Year's end is the time for big thoughts, so here are mine. The most significant socio-political shift in our time has gone almost completely unremarked, and even unnoticed. It is the dramatic shift of the red-state bourgeoisie from leave-us-alone libertarianism, manifested in the Congressional elections of 1994, to almost totalitarian statist nationalism. Whereas the conservative middle class once cheered the circumscribing of the federal government, it now celebrates power and adores the central state, particularly its military wing.
This huge shift has not been noticed among mainstream punditry, and hence there have been few attempts to explain it – much less have libertarians thought much about what it implies. My own take is this: the Republican takeover of the presidency combined with an unrelenting state of war, has supplied all the levers necessary to convert a burgeoning libertarian movement into a statist one.
The remaining ideological justification was left to, and accomplished by, Washington's kept think tanks, who have approved the turn at every crucial step. What this implies for libertarians is a crying need to draw a clear separation between what we believe and what conservatives believe. It also requires that we face the reality of the current threat forthrightly by extending more rhetorical tolerance leftward and less rightward.
Let us start from 1994 and work forward. In a stunningly prescient memo, Murray N. Rothbard described the 1994 revolution against the Democrats as follows:
a massive and unprecedented public repudiation of President Clinton, his person, his personnel, his ideologies and programs, and all of his works; plus a repudiation of Clinton's Democrat Party; and, most fundamentally, a rejection of the designs, current and proposed, of the Leviathan he heads…. what is being rejected is big government in general (its taxing, mandating, regulating, gun grabbing, and even its spending) and, in particular, its arrogant ambition to control the entire society from the political center. Voters and taxpayers are no longer persuaded of a supposed rationale for American-style central planning…. On the positive side, the public is vigorously and fervently affirming its desire to re-limit and de-centralize government; to increase individual and community liberty; to reduce taxes, mandates, and government intrusion; to return to the cultural and social mores of pre-1960s America, and perhaps much earlier than that.
This memo also cautioned against unrelieved optimism, because, Rothbard said, two errors rear their head in most every revolution. First, the reformers do not move fast enough; instead they often experience a crisis of faith and become overwhelmed by demands that they govern "responsibly" rather than tear down the established order. Second, the reformers leave too much in place that can be used by their successors to rebuild the state they worked so hard to dismantle. This permits gains to be reversed as soon as another party takes control.
Rothbard urged dramatic cuts in spending, taxing, and regulation, and not just in the domestic area but also in the military and in foreign policy. He saw that this was crucial to any small-government program. He also urged a dismantling of the federal judiciary on grounds that it represents a clear and present danger to American liberty. He urged the young radicals who were just elected to reject gimmicks like the balanced-budget amendment and the line-item veto, in favor of genuine change. None of this happened of course. In fact, the Republican leadership and pundit class began to warn against "kamikaze missions" and speak not of bringing liberty, but rather of governing better than others.
Foreshadowing what was to come, Rothbard pointed out: "Unfortunately, the conservative public is all too often taken in by mere rhetoric and fails to weigh the actual deeds of their political icons. So the danger is that Gingrich will succeed not only in betraying, but in conning the revolutionary public into thinking that they have already won and can shut up shop and go home." The only way to prevent this, he wrote, was to educate the public, businessmen, students, academics, journalists, and politicians about the true nature of what is going on, and about the vicious nature of the bi-partisan ruling elites.
The 1994 revolution failed of course, in part because the anti-government opposition was intimidated into silence by the Oklahoma City bombing of April 1995. The establishment somehow managed to pin the violent act of an ex-military man on the right-wing libertarianism of the American bourgeoisie. It was said by every important public official at that time that to be anti-government was to give aid and support to militias, secessionists, and other domestic terrorists. It was a classic intimidation campaign but, combined with a GOP leadership that never had any intention to change DC, it worked to shut down the opposition.
In the last years of the 1990s, the GOP-voting middle class refocused its anger away from government and leviathan and toward the person of Bill Clinton. It was said that he represented some kind of unique moral evil despoiling the White House. That ridiculous Monica scandal culminated in a pathetic and pretentious campaign to impeach Clinton. Impeaching presidents is a great idea, but impeaching them for fibbing about personal peccadilloes is probably the least justifiable ground. It's almost as if that entire campaign was designed to discredit the great institution of impeachment.
In any case, this event crystallized the partisanship of the bourgeoisie, driving home the message that the real problem was Clinton and not government; the immorality of the chief executive, not his power; the libertinism of the left-liberals and not their views toward government. The much heralded "leave us alone" coalition had been thoroughly transformed in a pure anti-Clinton movement. The right in this country began to define itself not as pro-freedom, as it had in 1994, but simply as anti-leftist, as it does today.
There are many good reasons to be anti-leftist, but let us revisit what Mises said in 1956 concerning the anti-socialists of his day. He pointed out that many of these people had a purely negative agenda, to crush the leftists and their bohemian ways and their intellectual pretension. He warned that this is not a program for freedom. It was a program of hatred that can only degenerate into statism.
The moral corruption, the licentiousness and the intellectual sterility of a class of lewd would-be authors and artists is the ransom mankind must pay lest the creative pioneers be prevented from accomplishing their work. Freedom must be granted to all, even to base people, lest the few who can use it for the benefit of mankind be hindered. The license which the shabby characters of the quartier Latin enjoyed was one of the conditions that made possible the ascendance of a few great writers, painters and sculptors. The first thing a genius needs is to breathe free air.
He goes on to urge that anti-leftists work to educate themselves about economics, so that they can have a positive agenda to displace their purely negative one. A positive agenda of liberty is the only way we might have been spared the blizzard of government controls that were fastened on this country after Bush used the events of 9-11 to increase central planning, invade Afghanistan and Iraq, and otherwise bring a form of statism to America that makes Clinton look laissez-faire by comparison. The Bush administration has not only faced no resistance from the bourgeoisie. it has received cheers. And they are not only cheering Bush's reelection; they have embraced tyrannical control of society as a means toward accomplishing their anti-leftist ends.
After September 11, even those whose ostensible purpose in life is to advocate less government changed their minds. Even after it was clear that 9-11 would be used as the biggest pretense for the expansion of government since the stock market crash of 1929, the Cato Institute said that libertarianism had to change its entire focus: "Libertarians usually enter public debates to call for restrictions on government activity. In the wake of September 11, we have all been reminded of the real purpose of government: to protect our life, liberty, and property from violence. This would be a good time for the federal government to do its job with vigor and determination."
The vigor and determination of the Bush administration has brought about a profound cultural change, so that the very people who once proclaimed hated of government now advocate its use against dissidents of all sorts, especially against those who would dare call for curbs in the totalitarian bureaucracy of the military, or suggest that Bush is something less than infallible in his foreign-policy decisions. The lesson here is that it is always a mistake to advocate government action, for there is no way you can fully anticipate how government will be used. Nor can you ever count on a slice of the population to be moral in its advocacy of the uses of the police power.
Editor & Publisher, for example, posted a small note the other day about a column written by Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today, in which he mildly suggested that the troops be brought home from Iraq "sooner rather than later." The editor of E&P was just blown away by the letters that poured in, filled with venom and hate and calling for Neuharth to be tried and locked away as a traitor. The letters compared him with pro-Hitler journalists, and suggested that he was objectively pro-terrorist, choosing to support the Muslim jihad over the US military. Other letters called for Neuharth to get the death penalty for daring to take issue with the Christian leaders of this great Christian nation.
I'm actually not surprised at this. It has been building for some time. If you follow hate-filled sites such as Free Republic, you know that the populist right in this country has been advocating nuclear holocaust and mass bloodshed for more than a year now. The militarism and nationalism dwarfs anything I saw at any point during the Cold War. It celebrates the shedding of blood, and exhibits a maniacal love of the state. The new ideology of the red-state bourgeoisie seems to actually believe that the US is God marching on earth – not just godlike, but really serving as a proxy for God himself.
Along with this goes a kind of worship of the presidency, and a celebration of all things public sector, including egregious law like the Patriot Act, egregious bureaucracies like the Department of Homeland Security, and egregious centrally imposed regimentation like the No Child Left Behind Act. It longs for the state to throw its weight behind institutions like the two-parent heterosexual family, the Christian charity, the homogeneous community of native-born patriots.
In 1994, the central state was seen by the bourgeoisie as the main threat to the family; in 2004 it is seen as the main tool for keeping the family together and ensuring its ascendancy. In 1994, the state was seen as the enemy of education; today, the same people view the state as the means of raising standards and purging education of its left-wing influences. In 1994, Christians widely saw that Leviathan was the main enemy of the faith; today, they see Leviathan as the tool by which they will guarantee that their faith will have an impact on the country and the world.
Paul Craig Roberts is right: "In the ranks of the new conservatives, however, I see and experience much hate. It comes to me in violently worded, ignorant and irrational emails from self-professed conservatives who literally worship George Bush. Even Christians have fallen into idolatry. There appears to be a large number of Americans who are prepared to kill anyone for George Bush." Again: "Like Brownshirts, the new conservatives take personally any criticism of their leader and his policies. To be a critic is to be an enemy."
In short, what we have alive in the US is an updated and Americanized fascism. Why fascist? Because it is not leftist in the sense of egalitarian or redistributionist. It has no real beef with business. It doesn't sympathize with the downtrodden, labor, or the poor. It is for all the core institutions of bourgeois life in America: family, faith, and flag. But it sees the state as the central organizing principle of society, views public institutions as the most essential means by which all these institutions are protected and advanced, and adores the head of state as a godlike figure who knows better than anyone else what the country and world's needs, and has a special connection to the Creator that permits him to discern the best means to bring it about.
The American right today has managed to be solidly anti-leftist while adopting an ideology – even without knowing it or being entirely conscious of the change – that is also frighteningly anti-liberty. This reality turns out to be very difficult for libertarians to understand or accept. For a long time, we've tended to see the primary threat to liberty as coming from the left, from the socialists who sought to control the economy from the center. But we must also remember that the sweep of history shows that there are two main dangers to liberty, one that comes from the left and the other that comes from the right. Europe and Latin America have long faced the latter threat, but its reality is only now hitting us fully.
What is the most pressing and urgent threat to freedom that we face in our time? It is not from the left. If anything, the left has been solid on civil liberties and has been crucial in drawing attention to the lies and abuses of the Bush administration. No, today, the clear and present danger to freedom comes from the right side of the ideological spectrum, those people who are pleased to preserve most of free enterprise but favor top-down management of society, culture, family, and school, and seek to use a messianic and belligerent nationalism to impose their vision of politics on the world.
There is no need to advance the view that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. However, it is time to recognize that the left today does represent a counterweight to the right, just as it did in the 1950s when the right began to adopt anti-communist militarism as its credo. In a time when the term patriotism means supporting the nation's wars and statism, a libertarian patriotism has more in common with that advanced by The Nation magazine:
The other company of patriots does not march to military time. It prefers the gentle strains of 'America the Beautiful' to the strident cadences of 'Hail to the Chief' and 'The Stars and Stripes Forever.' This patriotism is rooted in the love of one's own land and people, love too of the best ideals of one's own culture and tradition. This company of patriots finds no glory in puffing their country up by pulling others' down. This patriotism is profoundly municipal, even domestic. Its pleasures are quiet, its services steady and unpretentious. This patriotism too has deep roots and long continuity in our history.
Ten years ago, these were "right wing" sentiments; today the right regards them as treasonous. What should this teach us? It shows that those who saw the interests of liberty as being well served by the politicized proxies of free enterprise alone, family alone, Christianity alone, law and order alone, were profoundly mistaken. There is no proxy for liberty, no cause that serves as a viable substitute, and no movement by any name whose success can yield freedom in our time other than the movement of freedom itself. We need to embrace liberty and liberty only, and not be fooled by groups or parties or movements that only desire a temporary liberty to advance their pet interests.
As Rothbard said in 1965:
The doctrine of liberty contains elements corresponding with both contemporary left and right. This means in no sense that we are middle-of-the-roaders, eclectically trying to combine, or step between, both poles; but rather that a consistent view of liberty includes concepts that have also become part of the rhetoric or program of right and of left. Hence a creative approach to liberty must transcend the confines of contemporary political shibboleths.
There has never in my lifetime been a more urgent need for the party of liberty to completely secede from conventional thought and established institutions, especially those associated with all aspects of government, and undertake radical intellectual action on behalf of a third way that rejects the socialism of the left and the fascism of the right.
Indeed, the current times can be seen as a training period for all true friends of liberty. We need to learn to recognize the many different guises in which tyranny appears. Power is protean because it must suppress that impulse toward liberty that exists in the hearts of all people. The impulse is there, tacitly waiting for the consciousness to dawn. When it does, power doesn’t stand a chance.
December 31, 2004