Blogs > Liberty and Power > Another hypothesis about war-supporting libertarians

Jul 26, 2007 6:26 pm

Another hypothesis about war-supporting libertarians

I was going to put this in the comments on Gus's post, but it got too long. This is really a reply to Gus and it is probably something he's said himself somewhere.

The libertarian camp has always contained some folks who see themselves as "on the right" and others who reject that, either by saying "my heart is more on the left" or rejecting the dichotomy altogether. Before 9/11, those two groups could largely co-exist, except perhaps on the very fringes.

Since 9/11, and especially since Iraq, the distance between those two groups has grown much larger. Like an iceberg splitting in half and leaving two pieces floating on the water, and slowly drifting apart, the libertarian movement seems to be dividing over these issues.

An alternative hypothesis might be that those libertarians who were very comfortable seeing themselves as "right wing" or of "the Right" were more likely to have supported the war, while those who either reject that language and/or preferred to think of themselves as "on the left," were more likely to oppose it.

Of course, the "paleo" crowd might well be the counter-evidence here, as I think they tend to see themselves as comfortable on the right and have been staunchly anti-war, drawing on the very noble tradition of the Old Right.

Having always seen myself as having my heart on the left and very much rejecting the notion that libertarianism, or at least MY libertarianism, was "of the right," it is particularly stinging to be seen by others as a "defender" of the war, especially when I'm not.

If I'm right, and I may well not be, then the interesting question is why some libertarians are comfortable being "of the right" and others aren't, especially if the former is correlated with support for wars that cannot be justified on libertarian grounds.

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Kevin Carson - 7/31/2007

Gary McGath,

American "progressives" are a pretty small subset of the Left. And the Left as a whole was a lot less statist before the twentieth century, before New Class managerialist types took over so much of it (Leninists, "Progressives," and Fabians).

Before then, the state socialist tendency was largely balanced by anti-statist traditions (I believe one of the New Alchemists in the UK described it as the recessive, decentralist, cooperativist strain in the Left that only emerges when the dominant strain of Lenin and Harold Wilson is engaged elsewhere). I'm thinking mainly of the Proudhonians and the American individualist anarchists. These subgroups had non-Lockean views of property ownership that most right-leaning libertarians probably object to; but they believed in possessory ownership and largely unregulated markets, and had a world view in which economic exploitation resulted mainly from state enforcement of privilege. Even the more collectivist variants of the anti-statist left, like the Bakuninists, acted from the premise of individual self-ownership and favored bottom-up federation over the centralized state.

Mark Brady - 7/30/2007

Gus, I think you're on to something here.

Gus diZerega - 7/29/2007

This returns us more explicitly to Steve’s point.

Years ago I attended an Institute for Humane Studies meeting where some younger libertarians (my own age at the time) strongly endorsed the right of a person to sell him or herself into slavery. Since then I have heard libertarians make similar defenses of “voluntary” slavery two more times.

I have never heard anyone else defend slavery of any sort except for a drunk Arkansas Republican relative.

The people at the Institute for Humane Studies gathering were rebuked by one of the speakers (I think it was Israel Kirzner but I am not sure) who said that property law did not allow for such things. They seemed to take this as reason enough to abandon their views.

I was bothered deeply at the time for two seemingly opposed reasons. First, that any so called lover of liberty could imagine such a thing. Second, that they would so quickly abandon their views when a figure in authority said they were wrong without really going into why they were wrong.

Sometime later a noted libertarian leader (and still a friend today) visited Berkeley, where I was a grad student. I met some libertarian undergraduates while with him. Somehow the conversation got round to how much authority bosses exercised over their employees, and one very sharp guy whose name I forget said that was irrelevant. There was by definition no problem with workplace authority so long as it was based on formal agreement. This logic was similar but not as explicitly as extreme as the slavery argument above.

Seems to me these two incidents might suggest a difference between ‘left’ and ‘right’ libertarians. Because ‘left’ and ‘right’ are such overused and multidimensional terms these days, they’ve lost most substantive meaning. But they point at a difference even though both sides have exceptions. I suggest the difference is level of comfort with hierarchy.

Every libertarian will accept some degree of hierarchy as necessary. So will every liberal of any sort. But how much? Conservatives and conservative liberals have traditionally supported traditional hierarchies, and I suggest right-oriented libertarians are more comfortable with them than with those who distrust hierarchies. Leftists have traditionally opposed hierarchies. More left-libertarians (as I was evolving into at that time) will be more comfortable with the left.

Anti-liberal rightists such as fascists have endorsed hierarchies as justifying the rule of some over others – indefinitely. When anti-liberal leftists have supported hierarchies as they frequently have (i.e. Communist Party rule for Marxists) it has been in the name of ultimately abolishing hierarchies.

As a “left-Hayekian” it is difficult for me to imagine how a perceptive and humane person who loved liberty could sincerely hold such views. For these people their views would to them be the logical extension of the principle of liberty.

David T. Beito - 7/28/2007

Steve has put his finger on this. The right/libertarian alliance had a very emotional basis. It owes much of its strength to the era when we all worked together against Clinton. He was a guy that we could all love to hate in some sense.

As someone who has worked hard to cultivate the left on issues like the war (and am continuing to do so through HAW), I continue to be more personally comfortable in political discussions with conservatives.

Despite their faults, I more likely find that I can talk to them about broader ideas that go beyond the current electoral cycle. Of course, this only applies to my personal experiences and I recognize that ordinary conservatives are quite different in this respect than conservative elites, especially on talk radio.

Keith Halderman - 7/27/2007

I think Aeon is exactly right. I saw Democratic consultant Bob Schrum on Stephen Colbert last night and he said that if Kerry had been elected in 2004 we would not be in Iraq right now. However if you look back at that campaign Kerry never said one word about withdrawing our troops. If he had won the only difference now would be that most of the leftists calling for an immediate end to our involvement would be saying we cannot leave until we win. Those same people so angry about Bush's unprovoked attack against Iraq had no problem when Clinton did the exact same thing to Serbia.

Aeon J. Skoble - 7/27/2007

I'm generalizing a bit, but it's not that silly. That recent vote to bring the troops back split pretty evenly on party lines. There are some exceptions to the the generalization I'm making, my favorite being Ron Paul, but they're exceptions. In the Clinton administration, it was mostly Republicans criticizing military interventionism and nation building. Just sayin.

Gus diZerega - 7/27/2007

Pretty silly argument Aeon. If it is as simple as mere partisanship why did some Democrats support the war (and some still do) while others with in most cases an ideologically distinct point of view opposed it from the first?

Aeon J. Skoble - 7/27/2007

That's exactly right. The Democrats are only anti-war because it's a Republican war. It's not as if the Dems have consistently avoided foreign entanglements! It's pure partisanship.

Also, I think this issue is hot (and divisive) because we're involved in a war. In another time, we might be arguing about abortion or immigration, and seeing arguments to the effect that "if so-and-so has _that_ view on abortion, I don't see how he can possibly be a real libertarian."

Gary McGath - 7/27/2007

While I don't care for the left-right dichotomy, I'm more comfortable with being considered "on the right" than "on the left." Traditionally conservatives have supported freedom in some areas, while liberals have been for expanded government power in just about everything. But I'm against the current war, and Bush has abandoned the pro-freedom and small-government ideas of conservatism.

It may not be precisely those who are on the "right" who support the war, but those who have pinned their hopes on the Republican Party and blinded themselves to its steady abandonment of libertarian or quasi-libertarian ideas. Their distrust of the motives of Democrats is especially acute, not without good reason; but they fail to realize that the Democrats should be distrusted because they only pretend to want to stop the war, not because they want to stop it.

Stephen W Carson - 7/26/2007

Of course the equation "Left = State Socialism = Mass Murder" is not fair as many such as Roderick Long have been at pains to demonstrate.

But before I was introduced to the wonderful, wide world of libertarian thought it sure seemed like there were two camps: those who saw the communist states as the death camps they were and those who spent a lot of time rationalizing and apologizing for those "noble experiments".

I like to think I'm more nuanced now, that I understand that there are bastards "on the right" as well as "on the left". But, for example, whenever I see leftists (even left-libertarians like Steven Horwitz) engage in ritualistic bashing of religious people I can't help but flash on the nuns and priests and monks killed in the thousands and tens of thousands by Commies. Is this kind of hatred essential to being on the left? It is hard for me to tell. Similarly I cringe when I hear genuine anti-semitism and flash on the crimes of the Nazis.

A curse on both their houses, left and right. All I ask is that there be a home for people who do not want to be associated in any way, shape or form with mass murder or the rationalization of mass murder. That is why the whole "pro-war libertarian" thing is so bitter for me. "Libertarian" had seemed like a safe harbor. I hope it still can be.

Anthony Gregory - 7/26/2007

I argue here that it's not so much a left/right distinction at play:

Left-libertarians may have a New Left opposition to empire, whereas right-libertarians favor a "strong national defense."
# Left-libertarians might think the state should actively intervene in foreign affairs to "protect liberty," whereas right-libertarians have an Old Right opposition to empire.

Gus diZerega - 7/26/2007

I agree. Steve was writing this while I was agreeing with him that my attempt to use conceptions of property rights to tease apart this distinction failed.

It might be worth while exploring WHY some libertarians' sympathies are with the "right" and some with the "left."