Bizarro ‘Libertarianism’

by , July 19, 2007

Noted libertarian legal scholar Randy Barnett’s pro-war manifesto – which aims to reconcile classical liberalism and neoconservative foreign policy adventurism, and attacks Ron Paul for opposing the Iraq war – will doubtless go down in the history of the freedom movement as the founding document of Bizarro libertarianism, a misshapen byproduct of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. According to my theory, the sheer force of the World Trade Center’s collapse tore a hole in the space-time continuum, with the result that we slipped into an alternate universe – Bizarro World – where up is down, right is left, and mass murder is the apotheosis of pure liberty.

Barnett isn’t the first and won’t be the last such victim of 9/11 Derangement Syndrome, but he is certainly the most prominent libertarian to succumb. His distinguished scholarly career – or, perhaps, not that distinguished – is his entrée into the pages of the War Street Journal. Notwithstanding any of that, his ideological evolution from anarcho-capitalist [.pdf] and disciple of Lysander Spooner, as channeled by Murray Rothbard, to state-legitimating author of Restoring the Lost Constitution: The Presumption of Liberty – which argues against Spooner and makes the case for a "libertarian" statism in which the federal government may impose "liberty" on the states – is a journey that sounds awfully familiar to students of recent intellectual history. The neoconservatives, who started out on the Trotskyist Left and wound up recanting and spinning ever-more-elaborate and extreme arguments against their former views, long ago embarked on a similar odyssey.

Bizarro libertarianism, it turns out, is merely a subspecies of neoconservatism, albeit without the leftist history, and Barnett exhibits the telltale characteristics we have all come to know and hate. The neocons, whatever their particular stripe, are united in their methodology and their inimitable style, which relies heavily on a characteristically neoconnish condescension:

"While the number of Americans who self-identify as ‘libertarian’ remains small, a substantial proportion agree with the core stances of limited constitutional government in both the economic and social spheres – what is sometimes called ‘economic conservatism’ and ‘social liberalism.’ But if they watched the Republican presidential debate on May 15, many Americans might resist the libertarian label, because they now identify it with strident opposition to the war in Iraq, and perhaps even to the war against Islamic jihadists."

The Bizarro libertarians would, naturally, have an extreme aversion to Ron Paul: the Good Doctor is their kryptonite. Just like Bizarro Superman and the real Superman were deadly enemies, so the lapsed libertarians of Barnett’s ilk are driven mad by the mere sight of Paul standing up to the thuggish Giuliani and insisting on a reality-based assessment of U.S. foreign policy. Rather than ask why or how Ron Paul got such a lot of mileage out of this encounter, Barnett resorts to the typical neocon ploy of writing his own alternate-universe narrative, in which Giuliani’s widely mocked and effectively skewered grandstanding was a great victory for the War Party and its candidate: "It was an electrifying moment that allowed one to imagine Mr. Giuliani as a forceful, articulate president." Another Great Leader is born, and the former anarcho-capitalist is "electrified."

On the other hand, Barnett finds profoundly disturbing the sight of Dr. Paul upholding the traditional libertarian opposition to wars of aggression:

"One striking feature of Mr. Paul’s debate performance was his insistence on connecting his answer to almost every question put to him – even friendly questions about taxes, spending and personal liberty – to the war. This raised the question: Does being a libertarian commit one to a particular stance toward the Iraq war? The simple answer is ‘no.’"

If a war is costing us over a trillion dollarsso far – with no end in sight, then isn’t it inextricably linked to the issue of taxes and spending? This isn’t rocket science: you don’t need scholarly credentials to understand the connection. Wars cost money. More wars mean higher and more onerous taxes and economic regulations, as Robert Higgs has definitively shown. As for the link between personal liberty and war – can someone who has set up a Web site devoted to Lysander Spooner fail to see it? The simple answer is "no."

But that’s what Bizarro libertarianism is all about: inverting the original principles of the freedom philosophy and using the resulting ideological construct to destroy what little liberty we have left – as well as killing many thousands in the process.

Barnett acknowledges that "skepticism" of an interventionist foreign policy is rooted in libertarian first principles, yet, tellingly, he never alludes to any moral objections to war as mass murder by the state. Oh yes, there may be "blowback" if we invade Transluchistan and kill 100,000 Transluchis: the relatives of the victims will hate us forever. But will we hate ourselves? This question never seems to occur to the learned professor, although it did and does occur to the overwhelming majority of libertarians. Barnett, however, is too busy inventing his alternate universe of pro-war libertarians, who, contra Ron Paul, cheered on Bush’s war because

"They viewed it as part of a larger war of self-defense against Islamic jihadists who were organizationally independent of any government. They viewed radical Islamic fundamentalism as resulting in part from the corrupt dictatorial regimes that inhabit the Middle East, which have effectively repressed indigenous democratic reformers. Although opposed to nation-building generally, these libertarians believed that a strategy of fomenting democratic regimes in the Middle East, as was done in Germany and Japan after World War II, might well be the best way to take the fight to the enemy rather than solely trying to ward off the next attack."

Barnett does not bother naming these alleged libertarians, unless Bernard Lewis and Norman Podhoretz are now to be considered stalwarts of the movement, but there were a few. I say "were" because they have nearly all since recanted their positions. Barnett is one of the last "libertarian" pro-war dead-enders.

Barnett’s delusions don’t end there, however: his invocation of the neocons’ favorite rhetorical ploy – the World War II analogy – is a definitive symptom of 9/11 Derangement Syndrome. To somehow imagine Osama bin Laden’s scattered army of underground conspirators holed up in a cave somewhere is the equivalent of the Wehrmacht, which conquered a good deal of the Eurasian landmass and a large swathe of Africa, is a hallucination commonly suffered by many neocons. The sheer absurdity of it is breathtaking, but perhaps intellectuals of a certain sort are prone to this sort of extravagant error. Exaggeration, it seems, is an occupational hazard of the intellectual class, one that ideologues of all sorts are prone to. Barnett is a classic case.

The War Party finds such people very useful: look at Christopher Hitchens, who has made a career out of his warmongering. He’s the War Party’s resident "leftist," and now Barnett has taken on the job of providing some libertarian-sounding phrases to justify a war against an enemy that had never attacked the U.S. and posed no credible threat to our national security. Of course, our professor of legal theory has come up with a lawyer’s justification for the war, as follows:

"Moreover, the pro-war libertarians believed there was ‘legal’ cause to take military action against Saddam’s regime – from its manifold violations of the cease-fire to firing on American planes legally patrolling the ‘no fly’ zone and its persistent refusals to cooperate with weapons inspections. Saddam’s regime was left in power after its unprovoked invasion of Kuwait on these and other conditions that it repeatedly had violated, thereby legally justifying its removal by force if necessary. Better to be rid of Saddam and establish an ally in the war against Islamic jihadists in the heart of the Middle East, the argument goes, and then withdraw American troops."

Are "libertarians" really invoking the UN – that worldwide conclave of governments, most of which are barely "democratic" and none of which are "liberal" in Barnett’s sense of the term – in order to rationalize this futile war? Tell me it ain’t so! Not for nothing has Ron Paul sponsored legislation to get us out of the UN, which has been used as a front for wars of aggression ever since the Korean conflict. But I guess if you’re a former anarcho-capitalist who has made a career out of legitimizing the state, glamorizing the UN is a piece of cake.

How on earth did we get from upholding property rights and positing a social theory based on non-coercive relationships to enforcing "no-fly zones" around the world? According to the principles of Bizarro libertarianism, the U.S. had a perfect right to decide what "conditions" would forestall an American invasion, and it also possessed the right to unilaterally decide if those conditions had been violated – a "libertarian" theory of international law that is remarkable for its complete lack of any basis in logic, law, or the principles of human liberty.

As for establishing "an ally in the war against Islamic jihadists in the heart of the Middle East" – what we succeeded in establishing is a state whose police are in collusion with those very jihadists: these days, gunfights between U.S. troops and Iraqi police are not uncommon. A government that resembles, in its ideological orientation and general mode of operation, the mullahcracy that prevails in Iran now rules parts of the country, while the rest is divided up between various tribal chieftains, the Kurds, and the Sunni insurgents, including a small minority of al-Qaeda-inspired militants. Where is this "ally" we were supposed to have acquired? It exists only in the imagination of Barnett, and perhaps his fellow dead-ender, Reason magazine’s Ron Bailey.

What gets me, however, is the very last phrase of the above-cited quote:

"Better to be rid of Saddam and establish an ally in the war against Islamic jihadists in the heart of the Middle East, the argument goes, and then withdraw American troops."

Oh really? Were Barnett and his fellow liber-hawks so naïve as to think the occupation of Iraq would come to an end as soon as Bush declared "mission accomplished"? Surely this would be the first such government program that would not be unnaturally prolonged on account of political pressure from special interests. It’s hard to believe that Barnett actually believed that the U.S. Army would march in there and then, after the country ran out of rose petals to strew in the path of its liberators, march right back out again. Surely even the most absent-minded professor would realize, after giving the matter even a moment’s thought, that we would have to deal with the prospect of an insurgency against the occupation, based on the well-known antipathy for foreign invaders shown by all conquered peoples throughout history. In any event, what about the "war against the jihadists" that seems to preoccupy Barnett to the exclusion of all else? Would we just abandon it and go home?

If you have swallowed enough of the neocon Kool-Aid, however, it is possible to believe anything – even that there is a chance the war in Iraq will "succeed." Barnett does not disappoint us:

"Naturally, the libertarians who supported the war in Iraq are disappointed, though hardly shocked, that it was so badly executed. The Bush administration might be faulted, not so much for its initial errors which occur in any war against a determined foe who adjusts creatively to any preconceived central ‘plan,’ but for its dogged refusal to alter its approach – and promptly replace its military commanders as President Lincoln did repeatedly – when it became clear that its tactics were not working. This prolonged delay gave the enemy time to better organize its resistance and, perhaps most important, demoralized those Americans who had initially supported the war but who needed to see continued progress toward victory to maintain their support."

The "mistakes were made" line is particularly grotesque coming as it does from an alleged libertarian, who doesn’t deign to mention the cost in human lives: all that matters is the disappointment of Barnett and his confreres – which, of course, is rooted not in the nature and inherent hubris of the neocons’ Middle East project, but in the president’s failure to fire military officers who saw the disaster coming. It isn’t just the "tactics that are not working" – the entire strategy of invading a country in the heart of the Middle East that would become a model democracy and inspire "liberal" revolutions throughout the region was a cruel joke from the start. Unfortunately, the joke was and is on the Iraqi people, who are the victims in all this: apparently, by Barnett’s lights, they haven’t suffered quite enough. He and his fellow warmongers aren’t quite finished with them yet. They are "rooting for success" and "military victory" because it would make us "safer" – and never mind that every expert has said we are merely doing bin Laden’s recruiting for him. Never mind, too, those ominous reports of increased "chatter" about another terrorist strike in the U.S. Barnett can always blame Ron Paul for that, too.

Barnett’s screed is a jumble of ignorance – the man clearly hasn’t even the most elementary knowledge of the Middle East – and clumsy evasions. He never even acknowledges the outright lies that led us to become involved in this rotten war: in the Bizarro World inhabited by Barnett and his confederates, the history of deception and outright falsification of "intelligence" by this administration never happened. All that went wrong was that the implementation of the neocons’ grandiose vision was botched by a president who wasn’t enough like Lincoln – you know, the famously "libertarian" president who jailed his political opponents, banned antiwar newspapers, and burned Atlanta to the ground.

For an encore, will Barnett invoke the "libertarian" shade of FDR to justify an all-out invasion of the Middle East – starting, perhaps, with Iran? After all, the "liberation" of Iraq worked out so well, surely this time around Barnett and his "libertarian" friends will do all in their power to make sure the White House gets this one right.

It’s perfectly understandable that the War Party would put up this "libertarian" shill for their indefensible and rapidly failing policies – and that his primary target is Ron Paul. The War Party is empowered as long as the people have to choose between war and economic and social freedom, on the one hand, and peace coupled with economic and social regimentation, on the other. Ron Paul transcends the Left-Right pardigm that has bedeviled American politics and kept our political system under the War Party’s heel – and the neocons hate him for it.

The Paul campaign gives Americans the opportunity to choose between keeping their old republic or exchanging it for dreams of a worldwide empire. That scares the neocons – and with good reason.

The world war against "jihadism" and the military occupation of much of the Middle East would fatally undermine the classical liberal vision ostensibly upheld by Barnett. We can launch a world war, in which countries are invaded, occupied, and reconstructed from scratch, or we can have smaller government, low taxes, and a country where civil liberties are not privileges but inviolable rights. We cannot have both. Eventually, Barnett will be forced to choose – and, considering the arguments he makes in his War Street Journal piece, it looks like he has already chosen. The crux of his argument is that libertarians can disagree on how to conduct a war, once we’ve been attacked – but Barnett seems blissfully unaware that a "strategy" of invading the Middle East and seeking to subjugate it, in the name of "democracy" and "liberalism," is (like all interventionist measures, domestic and foreign) having the exact opposite of its intended result. Doesn’t he read the newspapers? Doesn’t he know that Iraq is melting down and threatening to drag the entire region down with it? Yet he cries for more – more!

Bizarro libertarianism has few followers and even fewer hopes of taking the movement by storm. What it does do, however, is act to counter the authentic article, as represented by Ron Paul. This shows the Paul campaign is having an impact – and that the War Party is running scared. That’s why it’s useful to keep Bizarro libertarians around, where they can harmlessly theorize upon how to privatize every garbage can in America and pontificate about how we only have to legalize drugs, permit cloning, and institutionalize gay marriage and we’ll be living in a libertarian utopia. If and when a real, live libertarian arises – one who opposes the regime and threatens the foreign policy status quo – the War Party can always trot out these phonies, who will then set the record straight as to the "true" meaning of libertarianism.

It won’t work. The genie is already out of the bottle. If Barnett and his fellow shills want to run up the banner of imperialist "libertarianism," then their much-vaunted disappointment over the outcome of the war is bound to increase. Ron Paul is the authentic voice of the libertarian movement, and Barnett’s whining is not about to drown it out.

Read more by Justin Raimondo