Friday, September 16, 2011

To the Paleos and Neos: Please Stop Fighting, Mom and Dad (a five-part plea)


I should probably keep quiet and be grateful I'm not involved in the foreign policy argument raging on the Republican Liberty Caucus of New York e-mail discussion list (basically, the recurring Ron Paul vs. hawks/neocons argument).  However, the existence of the argument itself -- as opposed to the merits of either side's position -- is of great interest to me, in way that may resonate for some of the less-vocal observers of this fight (and maybe help smooth it over a bit). 

I'm just old enough to have come of age as the Cold War was ending and thus to remember when the hawks, free-marketeers, libertarians, and neoconservatives all seemed to be "the same people" and (virtually) no one ever bothered to make much distinction between paleos and neos and so on (they all cheered when the Soviet Union collapsed).  I think that was healthier in many ways (we’ll be here forever if I get into all of it, but basically I think maintenance of the free-market coalition -- and some sort of "fusionist" philosophy underlying it -- is actually of paramount utilitarian importance for the world and furthermore is genuinely philosophically coherent, rather than just being politically-expedient, though I may just be a product of my political upbringing and subconscious needs, etc., etc.).

At this point, each side will probably think I'm leaning toward the other's position (much like one time when I organized an Israeli/Palestinian bar debate), but really I'm not (indeed, it seems as though a big part of the problem with these arguments is failure on both sides to pass what libertarian economist Bryan Caplan and later David Boaz called the Ideological Turing Test -- that is, basically, being able to model the other side's motivations as something non-alien and non-demonic, the way we wish columnists from the other party would when writing about us). 

My point in recalling the Reagan coalition (for all its flaws) with some nostalgia is that there is enough overlap in the worldviews clashing within the free-market movement today to make it seem a bit weird and unnatural to me to see foreign policy become a coalition-splitting issue -- even though I'm not saying there's no argument to be made that it's the most important issue (and even though this split's been going on for a decade or two, depending on whether you start the clock at '89 or '01, and should thus seem normal to me by now). 


Anyway, in what I think may be a shortcut to reasonableness, I've tried to avoid being most ardent on the issues that are most coalition-splitting (and, as suggested above, I think I could make a case for that being philosophically wise, not just politically expedient: if libertarians are split on, say, the question of abortion or intellectual property rights, that may be a very good indicator that those are genuinely ambiguous issues by our philosophical standards and thus not ones where it's wise to be an extremist one way or the other).  I speak -- without contradiction, I'd argue -- as:

•a libertarian (who'd even like to see the world become anarcho-capitalist but is pleased by smaller victories, too)
•who also thought of himself as sort of a Strauss-influenced neocon early on and hasn't really “turned against” those views in any important way (yet usually disagrees with David Brooks)
•but also was heavily influenced by the traditionalism of Chronicles magazine and the paleocons
•and is for now rooting for Ron Paul
•and endorsed him in an article back in 2007
•in which I argued that he's so good in so many ways, it'd be silly to let foreign policy be the decisive factor (either way) in deciding whether to support him,
•and I will nonetheless probably vote for Perry if he gets the nomination unless he starts revealing far more statist tendencies than he has so far.

(I’m not sure I could vote for a ticket with Romney at the top after his pro-Social Security haranguing of Perry lately, but that’s an uncertainty that one might well have whether one were libertarian or merely a GOP fiscal conservative.)

To get back to the foreign policy question: I wouldn't want America left defenseless against terrorists, of course, nor would I rule out intervention overseas on principle...but I also think the military-industrial complex is so vast that even a President Paul wouldn't likely succeed in eliminating it all...and he's probably not going to win why not push his candidacy as far as it'll go, in order to spread his other, less coalition-splitting (free-market, limited-government) ideas as much as possible (with just a dash of greater military restraint catching on as well) before, in all likelihood, Perry or Romney gets the nomination? 


But electoral strategy is secondary for current purposes.  I'm more interested in de-emphasizing the neo/paleo spat, which I was worried back in '01 would prove unproductive and indeed self-destructive, and I think it has.  (The left-wing joke version of this point would be to say, "We will need a coalition of warmongering Zionists and isolationist neo-Nazis -- working together -- to beat Obama in 2012," but don't quote me out of context on that!)  

The greatest danger in tribal fights (as evidence around
the world shows) is that people for whom the fight was once a mere footnote begin to define themselves by that fight.  To young activists in particular – many of whom have now come of age raging against (A) the “neocons” or (B) the “isolationists” – there is almost no way to remove the implicit words “Our Enemies, the” preceding those quoted phrases.  That’s not useful.  If the terms are being used more to divide than to describe – if they’ve become so slippery that they’re merely-descriptive one moment and reductively pejorative the next – something stupid is happening

(On a similar note, if someone asked me, calmly, back in 1989 if I were a conservative, Teenage Todd would have said yes – but if someone then or now asked me, “Are you a conservative or are you a secular humanist?” I’d know I was in one of those conversations where a lot of one-syllable yes/no answers are shortly going to be demanded but should not be given.)

Surely there are still many conservatives who are somewhere “in between” (or even orthogonal to) the neoconservatives and the paleoconservatives -- and many libertarians who are somewhere in between the neolibertarians (as they are sometimes called) and the paleolibertarians (like Ron Paul).  And you can be in between without condemning, rejecting, or alienating the extremes.  Indeed – and this is the tricky part – you should even be able, if you’re sufficiently empathic and thoughtful, to be on one of those extremes without wholly condemning, rejecting, or alienating the other extreme.

Someone asked if the Republican Liberty Caucus is more “Republican” or more “Liberty,” but I think emphasizing “Caucus” might help a bit.  "Defining" people out of a movement is sometimes necessary (if you're a Marxist out to destroy all private enterprise, you might be a well-intentioned soul, but you're really not a libertarian, except perhaps in the old European sense of the word, etc.), but I think the ambiguous, divisive, coalition-splitting issues are the last place one should look to try to define basic requirements for inclusion

So I was pleased years ago, for instance, when the Libertarian Party dropped its pro-choice-on-abortion plank, not so much because I was anti-abortion (I'm moderate on that as on many other things) but because I would hate to see such a tricky question become a litmus test.  I would be terrified if someone told me that the “libertarian” rubric now hinged on my precise answer to the question of how long it should take the statute of limitations on theft to run out and whether it can transcend generations.  If we don’t know for sure, let’s try seeking a compromise in a civil fashion.


Likewise, I have no strong position – for various reasons – on the death penalty, anarchism vs. minarchism, foreign policy, intellectual property, gay marriage (I’m told a cantankerous local libertarian is still angry that I have no strong position on this one), animal welfare (uncertainty on this issue can be an impediment to having sex, which for some people would no doubt be true of the previous item as well), some near-term environmental problems, the proper balance of traditionalism and libertinism, and a few other things that some friends of mine see as their defining issues.  I’m a big fuzzy moderate at heart, plainly.  Many people don’t want to hear that, especially on their pet issues (much as many normal people cannot cope with hearing or uttering the beautiful and frequently necessary words “I don’t know”). 

And again, I just want property rights, budget cuts, and deregulation.

More broadly put, the more ambiguous the issue, the less emphatic and dogmatic you ought to be about it.  That should be pretty obvious (if the issue is agreed by the discussants to be ambiguous, they should be in philosophy class mode – where I always like to be, really – not barricades mode). 

Of course, plenty of people will disagree with me about which issues are ambiguous (I’m told there are even people who don’t think it’s obvious the government should be radically shrunk and some people who think there’s evidence for the existence of God), but at least demographically, we can see which ones divide libertarians, which is the important thing for current purposes.  Of course, many people having these sorts of arguments know darn well that they’re in a movement with a mix of opinions, which is why they so quickly resort to secondary, often absurd, battles to redefine what traditionally counted as a “libertarian” or “conservative,” battles that all too frequently involve revisionist history or flat-out ignorance of what prior generations used as labels.

(You can make a plausible case for full-blown libertarian pacifism, in other words, but you still can’t tell me there are no libertarian hawks if I was hanging out with them for twenty years before you started working on the Ron Paul campaign, you little runt, nor can you tell me that big government is perfectly compatible with core conservative values, as if you get to pick those values all by yourself, you withered ex-Trotskyite fossil.  On the other hand, much as I’ve dissed the “liberaltarians,” I would love it if they managed to spawn a new generation of young hardcore Democrats who went around obnoxiously saying “True liberalism rejects the state!” as presumptuously as young Paulites tell older Republicans what “conservatism” means and older libertarians what “libertarianism” has always meant.  It’d take Tea Party-level ferocity and factionalism instead of make-nice suck-upism for a Dem paleoliberal Tea Party-type movement to have an impact, though.  Or at least I think so.  Been wrong before.)


Another danger of people defining themselves in terms of these internecine battles is that they will lose sight of the common foe – big government.  Worse, when they win an occasional round in the internecine battles, they may actually become deluded into thinking that was the wider war, the way many Paulites seem to think they’re on the verge of converting the whole country because they’re so (adorably) energized and socially-networked among themselves. 

Misperceiving reality is never a moral requirement.  (If I were a candidate, I hope I would never feel obligated to say in the face of terrible poll numbers, “We’re still gonna win this one, I tell you!”)  Please practice saying “My side is right and completely doomed.”  Those are words that will come in handy sooner or later, if not for this particular cause, then for some other with which you are involved.

Speaking of misperceiving reality, the specific argument over whether U.S. foreign policy caused the 9/11 attacks seems particularly prone to get people needlessly talking past each other.  I read some of Al Qaeda’s own writings, republished for Western educational purposes in the book The Al Qaeda Reader but (crucially) originally intended for internal Islamist purposes, and it’s pretty clear that (A) they do indeed have a philosophy that causes them to hate us for our freedoms and explicitly condone mass-murdering unbelievers and (B) they are made especially angry and motivated to actually go into battle by U.S. foreign policy moves like stationing troops in Saudi Arabia, helping to topple the Iranian president in 1953, and supporting Israel, all moves they seem pretty confident make good recruiting tools for them.  They are also angry about cases in which the U.S. intervened in the Middle East and cases in which the U.S. withdrew from the Middle East.

If you want to pick just part of that complex mess and reduce decades (even centuries) of history to a slogan or two, I can’t stop you, and, sure, it’ll make it easier for you to demonize your political opponents, but surely there’s room in all the tangled causal threads involved for reasonable disagreement about how we got here and what to do.  (Deliberately mishearing” others’ positions never helps, as in pretending to think that the statement “Past policies contributed to this” equals “The 9/11 victims deserved to die,” or pretending to think that saying “Islamic radical philosophy is the root cause” is the same as saying “America has a divine right to conquer nations we disagree with in order to help Israel.”) 

There are also more than two positions on something as complex as military policy, surely.

One might even hold that the U.S. caused Al Qaeda’s popularity and that we must now destroy them by intervening militarily in numerous countries (I’m just saying it’s a logically coherent position regardless of whether it’s true – likewise, I know someone who’s a military non-interventionist but favors very extensive domestic security, spying, and wiretapping operations, and regardless of whether that’s the correct position, it’s a useful reminder that politics is more multi-variable than people usually admit, given the package deals political activists are usually pushing). 

In any case, where there is ambiguity, there will be diversity of opinion, and people ostensibly involved in some larger common project would be better off practicing civility than exaggerating and intensifying differences.  I recall someone – possibly Jonah Goldberg – writing post-9/11 something along the lines of “Am I a neocon?  I hadn’t even really thought about it.  I thought I was just a conservative.”  If he didn’t say it, I’m sure many of us thought it or can sympathize (or had analogous thoughts about what it means to be a libertarian or a liberal or an Israel-sympathizer or an American or a Muslim). 

Changed circumstances lead to emphasizing different issues, but let’s not go looking for a fight – by which I mean the neo-vs.-paleo one.


Eric Hanneken said...

A paleocon or libertarian might agree that foreign policy can't be neatly derived from their cardinal premises, but still believe that getting it right is too important to allow neocons to have their way. See, for example, ComeHomeAmerica.US, an alliance of libertarians, paleocons, and leftists, which aims to stop the wars and dismantle the empire.

As readers of The Declaration of Independents know, this is only the harbinger of a future where there are no grand semi-permanent alliances. Every man will choose his coalitions on an issue-by-issue basis, or so Gillespie and Welch predict.

Todd Seavey said...

Good point, and that in turn, I suppose, raises the question of whether diversity yields greater tolerance or just more fighting (or does that in turn depend on other variables). My paleocon friend Jim Kalb, for example, thinks, in almost exactly the opposite fashion from Gillespie and Welch (regarding culture now, not so much political parties), that diversity makes tyranny more likely, since people who cannot reach accord via traditional, local, unspoken _agreements_ tend to turn to a stronger authority to settle things. (That in turn is why I am sort of neutral on the heterogeneity-is-valuable question itself. Maybe an all-Amish America, as I often put it for short, would be the one least in need of a central government, welfare, etc.)

But regardless of what one thinks about society's fate, the maintenance of big political parties may just prove impossible.