clap clap blog: we have moved

Monday, May 19, 2003
So I made some rather nasty comments over at Eschaton on a post about liberals walking in lockstep, although it mostly refers to a weekend post linking to a thread wherein righty bloggers vent their assumptions about lefty bloggers. (Wshew. Link tracking can be exhausting.) That in itself is well worth reading, but I have been mildly challenged in my barbs against libertarians (though I feel I responded fairly wittily), so let me explain a bit more exhaustively. (And yes, I know that in my case that's the operative word.)

It always seems mean and kind of pointless to take on libertarians. I mean, when a feminist critic can demolish their entire ideology in a chapter of a book called Justice, Gender and the Family (shoutout to my man Rawls!), libertarians are the political philosophy equivalent of Fred Durst--yeah, he sucks, and he seems to be everywhere, but we all know he sucks, and what's the point? The fans will grow up or get married and get over it soon enough.

But maybe I'm wrong. Jason and I are embarking on a read-through of the latter two sections of Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism, a book which, although it's presented as a historical tract concerned with an era (the Cold War and World War II) that seems over, tied in even very loosely with some of Arendt's more straightly philosophical works like The Human Condition it both constitutes a statement of purpose and intent and ends up having a lot of resonances with our current dillemma. Try as we might to avoid inscribing our current historical moment onto Arendt's (and I think Jason and I both did), certain things keep popping up.

There's a lot to talk about here, which I might end up posting on another site, but it was very strange to go through the first chapter of the second book, "Imperialism," and see the ways that she was basically limning and condemning libertarianism years before it was officially birthed. After an absolutely mind-blowing runthrough of Hobbes, she then asserts that while his philosophy at the time seemed primarily to reflect on the English Civil War, the justification for tyranny he outlines comes to pass 200 years later at the hands of the rising middle class, who disliked and distrusted the state and correspondingly made every effort to stay out of politics until it became clear that they could not successfully expand abroad without the protection of force that could only be guaranteed by the state, and that protection would only be extended if the merchants were, in fact, running the state. She opposes these imperialists to nationalists ("statists" in libertarian lingo) who believed in the political neutrality of the civil service, a neutrality which became corrupted when moneyed interests began to intervene directly in government. Painting the bourgeoisie as a group of individuals perfectly exemplifying the Hobbsian model of man as a self-interested animal unconcerned with society or community, she asserts that their disdain of government and love of expansion and profit at any cost leads inevitably to the conclusion that they don't care for anyone else or believe in the essential commonality of humanity, and that this attitude leads irreversibly to the racism that so poisoned the conflicts of the twentieth century. Replace "bourgeoisie" with "libertarians" in that last sentence and the conditionals retain the same truth-value, even if it doesn't lead to the same conclusion (for obvious reasons), and turning that back onto the rest of the chapter, you begin to see a historical pattern of anti-statists becoming pro-statists and corrupting the very government they have so little regard for.

So maybe it's time to start worrying about libertarians. Certainly the libby bloggers seem to generally support the administration on most of the major issues aside from civil liberties, although I could be wrong. But at any rate, more troubling is the "political journey" many in the current administration have taken from businessmen (Bush, Cheney, etc.) or anti-gov't politicians (Ashcroft, Rumsfeld, Rice) to committed statists. You can track this in the way their rhetoric still depicts them as outsiders even though they have near-total control over state policy at this point, and in the various ways they've been accused of using government connections to benefit private interests. Certainly this is not unique in American government, and the civil service was probably far from pure before, so maybe this is less the turning point that Arendt describes it as and more a cyclical thing, but at any rate, it seems like libertarians may be worth watching now.

If we're going to make the maybe not entirely valid charge that the neo-conservatives are Straussians, I think it's much more useful to start talking about libertarians as basically Hobbesians. It may be true that we do, in fact, live in Hobbes' leviathan, but as Eric Voeglin (more on him in later days) would point out, continuously describing the status quo does nothing more than reinforce it. Hobbes created something new hundreds of years ago, and all these folks are doing is reifying it, and perhaps using it, as Hobbes would expect, purely to further their own interests. It admits little hope, and much cynicism, and seeks to conquer those things it hates, including American political institutions themselves. And regardless of your policy positions, I think that's simply not good. The "Well how can they want democracy overseas if they don't want democracy at home!" thing is a little glib, but it does seem clear at this point that there are some profoundly anti-democratic wishes both among libertarians and the current administration; moreover, if you want to give foreigners the benefit of the free market much more than the benefits of free government, just say so. Libertarians and, to a degree, neo-conservatives think that business is more likely than government to create the greatest social good, and I do not think that is true, or at least it's not a good political philosophy, and Adam Smith would agree with me.