Keeping Freedom Alive: a response to Vodkapundit

In a trenchant essay he posted on the 30th of January, Vodkapundit
against people he calls “doctrinaire libertarians”. While I sympathize in some
respects — I too have been attacked for my pro-war position — I
think there is some serious danger that Steve’s arguments are throwing out the
baby along with the bathwater.

I’m an individualist anarchist. In most peoples’ books that would
qualify me as a “doctrinaire libertarian”. I got reminded why
recently by watching a Babylon 5 episode, the 4th-season one in which
Sheridan is interrogated by an EarthGov psychologist who uses torture,
isolation, and drugs, to try and break him. But more frightening than
the torture is the ideology that comes out of the interrogator’s
mouth; the command that truth is fluid and must bend to power; the
disingenuous disclaimers of any responsibility for the hell Sheridan
is being put through; and beneath it all like a constant drumbeat, the
seductive invitation that if Sheridan will just surrender his will to
the State, his pain will end.

The interrogator is never named. Like his prototypes in Nazi
Germany and Soviet Russia, he is a case study in the banality of evil
— the true face, the night face, the real face of the State.
And what is truly terrifying is that the interrogator is not a mere
thug but a man with a subtle and flexible mind. There is an angle on
the world from which all his lies and acts of coercion issue from a
coherent moral position — but it is one that promises everyone
but his masters hell on Earth, forever and ever, amen.

In this episode J. Michael Straczynski gives us a fictional
depiction of a type that is all too real. Anyone who has read Arthur
Koestler’s Darkness at Noon or Aleksandr Solszhenitzyn’s
The Gulag Archipelago knows that if anything, JMS (who
clearly did his homework on the real-world techniques of brainwashing)
understates the soul-destroying depths to which the ideology
of statism can sink, trapping the interrogator and his victim in a
machinery of coercion that will ultimately consume them both.

The moral climax of that episode comes after Sheridan says “You
know, it’s funny I was thinking about what you said. ‘The pre-eminent
truth of our age is that you cannot fight the system.’ But if, as you
say, truth is fluid, that the truth is subjective, then maybe you can
fight the system — as long as one person refuses to be broken,
refuses to bow down.”

“But can you win?” the interrogator asks, almost gently. Sheridan,
knowing it is likely to mean he will shortly die under torture, rasps
out the bedrock libertarian reply “Every…time I…say…no!”

If I were the praying kind, I would be on my knees every day
praying that if there ever comes a moment when I must confront the
night face of the State, I too will meet it with that kind of courage.
And that day may come. Because the hell that spawns creatures like
that nameless interrogator is what waits for all of us down the road
to serfdom that is paved with good intentions like “welfare” and
“protecting the children” and “saving the environment” and, yes,
“necessary war”.

This is why I think we all ought to be grateful for “doctrinaire
libertarians”, even the ones more doctrinaire than me. It’s their job
to keep reminding all of us where that road leads. And it frightens
we when anyone replies to “War is the health of the state” by saying
fearfully “Let’s be blunt here, kids. When foreigners are rearranging
the Manhattan skyline because, in part, our women drive cars, then
goddamnit its time for a healthier state.” Because it’s in
the shadow cast by that kind of fear that creatures like the
interrogator and his masters grow and flourish.

Necessity, as wiser men than me have observed, is the credo of
tyrants and the excuse of slaves. It disturbs me to hear anyone
talking like a slave.

I agree with you in conceding that the state is at this time the
only way we have to answer the terrorist threat. The world in which
Osama bin Laden would be killed by troops hired by a consortium of
crime- and disaster-insurance companies rather than a government does
not yet exist.

But having conceded the present necessity of state action makes it
more necessary, not less, that we listen to the most
contrary, ornery, anti-statist libertarians we have, and to hold
harder than ever to our intentions for a libertarian future. Otherwise
we risk becoming too comfortable with that concession, and letting the
statists seduce us further down that road to serfdom.

Does this mean we can’t slam the LP for its attribution of the 9/11
attacks to American foreign policy? No, you’re right; that position
is not just wrong, it bespeaks a lack of moral seriousness and a kind
of blinkered parochialism that cannot actually see anything outside
of U.S. politics as having causal force.

But there is a big difference between observing that the LP is
contingently wrong about the liberation of Iraq (true) and suggesting
that our only course is to abandon our longer-term commitment to the
abolition of drastic shrinking of the state (false). Beware of
throwing out that baby with the bathwater. John Ashcroft is not yet a
greater threat to liberty than Osama bin Laden — but that day
may come yet. Only libertarian thoughts, libertarian words,
libertarian deeds, and a principled libertarian opposition to the
arrogance and seductions of power will prevent it.

UPDATE: Gary Farber thinks I’m making the same error I slammed John Perry
Barlow for recently. But there is a large difference. Barlow
was being specifically paranoid about a short-term threat which he ties to
specific people he thinks are evil and has (at the very least) grossly
overestimated. I have a longer-term concern about structural tendencies
that are built into the nature of government, and which don’t require
specific evil people running things to take us to some very nasty places.

Or, to put it another way, Barlow has what is essentially a devil theory;
Bush, or Cheney, or Ashcroft or someone like them is evil and wants to put us
in camps next year. This is silly. I, on the other hand, don’t think it
much matters for the long term whether “good” or “evil” people are running
the government; the premises and the process of government,
and the collectivist ethos that underlies them, have a momentum of their own
that grinds away at our liberty regardless. The founders of the U.S.
understood this tendency and erected the Bill Of Rights as a firewall against
it. The fact that in many jurisdictions U.S. law now suppresses “hate speech” and
bans the possession of firearms demonstrates their failure.

The erosion of liberty which I fear is a far more gradual process than
the sudden collapse into totalitarianism that Barlow envisions. But it
is also more difficult to resist and counter. Because the end stages,
where only evil people can adapt themselves to politics, are
probably many decades away, few people can summon the concern and the
will to say “Stop now, before it’s too late!”. There is always some
short-term reason that seems good to accept the state’s poisonous candy
— the new entitlement program, the next round of farm- or steel-mill
subsidies, the airport metal detectors to make us “safe”.

Many (though not all) of the people who can summon that will are
libertarians. Which is yet another good reason to listen to them carefully,
even when they’re more doctrinaire than me.

(Exercise for the reader: Let’s stipulate that littering laws may not lead to 1984,
but can you defend the proposition that laws banning speeech and weapons don’t? Discuss
historical examples such as Nazi Germany and Tokugawa-period Japan. Be specific.)


  1. Eric,
    It’s still a good idea to examine WHY the LP has embodies such “a lack of moral seriousness and a kind of blinkered parochialism.”

    It’s important to remember “the night face of the State,” but if that’s all you can see, you’re missing a lot.

    Human evil comes in many different forms. Once you become so blinkered that you can only see one, you lose all credibility. People ignore you because you DESERVE to be ignored.

    Defenders of a message should demand higher standards from those who carry it.

  2. The problem with the LP isn’t that it stands against the “health of the state”. Its that it does not provide a realistic alternative. It would be perfectly libertarian to advocate the lifting of the neutrality act with respect to Taliban dominated Afghanistan and Iraq. It might even have been more effective than the actual state led intervention that eventually happened.

    It would have been off the wall, unlikely to have been adopted, and distinctly different than the statist same old/same old but it would not have meant turning our faces to the wall and waiting to die because that’s what pacifism means when facing a real enemy that wants to enslave you (read up on what dhimmi status means sometimes).

    The LP lost my respect not because it refused to pitch in to the pro-war state message but because it offered no muscular libertarian response to a very real threat to our physical security and freedoms. The possibility was there but they chose wimpy libertarianism to muscular libertarianism. Until they reform, they’ve lost my vote.

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  4. “that position is not just wrong, it bespeaks a lack of moral seriousness and a kind of blinkered parochialism that cannot actually see anything outside of U.S. politics as having causal force.”

    Yes; and this fault isn’t confined to the LP. All the ‘idiotarians’, Left and Right both, subscribe to the same fallacy: violence is the greatest evil, the state has a monopoly of violence, the USA is the most powerful state, therefore the USA is the home of evil, and all evil events have their roots in USA policy.

    The idiotarians stand to the responsible anti-statists (such as our host) as the Ku Klux Klan stood to the sensible American patriots. They are what happens when a principled objection to force hardens into a reflexive aversion. They end up condoning the worst crimes a state can commit, provided the state in question is not their own, and if the alternative is inflicting violence themselves.

  5. That torture scene was a rip off of a part of the book 1984. And I disagree that John Ashcroft is less of a threat than Osama bin Laden. We have a military up against the terrorists, while Ashcroft for the most part is unopposed here at home.

  6. ESR, about brainwashing techique. Beforehand, I will say that i am not part of any religions but i believes sort of gods existence, But that didn’t matter anyway. When you say about brainwashing techique, it bring me up on some relation if you think that those religions among on the planet.. Just if they are not real religion but is used to exort moneys and all. it seem so execellent techique for preachers to preach and earns money.

    And i know above that i might expect some flaming words from some of you. But remember i am very curious how genius preachers capable of doing that. Otherwise it just me that observing from afar at home. :p

    final question, Off topic, if there no relgiion barrier, human unification is possible? Just a thought.

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  8. Bin Laden and his ilk are threats to our freedom only in that they scare people into giving free rein to such aa Ashcroft. Similarly, communism never had any chance of taking over this country, and probably never had a good chance at most western countries, but fear of it allowed governments to put considerable restrictions on freedom. Fear of communist (or other extreme leftist) takeover was often used even to justify nanny-state socialist measures, beginning with Bismark.

  9. To the Ashcroft frothers out there:

    Can you provide any instances where Ashcroft has gone beyond the law passed by Congress? No? I didn’t think so. It’s way over the top to suggest that a mass murderer leading a worldwide conspiracy to eliminate equal rights and impose the Islamic dhimmi system on the US is less of a threat than an attorney general who has shown that he will enforce the law whether he agrees with it or not.

    Claiming that Ashcroft is worse than bin Laden is one of the most over the top, self-destructive, counterproductive political moves I’ve seen in years. It discredits you with anybody who is not a foaming partisan.

    I want to cause the least damage to our liberties possible given the fact that we are in a war. That means practical strategies for winning the fight to preserve and expand our rights over posturing that may gain the applause of the hard core at the expense of frightening off the center.

    I can see John Ashcroft advocating that a libertarian war strategy not be followed in the cabinet debates and in the legislative debates. I don’t see him doing anything other than following the law if such a thing were to pass. Turning Ashcroft into some sort of inhuman monster out of all proportion to his failings to safeguard our liberties is just wrong.

  10. Any terrorist threat is miniscule compared to the risks we take for granted; freeway driving, tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes and breathing urban air.

    But the compromise of our liberty, the erosion of privacy, increased intrusion of the state into private affairs threatens our every-day reality.

    It is of course not a binary choice; it’s not either-or.

    We must OF COURSE take effective steps against terrorism through collective means, and government seems the most reasonable way to do that, preferably a lot of them, for increased moral and direct leverage.

    But it does strike me that fighting terrorists with armies is like hunting roaches with a .22. Fun for a while, but ultimately futile.

    And then the gumment takes your .22 away so that “terrorists will not be able to illegally obtain weapons” and even that fun is over.

    Seems to me the proper response to terrorism is to make it seem like a damnfool waste of time to potential recruits.

    I’m not sure if that’s a Libertarian position, but it does seem common-sensical.

  11. Our foreign policy has obviously upset people, it would help to look at why and adjust accordingly (within reason). Don’t get me wrong, terrorists should get what they deserve.

  12. TM Lutas writes, “Can you provide any instances where Ashcroft has gone beyond the law passed by Congress?”

    How about detainees (including U.S. citizens) in military detention, with habeas corpus essentially suspended?

    TM Lutas continues, “I want to cause the least damage to our liberties possible given the fact that we are in a war.”

    We are not in any war, as recognized by the U.S. Constitution. Instead, we are simply involved in a situation where a U.S. President is once again violating the Constitution (as essentially all presidents of the 20th century did).

  13. Thanks for the courteous response. I’ve added one of my own.

    On your exercise: would you assert that a modest libel law, or copyright law, or incitement to riot law, inevitably lead to 1984? How about a law banning private nuclear weapons?

  14. Is the current terrorist threat real? I say “yes”. It is the existence of WMDs that makes it so. A 14th century culture with early 20th century weapons isn’t much of a threat. We could annihilate it before we suffered many losses. But give that same culture early 21st century weapons, and it is a different situation.

    I contend that if a Jimmy Carter was president for the next 20 years, the probability of an American city getting nuked would be relatively high.

  15. dead cell – It’s illegal for an attorney general to pick and choose which laws to enforce. In fact, the idea that Ashcroft might do just that was the greatest impediment to his confirmation as AG. That you complain that he has vigorously enforced all the laws and didn’t just let PATRIOT slide is holding him to an impossible standard.

    Mark Bahner – If we are not at war, impeachment articles should have been drawn up the day after the state of the union message. In front of the entire Congress, President Bush said “we gave them [Al Queda] war” and meant it. If it is an illegal war, there is no reason not to impeach.

    In other words, you’re going straight off into la-la land with the idea that we’re not at war. Bush has been acting like it. He’s declared it. He’s made it the key to his foreign policy. The idea that the Congress hasn’t authorized it is just not in touch with reality.

    In a more serious vein, you mention the enemy combatants in Guantanamo. My understanding is that there are several cases wending their way through the courts on that and the administration has won more than it’s lost in those legal skirmishes. Furthermore, I believe that they are assembling military tribunals to adjudge their military status.

    Habeus corpus is an important right and shouldn’t be given up easily. Fighting on a battlefield against the US is one of those rare times when you pretty much lose any protection the Constitution gives you.

    Does it make me nervous? You bet it does, but it’s getting adjudicated at an appropriate level and we’ll end up with updated law on the subject.

    You should remember that the War on Terror is essentially a pre-Westphalian war. The Westphalian era started in 1648 so essentially this is the first war during the time when the US has been in existence that the pre-westphalian rules are in effect. This makes a lot of precedent invalid. We can’t avoid the non-westphalian nature of the conflict. That was picked by our enemies. All we can do is try to update a chapter in military legal theory that hasn’t been examined since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and reconcile that style of warfare with as much of modernity as possible.

  16. “I never alleged that Ashcroft has gone beyond the scope of congress, however the PATRIOT Act violates many of our civil liberties outlined in the constitution. And yes I recognize that it was passed by our legislators.” As I understand it, it was written by Ashcroft and his aides, and passed by Congress without reading it. Shame on them all.

    And I am still waiting for Ashcroft to follow up his statement that the 2nd Amendment recognizes an individual right by suing the city of Washington, DC, for violating the civil rights of its inhabitants and visitors with a nearly complete ban on handguns in civilian hands. Or even quashing an over-the-top federal gun-law prosecution here or there…

  17. TM Lukas writes, “Mark Bahner – If we are not at war, impeachment articles should have been drawn up the day after the state of the union message.”

    Your statement assumes that **Congress** cares about following the Constitution. The overwhelming evidence is that there is at most one member of Congress who cares about following the Constitution (Ron Paul of Texas).

    “In other words, you’re going straight off into la-la land with the idea that we’re not at war.”

    I wrote that we are not at war, as recognized by the Constitution. In order for the U.S. government to be at war as recognized by the Constitution, there needs to be a Congressional declaration of war.

    Here is an example of a Congressional declaration of war:

    “Whereas the Imperial Government of Japan has committed unprovoked acts of war against the Government and the people of the United States of America: Therefore be it Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the state of war between the United States and the Imperial Government of Japan which has thus been thrust upon the United States is hereby formally declared; and the President is hereby authorized and directed to employ the entire naval and military forces of the United States and the resources of the Government to carry on war against the Imperial Government of Japan; and, to bring the conflict to a successful termination, all of the resources of the country are hereby pledged by the Congress of the United States.”

    Can you find such a declaration against Iraq? No, you cannot. Ron Paul tried to get such a declaration, but Congress wouldn’t do it:

  18. Ashcroft himself does not pose as much as much of a threat as an endless war with a vaguely defined enemy. Not that I trust him with that kind of power, but I’ll grant that he can’t completely destroy the Constitution in 4 years.

  19. You write: “I agree with you in conceding that the state is at this time the only way we have to answer the terrorist threat.” At this time, the state is busily demonstrating that it is clueless when it comes to answering the terrorist threat.

    It is, however, quite successful at postulating imaginary threats from other states and then acting on them with massive overkill. The “secret band of robbers and murderers”, as a genuine anarchist called them, is now an open one.

    But in the end it isn’t necessarily the state as such that anarchists oppose: it’s the principle of hierarchy and domination, however “voluntarily” assumed. Libertarian government would provide exactly as much (negative) liberty as the most dreadful authoritarian regime: viz. the right to be left alone, provided one does nothing prohibited.

  20. Mr Calvert:

    Gulf War I was also an undeclared war. By your argument, we are simply resuming a conflict that wasn’t a war to begin with. Therefore, your response did not address the argument.

    lks: The last time we were legally at war was in 1945.

  21. Err, excuse me. Apparently, my HTML was broken.

    Mr Calvert:

    Gulf War I was also an undeclared war. By your argument, we are simply resuming a conflict that wasn’t a war to begin with. Therefore, your response did not address the argument.

    lks: The last time we were legally at war was in 1945.

  22. Err…let’s try this a third time.

    Mr Calvert:

    Gulf War I was also an undeclared war. By your argument, we are simply resuming a conflict that wasn’t a war to begin with. Therefore, your response did not address the argument.

    Remember folks: The last time we were legally at war was in 1945.

  23. No, Mr Bahner, in order for the U.S. government to be at war as recognized by the Constitution, there does not need to be a Congressional declaration of war. The Prize Cases clearly established that if the USA is attacked the President can recognise that a state of war exists, and can act on that, without consulting Congress. This is inherent in the executive power, and does not rest on the war clause of Article 1. Article 1 authorises Congress to declare war without the President’s approval, and when no state of war already exists, but it does not in any way constrain the President from fighting a war that he decides the USA is already in. To repeat: this is not some controversial new doctrine – it’s been clearly established law for the past 140 years.

  24. And did Iraq attack the US? Even Al-Qaida seems like a strange target for a war, since I see them as a group of criminals with links to other criminals. Applied to terrorism in general, the argument seems a bit like claiming that murder has attacked the US (with more total victims than 9/11) and therefore the President can use military force for any purpose that (in his judgement) relates to the war on murder.

  25. this is a great thread (notwithstanding
    the late focus on semantics).
    for my part, i’m far more afraid
    of the cops than the moslems and
    always have been and don’t expect
    that to change any time soon. terror?
    try “drug war”. we are *already*
    occupied by our worst enemy. look.
    here we go. poly sci 101: there is
    the party of freedom (“us”) & the party
    of pushing people around (“them”).
    by their fruits you will know them.
    pretty simple, right?

  26. I, on the other hand, don’t think it much matters for the long term whether “good” or “evil” people are running the government; the premises and the process of government, and the collectivist ethos that underlies them, have a momentum of their own that grinds away at our liberty regardless.

    So true, in my opinion. Any country that succeeds or fails upon the actions of a single leader’s personality is not a democracy.

    A great King can only be great until he dies, after which it’s anybody’s guess. Where else but America is the ‘king’ limited to a MAXIMUM of eight years of ‘rule’?

    Tokugawa was a bit of an exception, perhaps, in that he instituted a system so detailed and successful that it protected his country for a hundred (two hundred?) years after his death. Once again, though, it wasn’t his personality that people feared or respected after his death, but rather the checks and balances against amassing power in any one place that he instituted.

    Tokugawa Ieasu – a REAL American hero!

    And then I think sadly of what may become of a country like South Africa when their personable cult leader Mandela kicks off and dies.

    Most of the ‘hate Bush’ energy in the US is really just sixties ‘hate Nixon’ nostalgia.

  27. Bin Laden is not a threat to liberty at all. Bin Laden is a threat to *life*.

    Bin Laden slightly increases our risk of premature death. Bin Laden will not be throwing us in prison for exercising free speech or our right to bear arms. Bin Laden will not be listening in on our phone calls. Only our government is likely to do these things, using Bin Laden as a thin excuse (thin, because these things do not have any significant effect on the likelihood of successful terrorist attack).

  28. What if the terrorists are able to influence the state? It’s the same danger from the same manner of people. The rational versus the irrational.

  29. The gradual (and sometimes not-so-gradual) erosion of our freedom will not continue indefinitely.

    I see two possibilities:
    1. A wider public becomes aware of the dangers and uses votes and the courts to make a critical sea change.
    2. Someone misuses all of the powers given in a concerted effort to subvert the nation.

    The dangers of 2 are terrifying to imagine, but I fear that day is sooner than anyone can guess.

    Many seem to think that America will not let it’s freedoms go without a fight. Unfortunately, they are – on a daily basis.

    When Americans are used to losing freedoms for greater security, and enough damage has been done, then America will be ripe for the picking.

    It seems pretty obvious, however, that the only ones who get into power anymore are very similar to each other.

    When an American President misuses his power, it is unlikely to lead to Naziism.

    Someone of that bent is extremely unlikely to come to power in the US.

    Most likely, these powers will be misused to boost the US economy. To seize oil, for example. Or to impose control over emerging markets – one’s that interfere with current industries, such as music and movies.

    These industries are huge campaign donators – ensuring that outsiders are unlikely to get many votes.

    Don’t misunderstand my position.

    This is a very real threat – the US is almost totalitarian already, if you look closely.

    And the measures that are already in place are frightening in themselves if you think about it: for example, when the FBI decides to access library records to figure out what a person has been reading – it is now ILlegal for the librarian to inform anyone (including/especially the press). Plus the warrant doesn’t go through any kind of vetting process – to determine if the FBI actually have any case at all!

    How did that get into law? HAVE WE ALL BEEN SLEEPING?

    We all need to make a lot of noise. Even with the campaign-funders: let the RIAA know you won’t be purchasing while they are funding anti-freedom measures – they’re only in it for the money after all. Let the MPAA know that we don’t approve of Jack Valenti’s vision – and we will prove it with OUR money.

    I don’t see tanks rolling down the future streets of America, but I DO see the time when we will not be able to say these things in a digital medium like this…

  30. In a surprising twist, I must disagree with ESR. Bin Laden was created by un-Libertarian US foreign policy. Doesn’t anyone remember the FIRST time Bin Laden attacked the New York City World Trade Center? He loudly and repeatedly told people, anyone who would listen, exactly why he did it: Because the US military stationed troops in Saudi Arabia.

    Bin Laden is a symptom, not the disease. The only thing this war is creating is a lot more Bin Ladens.

    The LP response could not have been “strong” Libertarian at the time, because to state publicly that all foreign troops should be brought home, all bases closed, all coercive interventions in other countries business stopped, would have looked like the LP was endorsing Bin Laden’s act.

    The only defense to a distributed offense, such as “terrorism”, is a distributed one. That is exactly what the 2nd amendment is. Guess what, Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, and the rest of them, are a bigger threat than some nebulous “terrorism” because the terror they wield is real and right here. The other passengers in the planes used were disarmed and defenseless by a domestic disarmement law, vigerously enforced by those same people who say they want to “liberate” Iraq.

    The only difference between Al Quieda and the Bush Administration is the Bushites wear uniforms. (or suits and ties)


  31. Kevin Barlow seems to have no common sense whatsoever, as if he’s been isolated from the real world for most of his life. His ideas come across as strained and effete. It’s impossible to take him seriously.

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