The Old Cause
by Joseph R. Stromberg

July 20, 2002

Liberventionism II: The Flight from Theory


I have previously discussed "liberventionism" in this space. By this newly-minted word I refer to the doctrines of those libertarians who find little wrong with the general trend of U.S. foreign policy, before – and especially – after 9/11, The Day When Everything Changed.  To start with the last item, there is probably a good film plot in 9/11 for a scary early Cold War sci-fi thriller to be called "The Day the Defense Department Stood Still," or "The Day the Jets Couldn't Be Scrambled For Quite A Long While." Or how about "The Day the President Went Missing"?

Then again, one is entitled to be skeptical that "everything changed." This seems to be untrue. Indeed, many trends already in place merely picked up speed. The desire of American governments at all levels to know everything we say and do certainly did. The Homeland Sicherheitsbüro, in the works for several years before the date that I am tired of repeating, was just the iceberg of a kinder, gentler police state coming into full view, the TIP having been in sight for decades.


Now just yesterday I received an email inviting me to join something called WarLibertarians. This was said to be a forum in which pro-war and anti-war libertarians may quarrel to their heart's content. I suppose there is some kind of implicit John Stuart Mill moral here about the better argument prevailing, or some such nonsense.

Now some us have thought that "pro-war libertarian" is, speaking broadly, an oxymoron, a contradictio in adjecto. In the extremely rare case of actual defensive war against real invasion, a libertarian could have no problem with violent resistance against the invaders. Such a view, which I take to be the real libertarian position, centers on defense of concrete persons and property rather than on big abstractions like "our way of life," etc. It is thus "pro-defense" rather than "pro-war."

But why split hairs when we can split whole world outlooks? On the face of it, liberventionist writers have, thus far, taken a position that actually is "pro-war." There was a time when such behavior would have led to a questioning of their libertarian bona fides. Now, they may be numerous enough to steal the label, just as sundry post-liberals stole "liberal" from real liberals at the end of the 19th century.

So be it. I am not going to fight the liberventionists for a mere label, unless they invade my property in the course of stealing it. They can "free ride" all they wish on whatever little prestige the term may still have.

This means, I guess, that they can impose on their opponents the costs of finding and popularizing another name for the genuine, anti-imperial libertarian position. This seems a bit unfair but that is life. The only alternative would be state intervention to make the political nomenclature market more "efficient," and we would have to oppose that.

Returning to my chance to wrangle, in J. S. Mill's shadow, with liberventionists in order to find the truth, I shall probably give it the go-by. I have already seen numerous productions by such worthies and remain suitably unimpressed. Their common thread, aside from lockstep adoption of the current administration's sloganeering, is the rejection of theory and a view of American history so narrow as to fit inside a size one hat.


Now not wanting to share a forum with these people is not the same as not wanting to discuss their opinions. Their arguments differ little from those made by many people who talk the free-market talk but walk the neo-con walk. This might not be so bad except that neo-conservatives are the keenest advocates of eternal U.S. imperial intervention anywhere and everywhere.

Liberventionists err, I think, in constantly "dropping the context" of what has been under discussion the last few months. I borrow this useful term from the Objectivists since they make little use of it and will hardly miss it. Of course the whole present interventionist coalition, from NRO over to the Latter-Day Crolyites at the New Republic, drop the context, but few of them claim to be libertarians.

For the word-bold, desk-bound bombardiers at National Review there is no distinction that matters between state and society. They are metaphysically one, especially when Republican boneheads are in office. Libertarians might be expected to have some notion that the state differs from society and, indeed, is inimical to society, even if they only picked it up in an LP brochure or heard about it in a chat room. (You can't expect them to read Nock, Mencken, or Rothbard, can you?)

Judging from the liberventionist literature so far, these libertarians do indeed conflate state and society. This is pretty important case of dropping the context. It soon leads to moronic discussions about giving up x amount of liberty in order to have y amount of security.

We gave up liberty, bit by bit, through the whole twentieth century. It did not make us safe on the date to which I am tired of referring. Yet the interventionist coalition, libertarians included, ask us to trust the global used-car dealers one more time.

Well, I'm sorry, but liberty-killing measures do not become liberty-saving measures just on the strength of promises from misborn-again libertarians who have lost their bearings and cast off their heritage. It is precisely U.S. foreign policy, aka U.S. imperialism, that has made us unsafe, to the extent that we actually are unsafe, – "unsafe," I mean, from foreign enemies, mostly supplied courtesy of Uncle Himself; but, further, it is the domestic spillover from Uncle's Very Own Foreign Policy, that is making, or wishes to make us unsafe from His Own runaway police operatives, domestic sniffers and snoops, and state power generally.

One should probably not speculate aloud whether foreign entities or domestic ones present the greater threat to our liberty and safety, intentionally or otherwise. A mathematical model with curves and percentages would be interesting. I don't think we need it.

I hardly need to spell this out in detail, here and now. Read the newspapers. Listen to the new commissars. Study their faces.

If Democrats were running this show, instead of merely going along with it, even the amateur fascists at a certain "conservative" web forum would sit up and take notice. When the present process has run its course, or (more likely) takes a short break, a few years hence, it will be a bit late for libertarian warmongers to regain their appreciation of the difference between – the opposition between – state and society, state and liberty, court and country. Still, a few of them may come to wonder if John Taylor of Caroline had a point, in 1822, when he wrote the following:

"What other power can despotism need, after it has obtained a complete control over all the physical interests of the individuals who compose a nation? It boasts in the United States, that it leaves the mind free. The criminal extended on the rack still retains the freedom of his mind. Though confined in a dungeon upon bread and water, he may be of what religion he pleases. So bodies, impoverished, and sometimes starved by being encircled with the magical chains of exclusive privileges, may boast under the hardship of deprivations, that their minds are still free; that they can adore, though they cannot enjoy, those republican principles, which teach that governments ought to be instituted to secure the right of providing for our own wants, according to our own will, and not according to the will of the government; because such a power in the government, however it may leave the mind speculatively free, is a real despotism over both mind and body, since they are indissoluble except by death."(1)

Taylor was mainly worried about the rise of a consolidated mercantilist elite, which would use expanded federal power to control the political economy. But is his point less valid when, having already created a corporatist economy and matching world empire, such an elite turns to the home front to round off its control of literally everything? Is it enough, for a libertarian, to remain "speculatively free" within the confines of Washington think-tanks? 

Oh, but we shall also be speculatively secure from foreign entities; and this speculative security is surely worth the price of being certainly insecure at the hands of, well, you know who. If you don't know by now, you have no business being "libertarian" and little business being American. Immigrants who have been here a few days or weeks might be forgiven for not understanding such things; it passeth all understanding how native-born Americans could have so little regard for their birthright. 

As a methodological footnote, it bears saying that it is not any one legal innovation now coming down the pike that will reduce American freedom to Soviet-style "freedom." Rather, it is these new measures combined with existing abuses enacted over decades(2) which, together, will systematically produce that unhappy result. If the libertarian war brigades could see that, we might have more to talk with them about. Of course they would have to give up context-dropping to see this pattern, and I doubt they will care to do so.


1. John Taylor of Caroline, Tyranny Unmasked (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1992 [1822]), pp.


2. See Paul Craig Roberts and Lawrence M. Stratton, The Tyranny of Good Intentions (Roseville, CA: Prima, 2000). The authors note that many of the worst inroads on Anglo-American legal principles were made by Republican administrations. By now, no one should find this surprising.

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