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essays

Apr 1, 1976

An Afterword From Readers, Authors, Reviewers (March/April 1976)

“Inasmuch as Kristol does not advertise himself as a libertarian, I wonder why Grinder gets steamed up when Kristol doesn’t pass all the libertarian litmus tests.”

AN AFTERWORD FROM Readers, Authors, Reviewers

On Grinding Kristol

In your December 1975 issue, Walter Grinder writes that Irving Kristol “is leading many libertarians down the murky path to a thinly disguised conservatism.” Kristol, he says, wants to infuse the idea of liberty with a positive substance, namely the old virtues; this, Grinder thinks, is an attempt to co-opt the libertarian movement and ruin it.

This is a ridiculous charge to level at the most readable and intelligent columnist on America’s best newspaper, the Wall Street Journal. Inasmuch as Kristol does not advertise himself as a libertarian, I wonder why Grinder gets steamed up when Kristol doesn’t pass all the libertarian litmus tests, and why Grinder hints at improbable strategies to wreck our movement.

Like Rand, Grinder quotes conservatives—particualrly the Journal—only when they are saying something idiotic. Thus Kristol has argued for censorship of dirty books and against deregulation of transportation. But he has written superb WSJ essays on the liberals’ “War Against the Cities” (13 March ’75), the political and economic roots of the world food shortage (20 Jan. ’75), the “New Cold War” with the Third World (17 July ’75), and the ideological causes of New York City’s financial crisis (10 Dec. ’75). His “Nuclear Disturbances” (18 Aug. ’75) discusses nuclear foreign policy and nuclear power in a clearheaded, nondogmatic way that many libertarians are incapable of.

Furthermore, Kristol is right when he says liberty needs some positive “substance” to make it meaningful. I hope libertarians will have a more inspiring vision than a suburban ranch house, a camper, and steak twice a week—or social approval, patriotism, and the love of God-but freedom does need a “positive substance,” something that requires freedom to accomplish, in order to make freedom worth fighting for. Otherwise, if freedom in itself is our main objective, why not move to the Alaskan wilderness and live off the land?

In any case, let’s not pick on Kristol. He fights on our side of the barricades most of the time, and he never swipes our uniforms. And he’s a good shot.

BRUCE RAMSEY 
Berkeley, Calif.

Grinder Replies

Irving Kristol and friends may not advertise themselves as libertarians, but they are self-proclaimed defenders of western “democratic-capitalism,” of the “free enterprise” system, in fact, of western civilization. A number of undiscerning libertarians have interpreted this position as quasi-libertarian. According to this interpretation, Kristol and friends are essentially on our side. We should therefore welcome them and embrace them as our comrades. Some of us who don’t have such short memories remember the same being said about Wm. F. Buckely & Co., and even about Richard Milhous Nixon. There was not a scintilla of truth in this line about Buckley and Nixon, and there is only danger in the assertion that we should, even for a moment, crawl into bed with the Kristol clique.

I repeat my earlier assertion that the Irving Kristol, Daniel P. Moynihan, Daniel Bell, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Commentary, Public Interest, National Review, and, yes, even the Wall Street Journal comprise the most immediate, most dangerous, and most pressing enemy of libertarianism. This is true both in principle and as a danger to the future of any libertarian movement. They are the first line defense of the American State and of American statism, albeit a proposed more streamlined version. I think that if we are not extremely careful it is indeed likely that this group will, wittingly or not, lead the libertarian movement down the conservative path.

Mr. Ramsey’s letter serves to illustrate my point and confirm my suspicions. His contention that Kristol “fights on our side of the barricades” would be preposterously funny if it were not so sad and so indicative of a lack of ideological awareness on the part of what are likely large numbers of libertarians. It is indeed a sad commentary when our own libertarians can not tell the difference between an actual partisan of liberty and a right-wing Social Democratic planner, between the libertarian vision and a conservative obscurantism.

The self-appointed historical mission of this right-of-center chic clique is to “rationalize” and streamline the four decades of New Deal ad hoc legislation and interventions. It is their self-conscious task to make the system work efficiently, less costly. There will, of course, be no mollycoddling humanism here; for these are the tough-minded, hard-nosed realists come to save us from the bumbling, mushy-headed, bleeding-heart liberals. They, with the help of Milton Friedman’s vouchers, indexes, and negative income tax, will put our house in order. All this and they will save us money, too. Obviously, we should all gratefully join forces with them against the irrational, inefficient, and profligate liberals. How very irrational to get so steamed up over merely occasional deviations from plumb-line libertarian principles.

Well, I would like to make it clear that the fire, as it were, has only just been lit under the boiler and that I intend to remain steamed up until the menace of this “military-intellectual complex” (see the Village Voice, December 1, 1975) of Kristol, Moynihan et al. has been thwarted within the libertarian ranks and has been neutralized within the broader American polity. God forbid that the United States government ever become a model of Chicagoite efficiency. As one libertarian wag once put it, “It’s a good thing we don’t get as much government as we pay for.” Just contemplate the implications of a truly efficient American State, hardly a libertarian vision. Those libertarians who wish for efficiency in government simply have no conception of the truly exploitative nature of government, of the class implications of the State. On the perfidious efficiency-expert role played by Daniel P. Moynihan during the 1969-1972 Nixon regime’s planning Scheme, I refer the reader to the very informative, useful, and frightening book by Otis L. Graham, Jr., Toward A Planned Society: From Roosevelt to Nixon (Oxford, 1976).

You can bet all of your hidden gold coins that Irving Kristol wishes to infuse the idea of liberty with the substance of old virtues-with very old virtues, to be sure. He and his crowd like to praise industry, prudence, and thrift, the Protestant Ethic in general; and no one denies their own industriousness. These laudable virtues, though, begin to fade into the background when their really favorite, more cosmic virtues come into view. As Leonard Liggio wrote in these pages recently, these neo-conservative favorite virtues are the traditional ones of democracy, fraternity, authority, and obedience. Hard work, saving, et cetera, are great as long as they take place within the socioeconomic parameters built on these four traditional Social Democratic pillars.

If you are interested to see first hand why I consider Professor Kristol to be the personification of antiliberty, take a look at his “What Is A ‘Neo-Conservative’?” inNewsweek, January 19, 1976. Here is his and his friends’ position unveiled and summed up for all to read and ponder. On the substance of his own admissions, 1 rest my case: (1) They (the neo-conservatives) are pro-Welfare State, albeit a lean, right-wing version. (2) They will engage in socioeconomic interventions in order to achieve overriding social purposes, as long as the methods are Freidmanesque, i.e., nonbureaucratic. (3) They like to impose traditional values and institutions—religious, familial, and high culture. (4) They dislike egalitarianism. This last is clearly a virtue in the libertarian philosophical matrix. I suspect, however, given the rest of their conservative framework that the neo-conservatives favor antiequalitarianism because of a fear that unkempt upstarts might destroy the social hierarchy and the position achieved within that hierarchy by Kristol and friends. Such social movement might also unloose a concerted attack on their other cherished, antilibertarian values. This is a cyhical and perhaps even jaundiced view, but I see no other viable interpretation. (5) On foreign policy they are visciously antiisolationist and fire-eating hawks in their views towards any relations with the Soviet Union. They want the Third World to quit causing trouble for the American imperial political-economic order, to quiet down and fit in with the great American Wilsonian international value system. And as if for icing on the hawkish cake, they are almost all militantly pro-Zionist. Issue after issue, right down the line, the neo-conservatives take the antilibertarian side of the issue. They are, it would seem clear, on the other side of the barricades.

And now to the point of the need for “positive substance” to make liberty meaningful. It should not have to be pointed out that libertarianism is purely and solely a political philosophy. The libertarian position is a negative one: “Thou shalt hot physically aggress against another.” That is it. Simple and to the point. The beauty of it lies in its simplicity. It can easily be understood by all, yet it stands as a mighty and worthy sociopolitical principle.

I, and I assume libertarians in general, find this principle an eminently “inspiring vision” and, if need be, an ideal “worth fighting for.” Beyond that universal first principle and inspiring idea, though, I—and I assume most individuals—want to determine for myself what positive values I think will give substance to my life and which ones I wish to pursue. If Mr. Ramsey or others cannot figure out what to do with their liberty and they need others to forge the substance of their values, then I feel somewhat sorry for them but certainly see nothing antilibertarian about their asking others to create their values for them. I would, however, like to underscore this important point: Yes, for me, and I hope for Mr. Ramsey and other libertarians, “freedom is our main objective”; it is our only political objective. As libertarians per se, we have in common only this political first principle. If we share a vision, it is that some day all people will be absolutely free.

Allow me here to contrast the philosophical views of libertarianism with those of neo-conservatism. John Stuart Mill put it thus in his On Liberty: “… the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like subject to such consequences as may follow; without impediment from our fellow creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse or wrong… . The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it.”

On the other hand there is Professor Kristol in the aforementioned Newsweek article: “Nor do they [neo-conservatives] put much credence in the notion that individuals can ‘create’ their own values and then incorporate them into a satisfying ‘life style’. Values emerge out of generations and represent the accumulated wisdom of these generations… .”

I would ask the reader to mull over in his or her own mind the following presentation of the libertarian vision as seen by Albert Jay Nock. I would ask the reader to contrast it with the neo-conservative view, then finally I would ask the reader to embrace the Mill-Nock position and, once and for all, to reject the noxious notions of the neo-conservative paradigm. The following is from Nock’s “On Doing the Right Thing”: “Freedom, for example, as they keep insisting undoubtedly means freedom to drink oneself to death… . It unquestionably means freedom to go on without any code of morals at all; but it also means freedom to rationalize, construct and adhere to a code of one’s own. The anarchist presses the point, invariably overlooked, that freedom to do the one without the correlative freedom to do the other is impossible; and that just here comes in the moral education which legalism and authoritarianism, with their denial of freedom, can never furnish.

… Believing, for example, that man should be wholly free to be sober or to be a sot, his [the anarchist’s] eye is not caught and exclusively engaged by the spectacle of sots, but instead he points to those who are responsibly sober, sober by a self-imposed standard of conduct, and asserts his conviction that the future belongs to them rather than to the sots.”

WALTER E. GRINDER 
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Letters from readers are welcome. Although only a selection can be published and none can be individually acknowledged, each will receive editorial consideration and may be passed on to reviewers and authors. Letters submitted for publication should be brief, typed, double spaced, and sent to LR, 901 N. Washington St., Alexandria, VA 22314.