TCS Daily

My Libertarian Persuasion

By Arnold Kling - August 21, 2003 12:00 AM

"Neoconservatism is what the late historian of Jacksonian America, Marvin Meyers, called a 'persuasion,' one that manifests itself over time, but erratically, and one whose meaning we clearly glimpse only in retrospect."
-- Irving Kristol,
The Neoconservative Persuasion


The writer and social critic Irving Kristol's recent essay clarifies what neoconservatism stands for. It provides a useful benchmark against which to state my own beliefs. I describe these as my libertarian persuasion.


Above all, I am an empiricist, so that I distrust any ideology that has not been tested in practice -- including libertarianism. I allow for the possibility that libertarian policies, such as school vouchers or drug legalization, could have some of the adverse consequences of their critics. I am prepared to change my mind depending on how policies play out.


The opposite of empiricism is dogmatism, which involves the stubborn refusal to look at the consequences of policies. For example, the support for a "living wage" strikes me as dogmatic, given the predictable results. Much of the opposition to school vouchers strikes me as dogmatic: voucher opponents overlook the manifest failures, inefficiency, and inequalities of the public school system and oppose even so much as an experiment with vouchers.


Bob Dole Redux?


Kristol's neoconservative persuasion puts economic growth at the center of his goals for domestic policy. My libertarian persuasion shares this view. These days, the anti-growth forces tend to be found on the left, among environmental radicals or economists who think that compressing the income distribution should take higher priority.


However, Kristol sees no threat to economic growth from enlarged government. He writes, "Neocons do not like the concentration of services in the welfare state and are happy to study alternative ways of delivering these services. But they are impatient with the Hayekian notion that we are on 'the road to serfdom.' Neocons do not feel that kind of alarm or anxiety about the growth of the state in the past century, seeing it as natural, indeed inevitable. Because they tend to be more interested in history than economics or sociology, they know that the 19th-century idea, so neatly propounded by Herbert Spencer in his 'The Man Versus the State,' was a historical eccentricity."


My libertarian persuasion does not share this blasé attitude toward big government. I recently wrote that I thought that the private sector and the government are in a Great Race. If the private sector loses, the scenario that I foresee is what I called an "economic implosion." I believe that we can see signs of this scenario in a number of European countries today, where the ratio of pensioners and government employees to private sector workers has gotten out of hand. In France today, it is economically impossible to pay all of the people who believe that they are entitled to live off the government, and by the same token it is politically impossible to cut their benefits.


If neocons do nothing about the growth of government spending, then I fear we will eventually follow in Europe's footsteps. Neocon tax cuts will have to be canceled sooner or later, because of the pressure of Medicare spending. Neoconservatism will degenerate into what Newt Gingrich once disparaged Bob Dole as being -- "the tax collector for the welfare state." There will be no permanent tax cuts other than supply-side reforms that can increase government revenue.


In a hopeful vein, Kristol argues that economic growth will lead to more support for free markets. "It is a basic assumption of neoconservatism that, as a consequence of the spread of affluence among all classes, a property-owning and tax-paying population will, in time, become less vulnerable to egalitarian illusions and demagogic appeals and more sensible about the fundamentals of economic reckoning."


The assumption that people will appreciate the benefits of economic growth is a risky one to make. Economic growth requires change. Old jobs must be destroyed in order for new ones to be created. Incumbents will be threatened. And, as Ronald Bailey points out, "opponents of technological progress often want decisions about new technologies to be made in political arenas. Opponents of a given new technology believe that they will have more luck by lobbying their local congressperson or member of parliament to vote to prohibit its development."


One can argue that the disruption unleashed by rapid economic growth helped produce fascism and Communism. Brink Lindsey argues persuasively that the dead hand of collectivist ideology still influences policy in our country today. The political appeal of denunciations of outsourcing indicates that the support for free markets is fragile and tenuous.


My impression is that many college-educated Americans -- perhaps even the majority -- view those of us who support free markets as cold-hearted and uncouth. Where I see the moral dignity of free choice, they see only "selfish individualism." Where I see decentralized markets as having a genius for self-regulation and information processing, they see a need for planning and oversight.


In my view, markets are a force for moral good as well as economic progress. The power of government to take away those blessings, and the alacrity with which many leaders propose to do so, requires much more vigilance than the neocons are willing to give to it. As Bruce Bartlett put it, "Bush is a big-government conservative. This reinforces my belief that he is more of a Richard Nixon than a Ronald Reagan. I just hope we don't suffer the same consequences."


Holy Alliance?


Kristol sees it as a strength of neoconservatives that they are comfortable with religious conservatives. He points out that they are "united on issues concerning the quality of education, the relations of church and state, the regulation of pornography, and the like, all of which they regard as proper candidates for the government's attention."


It is the phrase "proper candidates for government's attention" that goes against my libertarian persuasion. I absolutely share the neoconservatives' view of the degradation of American culture. I deplore the fact that there is more cursing in school today among upper-income students than there was even among ghetto schoolchildren in 1960. I am outraged at the television fare that is offered in the "family hour" slot at 8 PM. But my libertarian persuasion says that such cultural matters fall outside the sphere of government's responsibility.


Kristol is probably correct that religious conservatives are more valuable than social libertarians as political allies. Social libertarians tend to vote erratically, for protest candidates if at all. Mainstream politics and social libertarianism seem to be mutually exclusive. However, I cannot bring myself to try to win political allies by pretending to believe that government involvement in cultural and moral issues is constructive.


No World Government


On foreign policy, Kristol offers three principles with which I can agree. "First, patriotism is a natural and healthy sentiment and should be encouraged by both private and public institutions. Precisely because we are a nation of immigrants, this is a powerful American sentiment. Second, world government is a terrible idea since it can lead to world tyranny. International institutions that point to an ultimate world government should be regarded with the deepest suspicion. Third, statesmen should, above all, have the ability to distinguish friends from enemies."


These principles are consistent with what Steven Den Beste describes as the Jacksonian tradition (referring to Andrew Jackson and his supporters), following this seminal essay by Walter Russell Mead. The Jacksonian instinct is to not fight unless threatened. However, once committed to fighting, a Jacksonian seeks total victory, without moral hesitation.


Defend Israel?


On the other hand Kristol is not Jacksonian when he writes, "the United States will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from nondemocratic forces, external or internal. That is why it was in our national interest to come to the defense of France and Britain in World War II. That is why we feel it necessary to defend Israel today, when its survival is threatened."


I disagree. First of all, the way I see it, we did not come to the defense of France and Britain in World War II. France collapsed in 1940. England then fought alone. In December of 1941, we were attacked at Pearl Harbor. When we declared war on Japan, Germany declared war on us. In the process of winning that war, we allied with Britain and liberated France.


Moreover, I see no moral obligation for the United States to defend Israel. If anything, we have a more difficult moral obligation, which is to allow Israel to defend itself. If we made no effort to constrain Israel, and if Israel were to adopt a Jacksonian approach, then Yasser Arafat's headquarters would not even be in the same time zone as Ramallah.


The Terrorist Threat


Libertarians are split concerning the issue of terrorism and the war in Iraq in particular. Some libertarians believe that if America kept a lower profile in international affairs then we would not be on the radar screen of the terrorists. They view the Iraq war as a step in the wrong direction.


My libertarian/Jacksonian persuasion is that we have to defeat the terrorists. I do not see how we can win without seizing the initiative and taking the war to their turf. I suspect that the war in Iraq gives us the upper hand in dealing with states, especially Saudi Arabia, that otherwise would cater to terrorists. Even if this is wrong, and the case for invading Iraq was flimsy, I am sympathetic with this position that Mead attributes to Jacksonians: "It is a bad thing to fight an unnecessary war, but it is inexcusable and dishonorable to lose one once it has begun."


However, the neoconservative response to terrorism troubles me. I do not want to see the war against terrorism turned into a project to remake the world. Although I believe that the world would be a nicer place if there were more democracy and less poverty, I am not persuaded that the only way that we can end terrorism is by making the world a nicer place. Instead, I think that disrupting terrorist networks and disconnecting them from their state sponsors is the most cost-effective approach.


Showing My Hand


I am glad that Irving Kristol spelled out what he means by neoconservatism. By putting his cards on the table, he inspired me to show mine. I understand his argument that his neoconservative persuasion is more potent politically than my libertarian persuasion. By giving ground on the welfare state and making an alliance with religious conservatives, the neocons are able to forge a successful coalition.


But I see risks in the neocon approach. By leaving intact the apparatus of big government, the neocons may permit the revival of the "dead hand" of socialist planning. By allying with social conservatives, the neocons are saying that the "culture war" belongs in the political arena, where I fear it may do nothing but corrode and divide our society.


Finally, by advocating a high-profile, interventionist foreign policy, neocons may set in motion a process whereby the American people find themselves unhappy with the role of the world's policeman, leaving us so anxious to be relieved of that burden that we turn in desperation to world government. That may seem far-fetched, but consider that Israel's fatigue with policing the Palestinians is what led them to bring Yasser Arafat from Morocco to next door.


My libertarian persuasion may not have as much political oomph as Kristol's neoconservative persuasion. But the risks and flaws of the neoconservative persuasion are too important to ignore.


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