Skip to comments.WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA POSTREL? Who speaks for libertarianism the Old Right or the Neocon Clones?
Posted on 04/08/2002 10:13:00 AM PDT by H.R. Gross
April 8, 2002
A note from the author: I apologize, in advance, for the sheer length of this column, but since it addresses the sell-out of basic libertarian principles by people and institutions who purport to speak in its name, I thought it important to address these questions thoroughly, with extensive quotations from those I name. Too bad, in attacking Antiwar.com, these pathetic losers didn't do the same but then what can one expect from craven opportunists, like, for example, Virginia Postrel .
Virginia Postrel, guru of the "dynamist" trend in libertarianism, and ex-editor of Reason magazine, has long used her website as a kind of pulpit to correct the old, "static" libertarian movement and encourage a new generation of properly dynamic Bright Young Things. The latest is one Brink Lindsey, whom, she notes, has written
"A long important post on the 'antiwar' libertarians who are fast becoming anti-American, even anti-market, cozying up to people like Gore Vidal and Pat Buchanan ('Fast becoming' makes this seem like a newer phenomenon than it is. Actually, it's decades-old.) Brink explains the phenomenon and its flaws well."
Before we continue with more of Postrel's posturing, please note the sardonic quotation marks adorning "antiwar" as if the confluence of peace and liberty is almost too absurd to contemplate. Gee, that's strange, since every libertarian theoretician of note, from Ludwig von Mises to Murray Rothbard to the classical liberals has noted that war is inimical to liberty, both personal and economic, and that peace is the essential prerequisite of a free society. What universe does this woman live in?
I should also note that this business about "cozying up to Gore Vidal" refers to an upcoming event put on by the Independent Institute, a free market thinktank headquartered in Oakland, California, featuring Gore Vidal as a guest speaker on the subject of "Understanding America's Terrorist Crisis: What Should be Done?" I strongly suspect that bit about Buchanan was an oblique reference to me, as I spent much of the year 2000 extolling the virtues of his foreign policy views, and even made the opening nominating speech at the Reform Party's infamous Long Beach convention: but apparently I am too lowly for the mighty Postrel to even acknowledge, although she is counting on the fact that everyone will know whom she is talking about.
"Fundamentally, these libertarians are less interested in creating, maintaining, and defending free societies than they are in destroying states, any states, never mind what replaces them. Hence, Murray Rothbard, the intellectual source of much of this worldview, notoriously rejoiced at the fall of Saigon, because it represented the end of a state as if anarchist utopia followed."
To begin with, Postrel is lying about the content of Rothbard's 1975 article, "Death of a State." What she is hoping is that no one will check : after all, how long would it take to ferret out the article? (Not long, if, like me, you happen to have the collected works of Rothbard sitting on your bookshelf). But there are grounds for suspicion: note that she doesn't quote directly from the piece, but merely paraphrases. Here is what Rothbard actually said:
The "sudden and total collapse" of the South Vietnamese government, he wrote, illustrates a point made by David Hume and Ludwig von Mises, namely that
"No matter how bloody or despotic any State may be, it rests for its existence in the long run (and not so long run) on the 'voluntary servitude (as [Etienne] La Boetie first phrased it) of its victims. . . .of course, the process does not now usher in any sort of libertarian Nirvana, since another bloody state is in the process of taking over. But the disintegration remains, and offers us many instructive lessons."
Postrel, in short, is full of it. Rothbard was merely isolating a particular phenomenon, and analyzing its implications, not hailing a Communist victory, as she shamelessly implies. She is, in short, a liar.
A CREED OF DESTRUCTION?
Likewise, she is either lying, or deluded, in likening antiwar libertarians to subversive and somewhat sinister nihilists intent on "destroying states," all states everywhere. If we were, indeed, narrowly focused on this creed of destruction, then certainly we would be in the vanguard of the War Party along with Ms. Postrel eagerly awaiting the dissolution of the Iraqi state under a rain of American bombs.
THE POSTRELIAN AGENDA
What's behind such brazen misrepresentations? There's an agenda at work here, and it has to do with the post-cold war divisions on the Right that have pitted neoconservatives ex-leftists and liberals turned ostensibly conservative against those who represent an older tradition, the "paleoconservatives" who harken back to the "isolationist" traditions of conservative anti-imperialism. After the cold war ended, many libertarians (notably Rothbard and Llewellyn H. Rockwell, of the Ludwig von Mises Institute) forged a working alliance with the old-style conservatives and even "reactionaries" grouped around the Rockford Institute and Chronicles magazine. Pat Buchanan Ms. Postrel's bete noir: a symbol, for her, of all that is "reactionary" and evil figured prominently among these "paleos," in particular for his principled and very visible opposition to the first Gulf War. In her own words:
"Such anti-state libertarians often slip very quickly into alliances with the anti-trade, anti-immigration, anti-cosmopolitan reactionaries of the left and right. They imagine that at some golden age in the past, their perfect world existed until it was ruined by foreigners, industry, abolitionists, or some other force of change."
Unlimited immigration, Big Business, and Sherman's march through Georgia were these Forces of Change really the locomotives of economic and personal liberty in America?
THE 'DYNAMIST' DISPENSATION
This is not a question to ask the author of The Future and its Enemies, who sternly divides the history of ideas into two camps: those doddering obscurantists who are for "stasis" and the hip, fully-wired young know-it-alls like herself, who have made a religion out of modernity.
Replacing the more ascetic, less self-infatuated individualism of an earlier era of the with the narcissism of the nineties, Reason under Postrel's stewardship steered away from the bread-and-butter economic issues that had built and sustained it under the venerable Robert W. Poole, and concentrated much of its attention on social issues: drugs, homosexuality, and wowie-zowie technology worship. Under Postrel's tutelage, Reason gradually became an ideological sideshow a weird combination of High Times and Astounding Stories, touting drug legalization and the virtues of cloning yes, cloning! as the signature issues of the libertarian ethos.
DOWN THE SLIPPERY SLOPE
Under Poole's editorship, there had been some debate on specific foreign policy issues, but most of the writers, at least in the early years, maintained the classic libertarian stance: non-intervention in the affairs of other nations, and general opposition to the US military action abroad. This began to change, under Postrel: Reason supported the Gulf war editorially, and, while trenchant pieces critiquing the radical internationalism of the neoconservatives still appeared in its pages, by the time she left, last year, and handed over the reins to Nick Gillespie (an even more self-consciously hip clone of herself), the magazine was running rabidly pro-war tracts indistinguishable in tone and quality from a New York Post editorial for example, this laughable screed by Jonathan Rauch where the author wrongly (and without a lick of evidence) fingered Saddam Hussein as the perpetrator of the anthrax-by-mail terrorist attacks. How disappointed Rauch and the editors of Reason must have been when it turned out to be one of our own government scientists who the FBI still refuses to accuse, never mind arrest.
A POSTRELIAN FOREIGN POLICY
Her "dynamist" creed change good, "stasis" bad doesn't offer much guidance on foreign policy issues: a "dynamist consensus," she once averred in a speech, "would not tell us what to do about Bosnia." This incapacity, however, didn't stop her from writing an article calling on the US to arm (and presumably train) the Bosnians exactly what Osama bin Laden was doing at the time.
In this piece on Bosnia, she expands on a general theory of US hegemony that closely resembles the infamous memorandum of (now deputy defense secretary) Paul Wolfowitz, in which he called on the US to adopt a policy that would preemptively strike against any power that threatened its regional supremacy anywhere on earth: Wolfowitz, eminence grise of the ultra-interventionist faction in the Bush administration, gained attention, in early 1992, when his memo was leaked to the New York Times. In it, he posited a new post-cold war military build-up predicated on the idea that the US must:
"Endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power. These regions include Western Europe, East Asia, the territory of the former Soviet Union, and Southwest Asia."
The world would no longer consist of a preminent superpower and several regional powers: instead of being a mere superpower, the US would ascend in rank and aspire to the role of what the French call a "hyperpower," a global hegemon preeminent in every region. Now that Wolfowitz and his neoconservative buddies are in power, ensconced not only in the Defense Department but in the White House, this militant vision is being implemented, first of all, in the Middle East. As the Bushies get ready to ride to the sound of the guns, and the War Party is advocating the military occupation not only of Iraq but also Saudi Arabia and even Syria, Postrel's formulation of a proper US foreign policy sounds positively Wolfowitzian. Here is Postrel:
"In the post-Cold War era, U.S. interests lie in preventing the rise of expansionist despotic powers. This strategic goal distinguishes between countries that threaten their neighbors and those that do not. It recognizes the importance to the world, and to U.S. citizens, not of maintaining the stability of regimesthe road from despotism to liberalism leads through instability but of containing aggressive oppressors."
And by "aggressive oppressors," you can be sure she doesn't mean the Israelis.
THE 'LIBERTARIAN' WING OF THE WAR PARTY
As the Israeli "Defense Force" carries out a bloody and brutal pogrom in Palestine, and George W. Bush sets his sights on Iraq, Postrel and her neocon clones have signed on as the ostensibly "libertarian" platoon of the War Party. Their proclaimed goal is to "save" libertarianism from us "disreputable" types, and convert it into a druggie we-love-cloning subset of neoconservatism with only an inchoate foreign policy stance. As neoconservative warhawk Daniel Pipes once wrote in reply to William Niskanen of the libertarian Cato Institute: "Stick to the economic analyses you do so well and leave foreign policy to others" those "others" being the ultra-interventionist, fanatically pro-Israel wing of the conservative movement.
Postrel sees the proper role of libertarians in wartime as too important to be left to the likes of people like, uh, me: libertarians have to ask "unpopular questions," like why should John Ashcroft have the right to bust into homes and offices and round up whomever he likes (but not too unpopular, like "what are we fighting for?"):
"Those questions are a lot harder to take seriously from people who hate America or encourage those who doand who dream of a static, stateless utopia."
Who hates America? How are these nameless errant souls encouraging "those who do" and who are they, anyway? That's why they call it a smear. The mudslinger doesn't have to offer any evidence, or even a link, a citation not anything. They just have to concoct the dirtiest, slimiest mudball, preferably one with a rock at its center, and fling it as hard as they can the results are guaranteed every time, because at least some of the grime will stick to its target. And, who knows, maybe that rock will knock them out of action for a while. So that the next time someone hears about antiwar libertarians, the politically correct response will be: Oh, you mean those anarcho-nihilist subversives who hate America?
ON THE BRINK
Brink Lindsey, author of Against the Dead Hand, and a fellow at the Cato Institute, unlike the arrogant Postrel, deigns to mention antiwar.com, although he insists on putting the name of our sponsoring organization the Center for Libertarian Studies (CLS) in ironic quotes. But the Center has been around for 35 years: its founding preceded that of the Cato Institute by a full decade. CLS was supporting libertarian scholarship and publishing libertarian giants like Murray Rothbard, Roy Childs, Walter Block, and others, when Lindsey was in swaddling clothes and, barring any unforeseen catastrophe, will continue to do so. Nonetheless, an air of smug self-satisfaction suffuses his critique of the libertarian wing of the antiwar movement. Of course, a real critique is not what we get from Mr. Lindsey. Instead, we get the strange accusation of "America-hating," again, similarly focused on the devil-figure of Gore Vidal:
"Here's a real eye-popper. The Independent Institute is a Bay Area libertarian think tank which claims as members of its Board of Advisors such libertarian luminaries as Nobel laureate James Buchanan, Richard Epstein, Charles Murray, and Walter Williams. On April 18, the institute is sponsoring a forum entitled 'Understanding America's Terrorist Crisis: What Should Be Done?' The moderator is none other than Harper's editor Lewis Lapham, who has condemned the war on terror as an 'American jihad' in the pages of his magazine. And who is the featured speaker? The King of All America Haters, Gore Vidal himself!"
Vidal is among the greatest of our novelists, a writer whose works, gathered together end to end, depict the vast panorama of American history in all its dramatic sweep and grandeur. To call him an "America Hater" is a statement of such extraordinary stupidity that it is hard to fathom what could possibly motivate it but willful ignorance and malice. Unless, of course, one knows that Gore Vidal is the great devil figure of the neocons, a man who has been marked for all time because once scornfully averred that Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter, two prominent neoconservatives, had made "common cause with the lunatic fringe" (i.e. conservatives)
"To scare Americans into spending gargantuan sums for a military buildup against the sclerotic Soviets and in order to secure an unlimited amount of aid to Israel."
Vidal wrote this way back in 1986, in The Nation, and looking at the public pronouncements of these two since that time, his prognosis seems pretty accurate to me particularly his remarks that they amount to little more than "fifth columnists," far more interested in Israel than in their own country. One has only to note the Podhoretzian-neocon display of anger at our President's attempt to rein in the rampaging Israeli army to see that Vidal was absolutely right. In any case, Podhoretz pulled his usual act and replied that Vidal's piece was "perhaps the most blatantly anti-Semitic article to have appeared in a respectable American periodical since World War II." The battle was joined, and Mr. Lindsey continues where Podhoretz left off:
"What is going on? What's wrong with these people? One can dismiss particular individuals or groups as disreputable or crankish, but the fact is that anti-war views similar to those held by the loonie left are not uncommon among libertarians these days."
What's "wrong" with "these people" namely, the heroic David Theroux, a principled and dedicated libertarian and president of the Independent Insitute is that they don't take dictation from Poddy and his Pod-people, they don't get fat grants from neocon foundations, and they don't consider Israel differently from any other Third World socialist hellhole. That may be shocking to Mr. Lindsey, but then he'll just have to learn to live with it.
Justin must be looking in the mirror.
Nice whine. She happens to be able to produce a lucid, coherent column. You could learn a lot from her.
I apologize, in advance, for the sheer length of this column
I see you still go for quantity over quality.
"It is of course true that in Vietnam and Cambodia, one State has been immediately displaced by another--not surprisingly, since the Communist-led insurgents are scarcely anarchists or libertarians. But States exist everywhere; there is nothing remarkable in that. What is inspiring to libertarians is to see the final and swift disintegration of a State."--source
If I could find the rest of the article, I'd post it.
Libertarians praise markets for dispensing with brute force and state coercion and leftists attack them for reflecting unequal distributions of wealth and influence, but it should be recognize that markets themselves can be great reservoirs of power that shape the development of the world.
Historically, it's taken states to create wider and more powerful markets. Governments suppress pirates and bandits, break down local and guild trade restrictions, open up countries to foreign commerce and investment, enforce contracts and promote commercial codes, and guarantee returns to capital and labor. It's perhaps true that much of this could be done by private firms and voluntary associations, but that appears to be a later development. Before such wider markets are created, voluntary associations are usually confined in caste, tribe and clan limits. A private firm or voluntary association that did take on roles in opening foreign markets could also be seen as exercising state functions.
Anyway, I think this is where Postrel is coming from. She wants to create the great, unlimited empire of freedom for autonomous individuals. She is impatient with all local groups that want to opt out of this "great society." And she doesn't have much of a problem with using power, including state power to construct, preserve and extend the global free trade zone and the empire of liberty.
The other side in this controversy, the paleolibertarians, is at a crossroads. Just what are you for? Is it the traditional liberties of Americans? As exercised in traditional political institutions? Or are you aiming at breaking up the nation in favor of smaller units? This may look to some like a return to what is truly American and truly libertarian, but annulling 200 years of American history seems like a strange way to be truly American.
The paleolibertarians seem to represent those who wish to opt out of larger political units and perhaps of the global market as well and to legislate according to their own beliefs and preferences. All the libertarian arguments against state power can be applied to state efforts to restrict the force of markets. Efforts by such breakaway states to restrict individual liberties are also likely to be condemned by libertarians.
One can sympathize with some secessionists efforts, but supporting them is another matter: what heed did Jefferson Davis give to the rights of those who didn't fit into his core constituency? Can one unequivocally label efforts at getting local elites their own independent states to legislate over as they wish a victory for liberty?
The secessionist idea looks like a great folly. The break-up of larger states into smaller ones which represent smaller groups or narrower ideologies which oppose each other absolutely doesn't look like a boon to individual freedom. And it's to be expected that at some point a unit will resist the process of breakup. Conflict results, and the cycle of conquest and repression resumes.
The question that needs to be asked is whether the secessionist idea really advances liberty or simply changes the context from economic liberty, or action through political institutions, or apolitical freedom of choice to the replacement of larger by smaller political units.
So it looks as though "libertarianism" is bound to break up over the question of individual versus group freedom or autonomy or self-determination. The side that chooses individual freedom of choice or self-fulfillment for the average or exceptional person is often apt to support efforts to expand that realm of individual freedom even to areas where most people don't accept libertarian ideology. And the side that favors the independence and self-determination of political units won't always support the advance and extention of the empire of individual liberty.
While I disagree with Postrel's policy recommendations, it does look to me like she is more in synch with the pulse of American libertarianism. Its momentum, and that of the country seems to be more inclined to dissolve smaller units into the global market and universal zone of individual freedom, than to support resisting local and regional cultures at the expense of the growth of the market and individual choice.
There is something of value in paleoconservative ideas and values, but the endless paleolibertarian mucking around with lost causes and their mystique tends to alienate people whose concern is with America, and not with this or that radical secessionist movement.
No kidding. It pretty wierd to see them blast FDR one minute, and turn right around on another thread and embrace government policies and agencies that exist only because he was successful in perverting the Commerce Clause and implementing the New Deal.
There must be more divisions. The more hawkish Freepers among us don't strike me as ex-leftists or ex-liberals. There are people who have been conservatives since day who are 'pro-war.'
"Virginia Postrel, guru of the "dynamist" trend in libertarianism, and ex-editor of Reason magazine, has long used her website as a kind of pulpit to correct the old, "static" libertarian movement and encourage a new generation of properly dynamic Bright Young Things..." - Justin RaimondoFor an opposing viewpoint, listen to Virginia on the Hugh Hewitt radio show, or visit her website:
Are there as many factions of libertarianism as there are in conservatism? I ask because I thought that the majority of libertarians were pretty much on the same page.
Or buy her book and read it. The book is very easy to read.That would be THIS book?
From Editorial Reviews - Amazon.com :
Virginia Postrel smashes conventional political boundaries in this libertarian manifesto. World-views should be defined not by how they view the present, she says, but the future. Do they aim to control it, as many conservative reactionaries and liberal planners want to do? Or do they embrace it, even though they can't know what lies ahead? Postrel (editor of Reason magazine) firmly places herself in this latter category--the dynamists, she calls her happy tribe--and urges the rest of us to sign up. The future of economic prosperity, technological progress, and cultural innovation depends upon embracing principles of choice and competition. The downside of this philosophy, Postrel readily notes, is that it doesn't allow us to manage tomorrow by acting today. And that's exactly the point: we shouldn't want to. A future constructed by an infinite number of individual decisions, made privately, is one she believes we should encourage. The Future and Its Enemies is at once intellectually sweeping and reader-friendly; it has the potential to join a pantheon of books about freedom that includes works by Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. --John J. Miller
The Wall Street Journal, Daniel J. Silver
...a pointed and provocative cultural critique. She argues that if Americans do not meet the future in the proper spirit, we will miss its benefits--or be run over by it.
1) Minarchists -- Those who believe in strictly (not to mention severely) limited government.
2) Anarchists -- That is, anarchocapitalists, who believe that all "services" presently provided by government can be provided by the private sector, including defense.
But these two groups are not really relevant, not since the early 1970s, when the two groups in the Libertarian Party decided to call a truce and agree to disagree. But that just meant that the factions took on different colorations:
1) The "Berglandistas" -- This is the group centered, originally, around David Bergland, the LP Presidential candidate in 1984. This group inherited the LP after the Cato group left. Ideologically orthodox.
2) Cato Institute -- This group used to be associated with the LP, but left in 1983, after a tumultuous party convention at which their candidate for President (Earl Ravenal) lost by 3 votes. Ideologically chamleon-like, and obsessed with "respectability," these guys are sell-outs.
3) The Objectivists -- Followers of Ayn Rand. These guys are loony, for the most part, and one could make the argument that they are a cult. They are also fractured into at least 2 mutually antagonistic groups. The splits are supposedly over ideology, but of course it's all personalities.... Oh, and by the way, they hate the libertarians.
4) The Galambosians -- Followers of the late Andrew J. Galambos, who believed ... well, nobody can say what they believe because a central tenet of Galambosianism is that people OWN their ideas, and you don't have the right to repeat them unless you PAY them. So, aside from this one tenet, not much is known about the Galambos philosophy ....
5) The Anti-Party "left" libetarians -- These are people who refused to join the Libertarian Party when it was organized, back in the 1970s, and haven't done much of anything since ... except, of course, criticize the LP.
6) The various factions in the Libertarian Party are beyond my scope, since I am no longer active in LP circles. However, based on past experience, you can be sure there are at least several....
7) Finally, there are the Rothbardians. These are followers of the late economist-philosopher Murray N. Rothbard, author of many books and the original founder of the Cato Institute. He split with Cato in 1983, and with the LP in the late 80s. Rothbardians are radical anti-statists, "isolationist" in foreign policy, and look to their Old Right heritage in the conservative movement prior to the cold war. The Ludwig von Mises Institute, in Auburn, Alabama, is the Rothbardian thinktank. Antiwar.com is directly inspired by Rothbard.
I'm sure I've left a lot out -- I describe a new, pro-war neocon-dominated faction in the above article -- but this should serve as a broad outline.
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