(Editors Note: Todd Seavey and I met while both producers for Judge Andrew Napolitano’s FreedomWatch on the Fox Business Network in New York. While working together we held many ideological debates, many of them centering on foreign policy. One afternoon Todd related to me that he had some things in common with neoconservatives (he might even call himself a libertarian neocon) and I nearly violated the non-aggression principle right then and there. Thankfully I didn’t and after I calmed down and listened to him, he gave me a subtle, articulate and nuanced explanation for why he held the views that human rights were universal, and shouldn’t be defined by borders alone. Seavey is someone for whom I have eminent respect for and after you read his essay, I’m sure you will too.)
Neoconservatism: A Journal of Desire Armed
By Todd Seavey
Like many Gen Xers and others old enough to remember the Cold War, I was surprised to hear so many millennial libertarians, starting a decade ago, speak of “neocons” as if they were the primary enemy. (Don’t we have socialists to fight? Is there no longer a broader free-market movement?)
Since then, I’ve come to think the two sides in the spat largely deserve each other, but it’s worth explaining, especially for the very young, how some of us might have thought of ourselves as hardcore libertarians and (in some sense) neoconservatives at the same time, especially in the giddy days of the Reagan Coalition.
First of all, the term “neocon” as used by some of the more simple-minded young libertarians of today is so clearly a pejorative that anyone accepting the label in libertarian circles might as well be saying, “Yes, I am a sadistic Satanist.” But only a child believes his political foes are motivated by deliberate sadism or pure bloodlust. In the real world, people have differing philosophies over how best to make the world happy and prosperous, but that can usually be assumed to be the goal. The disagreements, while substantial, are largely over methods.
Rather than being nasty Satanists, the first neoconservatives, such as William Kristol and John Podhoretz’s fathers Irving and Norman, respectively, were defined mainly by their interest in applying modern sociological thinking to the problems of urban crime and poverty that haunted 1960s intellectuals. Long story short; that led these former leftists — i.e., neo-conservatives — to look to things like tradition, moralism, and religion for answers, in ways that had long been considered outmoded by overwhelmingly left-leaning intellectuals.
By the final decade of the Cold War — the Reagan Era — a commonsensical-seeming neoconservative consensus united domestic and foreign policy in across-the-board opposition to socialism. Stop the left at home, stop the Soviets abroad. What’s not to love about that from a libertarian perspective?
To those of us coming of age on college campuses just after the Cold War ended (and reading books like The Closing of the American Mind by Leo Strauss-influenced Allan Bloom), the moralism of the neocons — or just plain “conservatives,” since we all seemed to be on the same side, opposed to the left, back then — was also a welcome alternative to the left’s relativism, which was one of the primary means of cloaking socialism: Who are we to say that what seems right in America is also right in Albania, and so on and so forth?
Far from harboring dreams of isolationism or even non-interventionism, most of us who came of age as libertarians in that cohort, I would guess, agreed that individual rights ought to be universally legally protected, even if that meant (ideally, one day) toppling every last government on Earth, including our own. But better to start, perhaps, with Moscow or Tehran — that is, if push came to shove, internal reform proved impossible, and lives were urgently at stake. Change without bloodshed is always best, but in a defensive situation, spilled blood is ultimately on the hands of those who began the coercion, including tyrants, commissars, and terrorists.
To suggest, by contrast, that libertarian rights apply inside the (presumably arbitrary) geographic boundary of the U.S. but do not apply to the (equally human) Albanians or Cubans or Iraqis overseas would be a bizarre relapse into leftist, geographically-arbitrary relativism, a way of thinking unbecoming a serious, committed libertarian. It still is.
Now, admittedly, practical concerns lead me to foreign policy recommendations closer to Ron Paul’s than to William Kristol’s (Rand Paul seems fairly balanced to me). One can share the neocons’ idealistic vision of a liberated, globalized world without thereby being obliged to leap to military solutions when diplomacy or simple commerce might do the trick and do it more cheaply, humanely, and sustainably. Ultimately, I think the truly ambitious goal should be not just the toppling of current bad regimes but the replacement (as has occurred repeatedly throughout history) of warrior cultures by commercial cultures, since the latter tend to be more peaceful and tolerant.
But in culture as in so much else, we learn by doing. So, even if it sometimes means smiling at ghouls and letting a few retired terrorists live to ripe old ages as rug salesmen, it may often be better to let the fighting peter out and the old battles be forgotten than to march in with troops every time it seems justifiable. We shouldn’t want a warrior culture to dominate at home any more than we want it to dominate abroad (though it’s nice if the other guys get disarmed first).
Further, as neocon-turned-libertarian C. Bradley Thompson has written, neoconservatism has arguably metastasized since the days of the broad Reagan Coalition into something closer to the nightmare that its critics always imagine: a fascism-like, communitarian philosophy that regards warrior culture as superior to boring, frivolous commercial culture. The younger Kristol and the terrible David Brooks are at times quite explicit about holding this rather un-American view, even as they present it as the essence of patriotism, and belittling limited-government rhetoric while they’re at it.
Their greatest intellectual crime is not just jingoist rhetoric, though — it’s the way their jingoism and communitarianism destroys whatever ability to reason economically they might have picked up from real conservatives. I don’t know if Kristol is literally subsidized by the military-industrial complex, but he shows little fear that its preferred methods of solving overseas disputes might prove to be net costs to the U.S. taxpayer or to commercial society in general.
Unlike the millennials, who admittedly had to come of age watching the big-spending, big-warring Bush administration in action, I came of age assuming conservatism meant believing that reality comes before political idealism. That means that the laws of economics take precedence over welfare-statist dreams and admitting that one might face a situation in which one innocent hostage has to be killed along with an entire phalanx of terrorists in order to prevent countless other innocents being murdered — but it also means admitting when a (big-government) project like the Iraq War is going badly and learning not to do something like that again.
As Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) said at a House foreign affairs hearing on February 11: “As we witness the black flag of al-Qaeda again fly over cities such as Fallujah…for Christians in Iraq, life appears to be worse now than it was under the vicious dictator Saddam Hussein.”
For all the neocons’ errors, though, it would be a mistake to regard them as ideological “opposites” of libertarians rather than as politely feuding cousins. The post-9/11 crackup on the right (neoconservatives vs. paleoconservatives, conservatives vs. libertarians, libertarians vs. themselves) can muddle deeper philosophical commonalities. Take for instance the split among libertarians between paleolibertarians — who are often rooted in regional loyalty and love of a specific instantiation of libertarian rights, namely the U.S. Constitution — and the more Washington, DC-centered libertarians whom the paleos sometimes condemn as globalist “cosmotarians.”
If it’s just a question of style, I wouldn’t pretend to know how one objectively adjudicates between them, but if it’s a question of philosophical roots, shouldn’t most libertarians, who presumably believe their philosophy to be objectively true and universally applicable, be more sympathetic to a cosmopolitan, globalist outlook than to a narrow, regional, merely-traditionalistic one?
Ultimately, I think there is enough truth in all of these views to reconcile them (and will write more about that elsewhere), but surely the libertarian default should be in favor of those who recognize no government-drawn borders, those who recognize that the same laws of economics apply in Albania and in Texas and that written law everywhere should reflect that fact.
And once you accept that, it’s worth considering the possibility that neoconservatism, on the all too rare occasions when it’s at its best, is really just a sort of aggressive minarchism (that is, that form of libertarianism that views police and military as legitimate functions of government, as opposed to anarcho-capitalism, which holds that even law and defense must be privatized). Don’t get me wrong: I’m an anarcho-capitalist and actually do want the entire government abolished — indeed, want all governments around the world abolished (in keeping with my previously-stated universalism). However, unlike some purists, I’m willing to ask what is to be done with the police and military in the meantime, even while arguing for eventual privatization, and I’d like to see them at least occasionally doing their jobs by, say, fending off burglars or capturing terrorists. We’re paying for them, after all.
Therefore, if we argue that the police or military should never or almost never be deployed, let us argue in approximately the same civil tone we would use in cautioning minarchists that they ought to become more anarchist — that is, treat the neocons not as if they’re fighting for evil and we’re fighting for good but as if they’re on the right track (toward a world of peace and commerce) but ought perhaps to look as skeptically at government’s “legitimate” functions as they do at welfare, dictatorships, and outright socialism.
If you wouldn’t say something utterly nasty to a minarchist, you probably don’t need to say it to a neocon. Or, if you’re a libertarian who is routinely nasty to minarchists, at least remember how alone you are (for now!) and strive for some appropriate humility.
And, again, I’m not saying your — our — anarchist position shouldn’t win in the end. In fact, the Straussians among the neocons should appreciate more than anyone that one’s publicly-avowed philosophy might justifiably shift over time even as the ideal end goal remains the same. In times when the establishment appears stable, it may make sense to speak in neoconservative or mainstream-liberal terms about tweaking policy in a more free-market direction.
A good Machiavellian watches for opportunities, though, and when the establishment is in crisis — say, due to financial instability and protracted wars — it may be time to frame the same principles in more radical terms, including the language of anarchism, which will never come naturally to the lips of a Kristol or Brooks but sounds like the same Reagan-Era punk song to some of us, only louder and more confident now.
Todd Seavey (http://Twitter.com/ToddSeavey) is an editor at http://LibertyIslandMag.com and has written for Judge Andrew Napolitano, John Stossel, Reason, National Review, NYPress, and others.