Libya, Libertarianism, and the Legacy of Lanny Friedlander

This [Sunday] morning, meandering around the Internet, I happened upon the news that Lanny Friedlander, who founded Reason magazine in 1968, had died in a Veterans Administration hospital, largely forgotten by the modern libertarian movement he did so much to create. This hit home in a way that I can only describe as eerie: for a moment, I was the young teenager who’d gotten a long distance phone call from Lanny – long distance was a big deal back then! – on the occasion of Reason‘s first issue, the debut of which was imminent. 

I never actually met Lanny, being too young to travel on my own to faraway Boston, but we had been communicating quite regularly through the mails – yes, it was a long time ago. Funny how it seems like only yesterday.  

Back in those days, the libertarian “movement” was more than half teenagers, and a sprinkling of oldsters (over thirty!) representing what we regarded as the previous generation, the scattered remnants of the Old Right. This youth movement expressed itself via a plethora of mimeographed magazines, newsletters, and good old fashioned letter-writing, a flourishing samizdat media that paralleled the much-heralded left-wing underground press of the 1960s. Lanny and I inhabited this small but growing parallel underground, and dreamed of the day when it would go above-ground, and burst onto the national scene.  

That day seemed not far off when the New York Times magazine published a long piece by two young libertarians, Stan Lehr and Louis Rossetto Jr., that was our “coming out” in the mainstream media. Lehr and Rossetto gave the readers of the Times an overview of what libertarians believed, and who they were, with photos of all the movement stars (including Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard).  Re-reading it today, I am struck by how central foreign policy issues were to the young libertarians of 1971. “Conservatives tended to be nationalistic when it came to foreign policy,” the authors noted, and this put them “in the strange position of advocating a stronger nation-state to preserve freedom.” Furthermore,  

“The conservative movement attracted a disparate assortment of adherents in the early sixties. Some were rabid anti-Communists who would sooner have seen the world decimated in a nuclear holocaust than have given the Communists an inch of some rotting jungle.” 

Yes, the neoconservatives were there, right from the very beginning: as the libertarians were leaving the conservative movement, Norman Podhoretz and his fellow “Neocons for Nixon” were joining it.  

It was the split on the youthful right over the Vietnam war, the authors remind us, that set the stage for the struggle between libertarians and their “traditionalist” opponents: 

“While traditionalists automatically supported any step the Government chose to take against Communism, libertarians were more concerned about whether the Government had the right to tax and conscript its citizens to undertake so improbable an adventure.”

"Libertarians believed that if the country were really in danger a free citizenry would be more than willing to defend it voluntarily.” 

It was a real question, at the time, whether Nixon’s America would long tolerate the concept of a “free citizenry.” The “trads,” as they were known, were the “big government conservatives” of their day: faced with a choice between their ideals and their political alliances, they chose the path of Richard Nixon, who instituted wage and price controls, over their purely theoretical devotion to abstract “liberty.” As Lehr and Rossetto point out, in spite of Frank S. Meyer‘s attempt to hold the libertarian-conservative symbiosis together, “the fusionist approach to conservatism was to be relegated to the scrap heap by the tides of war, protest and cultural change.” 

Forty years later, the tides of war, protest, and cultural change are no less tumultuous, and yet conservatism did not wind up on the scrap heap of history. Instead, a migratory raiding party known as the neoconservatives came in from the left and took up residence in the hollowed-out husk of the old conservative movement, transforming it into the perfect vehicle for an American tyranny —  one that has, so far, nearly succeeded in abolishing the Constitution and destroying the remnants of our old Republic.  

Forty years later, our old enemies have made considerable progress, effectively seizing control of US foreign policy in the post-9/11 era and taking us on a rampage that started in Afghanistan and seems not to have any logical end. The post-9/11 neoconservative coup was attested to by Colin Powell, who witnessed it first hand and related it to Bob Woodward in Plan of Attack,  

“Powell felt Cheney and his allies – his chief aide, I. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith and what Powell called Feith’s ‘Gestapo’ office – had established what amounted to a separate government.” 

The American Thermidor took place quietly. There were no tanks in the streets outside the White House, no street fights between competing factions. Indeed, the coup went almost completely unnoticed — except by a few such as Seymour Hersh, whose investigations into the “Office of Special Plans” and other parallel ad hoc entities exposed the inner workings of the coup plotters.  

Far from being thrown on the scrap heap, those “rabid anti-Communists who would sooner have seen the world decimated in a nuclear holocaust than have given the Communists an inch of some rotting jungle” have gone on to bigger and – from their viewpoint – better things. The Communists are long gone, but the Muslims have taken their place. Compared to our perpetual “war on terrorism,” the Vietnam conflict is mere skirmish.  

The personalities change – Nixon, Bush, Obama, LBJ – but the essential issues remain fairly constant. The same people are promoting the same policies that have led us to disaster since the 1960s. The same formidable enemy, the War Party, looms over whatever prospects for prosperity and personal happiness we might be so foolhardy as to entertain.  

Libertarianism has grown by leaps and bounds since the days Lanny Friedlander and I exchanged excited letters about the progress of a movement nobody had ever heard of. It has been a long hard battle, marked by frequent reverses. Back in the early days, when I told people I was a libertarian, I more than once elicited a confused response, such as “Oh, I didn’t know the librarians had their own political movement!”  

Today, the libertarian brand is so clearly defined as to be unmistakable, and there is no doubt that it has more than lived up to the “Credo” outlined by Lehr and Rossetto in their long ago article. That piece, with its jabs at the neocons and its forthright opposition to interventionism, was undoubtedly influenced by the libertarian theoretician Murray Rothbard, whose picture was prominently displayed to illustrate the text. Of course, Ayn Rand, a fanatical cold warrior, was also pictured therein, and yet the piece itself, apart from naming the author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead as one inspiration among many, clearly bears Rothbard’s mark.  

Of the three pillars of libertarian “orthodoxy” – a devotion to free markets, civil liberties, and a non-interventionist foreign policy – it was and still is possible to get conservatives, and even some neoconservatives, to agree on the first two. Yet foreign policy is still the stumbling block to any effective unity, although there are many encouraging indications that this obstacle is crumbling fast.  

While the conservative critique of the Obama administration’s entry into the Libyan mess is still evolving, some of the “tea party” freshmen in Congress are among the President’s fiercest critics. Can a bankrupt America afford to “liberate” Libya? These and other questions, such as the proper limits of presidential power, are rapidly leading a number of conservatives into the anti-interventionist ranks.  

Skeptics may scoff that these freshly baptized converts will soon revert to their old heathen ways once a Republican president is in office and in a position to make war, and yet this ignores the reality that people can learn from their experience. Not all possess the ability to engage is such self-reflection, and yet those that do are invariably the most intelligent, the most thoughtful — in short, the most desirable recruits. 

All ideologies must stand the test of reality, and the neocons have so far only gotten failing grades. War-weary Americans thought they had turned them out of office, and foreclosed the possibility of any more foreign wars, only to find that their alleged savior has followed in the neocons’ footsteps more faithfully than even the worst pessimists among us had ever imagined.  

So we are back art Square One, so to speak. In arriving at this point in history, when both mainstream liberals and the usual neoconservative suspects are united in supporting yet another US overseas intervention, once again we have the far left and far right “fringes” in opposition. We have a worldwide financial crisis on top of the crisis of empire in the Middle East, similar to — albeit worse than — the economic ructions of Nixon’s day. We have, in short, come full circle to this Yogi Berra moment: “It’s deja-vu all over again!” 

But for one difference. This time, the libertarian movement is a lot bigger, both in numbers and in resources. Even more important, it is infinitely more principled and hardcore than it was in the early days: the Rothbardian perspective evidenced in the Lehr-Rossetto piece was by no means the only or even the dominant tendency back then. It took a long and often fierce battle – an educational battle – before the essential third pillar of the libertarian “trinity” was finally cemented firmly in place. Today, in spite of a few backsliders and marginal renegades, the libertarian brand has been identified as intransigently anti-war on account of the efforts of Ron Paul and the movement he created. Or, rather, recreated – only bigger, and better, this time. 

Rep. Paul is my favorite politician for the simple reason that he never fails to bring in the foreign policy angle: he takes every opportunity to bring up the ruination that militarism is visiting on our nation, the waste and fraud it enables, the damage it does to our constitutional system of limited government, the dark shadow it casts over the prospects for liberty in our time. This is hardly surprising, as Rothbard was one of Paul’s mentors right up until the great libertarian theorist’s death in 1995.  

With this movement in place, and growing by the hour, libertarians are facing the current crisis – the twin crisis of fiscal insolvency and imperial decline – armed as never before. Yet we should not approach the battle with any thought that it will be any easier than it was when we were just a bunch of crazy (in a good way!)  teenagers out to “smash the State.” Indeed, it will be a lot harder, because we are charged not just with building our own movement but with building a much broader resistance to incipient authoritarianism and perpetual war.  

The stakes are a bit higher than they were in the 1960s. Draconian post-9/11 legislation, including but not limited to the misnamed “PATRIOT” Act, essentially repealed a good deal of the Bill of Rights, and the rest is just a mopping up operation. We are at war on two continents, and the prospect of yet another war or two is just over the horizon. In the meantime, the ticking time-bomb of our financial system can be heard above the gunfire. 

The scope and severity of the crisis means that we have to build a much broader movement against the dominant trends of authoritarianism and militarism, one that extends far beyond the relatively narrow base of the libertarian movement. We here at Antiwar.com recognized this long ago: this, indeed, is the entire rationale for the existence of this web site.  

This is what we need to remember when we agitate against, say, the US intervention in Libya, or any particular policy of our rulers in Washington: it isn’t just about Libya, or the specific details of why our intervention there can only end in disaster. It’s about the larger issue of America’s proper role in the world – and what that role portends for the future of the American republic. Writing about the specifics of this or that crisis, on an almost daily basis, it’s easy for me to get lost in the details: that’s why it’s important to remind ourselves, every once in a while, why we are making this fight.

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Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo is editor-at-large at Antiwar.com, and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and writes a monthly column for Chronicles. He is the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].