It didn’t take long for the shift to transpire. The conservatives, after eight years defending the obscenely criminal and authoritarian Bush regime to the most degenerate depths, have rediscovered their role as rigorous defenders of Constitutional federalism, boasting that dissent is the highest form of patriotism, questioning the very legal and moral legitimacy of governmental and even executive power, daring to hope aloud that the regime fails. The left-liberals, meanwhile, have resumed their role as the most enthusiastic admirers of American leviathan, calling for its expansion in a hundred different directions, questioning the patriotism of those who oppose their commander in chief and even, at times, calling dissent treason. The transition concerning who plays opposition is typically awkward but usually has the pretense of being gradual and organic. This time, it came rather quickly right after Obama’s inauguration and, in the last two years, has taken on a surreal character.
Now it is the beginning of the 2012 election season and the same maddening hypocrisy will surely escalate. We will hear absurdities that would cause a saint to lose his composure in frustration. Much of the dissonance arises because both Bush and Obama have been unspeakably energetic and abusive with government power, and because more than 95% of their policies are identical. And so when those who a few years back lobbied for loyalty oaths today question the legitimacy of the president, cheering on some of the most histrionic and irreverent displays of political protest since Vietnam – and when those who once called the president a war criminal today declare that those who deride the president are anti-American and should be censored – all of this is much more frustrating since the domestic and foreign policies are fundamentally the same.
One could say the conservatives are more jarring in their metamorphosis given how completely brown-shirted they could be at the height of the Bush years, and just how Jeffersonian they pretend to be today, some of them even comfortable with the ideas of challenging the Federal Reserve. You turn the radio’s dial to the right and it’s all about the Founding Fathers, the Declaration of Independence and the Tenth Amendment. The blather is intolerable.
But the liberals can be, in their own way, just as perplexing to ponder. All the wars and surveillance and detention abuses they decried for years continue on their guy’s watch, and although some protest, most are at best vaguely discontent with the murderous bombings, but much more preoccupied with defending the president’s war on the American economy.
So let us consider what some would call a strategic matter. Whether in terms of activism or educational outreach, what exactly do we make of this phenomenon of yesterday’s neoconservatives sounding like libertarians today? What kind of inroads can be made into the chaotic conservative movement, defined by a fractured and vacuous party and a sort of crisis of identity? What are the dangers of being co-opted?
At first, it may have been encouraging to see the Tea Party phenomenon, which was, at its best, independent from the Republican machine. But soon enough it came to resemble nothing very different from the conservatives’ presumed anti-government antics of the 1990s, which themselves culminated in one of the worst presidential administrations in history. And then many of these activists lined up behind the same old Republican creeps and con artists as usual. Early polls showed Newt Gingrich to be a Tea Party favorite. Polls after the 2010 election revealed that so-called Tea Party types were much less unhappy with the federal government than only months before. It turns out that just as the antiwar movement of 2003 was largely an anti-Bush movement pretending to stand for something more principled than partisanship, the anti-government rhetoric of the anti-Obama populist right was largely so much subterfuge.
In a time somewhat reminiscent of our own – 1965, the height of the Great Society, as the conservative opposition resisted some of LBJ’s domestic program while whooping it up for the warfare state – the great libertarian Murray Rothbard addressed the fundamental problem with political conservatism:
We see the same thing today. The conservatives are obsessed with every single battle, as though it’s the defining one between civilization and living under tyranny. Whether it’s a judicial appointment, an amendment to legislation, a slight procedural change in indefinite detention policy, a given military engagement, a fight between two budget plans that are virtually identical, or a midterm election, victory or defeat determines whether the human race will be saved or forever doomed. When they were in power, every crackdown on the Bill of Rights and move to aggrandize the military was advertised as absolutely essential to our national security, lest we all be consumed in mushroom clouds and anthrax.
Indeed, these individual instances can carry great importance, and I too have strong opinions about most of them, and sometimes agree with the conservatives. But the point is there is a myopic perspective in the conservative outlook. "For the first time in my life, I worry for my country," is something I’ve heard many conservatives say – as though their dread Soviet enemy or Bill Clinton didn’t cause them great alarm in their own time, and as though George W. Bush kept the country safe and free.
Meanwhile, it also seems true that most conservatives suffer long-term pessimism. Human nature is inherently evil, they seem to think, having adopted the core Hobbesian belief that the state must force people into civility, order and peace, whether by taser, electric chair, predator drone or nuke. Thus they believe freedom to be inadequate concerning a wide range of questions – law and order, national defense, drugs, immigration, agriculture, roads, zoning, occupational licensure, family relations, intellectual property, international trade. On these many crucial areas, most conservatives are essentially as statist as most liberals.
The importance of conservative and liberal statist ideology is paramount. Ideology determines the nature of the state, as Oppenheimer, Mises and others have long noted. In particular, conservatism, warned Rothbard, is the ancient enemy of freedom. That is not to say it is the only one.
Today’s left-liberalism, like all liberalism of the modern era, is corrupt, incoherent, managerial, envious, puritanical, utilitarian and oppressive. It is forever interested in invading every aspect of your life to make you a better person, so long as it does not trample on those freedoms that are politically correct. It is relentless in its obsession to make life fairer, safer, cleaner and socially manageable, all at the barrel of a gun. It is the philosophy that leads to bans on plastic bags, glorious incandescent light bulbs, deliciously flavored cigarettes, and Happy Meals.
Left-liberalism is also at best unreliable in opposing war, since it accepts most of the fundamental precepts involved, including the power of government force to remake societies for the better. The way so many left-liberals jumped on the bandwagon for war with Libya underscores this. They were enthusiastic about the prospect of their liberal government, once again, stopping genocide. They swallowed whole all the state propaganda, as though Obama and NATO would never lie the way Bush did.
The dominant strain of the American left is progressivism – international do-gooderism, secular Puritanism, thorough-going unionism, belief in good government, corporate socialism, and faith in bureaucracy with a near worship of the capacity of the nation-state to advance society.
The far left is even worse on most economics questions. It is a horror to me that socialism continues to bamboozle swaths of the youth. Seeing Mao glorified by college students is sickening. It is frustrating that often the better a lefty is on civil liberties and war, the worse he is on economic science and property rights.
But hard socialism is not dominant and the far left has to some degree served as a boogeyman. The rightwing fear that Obama represents the politics of New Left agitators, the Marxists, and Jeremiah Wright is off the mark – as is the bizarre accusation that he is a shill for the Islamists. Similarly, the progressive left attacks the far right, demonizing those who, for better or worse reasons, are somewhat extremist – as in, principled. From a libertarian perspective, however, Obama’s subversive reverend is probably one of the most inspiring things about his political identity, just as Sarah Palin’s husband once having an interest in Alaskan independence is a cause for celebration, not condemnation.
The radical left, while in some ways most naïve about economics, are sometimes the best at following the money, analyzing the corporate state, and revising the U.S. record on war and police abuses. The truly traditional conservatives, whatever their failings, long for a time of localism and individualism. The far left and far right would perhaps be as bad as, even worse than, our current masters if they wielded power. But in general, they do not dominate.
It is the center left most in power right now, and this gives us more perspective and makes sense of the fact that the Republicans and Democrats govern so similarly. It also shows us that the biggest political evils we must actually fear are all rooted in mainstream American political culture. The leadership of both parties, and most supposedly respectable thinkers on left and right, and sadly most Americans, share a devotion to interventionism both at home and abroad.
There is an answer to this problem, and it can be found in our ideological heritage: classical liberalism, predating the Old Right and New Left by well over a century. Something rather akin to radical individualist libertarianism could be seen in 19th century American anarchist thinkers. Earlier than that we of course see our ideas in the Western legal tradition, in the Scholastic thinkers, in the Levellers, the better of the Founding Fathers and the abolitionists. The point is, we hail from an ideological origin much more venerable and impressive than anything touted by today’s American left or right.
Indeed, the extremist nationalist statism of modern liberalism is not much more than a century old. The liberals had thrown away natural rights and individualism in favor of Marxism and progressivism. The nationalist statism of modern conservatism hails back to the post-War era, when the right organized to resist the domestic excesses of Truman while cheering on nuclear war with the Soviet Menace. The New Deal and especially World War II ingrained statism in mainstream American thinking. The state became national planner, humanitarian crusader and spiritual savior. By the time anything resembling today’s political battle lines were drawn, the entire spectrum had been taken in by corporate liberalism, mixed-economy central planning, the national security state and perpetual foreign war.
And this has been the state of affairs for three generations. Practically no American is alive who really remembers a time when 90% of political thinkers didn’t agree on social security, public schooling, business regulation and foreign adventurism.
This is one reason we have to look at the long-term historical trajectory, not just the next election or political tussle, as the conservatives tend to. We have to understand what is truly at stake and where the real prospects for freedom can be found. And with that in mind, the threats to liberty are far broader and less immediately conspicuous than even the most vociferous Teabaggers recognize.
Let’s start with Obamacare. Now, this is truly a nightmare. Much of the discussion has concerned the so-called public option. But the big debate over it ignored all fundamentals. It is true, as the far left argues, that mandated health insurance without a public plan would be a de facto corporate subsidy of huge proportions to the insurance industry. The right is correct that with the public plan, there would be an effective subsidy for the public option that could lead to the destruction of the private sector.
Either way, socializing medicine is a major affront to liberty, and must be opposed. Mandating health insurance is particularly cruel during a recession, and it is incredibly invasive into personal affairs. We will see that as the plans are enacted, they will be hugely expensive, drive up health costs, and lead to rationing, puritanical controls on personal behavior, and even something we could call death panels.
But what about the bigger picture? American health care is not nearly as great as conservatives claim, thanks to the FDA, licensing, Medicare and many other governmental interventions. It is in crisis. Costs are exploding. Only moving toward true health care freedom, which is not something that has happened under any Republican administration in the history of America, will address the problem.
And what about Medicare, which Bush expanded, and the entire welfare state? The entitlement state is unsustainable and oppressive, but most conservatives focus on the easiest targets.
The conservatives complained about cap and trade, but what about the very existence of the EPA, created by Nixon, or of the nationalization of the right to pollute, a usurpation of property rights effected long ago and still defended by most Americans, not just the extreme environmentalists?
The conservatives derided cash for clunkers, and surely this is a ridiculous and tragic example of the pure destructive potential of government subsidy, but it was Bush’s ownership society and easy credit that caused a far more important and destructive distortion of the economy, leading to one of the largest bubble-and-busts in American economic history.
The conservatives note Obama’s wild deficits, which truly are a frightening thing, dwarfing even the massively spendthrift Bush administration. But what about the fact that spending has always gone up, under every Republican starting with Hoover, and that we have a bipartisan ticking timebomb of unfunded liabilities that still succeeds in making Obama’s New Deal look cheap?
The conservatives complain about the bailouts, as they should, and to their credit, many of them began protesting in 2008 under Bush. But what about a fundamental reexamination of the central banking cartel that has persisted unscathed under both parties?
The conservatives worry they will be silenced, pointing to troubling government reports warning government agents to be on the lookout for rightwing extremists. Indeed, it is horrifying to see the Obama administration and its kept media conduct these witch-hunts against dissidents. But what about the fact that these reports were commissioned by Homeland Security and could be pinned on the war on terror? What about all the civil liberties violations and expansion, militarization and nationalization of American policing, which has commenced administration after administration, mostly in the name of fighting drugs, terror and now everything?
The conservatives fear Obama will take away their guns and now it appears he plans more gun control through executive fiat. But we must not forget what happened under Bush: Ashcroft’s Project Safe Neighborhoods, the post-Katrina roundup of weapons from New Orleans residents, the disarming of innocent Iraqis in Baghdad, and other assaults on the right to bear arms.
The conservatives decry judicial political correctness, in Sonia Sotomayor and Obama’s general legal philosophy. But what about the general trend of judicial tyranny that has dominated for well more than a century? The idea that any Supreme Court Justice in recent memory has adhered to the Constitution with any loyalty is laughable. And besides, the Obama Justice Department has echoed the Bush line on presidential wartime powers almost verbatim.
The conservatives complain that Obama isn’t delivering what is needed in Afghanistan to win. But Bush didn’t win in Afghanistan or Iraq, either – he destroyed hundreds of thousands of foreign lives and fed thousands of Americans into the meat grinder.
The conservatives warn that we are vulnerable to terrorism under Obama, misunderstanding that Muslim extremists are anything but shortsighted the way conservatives are, and that it is the memory of decades of US meddling in the Middle East that fuels anti-American terrorism.
The conservatives say Obama is pandering to the international community, but what about Bush’s war to enforce UN sanctions? What about the permanent alliances with Israel and our effective global empire of dozens of satellites – something far more pernicious to American safety and freedom than a president who accidently and rudely bows to Saudi royalty.
I know I am being very hard on the conservatives, but the fact is, if there is hope in reaching out to the right, we must understand what we’re up against. We need to understand the ups and downs of conservative thinking, which competes with our own as the alternative to left-liberal statism. We must reject the short-term view also, because in pushing for a minor market reform here, or putting all our energy into defeating a particularly egregious version of Obamacare there, we risk associating the message of liberty with the status quo of conservatism. The disasters for liberty in America existed before long before the menace currently in the White House, many long before he was born. Mixed economics and rightwing Keynesianism have yielded an apocalyptic economic crisis.
And I believe it is important to try to reach out, for we face a very real threat to liberty in the form of blue-state fascism, and we need to know how to reach out correctly.
The threat from the Obama administration is very real. Although it is largely a continuation of Bush policies, that alone should scare the hell out of us. What’s more, Obama seems dedicated to intervening in more areas of our lives.
Everything truly horrible about Bush – executive aggrandizement, aggressive war, warrantless spying, detention without habeas corpus, massive corporatism – is continuing or even accelerating. Meanwhile, the left-liberal tendency to intervene in the domestic policy is coming out in fuller force than ever before. This may be the first Old Left administration since LBJ – a government devoted to war and social engineering more than either Bush, or Clinton, or Reagan.
For now, most of the left-liberal antiwar energy has been dissipated. Progressives regret the wars but love the emperor. On Libya, they have begun to repeat the Clinton-era trope that those who oppose "humanitarian wars" are soft on genocide. I fear these smears will intensify if another war breaks out.
The Obama regime has co-opted popular media and the counterculture. At the same time, progressivism has become the dominant strain in the American left. This includes a mocking demonization of those opposing the Democratic total state. People who question Obamacare on Constitutional grounds, and those defending federalism, are derided as "Tenthers" for their devotion to the Tenth Amendment. And don’t dare question the climate change zeitgeist.
Since many left-liberals care more about socializing America than reining in its empire and criminal-justice system, we are looking at the worst of all worlds: The Republican state of endless war, crackdowns, and a revolving door between Wall Street and Washington, coupled with the Democratic fervor to expand the welfare state and enforce political correctness. We are looking at a regime that hails true-believers from the left – population controllers, environmental extremists, and professional victimologists – alongside a more impressive corporatist oligopoly of financial and business interests than Bush ever had. This is an administration whose political economy falls somewhere between that which is good for Goldman Sachs and that which is touted by Che Guevara. Like FDR, Obama incorporates the worst ideas from America’s fascist right and socialist left.
The movement for liberty needs ever more people. Under a Democratic administration, we can try to reach out to people who might be taken in by mainstream conservatism and show them the consistent alternative: the respect for natural law and individual liberty that can only be found in libertarianism. We must explain to them economics and the morality of individual liberty, to get them to move beyond the short-term goal of stopping Obamacare or dethroning the Democrats in 2012, and to embrace the program and philosophy of liberty.
We must appeal to their values, showing how bourgeois liberty is eternally threatened by the state, especially the military state. This is the biggest hurdle and most important issue. The right, taken in by utilitarian ethics and a religious devotion to American nationalism, is still more pro-war than the left. But they must be shown that war is the greatest of all enemies to freedom, that U.S. intervention abroad, even more than social engineering crusades at home, built up the huge and invasive government in Washington. They must be taught that every freedom they cherish is imperiled by empire and every regulatory and welfare scheme they decry has its roots in war.
Conservatives must be brought around to oppose limitless power itself, not just the person of Obama. In the 1990s, there was some hope that the right would come around to embracing a more consistent understanding of freedom, but they became obsessed with Clinton’s personality and then sacrificed all their good principles after 9/11. If they cannot be brought along to a more consistent position now, they will at best be short-term allies who help usher in another Republican administration roughly as bad as Obama’s.
Meanwhile, we must explain to left-liberals who feel betrayed by Obama why the betrayal was inevitable, and attract them to the tenets of libertarianism, just as happened when many of FDR’s liberal supporters found themselves horrified by the New Deal and radicalized in the traditions of American individualism. We must reach out to everyone who seems interested in liberty, without sacrificing our own values. We must be neither sectarian nor opportunistic, as Rothbard believed.
Although the state has seemingly been on the march throughout all our lives, there are reasons to rejoice. Some freedoms are stronger than in years past. Freedom of speech is more widely protected. We have no mass conscription, thanks largely to a philosophical shift in public opinion. Our presidents don’t defend total war in the same terms. Protectionism, while resurgent now, has largely been discredited. The insights of Austrian economics, constitutional decentralism, and foreign non-intervention have a far wider resonance now than any time in the last several decades. Reversing the trend of drug prohibition may be on the horizon. The American people will not tolerate the tax levels they did in years past. Social freedoms and tolerance have made great headway in many areas. There is less public trust in our national institutions than before. The Federal Reserve and central banking, a few years ago esoteric and fringe subjects, are now popular topics, with increasing numbers of Americans realizing that something is seriously amiss with U.S. monetary policy. And globally, freedom has been on the march in China among other foreign nations.
We libertarians with our long-term outlook may have a deeper and therefore more disturbing sense of what is wrong with America than those on right or left, but we also have more reasons to be happy. We know that central planning fails. Our intellectual understanding of the world lines up with reality. We do not put all our stock in one victory or loss, knowing that the story of humanity is one plagued by tyranny, with freedom being an anomalous but achievable thing. We can look upon this world that was enslaved by communism and fascism, or our country that was once tainted with the horror of chattel slavery, and know that not everything was better in the good old days.
We are also much less demoralized by the little things than the right or left. We don’t put all our hope into a single ballot initiative or political development. We are much less concerned with the politicized hysterias of the day. We lose less sleep over terrorism, rightwing extremism, global warming and the supposed dysfunctions of society and capitalism than do the other folks. We also understand and love the market, meaning we recognize that mankind is not doomed in the next generation due to its own greed. Understanding economics unlike the left, and not clinging to the kneejerk nostalgia of the right, we know humanity’s potential is much grander than what the others imagine. We know that if only set free, humans, working in the market and through voluntary interactions, would advance much quicker and smoother than anyone else recognizes, and we know that even in the face of institutional coercion, the market will continue to perform miracles, produce wealth and improve our lot in life.
On a positive note, the Bush-Obama years provide us a good opportunity to share our message with our compatriots. The vast similarities and disastrous continuity to be seen in Republican and Democratic rule, and the great extent of today’s crises may eventually give way to public opinion.
If there’s any force more important in limiting state power than public ideology, it is economic law. Already the laws of economics have destroyed the aspirations of the post-Great Society entitlement state that has completely enfranchised the middle class. They have put the lie to the Ownership Society and the very idea of printing, borrowing and spending the society into prosperity.
As the crisis continues to deepen, as the politicians’ attempts to reinflate the bubble eventually result in an even bigger downturn, we will have an opportunity to help move public opinion away from the post-war consensus on state control of the economy. The entitlement state, like the communist regimes and monarchies of yore, may find itself in the dustbin of history within our lifetimes. And for the first time in a century, the consensus on inflationism and central banking is in jeopardy.
In foreign affairs, we could see the end of the empire. It operates in direct tension with economics, as well as humane principles and the golden rule. It necessarily brings with it blowback, crushing debt and taxes, a total corruption of political life and a wholesale attack on our liberties. But it is also unsustainable, as all empires are, and will fall. A century of advancing U.S. imperialism could reverse, because of the limits of economic reality and an American public that comes to rediscover its earlier roots as an anti-colonial, anti-imperial people, gravitating toward a commercial republic and not a mercantilist empire. We can see it happening with growing disillusionment with the Bush-Obama foreign policy.
In the realm of personal liberty, much could easily turn around. The prison system can’t keep growing forever. The drug war is eventually going to be dumped, or else large parts of it. Gun control is less popular than in the past. Americans were, believe it or not, more outraged about Bush’s attacks on civil liberties than were the public under earlier modern wars.
But it could go the other way. Economic collapse could end the cushy welfare state yet entrench a more repressive economic system than Americans have ever seen. Socialism is, I’m saddened to say, back in vogue. People play with the idea of destroying markets and regimenting society as though their good intentions overcome the laws of economics and the whole history of human experience. In modern times, nothing has been more destructive to humanity than socialism.
We may continue to see personal liberty restrained across the board, not just in prisons but in daily life, under a managerial surveillance state that tracks us from birth to death. The Middle East situation could explode into world war, as the US continues to attempt the impossible, applying ever more force and producing ever more bloodshed. The long-term nightmare unleashed by the last few administrations is yet to be seen.
Confronting the horrors of the modern state and envisioning a society so much more peaceful and free, as we do, can be frustrating. Our message has, however, become much popular than ever. The libertarian idea was fully embraced by a small group of rebels from the 1930 to the 1950s. From the 1960s to the 1980s, the movement grew, but I’d say that in the last ten years especially there has been an explosion in the popularity of these ideas, culminating in and also boosted by the Ron Paul phenomeneon. Our movement is very small, but it is growing very fast.
One thing we must all do is stick to principle and tell the truth, even as it is frustrating to try to engage others. We should always uphold the most radical and consistent vision of liberty we can, and reject all compromise that moves us away from freedom. This doesn’t mean we can never work with or learn from those who do not adhere to our level of purity. Some short-term goals are worth working toward. Coalitions can do some good. We must be ecumenical in the sense of not pushing away all fellow travelers who share a passionate opposition to the greatest tyrannical excesses of our time – the empire, the police state, corporatist fascism, nationalist welfarism, and central banking. But it is crucial never to concede an inch on the question of principle.
It can be hard to get conservatives, or liberals, to take the red pill, because, if for no other reason, it is psychologically costly. To recognize how messed up things are takes a lot of energy, a lot of heart, and it can be most difficult. But it is also rewarding to know the truth and to defend liberty, to be on the side of right and the dignity of human life. Human nature, the laws of economics, and the precarious nature of political power are all on our side in the long run. If we keep this in mind, we can weather any political storm, adjust to any partisan shift, and continue to pick up converts as we battle the leviathan state.
The originally appeared on Freedom's Phoenix.
July 9, 2011
Copyright © 2011 by LewRockwell.com. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.