Libertarianism and the War

The discussion around Brian Doherty’s Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the American Libertarian Movement underscores a point I’ve been making, not only to my fellow libertarians, but also to’s many left-oriented readers: libertarianism, i.e., the philosophy that government is invariably a malevolent force in human history, is anti-imperialism. Opposition to war lies at the very core of the libertarian argument. Without it, ostensible advocates of liberty eventually give up even their free-market ideology, and, in the name of "pragmatism," wind up assimilated into the world of Washington politics-as-usual.

Exhibit number one: Over at Cato Unbound, the hoity-toity forum for the Cato Institute’s intellectual heavyweights, the libertarian "pragmatists" are arguing that it’s time to dissolve libertarianism into the Sensible Center – to give up the idea that libertarians can ever significantly roll back the size and power of government. As Tyler Cowen puts it,

"Brian Doherty asks: ‘Did this libertarian movement … actually accomplish anything of unquestionable significance?’

"Yes: Bigger government.

"But no, that isn’t as bad as it might sound to many Cato readers."

This, claims Cowen, is the "paradox" of libertarianism. The incremental success of the libertarian quest for "negative liberty" – i.e., freedom from government – has led to an increase in "positive liberty" (material wealth), which has diverted more resources to government:

"The more wealth we have, the more government we can afford. Furthermore, the better government operates, the more government people will demand. That is the fundamental paradox of libertarianism. Many initial victories bring later defeats."

According to Cowen, however, instead of swimming against the tide,

"Libertarians should embrace these developments. We should embrace a world with growing wealth, growing positive liberty, and yes, growing government. We don’t have to favor the growth in government per se, but we do need to recognize that sometimes it is a package deal.

"The old formulas were ‘big government is bad’ and ‘liberty is good,’ but these are not exactly equal in their implications. The second motto — ‘liberty is good’ — is the more important. And the older story of ‘big government crushes liberty’ is being superseded by ‘advances in liberty bring bigger government.’"

The reaction to this from the other participants in the Cato Unbound group has been largely favorable. There is some nitpicking, particularly from Tom Palmer, whose position is that we ought to abandon the libertarian movement without throwing the ideas completely overboard. But the rest seem to concur that it’s all about "positive liberty" – i.e., the comfortable upper-middle-class lives they’ve built for themselves. Screw all that limited government ideology; it doesn’t look good on the resumé.

What unites all the contributors to the Cato symposium is their pessimism: Cowen goes furthest in positing his paradox, which seems more like a projection than a political theory, representing nothing more than the tired old story of yet another disillusioned radical confronted with the conservatizing effects of reaching a certain age. Brink Lindsey agrees with this pessimistic prognosis and spends the rest of his essay promoting his "liberaltarian" idea, and his two forthcoming books, ending with this strategic prescription:

"What needs to be developed is a set of ideas that can serve as the basis for a new political identity. Not a strictly libertarian identity – there simply aren’t enough strictly defined libertarians to base a mass political movement on. Rather, a genuinely liberal identity – one that brings together ‘fiscally conservative, socially liberal’ voters from across the current left-right spectrum. One that recognizes a more expansive role for government than committed libertarians would like, but which nonetheless supports both economic and personal liberty. Here, then, is the way forward as I see it: to articulate an appropriately inclusive political vision that puts freedom at the center of its commitments."

If only these older-but-supposedly-wiser geniuses would spare us the dubious benefit of their hard-won "wisdom," we might find a solution to global warming – just think how much noxious gas would no longer be polluting the atmosphere. The strange emptiness of their arguments is due to an enormous omission in their analyses, and this gaping hole is amplified by Lindsey’s strange assertion of what, to him, is emblematic of the defeat of libertarianism in the current era:

"At present libertarians are in a sober mood. We’ve had to absorb the fact that one of the centerpieces of the libertarian reform agenda – Social Security privatization – was put before the American people and decisively rejected. This disappointing failure to make progress has been accompanied by regress away from liberty on any number of fronts…"

These guys are perhaps to be forgiven for overemphasizing the importance of what was, after all, the Cato Institute’s major policy initiative – the partial privatization of Social Security – but was this failure really the major setback for the cause of liberty in the beginning of the new millennium? Doherty, too, seems to fall for this hooey. He opens his book with the news of this supposedly world-historic defeat, a tic he shares with his reviewers, perhaps because all of them at one time or another have worked for Cato. Yet this is more than just institutional bias. It represents a failure to understand both libertarianism and the current crisis of our nation.

What the Cato crew leaves out of its learned discussion is any mention of the Iraq war and our policy of global intervention – an issue that is not exactly obscure as far as the American public is concerned. What accounts for the strangely hermetically sealed atmosphere of a discussion that doesn’t even mention the Iraq war and only tangentially touches on the "war on terrorism," both of which Lindsey and Virginia Postrel were quite enthusiastic about?

Lindsey in particular was quite vocal about the justice of George W. Bush’s war, arguing that the libertarian injunction against aggression had to stop at the water’s edge. It’s no surprise that these days he and some of his Cato colleagues are saying that we have to give ground on the home front, as well: they only differ in their estimation of how much to concede, with Cowen and Lindsey effectively recommending libertarians adopt a "new identity" as right-wing social democrats, and Postrel and Palmer agreeing that the prospects for liberty are dim, so we ought to at least abandon the "doctrinaire" aspects of libertarianism.

What’s significant here is that all of these people, to one extent or another, supported the Bush administration’s decision to go to war, or, at least, once that decision had been made, supported some significant aspect of it – such as Palmer’s effort at what Postrel approvingly calls "state-building" in "liberated" Iraq. They are therefore largely blind to the enormous potential of the war question to debunk and delegitimize the moral authority of government in the mind of the public. Just as the Vietnam War brought about a general discontent with and distrust of government officials and their policy initiatives, so this war is also vividly dramatizing the central libertarian insight: governments lie, they loot, and they kill. This, by the way, is what makes Lindsey’s argument in favor of reaching out to the Left so unconvincing, and, when you get right down to it, wacky: he never even mentions the one issue that unites libertarians and lefties as never before – the war.

The case for short-term pessimism but long-range optimism was made by Murray Rothbard long ago, and that case still stands. What’s odd, and tellingly so, is that Cowen, Lindsey, Postrel, and Palmer have stood Rothbard’s argument on its head. Whereas the founder of the Cato Institute argued that liberty would triumph in the end, precisely because it gave birth to the industrial revolution and the exponential increase in wealth we witness all around us, his epigones are now saying that this veritable cornucopia is feeding the growth of government. Why this would not result in a subsequent contraction of wealth and a decrease in "positive liberty" – since the original cause of the increase was presumably the advance of "negative liberty" – Cowen does not say.

The pessimism of this crowd is understandable, given that they see libertarianism as a rather narrow socio-economic doctrine that can be summed up in the annoying slogan "socially liberal and economically conservative." As long as they’re free to get high, sleep around, and go shopping, it doesn’t matter how many Iraqis we kill. This is the Me Generation in all it’s hideous, narcissistic me-ness: a kind of "individualism" that, paradoxically, goes along to get along.

These people are entirely bereft of what Rothbard called "a passion for justice," which, as he put it, was the essential psychological ingredient of the dedicated libertarian:

"If liberty should be the highest political end, then what is the grounding for that goal? It should be clear from this work that, first and foremost, liberty is a moral principle, grounded in the nature of man. In particular, it is a principle of justice, of the abolition of aggressive violence in the affairs of men. Hence, to be grounded and pursued adequately, the libertarian goal must be sought in the spirit of an overriding devotion to justice. But to possess such devotion on what may well be a long and rocky road, the libertarian must be possessed of a passion for justice, an emotion derived from and channeled by his rational insight into what natural justice requires. Justice, not the weak reed of mere utility, must be the motivating force if liberty is to be attained."

This necessary passion – the absence of which can cause the ostensible libertarian to lose heart, or patience, in the long struggle for liberty – is nowhere more pronounced, and even pure, than in the libertarian opposition to war. In war, the state is acting entirely according to its essential nature as an instrument of coercion. At no time other than war is it more readily apparent that states are agencies of aggression, and that this represents a human evil. On other occasions, governments and their apologists may dress up the consequences of state action as somehow beneficial or just, but making this statement while surveying a battlefield is a difficult task.

This is a subject not covered by Postrel’s "empiricism," nor by Cowen’s economic determinism. It is left to us "deductive" libertarians, as La Postrel disdainfully refers to the Rothbardians, to point out that what’s happening in Iraq is wrong.

The irony is that these alleged "pragmatists" are blind to the political reality unfolding all around them, and that gives the lie to their shortsighted pessimism. Having blanked out the centrality of opposition to war as the core of the libertarian credo, they fail to see the overriding importance of the war issue. What else explains the weird absence of the Iraq question from their strategic speculations? Yet the war, and I include the "war on terrorism" that has occupied so much of our energy and resources since 9/11, is the one factor that explains the decline of libertarian influence in elite circles and the growth of "big-government conservatism" as the dominant ideology of the the GOP. This peculiar blindness on the part of the Cato Unbound commentators not only makes them misperceive the objective conditions, it causes them to miss the increasingly favorable subjective conditions that augur well for the growth of the libertarian movement.

No one can match libertarians in their principled critique of imperialism and their opposition to a foreign policy of aggression. America stands at a crossroads: one path leads to empire, and the other takes us back to our origins as a constitutional republic. Rep. Ron Paul, who has recently announced his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, understands this; the Cato crowd does not. For all their convoluted, "paradoxical" rationalizations for selling out, the simple and powerful message of our libertarian member of Congress puts them all to shame. Not that these wiseacres would ever think to learn anything from Ron Paul, who has been around the movement a lot longer than any of them. They wouldn’t condescend to even discuss his campaign, except to diss him as "doctrinaire." Yet you find me one person willing to go to the barricades for the half-assed privatization of Social Security, and I’ll give you a thousand who will fight to the death for an America free of the militarist scourge. Try explaining that to our strategic geniuses over at Cato.

Many millions believe we were lied into war by a duplicitous and possibly criminal cabal entrenched in the government. It isn’t very far to go from that insight to the revelation that there is something inherently dangerous about the blunt instrument of government per se. The same hubris that motivated the neocons to launch their "war on terrorism" energized the liberal declaration of a "war on poverty" in the 1960s, and we know what the blowback from that miserable experiment entailed. Do we really want to turn over our healthcare system to the perpetrators of the Walter Reed scandal? Contrary to Dan Drezner, you don’t have to be an anarchist to see that, as Randolph Bourne – a typical 19th-century American liberal – put it: "War is the health of the State." Indeed, most libertarians, who are of the very-limited-government variety, do see that. Which is why I am hopeful about the future, even as the second-tier policy wonks over at Cato proceed to sell out and Cato Unbound rapidly becomes Cato Unhinged.

The short-term prospects for liberty making any progress in Washington circles are, admittedly, not good. But the prospects for the growth of libertarianism as a popular ideology and an organized movement have never been better. This is due entirely to the unpopularity of American foreign policy and the growing realization that its domestic consequences – a full-scale assault on our civil liberties and an unconscionable drain on our resources – is more than just an "extremist" (as Lindsey puts it) extension of the general principle of government-knows-best. Let Tyler Cowen try that paradox on for size.

Libertarianism has a long and glorious tradition, not the least of which is the principled anti-imperialist legacy of Leonard Read, Frank Chodorov, Murray Rothbard, and a long list of others. It is due to the durability of this tradition, which Doherty celebrates in his book, that libertarians have every reason to face the future with growing confidence. That some of our intellectual "leaders" are not living up to the example of their forebears is just a blip on the screen of our movement’s intellectual history. The rest of us remember, revere, and take courage in these exemplars even as various backsliders and "libertarian" court intellectuals fall by the wayside – and good riddance to them!

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was 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].