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,
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.)