Libertarianism is not the Politics of the “Country Class”

Writes Jonah Goldberg at the end his LA Times article regarding the Glenn Beck rally:

I confess, if Beck wasn’t a libertarian, I would find his populism terrifying. But his basic message, flaws notwithstanding, is that our constitutional heritage largely defines us as a people, regardless of race, religion or creed. Is that so insulting to Martin Luther King Jr.’s memory?

Well, Beck isn’t a libertarian, so I suppose, following Goldberg’s caveat, one should start considering running for the hills. Perhaps I’m made to look the fool when writing such things as this in the past and then find instead a politics emerging around a Glenn Beck vs Al Sharpton paradigm. God is indeed a comedian.

The Beck “Restoring Honor” rally was a gathering of this “country class” that Angelo Codevilla wrote about this past summer. Surprisingly, many(although not all) libertarians heaped effusive praise on Codevilla’s treatment. Robert Higgs, for example, called Codevilla’s essay the best one of the most intelligent characterizations(see comments) of American Political class conflict that he has ever read. The writers at LewRockwell.com were unanimous with their accolades. However, at the time, I criticized Codevilla’s piece on the grounds that it largely wove a superficial libertarian narrative of class conflict over a familiar refrain of right-wing communitarian politics. In other words, it was just a new shade of lip stick on the same pig(the culture war).

The short intervening time that has since transpired I think makes a case for the more critical assessment of Codevilla’s essay. The sensibilities of this “country class” are at the very heart of the political class’ exploitation of the “ground zero mosque controversy.” And Beck’s “Restoring Honor” extravaganza was but a large congregation to exhort God,Country, and the Military. And the country class’ attempted expropriation of right-communitarian MLK doesn’t pass the historical smell test. The post 1963-I Have a Dream-King became much more left-wing and radical, particularly with respect to war. King’s Beyond Vietnam speech, where he called the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today,” would have been the more relevant speech to commemorate. Of course, that would have made the Beck rally an anti-war rally. But that would have been an affront to the thoroughly nationalistic “country class.”

Daniel Larison, writing in the pages of The American Conservative, takes issue with the libertarian critique of the Beck rally. To Larison I will reply that I don’t take issue with “religion in the public square,” but I do take issue with a religious overcoat of nationalism in the public square. Do you really think the problem today is not enough Jesus in politics or that border security lies at the root of our corrupt political economy? I have written on many a previous occasion that I would have a much more positive outlook on the “Tea Parties” if it were synthesized with anti-war sentiment. So, for example, I will write a generally positive review of such things as the John Dennis-Matt Gonzalez anti-war rally. But it only drew around a thousand participants, a measly number compared to the numbers drawn to the Beck-Palin Come to Jesus political rally.

Larison extends his argument to question whether the libertarian conception of liberty is so narrow and restrictive so as to exclude any conservatives. Here, I think Larison perhaps misses an important point: the libertarian conception of liberty is not really the same as the conservative conception. Larison appeals to a Greek Goddess to explain his ideal of “good order” while the libertarian appeals to Proudhon’s famous dictum. “Republican order” and the order of radical liberalism(or radical socialism) are not in any way the same thing. To the extent that libertarianism becomes involved with politics(and in such a case, it’s really a misnomer to call it libertarianism; it should be then referred to as liberalism), there then is often overlap, particularly around opposition to arbitrary power political institutions(the radical libertarian, however, will say that the very art of politics is often the creation of arbitrary power). But the sphere of political overlap can be restricted, particularly if culture,nationalism, or religion are used to influence “lawful order” that is necessary for the so-called “good order.” Libertarianism, outside of politics, however, is a different animal in terms of social theory. In such a case, order is an emergent property of an underlying, voluntary contractual arrangement. As a social theory, libertarianism should never be thought of as restrictive or dogmatic. It should be thought of terms of being a theory of a polycentric order.

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Why I’m not a Social Democrat

Although I consider myself a liberal, I’m not a social democrat because I consider politics to be much more about legitimizing means to steal other people’s money than about solving coordination problems. This observation thus makes me a liberal and a libertarian. In my opinion, a libertarian is someone who embraces liberal ends, both in terms of liberty and egalitarianism, while rejecting political means. The so-called “social contract” is nothing more than political mysticism invoked to justify legal theft.

Okay, that’s the libertarian position. You can be a liberal and reject such a libertarian critique against politics. That is, you can be a liberal and a social democrat. I will concede that point. However, you really can’t be a social democrat if you reject the legitimacy of political viewpoints that differs from your own, or reject the legitimacy of any political opposition that you consider “unreasonable.” In such a case, you need to take “democrat” out of “social democrat,” leaving just “social,” which is something that has some bad implications historically concerning the exercise of power.

Case in point: Markos Moulitsas’ new book depicting his political enemies as monsters.

If political adversaries are monsters, then exactly how can you advocate for “social democracy?”

Let me reference Rachel Maddow’s review:

It isn’t possible to understand American politics now without understanding the worldview and arguments of Markos Moulitsas.

Is American politics understood as a brave struggle of the peoples’ Democratic Party against the illegitimacy of conservative politics, or is Kos’ book more of a partisan hack ripoff of an opposing hack’s laughable diatribe(Jonah Goldberg) to convince us that the American political struggle is kos’ ability to retain his status as an inner party profiteer? And let’s not overlook Maddow herself, who has enjoyed her own little ride from so-called progressive war critic to Inner Party Pravda cheerleader for the State war machine.

I’m not a social democrat because I damn well know that what is in kos’, maddow’s, pelosi’s, obama’s, bush’s, cheney’s, limbaugh’s, o’reilly’s best interest is not in my own best interest. And it’s a scary thought to ponder the world’s greatest military empire being underlain by this profitable, competitive politics of illegitimacy.

Gene Callahan and Libertarian Obligations

Gene Callahan, a former scholar at the Mises Institute and libertarian writer, has apparently repudiated libertarianism. Granted, I’m not at all that familiar with his work, but his critiques of libertarianism(he calls himself a recovering ideologue) are popping up in the libertarian blogs I read, so I decided to take a gander at his blog, Crash Landing. I found two entries that perhaps summarize his new found beef with libertarianism. The first being his latest entry, Obligation, the second being Confessions of Recovering Ideologue, Part I.

Let’s look at his “Obligation” post. He writes:

Obligation is the crucial idea denied by libertarian political theory. We can have obligations that we did not agree to take upon ourselves.

Here is David Walsh on that fact:

“The political is never merely an option, for we are embedded in a network of obligations before we even begin. This was the weak point of all social contract explanations of civil society, with their inevitable implication of the arbitrariness of a state founded on individual choice. Kant reminds us of the extent to which the state provides the conditions for the exercise of free choice and is thus beyond the realm of choice. We are obliged to support the political constitution under whose order we exist, not because we derive benefits from it or because we have given our consent, but because it is part of the order of being.” — The Modern Philosophical Revolution, p. 62.

Well, it’s true that Libertarian Justice, for the most part, is thin when it comes to impersonal duties–that is duties or obligations owed to no one–and primarily is concerned with enforcement, or dispute resolution, with respect to personal duties, that is, duties owed to each other. Callahan’s assertion that libertarianism denies obligations is not really correct. It is, no doubt true, however, that libertarianism is pretty skeptical about impersonal duty of obedience to the current political order, as if it were some law of nature. That’s why libertarianism is properly understood to be a left-wing political theory, and not a conservative one.

In “Confessions of a Recovering Ideologue,” Callahan states his objection to “Ideological Anarchism,” sees no distinction in the violence underlying enforcement of private property rights or the territorial property of the State, and blames anarchism for undermining the modern State.

But anarchism is just a mutant strain of the ideological bacillus that is causing the rapid degeneration of most modern societies. It is certainly not the cure for its fellow bacilli. Rather, the anarchist depiction of the State as nothing more than a street gang only serves to increase the amount of State coercion. The actual way forward towards a less coercive society consists not in de-legitimizing the State, but in legitimizing it, in other words, promoting voluntary compliance with the State’s laws in so far as they are just, and working to change them peacefully in so far as they are not. To the extent that anarchists recommend the State be ignored they thwart the former movement, and to the extent anarchists scorn participation in the current political process they prevent the latter.

In a sense, Callahan’s argument, in the above post, mirrors the the Mark Lilla argument the made the rounds at the same time, namely that libertarianism was the blame for the dysfunctional modern State. Lilla pinned the blame on the merging of the hippie counter culture with “free market economics.”

Callahan’s critique against libertarianism, from his point of view, I think boils down to his assertion that there is an impersonal duty to obey the State for the most part, and where the State is “unjust,” work through the system to change the laws. The NAP argument, or “coercion” argument” against the State is rejected by Callahan because he views the same type of coercion underlying enforcement of property rights. A Libertarian class critique of the political order is dismissed because the informal institutions of culture suffer from the same problems.

From my point of view, however, Callahan’s defense of the State is largely construed from pointing out “weaknesses” in libertarianism. However, I would point out that I can make a stronger case for libertarianism by pointing out the weaknesses of the State, particularly the evolving National Security State. Callahan can talk about obligations to obey the State, but what about any obligation not to remove yourself from the jurisdiction of the State. Callahan is silent on this, but libertarianism is not silent, because “right of exit” is fundamental to any libertarian political theory, and is the “ultimate out” when dealing with political or social failure. The Evolving national Security State is more or less moving to crush this right.

Callahan’s communitarian justification of the State has some glaring weaknesses. In his “Obligations” post, he resorts to making a social institutional claim for the legitimacy of the State, but in his earlier post regarding “Ideology,” he rants about the cultural scourge that is undercutting this very legitimacy. Blame this on whatever you want to blame it on, but Callahan’s rants against libertarianism destroying this underlying cultural legitimacy doesn’t exactly solve the “communitarian dilemma” here. Finally, Callahan’s appeal to some “Kantian” duty to obey the State is belied by the simple fact that he can’t, in practice, obey it. He is a criminal; he is guilty everyday of committing multiple federal crimes, just as all of us are. This is the empirical reality of the liberal “rule of law.” Hobbes, in his social contract theory, dismissed politics in lieu of the “leviathan” because of the prospect of positive law, which he advocated, being in the hands of a political ruling class. Callahan, in the end, like the rest of us, mutters his prayers nightly to whatever god of choice that he doesn’t become the object of the aggressive, arbitrary prosecutorial power of the State. If he claims he doesn’t, then he must feel himself privileged among men.

There is no libertarian obligation to be resigned to the fact that you are a criminal…