February 27, 2012 columns

Machete Libertarianism and Media Misinformation

Burrus derides the self-aggrandizing, simplified arguements rampant in the media, arguing for greater introspection.

On Thursday, Stossel aired the now-annual episode filmed at the International Students for Liberty Conference (ISFLC), which took place the weekend of February 17-19. The conference was a resounding success, and it marked the first time a student libertarian conference gathered over 1,000 attendees. The ISFLC is quickly becoming a “go to” event for libertarians. Students for Liberty, if you’re not familiar with it, is a non-profit focused on connecting students to libertarian ideas by supporting campus libertarian groups and, because of its massive success, it is one of the most exciting things to happen in libertarianism in a while. (Full disclosure: I sit on the board of Alumni for Liberty, which is part of Students for Liberty).

During the taping of Stossel, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton was brought out to give contrary views on libertarian foreign policy, and students were invited to ask him questions. One student, David West, asked a pointed question about blowback that referenced his time serving as a member of the Third Ranger Battalion in Iraq. West is now circulating a YouTube video of the question under the title John Bolton Dodges Question; Insults Anti-War Veteran. The link-aggregator Reddit has picked up the video and much conversation has resulted.

Mr. West’s question was good if only a little overdone, and I respect him for getting up and asking it. But I was also at the taping, so I’d like to tell my version of what I think happened, which is substantially different than Mr. West’s. I do so in order to highlight two points that concern me: 1) the attitude toward media “misinformation” that permeates modern political discourse, and 2) the use of what I call “machete libertarianism,” which is the slavish application an a priori axiom in order to cut through counter-arguments without the need for empirical knowledge—e.g. non-interventionism in foreign policy and the non-aggression principle.

First, what I saw at the taping: Fox News did not edit out applause. There was a slight mixture of boos and applause in response to Mr. Bolton’s answer, but mostly sounds of confusion. Immediately after John Bolton misunderstood the question (more on this below), Mr. West tried to clarify the misunderstanding. John Stossel cut him off, which halted the audience’s response, in order to wisely stop a back-and-forth and to move on to the many questioners waiting behind him. The questions that followed it were edited out, so there is a hard cut between the end of Bolton’s answer and the attempt to ask a follow-up question. The end of an omitted question leading into the commercial break was placed at that point. As anyone should know, this is not pernicious editing, it’s just television.

Secondly, Mr. Bolton did not dodge the question, nor did he intend to insult Mr. West. Ambassador Bolton heard the question as an atrocities question, that is, he heard the question as concerning a corporal killing a 13-year-old boy rather than a 13-year-old boy killing a corporal. Thus, his response focused on how atrocities of war are and should be addressed. And although his wording was awkward, the “grave disservice” that he saw Mr. West doing to those soldiers who “served with honor” was through the singling-out of the “bad apple” dishonorable corporal that Mr. Bolton believed he’d been asked about. 

Now, I admittedly may be wrong about this, but let me further tell you why I think I am correct: it gives Ambassador Bolton the respect he deserves and the respect that, frankly, he earned on that stage by skillfully responding to the students’ questions. John Bolton does not need to “dodge” a question about blowback. As he demonstrated during the filming, he is more than capable of combating libertarian critiques on conservative foreign policy with rhetoric and facts that needs to be refuted with knowledge, not dismissed as a “dodge.”   

Which brings me to my concerns with machete libertarianism. For millennia, intellectuals of all stripes have been using intellectual machetes to chop through opposing arguments. Sometimes this is called a “universal acid,” and it is used to burn through evidence and counter-arguments without even a second glance. Marxists, particularly of the literary theory ilk, have nearly turned this strategy into an art: they’ve sharpened the machete of class theory into a fine edge and they then chopped through the entire Western Canon—science, math, philosophy, literature, etc.—with ease. After all, why pay attention to the arguments of Kant, the experiments of Newton and Einstein, the equations of Euclid, and the musings of Shakespeare if the entire canon is built on Western lies and white-man privilege? Refutation can thus be achieved en masse, and actual knowledge of the evidence becomes superfluous.    

Many intellectuals are prone to this type of simplified, self-aggrandizing argumentation. The advantages are obvious: a universal theory consistently applied can broaden your ability to intelligently converse on many subjects without having to actually acquire the knowledge needed to refute the opposition on their own terms. Moreover, if your position is idiosyncratic and against the mainstream, there is a certain satisfaction that comes from dissolving the prevailing view in a few choice sentences. In the hands of students and young people, these ideas become little more than intellectual juvenile delinquency: the Western Canon can be spray-painted and our military industrial complex can be TP’d.

Libertarians are as prone to this as anyone. Axioms and principles are often methodically applied to problems in the hope that the issues will just go away. Plus, libertarianism often attracts people who are self-consciously counter-majoritarian and attracted to being idiosyncratic. Put 80 libertarians in a room and you’ll see how quickly you can breed anarchists simply because the baseline for heterodoxy has so drastically changed.

In no subject is machete libertarianism more prevalent than in foreign policy. As Justin Raimondo of AntiWar.com recently wrote:

[A]bove all, the first principle of libertarianism as it applies to the relations between states is that all efforts by governments to extend their control over new territories – i.e. all aggressive wars – must be opposed, and for the same reason libertarians oppose the extension of state power over fresh areas of the economy and society at large. 

In applying this principle, however, what is required is knowledge of specifics: e.g., in opposing the Iraq war, it was necessary to acquire knowledge about the history of Iraq, it’s relations with the West and, specifically, with the United States. In order to project the probable deleterious consequences of the invasion, one had to know about the religious, ethnic, and economic rivalries — a petri dish in which terrorist groups would thrive and turn our efforts to promote “democracy” into an expensive and bloody failure.

In short, foreign policy analysts of the libertarian persuasion have to know what they’re talking about: it isn’t enough to cite the non-aggression axiom, and deduce the rest. Very few people have the kind of specialized knowledge required to make these kinds of arguments – after all, how much does the average American know about, say, Iraq? – and little reason to acquire it, and this includes libertarians.

Raimondo is dead right. Even if strict non-interventionism is totally valid, it will not be convincing without facts to back it up. Good foreign policy is not practiced with a machete, it is practiced with a scalpel, and before you start cutting you better know something about the human anatomy.  

There is another lesson to be learned here. If you scroll through the comments in the Reddit thread linked above you’ll see intense anger at media “misinformation.” It seems that all sides of the political debate have media watchdogs who hope to expose how the media is biased against their side. If you pay enough attention to these amateur watchdogs, one thing will become apparent: everyone thinks the media is biased against them.

Regardless of which direction the media actually leans, the prevalence of this belief is a testament to human psychology rather than it is an accurate measure of bias. It is easy to explain away someone who disagrees with you by concluding that he has been duped by misinformation. But the most psychologically difficult way to explain the presence of disagreement is to believe that we’ve been less than totally convincing and that there are rational reasons to oppose our views.

Machete libertarianism and the focus on media misinformation lead us away from a type of libertarianism that is robust, respected, and respectful. They keep us from being self-critical and introspective about our own shortcomings and misgivings, and instead focus on the perceived shortcomings of our interlocutors. In short, if you want to argue libertarian foreign policy, or anything else for that matter, put away the machete and pick up a scalpel.