Presidents Will Be Presidents

 | 

With the passing of former President George H.W. Bush, we’ve heard a multitude of eulogies. Though the media often savaged him when he was president, calling him a wimp and claiming he was out of touch with ordinary Americans, he is now being held up, by his associates and many in the media, as a man of sterling character. And they consider it rude if we disagree.

Particularly after they’ve left office, presidents are reassessed in a kinder light than they merit. It’s great if they were nice to their family, fraternity brothers, or fellow politicians, but what about the people whose lives their administrations affected? Our view of them is often different. How come they do us like they do?

Not only us, but people in other countries. Sometimes especially people in other countries. Do those on the receiving end of bombing raids or drone strikes regard the president who ordered them as a stand-up guy?

It’s great if they were nice to their family, fraternity brothers, or fellow politicians, but what about the people whose lives their administrations affected?

One of the things I most appreciate about libertarian principle is its bedrock-level moral soundness. We don’t believe in hitting people or taking their things. We do believe in behaving ourselves, instead of telling others how to behave, and, whenever possible, in simply minding our own business. This makes those rare libertarians in public life stand-up guys and gals. It also gives the rest of us a reliable yardstick by which to measure them.

By our yardstick, George H.W. Bush was a pretty typical president. He stuck his nose in everybody else’s business. Not content to regulate the lives of those in his own country, or to raise our taxes (after promising he wouldn’t), Bush 41 also wanted to run the show in other countries. From his “New World Order,” no one was exempt. On a person-to-person level, there were plenty of people to whom he wasn’t very nice.

We libertarians are loath to accept the opinions of those for whom political power is the only consideration. What can we do to help change the way elected officials are evaluated? We can tell the truth about who does what to whom. We can call what our elected officials do exactly what it is.

George H.W. Bush was a pretty typical president. He stuck his nose in everybody else’s business.

All presidents in recent memory have ordered military hits on people in other countries. They have dealt death to innocent civilians. If we did that to other human beings, we’d be locked up and possibly even executed. No matter how wonderful someone may be, when that person runs for president, we can reliably predict that if victorious in the election, he or she will become a murderer. By the law binding on the rest of us, the one who orders the hit is guilty of the crime.

I mean to draw a distinction, here, between the sort of killing that defends lives and the sort that results from a war in which we are the aggressors. I’m also letting off the hook people who take the lives of those attempting to take theirs. Nor would I begrudge the right to self-defense to anyone — in or out of uniform.

Libertarians want our presidents (and Congress) to stop killing people who aren’t trying to kill us. We tell the truth about the crimes they commit. For the sake of winning elections, should we do otherwise? If we don’t tell the truth, who will?

No matter how wonderful someone may be, when that person runs for president, we can reliably predict that if victorious in the election, he or she will become a murderer.

Crimes against humanity continue to be committed in our name, and on our dime. We can do little about this except to vote against it. I joined the Libertarian Party because active participation in the party is, I believe, one of the most important ways my voice can be heard. And I’m totally willing to be rude about it. Fake decency and fake civility are vastly worse than fake news.




Share This


Not to Praise, But to Bury

 | 

As another elder statesman dies and the nation is caught in the grip of another bout of panegyrics, it’s worth stepping back to concentrate on the individual lives that they touched during their time in the halls of power. For George Herbert Walker Bush, specifically, that means considering also the plight of Keith Jackson.

In 1989, Jackson was a high school senior in Anacostia, southeast DC, living in one of the worst zip codes in the country. Like many of his peers, Jackson was a low-level drug dealer, one of the smallest cogs in a larger machine, like the Baltimore towers in The Wire. Crucially, he had reached his 18th birthday when the federal government started setting him up for a presidential publicity stunt.

See, George Bush, seemingly desperate to prove he was man enough to live up to his successor, wanted a set piece to kick off his own extension of Reagan’s War on Drugs. So his staff came up with the idea of busting someone for selling crack cocaine—still the drug warrior’s enemy of choice—in the shadow of the White House.

Bush demanded more cops to arrest drug dealers, more prosecutors to seek harsher penalties for them, and more prisons to hold all the extra convicts.

DEA agents offered up Jackson as a patsy. He’d been on their radar for months—so if selling drugs in and of itself was really such a big deal, they could have grabbed him at any point (and then he’d be replaced by another young slinger with no other prospects, and then another, ad infinitum). No, he was only worth it if he could be sacrificed for a higher purpose, like making a weedy, “wimpy” Massachusetts desk-occupier look like a tough guy. That purpose in hand, the undercover DEA agent on Jackson’s case asked him to meet at Lafayette Park, promising an extra premium to lure Jackson to Northwest DC, where black residents of the city almost never went. (As a measure of how stratified and segregated DC society was at the time — not to mention how complete the failure of the educational system — when the undercover DEA agent asked Jackson to meet him in the park across from the White House, Jackson didn’t know where that was until piecing together that it was “where Reagan lives,” and he was hesitant to make the trip because one thing he did know is how much greater the police presence would be in Official DC.)

The purchase took place on September 1, and on September 5 Bush was holding up a plastic baggie of crack cocaine during a White House address, noting that it had been “seized” (not bought) just across the street. He demanded more cops to arrest drug dealers, more prosecutors to seek harsher penalties for them, and more prisons to hold all the extra convicts. He got all of those things, often in connection with mandatory minimum laws that eliminated judicial discretion in sentencing (and which perpetuated a nonsensical divide in sentencing between powdered and crack cocaine, the burden of which fell almost entirely on the black community).

If George Bush ever cared about those whose lives didn’t intersect with his, he certainly never showed it.

Keith Jackson was one of those who fell prey to a mandatory minimum. The DEA arrested him, not at the sale for whatever reason, but immediately after Bush’s speech. After his first two trials ended in hung juries, a third trial saw him convicted and sentenced to a legally-mandated decade in prison without parole. The judge in the case, uncomfortable with the mode of Jackson’s entrapment, urged him to ask the president for a commutation. But Bush had almost immediately washed his hands of the matter: facing criticism from a variety of sources including even those had a stake in the Drug War’s continuance (like the head of the city’s police union), Bush said, “I cannot feel sorry for [Jackson]. I’m sorry, they ought not to be peddling these insidious drugs that ruin the children of this country.” And so, for the crime of selling 2.4 grams of crack cocaine to another consenting adult in a place where there had been no recorded drug busts in the past, Keith Jackson served almost eight years in prison.

What happened to him after that point is not known. One doubts that Bush ever dwelt on Jackson or any other of the thousands affected by yet another surge in the War on Drugs—young men and occasionally women losing their futures to ruthless sentencing guidelines and the economic incentives of incarceration, or often just their lives to police enforcement or to the criminal turf wars that invariably follow the artificial limiting of a highly in-demand substance. Add in the families and communities that depended on this suddenly absent and incarcerated generation, and it’s hundreds of thousands if not millions.

But if Bush ever cared about those whose lives didn’t intersect with his, he certainly never showed it, as the Iraqi people had ample opportunity to learn. In the rush to war with one-time American ally (indeed, almost appointee) Saddam Hussein over the invasion of Kuwait, Bush infamously allowed himself to be swayed by the testimony of a supposed refugee of the conflict, known only as Nayirah, who spoke of Iraqi soldiers raiding Kuwaiti hospitals, pulling prematurely born infants out of incubators and tossing them aside to die. By the time it was discovered that Nayirah was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador to the U.S., and the entire thing had been organized by an American PR firm in the employ of the Kuwaiti government, the war was already over — though its repercussions will persist long after our lifetimes.

Between his year directing the CIA and his time as vice president, he was involved in some of the most notorious operations run through the US government: Operation Condor, the School of the Americas, the Iran-Contra affair.

An estimated 100,000 Iraqi soldiers and an unknown number of civilians were killed in that first Gulf War, with the particular highlight of the Highway of Death, in which American forces blockaded and massacred retreating Iraqi forces, as well as any civilians unfortunate enough to be within cluster bomb range. Content with this level of slaughter, Bush called off hostilities the next day—a point in his favor, perhaps, when compared to those overseeing the unceasing carnage of today’s forever wars. But Bush hardly had clean hands before this, having already orchestrated an illegal invasion of Panama. Between his year directing the CIA and his time as vice president, he was involved in some of the most notorious operations run through the US government: Operation Condor, the School of the Americas, the Iran-Contra affair; it will be decades though, if ever, before we learn just how deeply he was implicated.

There’s much else to dislike about the elder Bush and the legacy he is leaving behind, in particular his enablement of many awful people. You can draw a direct line from his campaign manager Lee Atwater and his infamous Willie Horton ad to the race-baiting scare tactics used by Donald Trump. A look at Bush’s administrative appointees reveals many of the big names—Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld — who would go on to botch the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, all the while pushing for ever more wars on ever more fronts. (Which is not even to mention his son who, in signing off on Gulf War Redux, committed what is thus far the greatest geopolitical blunder of the century.) You could talk also about his surrender to the tax-and-spenders on budget issues, or to the Religious Right about gay rights. You could also give him credit where it’s due: for handling the end of the Cold War with flexibility and grace, for committing himself to promoting volunteerism and community service, for not following in the footsteps of his father, Prescott Bush, and signing on to any half-baked fascist coups against the US government.

All this, at least the good stuff, or the bad stuff that various media figures want to recast as good, will be gone over ad infinitum. But when you see the footage of his funerals, when you take in the official outpouring of grief that is increasingly mandatory on such occasions, when above all you hear anyone talking about how George H.W. Bush advocated for a “kinder, gentler conservatism,” spare a thought for Keith Jackson. It’s more than Bush ever did.



Share This


All in the Tribe

 | 

A clear warning was sounded by the Republican national convention of 1996. Determined to nominate Bob Dole, a Republican elder statesman of the “moderate” variety (otherwise known as a Real Pro, the Great Insider, and One of Ours), the Grand Old Party turned its national deliberative body into a television soundstage, allowing no debate on anything. Only happy talk was permitted, and when the popular hero of the conservatives, Pat Buchanan, suddenly appeared in the convention hall, his entrance was distinctly without the permission of the tribal leaders. As Liberty’s reporter observed at the time (November 1996, p. 22), the ruling council feared that real people would have their way and nominate Buchanan. Meanwhile, the big chiefs did their best, and that was a lot, to remove all evidence of testicles from Jack Kemp, the quasi-libertarian whom they nominated for the vice presidency.

I am not saying that Pat Buchanan is a libertarian. Far from it. I am commenting on the behavior of his adversaries. Since their powwow, there hasn’t been a major-party national convention that has behaved as a deliberative body. They have all been like the First Vatican Council (1870), which was devised by Pope Pius IX as a stage set on which he could declare himself infallible. Pio Nono refused to allow the attending bishops to initiate any proposals, or even to know what their agenda was supposed to be. When some tried to protest, they found that the acoustics in the meeting room were so bad that almost nobody could understand them. When a few tried harder to protest, they were threatened with the loss of their sees. And so the invincible Pope was declared infallible.

There were many strong and learned people in the church who exposed the fallacies of Pius IX’s new doctrine, but the majority of bishops were so ignorant, stupid, frightened, or greedy for power that they went right along with it. They were not a congregation; they were a tribe, subject to their tribal rulers, just as American political parties are today.

Tribalism is now a leading characteristic of our politics, and perhaps the leading one. You see it in many forms, most of which are never mentioned in the information media — another sign of the ignorance and acquiescence that are inseparable accompaniments of tribalism. Ignorance and acquiescence are fit companions for each other. Why should anyone want to know anything, if no one is prepared to act on the knowledge that he or she might acquire?

Nepotism is another salient characteristic of tribal rule. In most tribes, leadership passes almost automatically from one member of a family to another. The more frightened and ignorant people are, the more they fear diversity of character and opinion; they want to keep what they have, or something closely related to it. Hence, the ruler’s son or grandson or son-in-law will be seen as having a direct claim on power. Once the unworthy person has gained power, he will be conscious of the ability of other persons to uncover his weaknesses or wrongdoings, and he will therefore seek to govern by loyalty, not information. He will continue to trust family ties more than the ties established by a common pursuit of rational goals.

Why should anyone want to know anything, if no one is prepared to act on the knowledge that he or she might acquire?

And, of course, tribal government is intensely small-scale and personal. Where power depends on charismatic personalities, the safest and easiest method of passing it along is by an irrational association with family. The Bible tells us that Samuel, judge and prophet, tried to appoint his sons as judges — as inheritors, in his place, of the divine charisma. It is noteworthy, however, that on this occasion the people rebelled; they were aware that the sons were no good, and they acted on that knowledge, and threw them out.

With us, all such processes of rational choice ended with the Kennedys. The Kennedy clan always did and always will act on tribal principles. And their tribe was originally embedded in a larger tribe, the Irish New England Catholics who would vote for anyone so long as he was not “English” or “Protestant.” The real problem arose when the whole country began acting in this way, accepting Ted Kennedy and even greater idiots, such as Patrick Kennedy, as natural successors to the bright and charismatic JFK. Robert Kennedy was a more competent bearer of charisma, but his position in the Kennedy clan was the only thing that really mattered to his success. Here was a man who had made himself stink in the nostrils of organized labor and the FDR liberals, a man who enjoyed a relationship with Joseph McCarthy, a man who was noted for his nastiness and ruthlessness — do you think his political career could possibly have gone anywhere if he had not happened to be a president’s brother?

Since the 1960s, no revelations of the gross immorality and stupidity that have abounded in the Kennedy family have proved capable of destroying the tribal loyalty felt for it by large segments of the American populace. Even more disturbing is the fact that the original tribe, the Irish Catholics, and the larger tribe, Americans in general, neither cared nor noticed that the ideology of the Kennedys — the thing about their political leadership that was subject to rational debate, pro or con — evolved into something almost directly opposite to what the voters had originally found attractive. Jack Kennedy was mildly-to-very “rightwing” in most of his public positions; his successors have ranged from very leftwing to crazy leftwing. This made no difference to the tribe.

The Clintons and the Bushes have built their political lives on Americans’ new susceptibility to tribalism. No objective judge of personal merit and fitness to attain the presidency would ever come close to regarding such people as Bill and Hillary Clinton, or the two Presidents Bush, as fit for any office of public trust, above, say, the level of notary public — and any notary whose standards of truth were similar to theirs would soon lose his seal. The Bushes are basically nice people; the Clintons are basically not; but that doesn’t mean that the Bushes had an inflexible habit of telling the truth. They didn’t. As for the Clintons, it’s hard to see that they have ever given the truth much value. Hillary has lied enthusiastically, even when there was no reason or occasion to lie. The revelations of the Clintons’ misconduct (has there been any other kind of conduct with them?) have never shaken their hold on an enormous tribe of voters, donors, and subject officials.

It’s not just my 12-year-old-kid ideal of America that leads me to see inheritance of political office as a bad omen for the republic. If there were something intellectually or morally distinguished about the nepotists, I would not object to one Bush or Clinton following the other. But neither morality nor intelligence has anything to do with it. There are millions of Americans who are smarter than the Bushes, the Clintons, and the Kennedys (yes, even the Kennedys). As for morals: the moral character of the Bushes was about par for American presidential politics, but the character of the Kennedys and Clintons came from another universe — the universe, perhaps, of the old Germanic tribes. At the presidential level, the notion that personal morality is politically irrelevant, the notion that “they all do it” and therefore I should do it too, is an innovation, and a most unhappy one. Say what you will about the hypocrisy of old-fashioned moral standards, I would rather have a pretense of morality than the assumption that it is meaningless.

In what society other than that of a warlike band of hunters and gatherers would Kathleen Sebelius still have a job?

What, you might say, about earlier instances of presidencies passed from one member of a family to another? Well, what about it? John Quincy Adams was the son of the great John Adams, and he benefited from the connection, but his intellectual attainments and his enormous experience as a diplomat would have made him an important political figure even without his relationship to his father — who was, by the way, not much liked in the early 19th century, if ever. Quincy Adams wasn’t a good president, but his father wasn’t to blame for that. Benjamin Harrison was the grandson of William Henry Harrison, who died a month after his inauguration; the family connection appears to have had no significance in his career. The same might be said of Franklin Roosevelt, in respect to his distant relative, Theodore Roosevelt. Tribalism had nothing to do with FDR’s popularity; it has everything to do with Mrs. Clinton’s.

But tribes do not consist merely of biological families; there are also the allies and subordinate chiefs, the official families and political families of the rulers. The Kennedys and Clintons maintained (and maintain) vast numbers of flacks, fixers, hangers-on, speechwriters, ghostwriters, media allies, and just plain dumb-loyal employees of government whose real job is to maintain the power of the tribe. Their loyalty is their most important asset, and it is repaid in kind. The tribe takes care of its own.

One of the most ominous signs of tribalism in our political life is the paucity of expulsions from the central hearth. The Bushes were very loath to fire anyone, and Obama is still more loath. In what society other than that of a warlike band of hunters and gatherers would Kathleen Sebelius still have a job? It may be that Obama is afraid of releasing people because they know too much (although the example of Sebelius argues otherwise, because she obviously knows nothing about anything). Fears of untoward revelations were a strong factor with Bill Clinton’s administration, as they will be with any administration conducted by his wife; the Clintonistas, like the Kennedyphiles, have always behaved like a mob bound by blood oaths. In any case, recent administrations have placed the chief virtue of tribal society, which is loyalty, above every other virtue. The example has been imitated by every political group subsidiary to them. No spokesman for feminism, environmentalism, veterans’ assistance, ethnic causes, or even non-drunken driving can be driven from the podium by anything less than video proof of heinous crimes; at the first sign of trouble, the protective ring of loyalists shuts tight around them.

The result is that loyalists increase and prosper, and independent and critical minds are driven from politics. Tribes can be conquered (usually by other tribes) or they can starve themselves out of existence, but they cannot be reformed. The barbarian tribes that destroyed the Roman Empire either wiped one another out or were reduced to poverty and impotence by the devastation they had caused. It is sad but all too plausible: the American republic will perish in the tribal wars of Kennedys and Bushes, Clinton clones and Obama clones, pressure groups of elephants and pressure groups of donkeys.




Share This


The Carnival at Dallas

 | 

The spectacle of five presidents — Carter, Bush, Clinton, the other Bush, Obama — meeting to compliment one another at the opening of the second Bush’s presidential library reminded me irresistibly of chapter 26 of Candide, the Symposium of Monarchs. In that episode, Voltaire satirizes authority by arranging for six kings to discover that they are staying at the same inn at Venice. Their conversation reveals their inanity and (as Voltaire would have it) the inanity of human life. Whatever you think of Voltaire’s ideas, it’s a very funny chapter.

So here we have our own Symposium of Monarchs, a meeting of men who have wielded infinitely more power than any king of the Old Regime. Who are these people?

None of them had any qualification whatever for the office once assumed by Washington. In fact, it’s hard to think of anyone, among all the varied occupants of the presidential chair, who was less qualified than they were. Maybe John Tyler. In fact, none of them was impelled to the position by anything other than ambition for office.

Two of them — the Bushes — are agreeable human beings, and the elder Bush was a war hero, a real war hero. Unfortunately, neither father nor son had any intellectual qualifications. The younger Bush reads history but is incapable of profiting from his studies. The elder Bush showed himself incapable of understanding even his own emphatic promise not to raise taxes. He folded as soon as the opposing party offered to sell him a bridge in Brooklyn. He bought the bridge, and lost the presidency. The younger Bush was unable to understand even the rudimentary principles of limited government. But you could say that about all of them. None of them showed even the faintest understanding of his oath of office.

Carter is a mean, twisted, little man, a disgusting specimen of self-righteousness and vindictiveness. My goal in life is to stay as far away as possible from things like that.

Intellectual qualifications . . . unlike virtually all former presidents, none of the five, with the possible exception of Carter, is able to speak in his own voice for even one minute without committing a gross grammatical error. None of them, including the current president, himself reputedly the author of a book, is capable of an accurate allusion to anybody else’s book. Most of them don’t even try. Listen to Obama’s speeches; notice what or whom he mentions. It’s always “a teacher in Montana” or “a little girl in New Jersey.” Acton? Madison? Webster? Whitman? Churchill? Cather? Twain? And here they are at the dedication of a library.

Experience? Carter and Clinton were goofball governors of Southern states. The Bushes were rich people. Obama was a black student who was elected, for unknown but surmisable reasons, editor of a college law review, then a hack politician employed by the Chicago political machine.

Personal qualifications? Great personalities? Commanding leadership? Eccentric and interesting insights? Inspiring examples of morality? All these people, except the elder Bush, who was a professional promiser and non-fulfiller, can properly be called professional liars. Some lied with an exuberance appropriate to men who really enjoy the sport. On Carter, see Robert Novak’s autobiography; you’ll be entertained. On Clinton, consult your memories. On Obama, just listen to the man. On the younger Bush . . . I’m not referring to his theories about Iraq, on which he appears to have been sincerely deluded. On such issues as censorship (freedom of speech is sacred, but take all this sex off the internet), big government (I’m against it, but raise high the roofbeams, carpenters!), and immigration (open the gates, but pretend to be building walls), he lied with abandon.

Which one of these people would you like to serve with on a condo board? A department committee? A working group of any kind? Chorus of “None!” Carter would automatically attack as “racist” anyone who disagreed with him. Obama, a good casting choice for Creon in Antigone, would insist on lecturing everyone like a high school principal. The Bushes would never finish a sentence. Clinton would be looking for a deal that would enrich himself and promote the career of his banshee wife. And which one of them would you like to have a beer with? Which one — to return to the Candide analogy — would you like to encounter at the Carnival of Venice?

My answer used to be, “All of them but Carter.” Carter is a mean, twisted, little man, a disgusting specimen of self-righteousness and vindictiveness. My goal in life is to stay as far away as possible from things like that. But I used to say that if I lived next door to Obama or one of the other recent presidents, I would enjoy talking to him. I used to say that I imagined he would be a good neighbor. A couple of years ago, I got in trouble at a libertarian conference by saying these things.

If these men had remained private citizens, if they had never, accidentally, been elevated to the presidency, would I have wanted to schmooze with them?

But now I’m not so sure. I guess it’s still true about the good neighbor part. None of the non-Carter presidents fits the profile of a bad neighbor, if only because none of them cares very much about who waters the lawn. (Some underling will do it.) On Centre Street in San Diego, this noble disengagement would be a relief. It’s a long way, however, from qualifying someone for political power. I don’t think that Obama, Clinton, or the Bushes would start baying at the moon, or building houses for po’ folk in my back yard. But do I want to have a beer with one of these presidents? Maybe not.

True, I’d like to hear them discuss their political experiences. I wouldn’t object; I’d just listen. I’d buy a whole saloonful of beers, just to be able to do that . . . except . . . except for this vagrant thought: if these men had remained private citizens, if they had never, accidentally, been elevated to the presidency, would I have wanted to schmooze with them? Would I have thought they merited a change in my schedule?

The obvious answer is: Hell no! Are you kidding?

If Obama were a high school principal, or even a congressman, who would want to talk with him? There is nothing, nothing whatever, that is interesting about the man, except the weird political processes that elected him — on which he himself is unlikely to be an authority. Ditto Clinton — of no interest unless you’re one of those old-timey guys who liked to hang with the whores and the cops and collect their observations. The Bushes? Sorry. Life is short. As Gertrude Stein opined, “There’s no there, there.”

When, in Voltaire’s novel, Candide meets his useless monarchs, and so many of them at once, he is at first convinced that he is “witnessing a masquerade.” Then he says, “Gentlemen, this is an odd joke. Why are you all kings?”

He never gets an answer.




Share This


Where Do We Stand Today?

 | 

Major events concentrate the mind on major issues.

At this moment, we are all trying to analyze the results of the great American election of 2010. We are also celebrating the beginning of Liberty magazine’s online edition — proof of the continuity of libertarian ideas across all movements and events of history.

Much has happened in American politics since Liberty first went to press, back in the summer of 1987. This is a good time to ask how well liberty itself has fared during the past quarter century.

It's sad to realize that the history of these years can most readily be divided into periods, not by great new inventions or movements, but by presidential personalities — the age of Reagan, the age of Bush the First, the age of Clinton, and so on. Let's start by looking at the major features of the world in which Liberty was born, the age of Reagan (second administration).

The most prominent political feature of that world has passed away — the threat of nuclear annihilation of the West by the empire of communism. That threat had overshadowed a generation of Americans, sometimes manifesting itself as a chronic anxiety, sometimes rising to a pitch of hysteria, but always costing mightily in emotion and in wealth. For anyone who came to conscious life after, say, 1991, the effects of a threat like this are probably impossible to understand. I hope they remain that way. Nevertheless, the danger went away. The grand threat of communism was replaced by the nasty threats of Muslim fanaticism and creeping nuclear proliferation; but while these are worth worrying about, they are not quite comparable.

Perhaps the most powerful cause of the collapse of communism was the burden of its own inefficiency, a flaw that libertarian thinkers had never ceased to emphasize.

Why did the communist empire fall? An event of this kind has many causes, and you are free to emphasize one or another of them, depending on your politics. One was probably President Reagan's determination to out-spend and out-invent the communist military machine. Another was Reagan's use of essentially libertarian arguments about the benefits of individual freedom to inspire the West with a new determination to resist the propaganda of defeatism. (A well-advertised determination to resist is itself a powerful counter-threat, and in this case it seems to have had a major effect on collectivist morale, everywhere.) Perhaps the most powerful cause of the collapse of communism was the burden of its own inefficiency, a flaw that libertarian thinkers had never ceased to emphasize, even as their arguments were laughed to scorn by "progressive" thinkers in the West, and even as conservative American leaders worried that the communists were about to "catch up" with us. They didn't; they fell on the track, victims of the astonishing skill and inventiveness of individual enterprise.

Those of us who were politically conscious (or in my case, semi-conscious) in 1989–1991 recognized the communist collapse as a tremendous victory for libertarian ideas. If this be “triumphalism,” make the most of it; the echoes of our triumph are still heard, most recently in America’s general revulsion against the idea of a “single-payer” (that is, communized) national insurance scheme. Contrast the favorable reception of a single-payer retirement system — Social Security — two generations before.

Though not all libertarians would agree, real progress was also made by Reagan’s forthright defense of what is now called American “exceptionalism.” There is indeed something exceptional about America, and Reagan didn’t say that the exceptional thing was religion, ethnic diversity, immigration, community spirit, or anything else that is considered politically correct on either the Left hand or the Right. He said it was freedom, free enterprise — and he was correct.

Yet by summer 1987 it had become obvious that Reagan’s own legacy was more conservative than libertarian. He simplified the tax brackets, which had been designed to extract the maximum possible out of every nickel added to your income, and in so doing he reduced the tax rates; but this, as anticipated, actually raised total government income. Then his administration proceeded to spend much more than its income. That was not a libertarian thing to do.

One thing that limits state power in America is the individual states, which in the federal system are supposed to check and balance the overweening might of Washington. Reagan believed in federalism — but only when it fitted his own purposes. He was responsible for nationalizing the drinking age at an absurd 21, by using federal highway funds as a bludgeon against states that, very rationally, didn’t want to go along. And while he was a mighty foe of regulation, he was also a friend of the ridiculous war on unregulated recreational drugs. You can say the same thing about every other president, except the current one; but we might expect more from a conservative president who once told Reason magazine that “the very heart and soul of conservatism” was libertarianism.

In the case of both Presidents Bush, “conservative” should be placed in quotes. Ideological labels don’t stick very well to sheer incompetence.

Reagan was also to blame for some serious sins of omission. He intended to abolish the Department of Education, but he paid little attention to the person he appointed as secretary of that department; and when the appointee turned out to be a public foe of abolition, Reagan let the project drop. The result: three decades of enormous and destruction educational spending and meddling by the national government. In addition, Reagan, a man of deep personal loyalty (a good thing), permitted his vice president, George Bush, to be anointed as his successor (a very bad thing).

I don’t have to connect all the dots that outline the political profile of George H.W. Bush, although each of them contributed to the success of Liberty in its attempt to distinguish grassroots libertarians from conservatives in power. But probably, in the case of both Presidents Bush, “conservative” should be placed in quotes. Ideological labels don’t stick very well to sheer incompetence.

The first President Bush nominated Clarence Thomas, a firm and deep libertarian, to the Supreme Court, and stuck by him when he refused to yield to the most violent opposition that any Court nominee has ever endured. That was a good thing — indeed, a great thing — but it didn’t respond to any interest in judicial philosophy on the part of the “conservative” president. It responded, again, to a sense of personal loyalty, which is not to be blamed but can hardly be depended upon as a means of advancing liberty. Bush’s other appointee was David Souter, who was one of the most anti-libertarian, and certainly one of the stupidest and least qualified, people ever to roost on the Supreme Court bench. A political crony vouched for Souter, so Bush nominated him, as Eisenhower had nominated the outrageous judicial activist William Brennan.

Someone, someday, will write a book called “The Mystery of George H.W. Bush.” It will attempt to answer the question, “How can a hero of World War II, and subsequently an observer of every seamy transaction in the wars of American politics, emerge as such a sap?” Bush won office by promising that he would veto any attempted tax increase: “Read my lips: no new taxes!” He then agreed to raise taxes, on the promise of his political opponents to lower government expenditures, something that they had no intention of doing. It’s hard to think of any other president who would have been foolish enough to make such an agreement, and it very appropriately cost Bush his presidency.

Bush showed great ability at persuading foreigners to unite with the United States in asserting Kuwait’s independence after the oil-rich kingdom had been forcibly annexed by Iraq. He also showed great fortitude. I well recall watching news coverage of the buildup to the first Gulf War. I was in the company of other libertarians, all very bright people. Their reaction, as they saw the troops walking onto the ships: “Poor kids! They’ll never come back alive.” And that was a possibility. Yet Bush took the risk and fought a successful war in the Gulf, a war that actually came to a conclusion.

He also fought a successful, though much less honorable, war against Manuel Noriega, dictator of Panama — allegedly for his involvement with drug trafficking, actually for his general antagonism to the United States. Bush had Noriega snatched from Panama and tried in the United States, where he was convicted of crimes against the laws of a country that was not his own. You don’t have to be sympathetic to Noriega to sense that President Bush wasn’t a deep thinker about international law. Nor do you need extraordinary intelligence to perceive, in the wars of the first Bush administration, the seeds of wars in the second.

If ideas count — and they do — a modern liberal Democrat president had admitted that libertarians, the foes of every idea he endorsed, had won the argument.

It is hard to find a libertarian feature of the first Bush regime, and harder still to find one in the early regime of Bill Clinton. The only good thing about it was Hillary Clinton’s elephantine attempt to socialize the nation’s healthcare system, and the failure of her attempt. It failed, not principally because of the Republican Party’s opposition, but because of the people’s response to a well-calculated television ad campaign, supported by some intelligent and interested people on the Right. To the political pros, the campaign seemed to have “come out of nowhere,” yet it re-energized the forces of limited government. A year later, these forces united behind new ones within the Republican Party and ousted the president’s party from its leadership of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. Clinton’s response was to proclaim that “the era of big government is over.”

Of course, that was a lie. As several people commented at the time, all he meant was that the era of lots and lots of little government was continuing. Nevertheless, if ideas count — and they do — a modern liberal Democrat president had admitted that libertarians, the foes of every idea he endorsed, had won the argument.

Unfortunately, his remarks were a warning, for those who would listen, that future government aggressions would be finessed, not announced. In future, modern liberals like Al Gore would pretend that they had a “lock box” in which to put Social Security taxes, and that the box would never be raided for the use of any other government project — a mythological concession to the people’s desire to limit the state’s depredations. And in future, modern socialists like Barack Obama would claim that even their most Ozymandian schemes, such as Obama’s healthcare “reform,” would “pay for themselves” or even “reduce government expenditures.”

La Rochefoucauld said that hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. If so, we can do without any more tributes. The truth of libertarian ideas is admitted, in principle. Still, it’s the false ideas that get put into practice.

Clinton commissioned countless military adventures abroad, in Eastern Europe and in the Near East; they seldom amounted to much, although they asserted the kind of bellicosity that his own party now wants to run away from. But Clinton did two good things for the cause of limited government: he made an alliance with the Republicans for a sweeping, and successful, reform of welfare; and by his scandals he so diminished the prestige of the presidency as to make people significantly less likely to believe and trust elected officials. Bad news for government is usually good news for liberty.

What shall we say about the second President Bush? Unlike Bill Clinton, he wouldn't be a bad person to have as a neighbor — unless, of course, he decided that you might be secreting a weapon of mass destruction. R.W. Bradford, the founder of Liberty, once published an article in which he tried to account for Bush's invasion of Iraq. After a close review of the evidence, he concluded that Bush really believed his own account of the dangers that Saddam Hussein posed to the world. I found Bradford's reasoning persuasive. Bush was not an evil man; he was a gullible man, and he was usually gullible in the ways in which modern liberals are gullible. Until recently, they too believed in solving problems, real or perceived, by projecting military power abroad; indeed, more leading Democrats initially supported the second Gulf War than had supported the first one.

If Bush had happened to be a member of the Democratic Party (which, except for his family identification, he could easily have been, given his general political ideas), no one on that side would have quibbled about his vast government expenditures and vast government indebtedness, or his blithe disregard for any limitations on the power of the federal government. It was Bush who engineered one of the greatest federal takeovers in history, Washington’s massive intervention in local education, under the title of "No Child Left Behind."

In 2008, George Bush the modern liberal was succeeded by Barack Obama, another modern liberal — but a much more self-conscious and socialistic one. People in the eighteenth century used to analyze people by reference to their “ruling passion,” to whatever it is about them that they are willing to sacrifice everything else to. President Obama’s ruling passion is intellectual arrogance, the kind of arrogance that finds its equal, among American presidents, only in the disastrous mentality of President Wilson. Wilson never understood why he was deserted by the people over the issue of the League of Nations; after all, his ideas were correct. For Obama, as for Wilson, “correct” means “progressive,” and “progressive” means “maintaining unquestioned faith in the uninformed notions of the leader.”

No hypocrisy here: Obama believes sincerely in the ideas he enunciates. He believes implicitly in Keynesianism, minus Keynes’s qualifications of his theories; in the most naïve form of dirigisme, minus the glitter of Louis Napoleon and Baron Haussmann; in the managerial economics of Henry Wallace, minus Wallace’s wonderful goofiness (though Obama followed the Reverend Mr. Wright as Wallace followed his “guru”). In short, Obama is not an intellectual, no, not by a mile. He simply makes the mistake of believing that he somehow arrived at his naïve ideas through a long process of thought and experience, and that his inspiring “philosophy” is his ticket to success.

For Obama, as for Woodrow Wilson, “correct” means “progressive,” and “progressive” means “maintaining unquestioned faith in the uninformed notions of the leader.”

Clearly, it’s not. If “success” means “being elected,” right now he couldn’t be nominated as an alderman in Chicago. If it means “moral superiority,” why are you laughing right now? Obama’s administration demonstrates the truth of an important libertarian idea, developed by Friedrich Hayek in the chapter of “The Road to Serfdom” that he called “Why the Worst Get on Top.”

I’ll summarize the argument in this way: socialism attracts people for many reasons. One is a desire for unearned material rewards. Another is a lust for the power that socialized economies automatically convey to an elite. But yet another is the humanitarian idealism that is felt by some of the world’s morally “best” people. They enlist in the socialist cause because they think it will make a better world. These are the “hopey-changey” people. But when a socialist regime comes into power, it inevitably demonstrates, as Obama’s regime has demonstrated, that its promises cannot be fulfilled, especially in the terms originally proposed. At this point, the best of the hopey-changey people hop off the train; the worst stay on, making their way toward the front by means of lies and intimidation.

Consider the leading personnel of the Obama regime — the Nancy Pelosis and Harry Reids, the David Axelrods and Rahm Emanuels — and you will see the principle in action. Because our tradition of limited government has been preserved in many important respects, the “worst” in America are not allowed to be as bad as the “worst” could get in, say, Stalinist Bulgaria; but they are as bad as bad can be, in American terms. They are living demonstrations of the intellectual and moral vacancy of socialism, American style, and so is their boss, Obama.

So where do we stand today?

We stand at the end of a quarter century of confirmations of libertarian ideas. We stand in the midst of an enormous popular rebellion against the state, a rebellion conducted almost entirely in libertarian terms. The Tea Party movement is not the only example. In every state, in virtually every county, ordinary intelligent Americans are calling for retrenchments of government. Sometimes their protests are united with demands that run contrary to libertarian ideas, demands motivated by conservative religious dogmas or opposition to international trade or the “outsourcing” of industry. But these notions are not the rudder on the ship. In most cases, they are scarcely heard.

If nothing else, the elections of 2010 showed that the American people are tremendously dissatisfied with the performance of Obama and his party, and on thoroughly libertarian grounds. The results of the election indicate a massive revolt against both the arrogance and the enabling ideas of the modern state.

The vehicle of this revolt has not been the Libertarian Party, which is no longer the most conspicuous political manifestation of the freedom movement. The main vehicle is now the venerable Republican Party. Despite the absence of a self-described libertarian president, despite the presence of time-serving apparatchiks as leaders of the congressional Republicans, the G.O.P. is as much infused with libertarian ideas as the Democratic Party is infused with socialist ones — and that’s saying something.

This remarkable development was made possible by three other developments, two of them quite unexpected.

One was the internet revolution, a supreme technological application of the principle of spontaneous order that libertarians have always advocated. The internet’s creation of a new kind of spontaneous order ended the hegemony of the government-authorized radio and television networks, which in 1987 allowed barely a hint of libertarianism to surface in the national discourse. Their dominance has been utterly destroyed. Now, anyone who has a good idea, an idea that works — and libertarian ideas do work — can reach out to other people and give the idea a potent political expression. Add to this the growth of cable TV, hungry for real ideas that will interest real people.

Another unexpected development was the growth in influence of libertarian journals, think tanks, and other voluntary organizations, making their way in the new channels of the internet and cable TV. The Cato Institute, the Mises Institute, Reason magazine, Liberty magazine, FreedomFest . . . these are only a few purveyors of libertarian ideas reaching out to a broad audience of Americans and giving them intellectual ammunition to continue the war against the coercive state. Gone are the days when the New York Times quoted someone from the Ford Foundation, and CBS quoted the New York Times, and “public opinion” resulted. Now libertarian ideas and libertarian research and the evidence of a successful libertarian society, as embodied in the internet itself, are as close as anyone’s keyboard, where they compete very successfully, thank you, with the ideas of the closed society.

What’s the third development? It’s simply the persistence and continual confirmation of essential libertarian ideas. The arguments of Locke and Madison, Friedman and Mises, Paterson and Hayek, haven’t changed during the past 23 years; but they have been ratified by more, and more conclusive, events and understood by more, and more informed, people. This is not the moment for regret or despair; this is the moment for confidence in the future, in our country, and in ourselves.

ldquo;reduce government expenditures.rdquo; of industry. But these notions are not the rudder on the ship. In most cases, they are scarcely heard.

ldquo;reduce government expenditures.




Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2019 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.