essays

Mar 1, 1978

The Neoconservatives: A Libertarian Critique

“One ought to say bluntly that the neoconservatives themselves are part of the problem here.”

There is no doubt about it: the neoconservatives are on the rise, gaining steadily in influence, both on the intellectual and political levels. The question which libertarians must face, therefore, is a simple one: is the neoconservative trend a bright spot on the horizon, or a black cloud threatening to shower down upon us new, virulent forms of statism? Concerned as we must be with allies, let us take a closer look at their doctrines, contrasting their approach to that of libertarianism.

We simplify only slightly when we say that the neoconservatives essentially see man as split into two parts. On the one hand, there is evil self-interest, continually grasping for more and more material goods, ruled by emotional forces; on the other hand, we find sobriety, self-discipline and duty to sacrifice—when necessary—to the common good, which serves to hold down the poisonous muck boiling within. This view is hardly unique in human history. With roots going back to ancient times, it most strongly echoes Freud (bourgeois virtue is rather like a repressive mechanism trying to keep a lid on the id), and the concern of Marx and Rousseau about the alleged split between bourgeois man and citizen. Much could be said about this deeply-held view, but what is important for our purposes is that as an explanatory device, this view of man is not necessary to clarify a single one of the problems the neoconservatives point to. It is a dogmatic metaphysical commitment, held by a group who scorns dogmatic commitments. More importantly, it is a superficial rationalization, preventing the neoconservatives from seeing that what is responsible in actuality for many of the problems they link to human nature is nothing less than the state itself, with its continual manipulations of social life.

The entire neoconservative concern with “permissiveness,” a concern they share with the traditional American right, is a case in point. For nothing better illustrates the ignorance of both groups concerning the nature of the free society and capitalism. As Samuel Brittain points out in his important bookCapitalism and the Permissive Society, capitalism is a profoundly permissive society, permitting human beings to do anything they wish, anything they choose, so long as they accept the consequences and do not violate the rights of others. Thus, in capitalist society there tends to be a social correlation between freedom and responsibility, between “permissiveness” on the one hand, and the individual’s ability to bear the costs of his so-called “permissive” actions on the other.

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But the fact of the matter is that the entire concept of “permissiveness,” like the term “hedonism” (as used by the neoconservatives), is a very fuzzy one indeed. The charge of “permissiveness” is hurled perennially by each generation at the next. Yet in periods of economic growth, there is a reason why this “permissiveness” should be pervasive. For as an economy grows, and investment in capital goods increases, the productivity of labor increases as well. This means that the level of effort necessary to achieve a given standard of living drops steadily in a growing economy. The level of “self-discipline,” “restraint,” and the like necessary to a given standard of living therefore declines as well. Moreover, as their standards of living increase, people tend to devote the newly uncommitted portions of their lives to leisure.

So every generation can, given such growth over time, look at the next a bit uneasily. The younger group appears undisciplined, lax, all too unrestrained. But in each generation there are different, objective levels of “discipline” appropriate to the then-current needs. The caveman would have looked with envy upon the 19th century American farmer; that farmer would in turn have watched the contemporary American laborer with similar envy.

The level of effort, of “discipline,” of “restraint” in any culture tends to decrease over time and tends to be “proportional” to real economic conditions and requirements. “Permissiveness” is an epithet the old habitually hurl at the young.

In previous times, religion served the function of drumming discipline into the culture; today, the neoconservatives are performing the same function, and are even trying to resurrect the social power religion once had. Yet nothing should be more obvious than that such advances as birth control lead to a “lessening” of restraints, and that such lessening tends to be in accord with the changing consequences of such things as sexual relationships. If the consequences and contexts of actions change over time, nothing could be more natural than that the cultural norms also change, reflecting changing facts. The neoconservatives, in fact, represent a profound “cultural lag.”

It is only when the state interferes with such natural social, cultural, and economic arrangements that there is any deviance from such patterns. The state permits the widespread severance of action from consequence, of freedom from responsibility—a natural consequence of state paternalism, the very paternalism which, despite disclaimers, lies at the heart of the neoconservatives’ social policies.

It is their blindness to such basic analysis which reveals the neoconservatives’ conception of the nature and working of the free market process for the superficial pretense that it is.

Their view that installment buying and mass consumption are signs of “hedonism” set loose by modern capitalism is but another instance of this shallowness. What they are referring to, of course, is the debt-oriented, spendthrift philosophy which has come more and more to dominate Western society in the last 50 years. But this bent toward consumption is not caused by the bogey capitalism, which foments hedonism. It is a direct function of inflationarypsychology, produced by the state and its intellectual apologists, the Keynesians and the neo-Keynesians. Going into debt would be a limited, relatively responsible affair if constrained by economic reality. But the government—through the Federal Reserve system—prints more money; thus, currency values fall, saving appears progressively more pointless, and good bourgeois frugality tends to be swept away. The free market would, by its very nature, sharply limit irresponsible orgies of debt; the game of inflation, where some benefit at the expense of the many, is an outgrowth not of our “baser selves,” but of base academics, politicians, and members of the board of the Federal Reserve system. The neoconservatives would do well to note that it was largely the desire to escape from the discipline of the free-market gold standard that led to our present-day, fiat-paper inflationary cycles. To graps this notion, just read any Keynesian textbook where “excess” savers are viewed with great suspicion.

Similarly, when the neoconservatives blame “the revolution of rising expectations” on the decline of bourgeois character, they overlook the fact that, in a free market, expectations are roughly proportional to the goods and services that genuinely can be produced. Expectations usually translate themselves into a drive to better oneself, and do not create inexorable conflicts. It is only when the state is looked on as a paternalistic provider, as a source of wealth, when it is taken for granted that one has a right to certain goods and services, that these expectations produce the mess we see around us. In the free market there is no “free lunch”; no goods and services are due to anyone by right. One cannot automatically demand or expect anything—other than having one’s rights to life, liberty and property respected.

One ought to say bluntly that the neoconservatives themselves are part of the problem here. Not only are they passionate supporters of the welfare state—witness Irving Kristol’s support of social security, national health insurance and unemployment insurance as but one of a plethora of examples—but they also support manipulating the market through “rigging” processes, which grant to some individuals favors extracted by force form others.

These points all illustrate the libertarian thesis that the unfettered market is a great problem-solver and conflict-avoider. Massive conflicts arise when the market is not allowed to work. In the market you can’t help but serve other people’s needs, wants and interests: A seller needs a buyer, and vice versa.

Although the neoconservatives may proclaim their sympathies with the workings of the market, they simply do not grasp the essential opposition of state and market. The neoconservatives follow a long line of theorists who would rather blame political and social problems on the release of the “bad” forces within us, than see the state as the guilty party. They carry with them obfuscation and confusion.

Morality and stability

Morality and order (or stability) are frequent neoconservative themes, but despite all the pages of print devoted to them, most of these writings are a mass of confusions and fallacies. To see why, we must summarize briefly the relationship between morality and politics.

Morality in its broadest sense is concerned with the values man should pursue through the whole range of his life. Because it is so broad, questions about interaction with other men are only part of its domain. Political principles deal with man as he necessarily interacts with other men in a human community. It is a branch of ethics. Two confusions usually result from a failure to be clear about the distinction between morality and politics. First there is the confusion between the standards employed in evaluating political matters as opposed to those used for moral matters, which may have nothing to do with politics. Second, there is the confusion between the aim of political principles and the aim of moral principles in general. Political principles are used to establish uniform guidelines so men can interact in a (hopefully) peaceful and beneficial manner; moral principles are concerned with other matters, such as “virtue.” As Tibor Machan shows in Human Rights and Human Liberties, politics is concerned with rights while morality (properly) focuses on acting rightly. Given these differing aims and concerns, it follows one shouldn’t use standards which apply only to morality in the political sphere.

Neoconservatives commit both of these errors. First, they are quite willing to use coercion to help people behave “morally.” But coercion is only justified in the political sphere, where the aim is to prevent unjustifiable conduct towards others. To use coercion to promote virtue is to assume the aim of politics is to help create a virtuous order, rather than establish domestic peace and a climate of mutual cooperation. That Kristol could applaud the prohibition movement for having a good conscience is tantamount to believing that the political order should keep people upright. Such a view of politics is a regression to ancient political philosophy, which lacked the idea that there were certain spheres (called rights) where the state could not intervene.

In fact, the neoconservatives have it backwards: Not only can’t the state create or help create moral people, but it usually makes things worse. It disrupts the voluntary attempts of people to solve their problem and produces unanticipated, pernicious consequences. In fact, the drug laws, today’s analogue of prohibition, are a showcase for how the state undermines the bourgeois character neoconservatives value. Our wars on drugs have been a major force in creating a drug culture and mystique, through such measures as castigating the drug user as an alien, sick being and forcibly separating him from society, and by making the drugs sound more dangerous—and thus alluring—than they really are. In addition, the drug laws have caused increased crime and the disruption of millions of lives, contribution to the exploitation of the taxpayers, and caused the deaths of thousands because of impure street drugs. None of this is conducive to strengthening bourgeois virtue. (For more on this point, see the writings of Thomas Szasz, from whom the neoconservatives could learn a great deal.) Our drug laws have created the “drug abuse” problem: The state undermines morality by attempting to enforce it. The theoretical error thatpolitics (in this case, the state) should aim for the moral goal of virtue leads to disaster in practice.

The order of the free society

Related to the neoconservarives’ blunders about “morality” is their lack of comprehension of the concept of “order,” another one of their key values. The neoconservatives need to study long and hard Hayek’s notion of a “spontaneous order.” To call for “wedding order organically to liberty,” as Irving Kristol does, misses the point that liberty creates its own order, far better than does the state—which can, at best, only provide the peaceful conditions under which order can develop. The neoconservatives have correctly stressed the complexity of social reality; but this means not that the government should move cautiously, not that those government programs which survive have a reason for their existence, not that a program of conservative reform is required, but that a radical commitment to the market is necessary, since only the market can handle the complex interactions of largely unknown facts. No matter how cautious government officials are, they can never anticipate the countless changes, the bewildering complexity of the world; only the unhampered market system, with its marvelous ability to adapt and change, to adjust to facts which no one can know in their totality, does this. Only the market can make full use of the knowledge scattered throughout millions of human beings in society. When the state tries to anticipate what it can never anticipate, it produces disorder and conflict.

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Therefore, since state coercion usually foments conflicts while the market tends towards harmony, the best road to order is via freedom.

Of course, behind these confused appeals to “order” is a thinly veiled yearning for a state elite to promote “morality” through the use of coercion—an imposed order, not a spontaneous order—a position we have already discussed and found wanting.

Sometimes the neoconservative quest for “order” revolves around the need for stability. By this, I mean their dislike of a turbulent polity and moralistic politics, and their approval of consensus welfare state politics and an unquestioned, bipartisan, interventionist foreign policy. The latter two are implicit, not explicit, but can be seen in their attacks on the “radicalism” of the left (New Left) or right (McCarthyism), and in their attacks on isolationism. Unfortunately, rather than seeing the whittling down of the state as the road to genuine order and stability, the neoconservatives see their task as one of attacking ideology, which they see as the source of all this turbulence and anticonsensus radicalism.

The failure of anti-ideology

The anti-ideological attack of the neoconservatives is a classic case of hostile reaction to one’s past experience. Former socialists, they now use the Marxist notion of ideology as grounds for condemning all ideologies as simplistic; interpreters of McCarthy as a typical ideologue who injected a moralistic atmosphere into politics, they believe political discourse should be primarily focused on practical, concrete issues, not moral principles. It is obvious what has gone wrong here: The Marxist notion of ideology is not correct. No neoconservative has ever argued for the proposition that ideologides must destroy and simplify. Indeed, how is a person to make sense of the complex world of political reality without the aid of a coherent, systematic view—namely, an ideology? Neoconservative skepticism about the power of reason, and their hankering for religion, have blinded them to one of man’s greatest needs: the need to make things rational and coherent. Ideology is one of the instruments we use for meeting this need; it almost always fails, sometimes spectacularly, but there is nothing necessary about these failures. There is a second question: Why is McCarthy necessarily taken as the paradigm of an ideologue? He was obviously more along the lines of a demagogue; because he conducted his crusade against Communism like a preacher rooting out the Devil does not mean all morally principled approaches within the political arena must be of that character.

Only the market can make full use of the knowledge of millions of human beings. When the state tries to anticipate, it produces only disorder and conflict.

From a libertarian perspective, the neoconservative abandonment of ideology leads to pernicious consequences: the anti-ideological, practical, nonmoralistic approach to political matters amounts to a concealed conservative apologetic for American statism.

At a time when statist institutions are being battered by increasing skepticism and hostility, the neoconservative approach to politics—“Does it work?” rather than, “Is it just?”—is, in effect, a device for preventing this hostility from developing into a fundamental reexamination of the system of American statism itself.

This underlying principle is illustrated very well indeed by Irving Kristol, in an article in The Wall Street Journal entitled “Reforming the Welfare State.” Kristol begins by observing that “it is unarguable that the welfare state is in trouble.” He points out that while countless billions have been poured into welfare measures the welfare state has not “cured poverty,” but rather has created as many problems as it has solved. And yet Kristol’s announced aim is tosave the welfare state. He announces that he wants to reform, not to dismantle the welfare state. He complains that existing programs are just excessive paternalism, with their all-encompassing attempt to “solve problems,” that “it is these programs, which do not work … that are bringing the welfare state into dispute.” He goes on to attack those who would raise fundamental questions, who would dismantle the welfare state:

There is no more chance today of returning to a society of ‘free enterprise’ and enfeebled government than there was, in the 16th Century, of returning to a Rome-centered Christendom. The world and the people in it have changed. One is permitted to regret this fact—nostalgia is always permissible. But the politics of nostalgia is always self-destructive.

When one questions a government proposal by asking if it is expensive or too bureaucratic, rather than by asking whether it is immoral or unjust, one is operating within a framework where the fundamental questions about the American welfare-warfare state simply are not being raised.

In fact, the whole neoconservative attitude towards “morality” can be seen as an argument that moral criticism should aim only at preserving the legitimacy of the American social order, rather than condemning it or radically changing it. The neoconservative plea for a moral regeneration in the West is really a yearning for an elite which will help institute a value system that will resurrect bourgeois virtue and provide legitimacy to the social order. If and when this elite gets involved in politics, it should provide moral guidance, not radical criticism. Intellectuals should help to solidify the foundations of the social order rather than shaking it so that it may crumble. That is why consensus politics is the ideal for neoconservatives: It implies an agreement on the basics of the polity and involves a give-and-take approach where questions about the justness of the political framework are not raised. Ideologies, with their moralistic attacks, subvert such consensus politics. Hence the neoconservative critique.

The neoconservatives are right that ideologies frequently raise fundamental questions about the polity, disrupt consensus politics, inject moral questions rather than a cost-benefit mentality into political parlance; but why must this always be condemned? The real reason they condemn it is the neoconservative identification of ideological thinking with utopian thinking. This linkage is an obsfuscation.

“Utopian” can refer either to a radical who sets forth a set of principles, which he refuses to compromise even though they have no present chance of being adopted, or to someone who advocates a Utopia in the literal sense—meaning “nowhere”, an impossible pipe dream which if tried in practice would wreak havoc. To condemn ideology for being utopian and to contrast it with a practical, nonmoralistic approach to politics is tantamount to arguing that any set of principles which present a radical critique of the present social order (here, American statism) involves a flight away from reality into a Platonic, unrealizable vision.

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But such is true only if the existing social order is fundamentally sound; only then would a radical critique be Utopian in the Platonic sense. Thus by a neat semantic trick the neoconservatives have hidden their basic assumption: American statism is not fundamentally unjust or evil; we may tinker and modify, we may make it more efficient, less bureaucratic, but that’s all. When Kristol called capitalism modified by a welfare state the best of all available worlds he demonstrated this same trick in a different vocabulary. Of course American statism is better than many other available statisms being offered; surely it is preferable to England or Russia. But so what? That the American form of government may be the best one available says nothing about what it should be or could be: It should and could be a lot better. To offer a radical ideological program as our framework for how it could be better is not to offer a “nowhere” type of Utopia. The neoconservatives have not argued for this, and in fact couldn’t, for its indefensible. Their assertion—and that’s all it is—that ideology means Utopianism allows them to get away with a bald-faced apologetic for statism, albeit a milder form than we have now. It is a crowning irony that the anti-ideology of the neoconservatives is exactly what Marx seems to have thought all ideology was: an apologetic for the existing social system. On this point, at least, the neoconservatives have deserted Marxism only to turn out to be its foils. Time and time again, the neoconservatives show themselves as prisoners of their past: narrowly-read, trapped by the categories and issues of the 1930s. They would drag everyone else into the narrow disputes which formed their early convictions.

Another serious problem with this anti-ideological approach is that it makes neoconservatives incapable of understanding the inner logic of states. From neoconservative literature one could well conclude that governments are often inefficient, bureaucratic, and (most of all) incompetent, but never even come close to considering the fact that governments are exploitative, try to increase their coercive power, and have economic interests which often determine what they do. The point is that an anti-ideological position limits one’s understanding of social and political phenomena. To approach government from the framework of competency or efficiency or stability is to overlook more rudimentary questions: Efficiency for what? Competence in what? Stability for what?Clearly, a systematic, coherent, principled account of the state would have to answer at least these questions, while an efficiency-oriented approach never even raises them. It is interesting to note that the two most systematic theories of the state—libertarianism and Marxism—have both given similar answers (though they mean quite different things by the answers) in their attempts to “see through the political realm” (Nozick’s phrase). Rather than states being mere bunglers, they are primarily exploitative, coercive wielders of power who operate not out of benevolent purposes but most frequently from attempts to further their clientele’s interests. Thus, looking at the state from the point of view of competence or efficiency is worse than naive: It is akin to insisting that a criminal gang should be more “efficient” in its plundering and looting.

The neoconservatives’ anti-ideological approach appears to prevent them from even raising the issue of coercive power and its relation to the state’s favoring certain economic groups in society. Why do regulatory agencies help those they regulate? Why do unions fight for the minimum wage? Why do most big businessmen favor an interventionist foreign policy? Questions of these sort are rarely raised by the neoconservatives, with their stress on efficiency and competence. (True, their concern with the “new class” does show an awareness that certain people have a vested interest in state power, but they fail to raise the question of whether this is typical of all political elites.)

The spirit of liberty

Perhaps the most damaging charge against the anti-ideological approach is that such a slant on politics can never contain the spirit of liberty. A fighter for liberty uses as his weapon the abolitionist spirit towards injustice, not a cost-benefit calculating machine or a misguided “realism.” This is another way of saying that a natural-rights ideology is essential for providing the fuel necessary to sustain one in the long, arduous encounter with the Leviathan state, and it is thus not surprising that neoconservatives lack such a commitment. I do not mean to suggest that one has to be a consistent libertarian to have the spirit of liberty; what one needs is the view that if a certain policy is detrimental to liberty it is therefore unjust and should be abolished as quickly as possible. If one adopts this view on at least some key issues then one is capable of the spirit of liberty, at least some of the time. That the neoconservatives lack this capability is shown by the fact that on two of the most important matters of state policy—the draft and high taxes — they fail even to come close to understanding the wrongness of these state invasions of people’s rights. The draft is slavery, pure and simple, but the sole neoconservative comment during the tumultuous years of the 1960s was Daniel Moynihan’s praise of this noble American institution. As far as crippling taxation goes, reactions range from Daniel Bell’s and Nathan Glazer’s claims that high taxes are necessary and right in this day and age to the occasional complaint that high taxes are creating instability and bureaucratization.

In the name of opposition to ideology, in the name of realism and practicality, neoconservatives unwittingly end up as apologists for American statism, view politics through blinders which prevent them from even raising basic questions about the state, and dull their moral sensibilities to the point that they can’t even be upset by the draft or crippling taxation. The old theme of sacrificing justice on the altar of realism has been repeated.

The witches’ brew

There is some merit to the neoconservative writings, particularly when they are exposing the failure of certain welfare state policies, or of socialism. There is virtually no merit in their writings on foreign policy. Until very recently they have been maddeningly unspecific on foreign policy issues. Recently, however, they have become more concrete, but at the cost of their much-vaunted commitment to “complexity.” The idea that the West is facing a “failure of nerve” (as if all we had to do was to be more gutsy and things would get much better), that the appeasers are marching us like lemmings into the sea, is so simplistic that it’s hard to see how a group of people dedicated to the view everything should be kept as complex and ambiguous as possible could have fallen for it. Although the neoconservatives are middle-aged (and proudly so—recall the beginning issue of The Public Interest described in my previous article), on this matter some of them seem to have ossified into near senility: Surely Norman Podhoretz’s “The Culture of Appeasement” is a new low in the neoconservative arsenal. The idea he presents, that pacificism, homosexuality, and lack of patriotism are a malevolent triumverate which were accelerated and distilled during the Vietnam War into anti-Americanism, would be laughable were not Podhoretz serious.

But there is more to the growing neoconservative, interventionist clamor than this recent mental rigidity. Another factor is their conception of prudence. Neoconservatives have always favored an interventionist foreign policy, but now that “Pax Americana” is under increasing attack in theory and in practice they see it as prudent to stand up and be counted, so to speak. The neoconservatives have not become more “moralistic” in foreign policy than in domestic matters because of an aberration in their thinking; rather, seeing the bipartisan consensus in favor of interventionism being challenged, they have decided that a forceful defense of Wilsonianism is in order, particularly since they fear “the abandonment of Israel.” As neoconservatives see it, in a world filled with hostile totalitarianism the world’s largest democracy must “defend its values.” According to some of them, this process of reaffirmation entails an expanded defense budget, clear nuclear superiority, and a hostility towards notions of detente and arms control.

This view demonstrates an alarming inability to understand the moral and practical implications of interventionism. If there were individuals walking around with labels marked “democrat” (good guys) and others with the tag “totalitarian” (bad guys), and the latter were committing aggressive acts against the former, then coming to the aid of the good guys might make sense. Things are not like that. The label “democrat” is only a limited compliment; it is far better than being a totalitarian, but democratic states can and do commit monstrosities day and night. The assumption that democratic states will act more justly than totalitarian nations is hogwash. (Who has been more aggressive in the last 20 years, China or the United States?) Moreover, because we are concerned with governments interacting with governments, not ordinary individuals with other ordinary individuals, this makes the situation extremely complicated. One must consider the effects on the citizens of the various countries in question, and when one does, one comes up—or should come up—with the answer that most attempts to “stand up” for “our” values usually result in war, the permanent soaking of the taxpayers, the creation of a military bureaucracy; in short, with an enormous drain on the productive energies of the people.

Surely it is the mark of prudence to realize that the 20th century has been a century of mass murder on an unprecedented scale, and that one should be looking for ways to change this. Instead, most of the neoconservatives spend their energy directly or indirectly in fomenting the arms race, shouting that the Russians are coming, and doing what they can to prevent disarmament. During the Vietnam war, at least, Glazer, Moynihan and Podhoretz were at times aware of the moral monstrosities that were being perpetrated in Indochina. Now, however, awareness of the moral horror of war seems to have escaped from the neoconservative consciousness.

It would be nice if this obsession with proving we still have it in us, to show the Russians we’re tough, were a passing aberration; but, unfortunately, all available signs and signals show that this will be the neoconservative theme in the future. I’m afraid we must plan for a long siege against their bellicosity.

The question of alliances

To evaluate the question of neoconservative compatibility with libertarianism, let us present some contrasts.

1) Libertarians consider liberty the highest political end because coercion violates individual rights, and therefore is unjust. Neoconservatives consider liberty to be one among many important values, which sometimes can be sacrificed for the sake of other values such as stability and creating a moral climate. Libertarians take the offensive: They take liberty as a good to be fought for determinedly. Neoconservatives take either a cautious, “responsible” attitude towards it—yes, it’s important, but let’s not go overboard—or a defensive attitude, when they perceive liberty to be extremely threatened. Libertarians define liberty as the absence of coercion. Neoconservatives rarely define it, and even advocate coercive measures in its name. Libertarians are passionately concerned with individual rights; neoconservatives rarely mention such, given their anti-ideological and social science background, and Kristol’s sympathy with classical political philosophy’s emphasis on virtue, not rights.

2) Libertarians are ideological radicals. Neoconservatives are “practical,” efficiency-conscious moderates. Thus, libertarians view most states as evil, coercive mechanisms which disrupt and distort people’s lives and energies, and which often act out of consideration for the interests of their subsidized clientele. Neoconservatives view the state occasionally as a force for moral rectification, sometimes a bungler, sometimes stupid, but never as exploitative or evil.

3) Libertarians view the existence of an encompassing political sphere as a clear sign of injustice in the community; we enter politics in order to reduce it to the minimal amount possible. Thus we don’t value stability in the political community per se. The key question for evaluating politics is, What is considered to be the bounds of legitimate political action?; not, Are political affairs turbulent? A turbulent polity, which is turbulent due to hostility directed at coercive measures, is preferable to one where all is stable because people aren’t sufficiently aroused to the dangers of statism. The neoconservative view, on the other hand, could easily consider a just polity one where ther was a large sphere of political affairs, if it “made sense” to the citizens and contained the right “blend” of political values.

4) Libertarians are necessarily rationalists in that they are ideologists committed to a consistent, principled approach towards politics. Furthermore, they tend to blame political injustices not on the evil nature of man, but on the state that prevents people from acting in accordance with their own perception of their interests and values. Neoconservatives are skeptical of reason; they dislike principled, systematic approaches to evaluating political matters. Viewing man as containing deep-seated, irrational forces, they often blame political maladies on the freeing of man’s darker side, rather than on the effects of state malevolence.

5) Libertarians are in favor of dismantling all state elites, which parasitically drain the life blood of their citizens. Neoconservatives lack the awareness that states necessarily create ruling elites, and in any event aren’t hostile to this occurence; instead, neoconservatives favor a state elite which will help regenerate the West. (More precisely, they are willing to use the state to help the elite perform its task.)

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6) Libertarians are political isolationists, principled advocates of a noninterventionist foreign policy, which they take to be eminently practical as well. They are opposed to increasing the arms budget, to the draft, and to foreign entanglements. They see jingoism as an aberration and as something to be fought. They are opposed to colonialism, militarism and imperialism, seeing all these as aggressively opposed to individual liberty, both domestically and in other nations. By contrast, the most prominent neoconservatives—particularly Moynihan and Podhoretz—are ardent interventionists, opposed to political isolationism; advocates of ever-increasing armaments budgets; opponents of disarmament and detente; apologists for the draft (when it existed); blind to the horrors of colonialism, militarism and imperialism, to the threat that these constitute to “bourgeois virtue.” They are the closest group we have to classical jingoists. In the case of the Middle East, they are usually the most ardent and militant Zionists and hard-liners, seeing any “retreat of American power” anywhere on the globe—any retrenchment from foreign entanglements—as yet another step on the road to “making the world safe for communism” and “the abandonment of Israel.” The two groups could not possibly be more opposed to each other.

7) Libertarians represent the spirit of youth: rationalistic, ideological, concerned with consistent principles, and tenacious advocates of a radical ideal. Neoconservatives are middle-aged both chronologically and spiritually. Badly burned by the failure of socialist radicalism in their youth, they stress caution, ambiguity, and the fruitlessness of a moral, ideological, principled aproach to social matters. In effect, the neoconservatives view the spirit of youth as misguided and sometimes pernicious; libertarians view the spirit of middle age as an irrational apologetic for injustice. Neoconservatives are thus, in a great many senses, different from, and opposed to libertarians in ideas, approaches, policies and spirit. To make this clear think of how we would view a neoconservative world. This would amount to a polity in essential agreement concerning the ideas of an efficient, nonbankrupt, welfare state, replete with government “rigging” of the free market by regulations, and bolstered by a vigorously interventionist foreign policy.

The last thing we need is an efficient welfare state; inefficient government has the merit that it produces anger towards its assaults on liberty. Inefficient government allows pockets of liberty to emerge due to its inefficient monitoring. An efficient welfare state (assuming this is even possible, which is dubious) would be dedicated to weeding out those who tried to work around its regulations. Furthermore, if it ever came to the point where fundamental dissent concerning the idea of a welfare-warfare state was muted, this would amount to a retrogression from the last ten years or so, when more and more Americans began pugnaciously challenging the proclivities of the Leviathan.

The last thing we need is an efficient welfare state; inefficient government has the merit that it produces anger towards its constant assaults on liberty.

Similarly, a more interventionist foreign policy is hardly what libertarians are aiming for. Insofar as neoconservatives are hostile to arms control and a less interventionist foreign policy, they are a genuine menace preventing us from reversing the horrible legacy of Wilsonianism. An efficient welfare state is bad enough; the maintenance of a deadly warfare state posed to “prudently” intervene wherever its “interests” are “threatened” would be disastrous.

Though a neoconservative triumph would be a dismal prospect for libertarians, there is something we can learn from them. Their stress on the importance of a moral foundation for political judgments is terribly relevant for libertarians: We have hardly worked out a satisfactory answer for why liberty is the highest political end. Further, some libertarians themselves give unintended support to the neoconservative claim that such a position means the rejection or lack of concern with morality; i.e., that to favor maximum liberty is to imply that (almost) everything is morally justifiable. For instance, Walter Block, in his introduction to his now famous (infamous?) Defending the Undefendable, writes that the people he defends are “guilty of no wrong-doing”; they are not villians, he adds, because “they do not initiate violence against non-aggressors.” On the contrary, the fact that a person violates no rights doesn’t show in the slightest that he is not a moral villian or guilty of no wrongdoing; he may well have the moral sensibility of Andy Warhol. Block confuses the concept of not being guilty of wrongdoing politically (in that one violates no rights) and that of being free of guilt in the realm of morality proper.

It probably would also be fruitful to enter a dialogue with the neoconservatives and encourage them as they stumble towards quasi-classical liberal positions, at least on some issues. As the state’s programs increasingly fail, as neoconservatives begin to see that virtually all welfare state programs are either bureaucratic or don’t accomplish what they are supposed to do, they may well turn towards market solutions for social problems. Given their attitude towards liberty, there will be limits on how far they could go in this process; but as it occurs, we certainly ought to encourage and push them more towards freedom. This might involve an attempt to help the neoconservatives generalize some of their conclusions. As Kristol exposes the foibles of the “new class,” we could point out to him that this class differs only degree, not kind, from other state supported and supporting classes. As Glazer comes to recognize more and more the severe “limits of social policy” as attempted by the state, let us point out to him that this does not apply to the market’s ability to promote social well-being. As Moynihan increasingly becomes aware of the truth that socialism is “a distinctly poor means of producing wealth,” we should point out to him that all statism restricts and distorts productive energies, including the sort he supports.

But though we may carry on a dialogue, encourage them, and even learn from them, we must vehemently reject the claim, as formulated by Kristol, that the neoconservatives are trying to breathe new life into the old traditions of genuine political liberalism. A practical support for some free market policies, an interventionist foreign policy, a willingness to suspend some liberties for stability, a sympathy with the notion of a state elite, do not a renewed classical liberalism make.

Libertarians are the legitimate heirs of the classical liberal tradition; our ideology is a radicalized version of classical liberalism, stripped of its contradictions, inconsistencies, and compromises. While it would be wrong to say a victory for liberty is inevitable, it would be a colossal blunder to think we can speed up that happy day by making alliances with that cautious and in many senses antilibertarian group of intellectuals known as the neoconservatives.

Again and again, whether we contemplate the conservatives or the neoconservatives, the liberals or the remnants of th antiwar left, we must inevitably come to the same conclusion: If we are to achieve our goals of a full respect for individual liberty, a severe limitation on coercive government power in all spheres (economic freedom, civil liberties, and foreign policy), we must do so by building our own independent ideological movement, a movement ferociously dedicated to advancing the libertarian vision. It may seem a slow process, but in the long run it is the only path to liberty in our time.


Daniel Shapiro, a graduate student in philosophy at the University of Minnesota, was active in the antiwar and anti-draft movements, and has been active in libertarian circles for many years.