, in plain view, that everyone else has missed.

This is the key to Sobran’s genius, said Bethell. It allows him to ask obvious questions that are forbidden elsewhere. For instance, the mere question, “are there extraterritorial loyalties at stake,” as we survey the supporters of war, is anathematized as anti-Semitism, whether those loyalties might be to Great Britain, to Israel, or merely to the principles of the Socialist International as an alternative to America’s constitutional system. Such questions are instructive and illuminating, but are never answered: they are forbidden.

Accept Sobran’s invitation, and prominent illustrations of the Sobran principle pop up everywhere. In the spirit of the gathering, I tried my hand at it. It didn’t take long.

Consider, for instance, the endless procession of yellow school buses disgorging millions of students a year from all across America at the Arlington Cemetery gravesite of former president Kennedy. These student visitors acquire academic credit for their “civic trips” from government schools nationwide – schools that forbid any and all hints of religion – and certainly all religious processions but this one.

Why permit this exception? Because the “eternal flame” – the only one, certainly, that JFK ever had – glorifies not God, but government. And government schools want us celebrate, well …. Government.

Every day, year in and year out, this sacrament of the Leviathan’s civil religion goes on, unimpeded by the truth (about the Saintly Order of the Kennedys) and, natch, without even the aroma of dissent from the likes of the ACLU. The Ten Commandments? No way. But government commandments are fine.

Next, in these hard economic times, consider the government bureaucrats, having failed so miserably and mortally in their basic responsibilities to the American people they are paid to serve and defend. While hundreds of thousands of layoffs, business failures, bankruptcies, and dislocations have hammered the private economy since 9/11, the Washington Post reports that Washington, D.C.’s economy is flourishing. No layoffs of government workers are mentioned or contemplated even by the “conservatives” at Bush’s OMB. And, while no one is singing the praises of nonagenarians or tabloid editors (two of the five fatalities in the recent anthrax attacks), the country is inundated with multimillion-dollar taxpayer-funded televised propaganda celebrating the “service” of the monopoly government post office, complete with blue-chip music clips costing a cool million in royalties alone, all to celebrate the “800,000 [overpaid and semiskilled] workers of the USPS.”

Is this the cause for which two unsuspecting mail sorters at the Brentwood postal station in Washington gave their lives ? Did they really die for monopoly mail?

Consider the painfully obvious but unmentionable strategic roadmap to 9/11, drawn and driven by the “spring break” crowd in the Clinton Administration. No one is permitted to point to the simple cause (Clinton) and effect (9/11) – it is as though radical Islam had suddenly discovered the superiority of American postmodernism, and attacked out of envy and spite. Meanwhile, eight years of disastrous foreign policy, culminating in 9/11, have now cornered Bush into glorifying and enlarging government more than Democrats ever could have. Even Al Hunt agrees that, under Gore, opposition conservatives would never have permitted such specters as John Ashcroft emulating the wartime FDR. The Clintonites couldn’t govern, but they sure set the stage for world-class satire.” See this.

Joe Sobran’s gift for expressing truth in a memorable way is nowhere more evident than in what Tom Woods calls “A Sobran Taxonomy.”

“Thanks to BW for reminding me of this 1995 Joe Sobran quotation, which has rarely been more appropriate:

If you want government to intervene domestically, you’re a liberal.
If you want government to intervene overseas, you’re a conservative.
If you want government to intervene everywhere, you’re a moderate.
If you don’t want government to intervene anywhere, you’re an extremist.” See this.

Joe got his start as a writer for National Review, but his grasp of first principles to him to convert to Murray’s Rothbard’s  anarchism.  Murray and Hans Hoppe impressed him, and here he tells us why:


In the late 1980s I began mixing with Rothbardian libertarians — they called themselves by the unprepossessing label “anarcho-capitalists” — and even met Rothbard himself. They were a brilliant, combative lot, full of challenging ideas and surprising arguments. Rothbard himself combined a profound theoretical intelligence with a deep knowledge of history. His magnum opus, Man, Economy, and State, had received the most unqualified praise of the usually reserved Henry Hazlitt — in National Review!

I can only say of Murray what so many others have said: never in my life have I encountered such an original and vigorous mind. A short, stocky New York Jew with an explosive cackling laugh, he was always exciting and cheerful company. Pouring out dozens of big books and hundreds of articles, he also found time, heaven knows how, to write (on the old electric typewriter he used to the end) countless long, single-spaced, closely reasoned letters to all sorts of people.

Murray’s view of politics was shockingly blunt: the state was nothing but a criminal gang writ large. Much as I agreed with him in general, and fascinating though I found his arguments, I resisted this conclusion. I still wanted to believe in constitutional government.

Murray would have none of this. He insisted that the Philadelphia convention at which the Constitution had been drafted was nothing but a “coup d’etat,” centralizing power and destroying the far more tolerable arrangements of the Articles of Confederation. This was a direct denial of everything I’d been taught. I’d never heard anyone suggest that the Articles had been preferable to the Constitution! But Murray didn’t care what anyone thought — or what everyone thought. (He’d been too radical for Ayn Rand.)

Murray and I shared a love of gangster films, and he once argued to me that the Mafia was preferable to the state, because it survived by providing services people actually wanted. I countered that the Mafia behaved like the state, extorting its own “taxes” in protection rackets directed at shopkeepers; its market was far from “free.” He admitted I had a point. I was proud to have won a concession from him.

Murray died a few years ago without quite having made an anarchist of me. It was left to his brilliant disciple, Hans-Hermann Hoppe, to finish my conversion. Hans argued that no constitution could restrain the state. Once its monopoly of force was granted legitimacy, constitutional limits became mere fictions it could disregard; nobody could have the legal standing to enforce those limits. The state itself would decide, by force, what the constitution “meant,” steadily ruling in its own favor and increasing its own power. This was true a priori, and American history bore it out.

What if the Federal Government grossly violated the Constitution? Could states withdraw from the Union? Lincoln said no. The Union was “indissoluble” unless all the states agreed to dissolve it. As a practical matter, the Civil War settled that. The United States, plural, were really a single enormous state, as witness the new habit of speaking of “it” rather than “them.”

So the people are bound to obey the government even when the rulers betray their oath to uphold the Constitution. The door to escape is barred. Lincoln in effect claimed that it is not our rights but the state that is “unalienable.” And he made it stick by force of arms. No transgression of the Constitution can impair the Union’s inherited legitimacy. Once established on specific and limited terms, the U.S. Government is forever, even if it refuses to abide by those terms.

As Hoppe argues, this is the flaw in thinking the state can be controlled by a constitution. Once granted, state power naturally becomes absolute. Obedience is a one-way street. Notionally, “We the People” create a government and specify the powers it is allowed to exercise over us; our rulers swear before God that they will respect the limits we impose on them; but when they trample down those limits, our duty to obey them remains.

Yet even after the Civil War, certain scruples survived for a while. Americans still agreed in principle that the Federal Government could acquire new powers only by constitutional amendment. Hence the postwar amendments included the words “Congress shall have power to” enact such and such legislation.

But by the time of the New Deal, such scruples were all but defunct. Franklin Roosevelt and his Supreme Court interpreted the Commerce Clause so broadly as to authorize virtually any Federal claim, and the Tenth Amendment so narrowly as to deprive it of any inhibiting force. Today these heresies are so firmly entrenched that Congress rarely even asks itself whether a proposed law is authorized or forbidden by the Constitution.

In short, the U.S. Constitution is a dead letter. It was mortally wounded in 1865. The corpse can’t be revived. This remained hard for me to admit, and even now it pains me to say it.

The essence of the state is its legal monopoly of force. But force is subhuman; in words I quote incessantly, Simone Weil defined it as “that which turns a person into a thing — either corpse or slave.” It may sometimes be a necessary evil, in self-defense or defense of the innocent, but nobody can have by right what the state claims: an exclusive privilege of using it.

It’s entirely possible that states — organized force — will always rule this world, and that we will have at best a choice among evils. And some states are worse than others in important ways: anyone in his right mind would prefer living in the United States to life under a Stalin. But to say a thing is inevitable, or less onerous than something else, is not to say it is good.

For most people, anarchy is a disturbing word, suggesting chaos, violence, antinomianism — things they hope the state can control or prevent. The term state, despite its bloody history, doesn’t disturb them. Yet it’s the state that is truly chaotic, because it means the rule of the strong and cunning. They imagine that anarchy would naturally terminate in the rule of thugs. But mere thugs can’t assert a plausible right to rule. Only the state, with its propaganda apparatus, can do that. This is what legitimacy means. Anarchists obviously need a more seductive label.

“But what would you replace the state with?” The question reveals an inability to imagine human society without the state. Yet it would seem that an institution that can take 200,000,000 lives within a century hardly needs to be “replaced.” See this.

Joe became a close student of the libertarian anarchist tradition. He was especially interested in Lysander Spooner’s argument that people have never consented to rule by the state:

“Can any state have a “right to exist”? The question has been raised anew by Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe, in his book Democracy: The God That Failed. He answers it with a resounding No.

Hoppe is only the latest thinker in the tradition of philosophical anarchism. His mentor, the late Murray Rothbard, was another. Both owe their ideas to a great but little-known nineteenth-century American, Lysander Spooner.

Spooner’s position was simple. There is a moral law, which in essence we all learn in early childhood, even before we know our math tables. Basically it is this: Don’t harm other people. The principle is simple, even if its applications may occasionally be difficult. America’s Great ... Rothbard, Murray Buy New $12.95 (as of 06:14 UTC - Details)

From this, Spooner reasoned, it follows that no state should exist. Nobody can claim the power to change the moral law or a monopoly of the authority to enforce it. But the state claims the right to do both. It tries to change the moral law by legislation, which is falsely thought to add to the moral duties of its subjects; and it insists that only it may define, outlaw, and punish wrongs.

The results of the state’s claims include war, tyranny, slavery, and taxation. Human society would be better off without the state.

The best argument for anarchism is the twentieth century. One scholar, R.J. Rummel, calculates that states in that century murdered about 177 million of their own subjects — and that figure doesn’t even count international wars. It’s inconceivable that private criminals could kill that many. It would be interesting to know how much wealth states have confiscated and wasted.

But could society exist without the state? Is it a necessary evil of human existence? Can it even be a positive good?

Aristotle said that man is a political animal, but his conception of the community, or polis, was very different from the modern state. He thought the community should be small enough that its members could all know each other. Sound like any state you know?

St. Augustine saw the state, along with slavery, as a consequence of Original Sin. It could never be a good thing, but it was inescapable for fallen men. But we may ask whether this is really so; in Augustine’s day slavery seemed a necessary evil of social life, and a world without slavery was hard to imagine. Nobody could remember, and few could conceive, an economy without slaves.

Is it possible that we have likewise assumed that the state is inevitable only because we are used to it, and can hardly imagine a world without it? Just as the menial tasks once performed by slaves are now distributed differently among free men, perhaps, as anarchists argue, the functions of the state could be distributed among voluntary agencies.

The Renaissance philosopher Thomas Hobbes thought that anarchy — the “state of nature” — would be “a war of all against all,” making human life “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” His solution was the state, which would quell quarrels among men. He didn’t foresee that the state itself might aggravate conflict and make social order far more miserable than anarchy could ever be.

Hobbes’s near-contemporary John Locke offered a more attractive alternative: the limited state, which would have the power to secure men’s natural rights but would lack the power to violate them. But such a state has never existed for long. Once a monopoly of power exists at all, it tends to degenerate into tyranny; anarchists argue that this decline is inevitable, because tyranny is inherent in the very nature of the state.

Oddly enough, the great conservative Edmund Burke began his career with an anarchist tract, arguing that the state was naturally and historically destructive of human society, life, and liberty. Later he explained that he’d intended his argument ironically, but many have doubted this. His argument for anarchy was too powerful, passionate, and cogent to be a joke. Later, as a professional politician, Burke seems to have come to terms with the state, believing that no matter how bloody its origins, it could be tamed and civilized, as in Europe, by “the spirit of a gentleman, and the spirit of religion.” But even as he wrote, the old order he loved was already breaking down.

Whatever the truth is, the anarchists have much reason on their side. And much history. See this.

Let’s do everything we can to remember Joe Sobran and to apply his wisdom to our problems today.