I think there are three good reasons, and many bad reasons, to argue about politics. The first good reason is also the least important. It’s to convince the other guy, the one with whom you argue, of the validity of your views against his. The second reason is to persuade mostly passive spectators to join you and to forsake the views the other guy supports. The third reason to argue is to better understand your own views.
The first good reason is not very good. As you may have noticed, the other guy never breaks up the debate to say, “You are right; my viewpoint has been wrong, ill-thought out. I am joining your faction or your party.” Instead, when you succeed in influencing the other guy the fact comes out far from your presence. Mostly, you don’t even hear about it. Sometimes, it takes several years. I know this because it happened to me; once. I understood the validity of an interlocutor’s position ten years later. I tried to tell him but I couldn’t trace him.
The second reason to argue speaks for itself. It’s exploitive really but mutual exploitation is not really exploitation. Or, if the other guy is so simple that he does not understand that you are using him to influence others, you should not be arguing with him anyway. (Same thing as talking kindergartners out of their juice money, or really plain girls out of… well you can finish the thought.)
The third reason is by far the best. I don’t know exactly what I think until I have heard it coming from my mouth with great élan and yet sounding shockingly stupid. I am often vague in my own mind about what I believe to be true until someone else points out the absurdity of one variant of one particular interpretation of my vague belief. Often, others force me to tighten my arguments; sometimes, they force me to abandon them. Nearly always, opponents induce me to be more articulate. I respond well to partial failure, including partial failure to make my point. I know others who do too. Many of my students did although they denied it.
Those who more or less follow this blog will have noticed that frequently, I criticize the positions of Libertarians, that often, I get into arguments with individual libertarians who may or may not be Libertarians (and some who may be closet Libertarians). The arguments always revolve about military action. In every other way, I am close to very close to mainstream libertarian positions. Foreign policy and the desirability of bearing arms abroad are the only reason I cannot be a real libertarian. Those are not trivial reasons. I am quite sure there are tens of thousands like me, libertarian-leaning conservatives who think it’s not wise to espouse dogmatically pacifist positions. Libertarian theoreticians, by the way, will insist strongly that they are not pacifists. Their argument is based on tiny technicalities. Let me explain what I have come to understand as a result of my encounters with those people. First our crucial area of agreement about how things work. (I am repeating myself, I have said numerous times what I say just below.)
Every war expands the capacity, the importance, the reach of government, technically, the power of the state, relative to civil society. And every expansion of the state reduces the area left for individual freedom and for voluntary cooperative enterprise. It is rarely the case that an expansion of of the state is subsequently reversed. It follows form this succinct description that every libertarian should have a horror of war, completely aside from humanitarian pacifism. I share this sentiment.
My estrangement from mainstream libertarians and from Libertarians exists because of our different transition scenarios. I see differently, or I simply see in my mind’s eye and they don’t, the most likely process by which this society can move toward radically smaller government. I think there are two archetypes of transitions. The first one is the Somalia scenario: The organs of government fall apart of their own accord as a result of civil war or other catastrophes. I don’t want a society with small government hard enough to wish the Somalian fate upon American society.
The second scenario entails a democratic and probably gradual take-over of the organs of government by political forces that desire smaller government. We are seeing this possibility more clearly today, as I write, because of the Tea Party movement inside and outside of the Republican Party. Of course, such a peaceful take-over can only happen in a society that already enjoys constitutional government. Roughly, this means a society where elections are fair and honest and perceived to be so, where the overwhelming mass of the people abide by election results, and a society where courts are able to arbitrate decisively differences concerning election results. Obviously, the USA would be a good example of a society with constitutional government (excepting Chicago and New Orleans,of course)
If constitutional government is threatened, the likelihood of such a desirable transition is also threatened. Of course, an issue of proportionality arises here. It’s not the case that everytime a fool issues a threat against the Republic, the Republic is actually threatened. After all, Timothy McVay, a successful terrorist if there ever was one, failed absolutely to change the social order or the political order of this country. But take the 9/11 attack, another successful act of terrorism, in operational terms. It caused less than one tenth of the deaths that take place on American highways in a normal year. As I never tire of pointing out, by the way, about one half of highway deaths are connected to alcohol and therefore, completely avoidable. They are in fact a form of terrorism allowed by our collective passivity, if you will. ( I say that alcohol- related accidents are avoidable based on the following assumptions: If the first DUI were punishable by a lifetime driving prohibition and the second by a five- year prison sentence, you would quickly see the incidence of that behavior go down to near zero. This wouldn’t happen because drunk drivers would stop drinking but because they would stop driving as their friends would take away the keys. Others would have five years to dry up and reconsider. During those years, they wouldn’t kill anyone with a vehicle.) The 9/11 attack was very brilliantly organized which makes us forget how modest the means engaged were. I think I could have financed it entirely with a second mortgage on my house.
Is there anyone who doubts that the 9/11 cheap terrorist attack provoked deep and lasting disturbances in our economy? Is there anyone who doubts that such disturbances usually have grave political consequences even if no one can describe them well at the time? Is there any libertarian who does not believe that those political consequences severely undermine the credibility of arguments in favor of a weak state?
And more directly, isn’t it the case that spectacular and violent attacks against a society with constitutional government make more palatable security measures that depart from the society’s own constitutional tradition. Attacks, and even the threat of attacks, make citizens more attached to their state, more unconditionally attached to it and, accordingly, more willing to accept a measure of authoritarianism. I argue that successful attacks do more harm to the cause than do the measures taken to protect against such attacks. It’s useful to remember that the Patriot Act was a response, not a preventive measure.
And I have not forgotten the issue of assessing the credibility of threats against the Republic. I am only trying to establish that there exist threats that are credible enough to require actions protective of our constitutional arrangement. Such actions include pro-active measures abroad and the possibility of military attacks against a foreign entity. I am attentive to suggestions concerning the thesis that such actions are never necessary. Take good note of the fact that it’s the only thing I am trying to establish here. I am explicitly not arguing that the wars the US has fought were all necessary. There are wars of choice, such as the Vietnam War – that I opposed – and the liberation of Iraq – which I supported and still support. Yet, the fact that many politicians are wont to see snakes under every rock does not prove that there are no snakes under rocks.
The libertarian pacifist answer to this line of argument is dual. First, they seem to say: Attacks on the US, in general, and current attacks by Islamist terrorists, in particular, are merely responses to American own foreign policy. (I mean by “Islamist” simply that the terrorists involved declare that they do what they do in the name of Islam. I am obviously not qualified to judge the validity of their claim.) The absurdity of the “response” assertion is obvious if you make any effort to read the Islamists’ own abundant declarations. The response receives superficial support from the fact that Islamists also affirm that Islamist terrorism is a response to American and Western actions. That’s not all that they assert, however. It’s clear that we are the Great Satan, first of all because of who we are. We would be the Great Satan if there were not a single American soldier anywhere outside the US. Although the regretted Bin Laden had threatened the US in connection with American military presence in Saudi Arabia, the 9/11 attack took place after the US forces had vacated that country, not as a means to make them move. Notably Al Qaida and all of its local branches (which may be all that’s left of it, I understand), and the Islamic Republic of Iran have never offered the US conditional peace. Neither of these entities ever said, “You stay home and we will restrain any terrorist organization plotting against you.” They have made no such offer because it would destroy their very reason for being.
Libertarians who affect to believe that American actions constitute a perfect or near-perfect explanation for Islamist terrorism are just not serious, I think. It’s strange that many are well-informed people in every other way. I believe that their position if in fact anchored in stubborn, primitive, and presumptuous American isolationism dating back to the days when a warship took three weeks to arrive from Europe if it arrived at all, and when there were only en ships in all of Latin America . Those people are opposed to every proactive defense on foreign soil or even in international waters. They will tell you with a straight face (you can sometimes discern a straight face on Facebook!) that one should never direct a weapon at anyone unless one is actually attacked. Those are people whose idea of a constitutional war begins with a Pearl Harbor! And they will sometimes maintain that a joint resolution of Congress passed with a huge majority is not a proper declaration of war.
The psychological underpinning of this isolationism rests, it seems to me, in a distant and somewhat haughty 18th century view of the rest of the world. The rest of the world, un-America, in this perspective, is quarrelsome, petty, with strong criminal proclivities, fundamentally incapable of learning or of improving itself. This perspective nourishes a peculiar version of American exceptionalism made of 90% contempt. Those who hold it are often easy to spot because they rely excessively on the term “ Old World,” happily conflating the United Kingdom with Uzbekistan and Japan with Burkina Fasso.
And in this view lies the a crucial cultural difference between Left-liberal pacifism of the well-known type and the growing libertarian pacifism. Liberals profess to reject American military intervention abroad because of a strong myth of people of color’s virtuousness. According to this liberal myth, people of color, non-whites, seldom ever do anything wrong by any standard. When they do, as when they eat their neighbors, for example, it’s always somehow because of something or other that Westerners, Whites, usually Americans have dome to them, or to someone else. Or something. And then, of course, you shouldn’t do anything to them or in connection with them.
Libertarian pacifism has a significantly different basis that is almost the obverse of the first. It’s that the rest of the world is so fundamentally, irreversibly so awful that Americans must avoid it almost all costs. That position is qualified by an “almost” because there has to be room for when the outside world simply bombs one of your cities (Japan) or when it formally announces that it’s going to wage war on you (Germany).
The ethnocentrism underlying libertarian pacifism requires willful ignorance, not simply neglect of reality but clenched-jaws blindness. It’s obvious that in every continent and in especially large numbers in Europe, there are millions of people who share, on the whole, most of Americans’ wonderful virtues. Avoiding solidarity with such people is morally disgusting and strategically irresponsible. When they suffer, we suffer in short order. When they thrive, we thrive. The fewer of them there are the more vulnerable we are. Those who hate them want to kill us too. Just consider our collective disappointment at the electoral defeat of the secular and democratic forces in Egypt right now (December 2011). Are those Americans who are disappointed just being silly? Nevertheless, there are times when the avoidance of foreign entanglement is the only realistic stance, it’s true. But, erecting impotence as the main basis for principled collective action seems absurd.
The second thing I leaned from my interactions with libertarians severally defined (see above) is also the second basis of their adherence to the principle of non-intervention. Libertarians assert that non-intervention in the affairs of foreign countries is somehow a morally superior position. Whenever you argue about this matter with a libertarian, or if you listen to Republican candidate Congressman Ron Paul, you will hear a recurrent theme: We should mind our own business. The context always shows that “our” has a national definition. They don’t say that Presbyterians should not intervene in the affairs of Lutherans, or that Texans should leave Coloradans alone, or that football fans should not criticize basketball fans. (They might agree to all the above bye-the-bye but it’s not the point they make.) In fact, they are asserting unambiguously the moral position that Americans should not interfere with what goes one in foreign countries.
Most countries today are technically “nation-states,” that is, states based more or less on a single nation. The key word here is “state.” But remember that objecting to the existence of the state in general, or, at least wishing to see the importance of the state remain small vis-a-vis civil society is at the heart of libertarianisms of all breeds (mine included). So, suddenly, those who don’t like states put themselves in a position to defend the sanctity of the boundaries of that to which they object. Does this make sense?
They say in effect: We don’t want states because they are immoral but morality demands that states must be respected as if they were moral entities.
Incidentally, there is gross indifference, a massive lack of compassion also involved in this supposedly moral posture of non-intervention. This is puzzling because many libertarians are also, individually, Christians (although Christianity is not a necessary foundation of libertarianism ). The mental gymnastics to which Christian non-interventionists must subject themselves give me a headache. They have to pretend to believe, for example, that American military intervention in Bosnia where 10,000 civilians were killed in one city alone in the years 1992 to 1996 was a morally worse act than continued passivity would have been. They must force themselves to think that somehow things would have turned out better if America had let the massacre continue. Same thing with the subsequent use of American armed force in Kosovo to stop the completion of a genocide in progress there. Memory refresher: Serbian fascist dictator (formerly Communist dictator) Milosevic in the Fall of 1998 ordered all ethnic Albanian civilians who were citizens of Serbia to take to the roads and leave. They began to do so by their hundreds of thousands, which would unavoidably have led to the deaths of thousands of the aged, the sick, and small children. The US Air Force and Navy carrier planes eventually reversed this ethnic cleansing.
Non-interventionists must also think that the slaughter of between 500,000 and one million people in Rwanda in 1994, over only three months, would have been even worse had the US (or others) sent a dozen warplanes to bomb a single radio station directing the massacre. (The low estimate of the victims comes from the always cautious Human Rights Watch.) For me, it’s difficult to imagine much that would be worse than the attempted and largely successful violent liquidation of large minority of the population of a small country. By the same token, the continuing deadly ethnic cleansing of Darfur, in the Sudan, where rape is used systematically as a weapon of war, evokes only indifference among libertarians. By the way, the arguments for non-intervention in Rwanda, and now in Darfur, are such that it’s difficult not to think about racial prejudice: Black people in remote parts of Africa are eviscerating one another? What do you expect? That’s what they do!
In summary: You can’t seriously argue that the time to fight enemies is strictly only when they are on the beach in Malibu or in the New York City subway. You can’t be taken seriously, and you should not take yourself seriously, if you say one day that you want no more state and tomorrow that state boundaries are so sacred that they must not even be breached to stop the massacre of innocents
And no, I have not changed my mind: War, even the preparation for war, are inimical to the realization of a greater sphere of individual freedom. It’s a real dilemma, no question about it. I don’t see that libertarians will make much progress toward resolving it by pretending it’s not in the room with us, like a dinosaur.
And, as one of the Founding Fathers so aptly remarked: “ If we make ourselves into sheep, the wolves will eat us.” And that’s no individual freedom!