Available Now! (click cover)

America's Counter-Revolution
The Constitution Revisited

From the back cover:

This book challenges the assumption that the Constitution was a landmark in the struggle for liberty. Instead, Sheldon Richman argues, it was the product of a counter-revolution, a setback for the radicalism represented by America’s break with the British empire. Drawing on careful, credible historical scholarship and contemporary political analysis, Richman suggests that this counter-revolution was the work of conservatives who sought a nation of “power, consequence, and grandeur.” America’s Counter-Revolution makes a persuasive case that the Constitution was a victory not for liberty but for the agendas and interests of a militaristic, aristocratic, privilege-seeking ruling class.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Ahistorical "Libertarian" Warmongers

Legal scholar Randy Barnett wrote in the Wall Street Journal yesterday that one can be a libertarian and also support the war in Iraq. (Judge for yourself: "Libertarians and the War.") Much could be said about this woeful article. But I'll touch on just one point for now.

Nowhere in Barnett’s article does one find a hint that the leading, pioneering classical liberals of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were not just skeptical of the government’s war-making power; rather they were forthrightly antiwar, anti-empire, and pro-peace. These include Frederic Bastiat, Richard Cobden, John Bright, Herbert Spencer, Auberon Herbert, and William Graham Sumner. This is no coincidence. These men were not ivory-tower theorists; they were historians as well as keen observers of contemporary events, applying libertarian principles to the historical conduct of politicians, bureaucrats, and diplomats. It was Sumner, echoing many before him, who pointed out that "national defense" means "war, debt, taxation, diplomacy, a grand governmental system, pomp, glory, a big army and navy, lavish expenditures, political jobbery." The liberals unfailingly understood that war meant the mass murder of innocents and regimentation at home. Nothing is easier for a politician than conjuring up a "self-defense" justification for war, but the great classical liberals would have nothing to do with it. For one thing, they realized that the self-defense analogy is bogus. When an individual defends himself, he does not tax others to help him, conscript others, or bomb the attacker's friends and family, who may be completely innocent of wrongdoing. The state is not an individual. The rules are different.

I think this gets at an underlying flaw in Barnett’s case. He, like others, approaches libertarianism in a hyper-rationalistic, ahistorical way. If in his view a policy position cannot be reached deductively from libertarian first principles, he concludes that libertarianism per se has nothing to say about it. But his method is wrong. Libertarianism isn’t purely an a priori theory. It's a set of insights about human beings and a unique historical institution -- the state -- insights produced by centuries of experience. Libertarianism properly conceived is an interplay of theory and history, neither ever losing sight of the other. It is, as Chris Sciabarra notes, dialectical.

Barnett curiously combines his simplistic a priori approach to libertarianism with a vulgar dilettantism regarding current events void of detailed knowledge about the U.S. government’s conduct in the world for at least the last 50 years. That is what allows him to blithely proclaim that there is no libertarian position on a war against a country that posed no threat to the American people and that was run by a former agent of American presidents. That's why he takes George Bush's pronouncements and policy seriously.

And why are libertarian such as Barnett comfortable with this dubious methodology with respect to foreign policy? Because not far below the surface, they are nationalists. The nation is still a special unit of emotional value -- particularly the U.S. There's an implicit theory of exceptionalism here too. That accounts for their lack of interest in the history of U.S. intervention.

Cross-posted at Liberty & Power.


Anonymous said...


Sheldon Richman said...

Thanks. Nice to get off the tax issue. :-)

James Greenberg said...

Raimondo, similarly skewering Barnett, posted his best article in months.

The neocon propaganda machine is burning the midnight oil. Barnett is probably a recent Operation Mockingbird acquisition.

Sheldon Richman said...

What was he up to with the Giuliani a**-kissing anyway?

James Greenberg said...

Who, Raimondo or Barnett? Methinks you mean Barnett. Do I actually have to read Barnett's tripe? As for kissing the posterior of a certain Italian-American, might it be an insurance policy?

Sheldon Richman said...

Barnett. It could be a job application. Yes, you should read it, James.

James Greenberg said...

Sheldon, I got as far as I could through it -- about 2/3 of the way -- before I could stand it no more. Barnett's entire argument was predicated on premises I find invalid. I pity you, that you had to suffer all the way through it as a matter of professionalism.

That "Rudy-worship" was something else. I don't know, maybe I'm wrong, but my opinion is that public subscription to fuhrerprinzip disqualifies one as a "libertarian," whatever that is.

Needless to say, I agree with your every point of criticism. Equally needless to say, Randy Barnett is no Sheldon Richman!

Sheldon Richman said...

How could Randy Barnett not know that "War is the Health of the State," as Randolph Bourne put it so well.

James Greenberg said...

1. Outright stupidity

2. Willful ignorance

3. Fellatious obsequiousness

4. Some combination of the above.