Jan 12, 2004: Liberals of the World Unite

Liberalism is standing on the brink of one of its greatest opportunities to organize itself and take the offensive against the excesses of statism but is failing to seize the moment due to a philosophical incoherence and disorientation presently manifest in the leadership of the movement. Peruse the liberal and libertarian and (individualistic) conservative thought propagated by the leading lights of the hour, and with a little consideration, it soon becomes evident that these movements have completely failed to grasp the historic task before them.

While the ultimate cause of freedom will not and cannot be undermined by the failures of today, as its fate is bound up with human nature, the cause of liberty in our own lifetime will suffer terrible damage without an immediate change in our movement’s direction. It is imperative that genuine liberals begin to persuade and even circumvent, overcome, and replace the leadership of these camps, absent such a radical reorientation. On their current course, they will consign themselves to oblivion with or without any special or conscious effort on anyone else’s part, so long as they toy with minor and inconsequential points apart from the only question an advocate of liberty may possibly concern himself with: What must I do to free myself?

But if the liberal movement is not to be swept away with them, something must be ready to fill the vacuum. We must be conscious of the fact that our failure to eventually seize the opportunity before us cannot be laid at the feet of any single individual or group of individuals. The fate of every liberal is in his own hands, and the fate of our collective efforts as they are embodied in the liberal movement is equally our own. Once we become aware of the nature of the crisis, it is our duty, imposed on us by the principles we have ourselves proclaimed, to redress the cause of that underlying danger.

The potential members of the “coalition of liberty” that we mentioned in last week’s article have never had more reason to be estranged from the Republican Party and the political process as a whole. The excesses of Republican statism, at home and abroad, in civil rights, welfare policy, education, economic regulation, science, as well as the democratic-capitalist crescendo of American imperialism most evident at present in Iraq, is perhaps the clearest sign yet of the break the Republican Party has made with the notion of limited government.

Disgruntled Republicans have any number of avenues they may choose to respond to this situation. The party itself is counting on them to stay in the fold because of their fear of bringing the Democrats to power, and many will likely do so. Some may cast a vote against the Republicans by voting for the Democrats or a third party. And, others may stay at home on election day. Unfortunately, the most likely scenario is that they will grudgingly vote for Bush while sighing for the bygone glories of the Reagan years.

And yet what should be made abundantly clear to them is that after their Reagan Revolutions and their Gingrich Revolutions, the Republicans have failed to roll back the state when they acquire the reins of power. At best, they have performed some technocratic services insofar as they have rationalized the bureaucracy and checked some of the grossest excesses, not so much of statism, but of specifically leftist statism. With Bush, the party has abandoned its not entirely inconsequential reservations about the dangers of “big government” and chosen to adopt a rightist version of the same. Like Europeans, Americans may now choose between social democrats or Christian democrats.

But, the radical libertarians are failing–and miserably–to exploit the current situation to convince disgruntled conservative and libertarian Republicans to make a clean break with the party and the political process as a whole as a preparation for concerted action aimed at establishing a liberal, consensual state. The reason is that the vast majority of them have rhetorically or sentimentally broken from the state without actually having actively done so. We have already spoken before about the liberal and libertarian tendency to harp on the economic tyranny of the state while refusing to seriously engage the question of its political tyranny or propose a path to overturn the current order. Many rightly shy away from using the term “anarcho-capitalist” to describe themselves, but it is often a more precise and revealing label than “libertarian”, as the anarchic component paradoxically offers a way of avoiding political questions.

The leading article in the most recent weekend edition of one of the most popular and respected libertarian websites is a particularly potent example of the problem before us. The site claims to be, among other things, decidedly “anti-state” and “pro-market”, both to its credit, but faced with the opportunity to transform disappointed Republicans into genuinely liberal activists, it has offered no apparent strategy to win them, produced no coherent philosophical response to their concerns about libertarianism, and failed to suggest any coherent route to a liberal order.

What it may be counted on to provide, aside from a consistent advocacy of free market reforms, is politically vacuous observations and vitriol aimed at the American right, in particular the President, the neo-conservatives, the Iraq War, and the Republican establishment as a whole. It has become obsessed with undermining the current administration and scoring partisan points, when it should be focused exclusively on how to undermine and replace the political system. One wonders whether it is recruiting defectors from party politics or becoming a tool of those politics.

This preoccupation with American electoral politics reached a new height of irrelevance in the aforementioned article as it slouched over into a rather sad daydream about the possibility of the Democratic Party embracing genuine liberalism instead of the social democratism the modern party is rooted in. Such an idyll would not be so awful a sin were it not such a distraction from the work at hand. Begging the Democrats–by and large moderate socialists, mind you–to abandon their own principles and en masse assume libertarian ones as a guaranteed formula for electoral success is, even by the standards of our movement, bizarre and smacks of an embarrassing desperation.

Aside from its rather sustained attack on the Republican party, in terms of political thought, it has produced nothing formidable or worthy of great reflection. It has dabbled with monarchism and occasionally uttered the word “anarchy”, but offered nothing substantive. Likewise, it has published articles suggesting the importance of voting, of all things. When it attempts to offer concrete proposals to bring about a free society, it advocates home-schooling and buying guns (while speaking of “peaceful” change from the other side of its mouth) as the two most important actions one can take. We do not intend to imitate the error of such libertarians by taking on individual points, for the particular items are, in isolation, not important. The importance of this litany is not what’s there but what’s missing, namely a socio-political critique of majoritarianism and mass society, a vision of the order we would replace the current one with, and an attempt to thrash out the means to realize that order.

The Republican party’s full-throated call for right-wing statism has opened an immense space for liberals and libertarians to make a case for their own ideas and present their own vision, to suggest to hesitant libertarians and conservatives still futilely hoping for the Republican Party or the constitution to right themselves that a commitment to liberty can permit nothing but active opposition to the state. The inherent statism of the American political system has rarely been more obvious to the casual observer, and now is the time to seize this opportunity to gather would-be allies to the banner of liberty.

January 12, 2004

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