Fighting Over Libertarianism

You can see some of the many competing and contradictory themes within contemporary conservatism in Patrick Ruffini's blogpost on Hewitt's blog today. His heart is with libertarianism; but his head is with the Bush security state and current Republican coalition. When the two conflict, his brain hurts:

Libertarianism in the GOP took a big hit on 9/11, and it’s slowly coming back, with Ron Paul as the catalyst. Its underlying ideals still have appeal well beyond the cramped confines of the LP. If it’s possible to be known as a pro-life, pro-war, pro-wiretapping libertarian, then sign me up. Markos too brands himself a “libertarian Democrat,” though he’s never read Hayek and supports big government social programs.

Let's unpack this a little. After any serious attack on a country, civil liberties are bound to suffer. I don't know many grown-up libertarians so pure that they would deny this completely. But the goal is always to return to maximal liberty within the bounds of security, especially when the initial threat appears diminished. Of course this is hard to measure because the threat itself is hard to measure. But a libertarian will constantly be seeking to protect liberty where possible. You don't really see that instinct in today's authoritarian GOP.

A libertarian also understands that there is no deeper threat to liberty than war and that a state of permanent war is close to the end of libertarianism. Hence the discomfort with amorphous wars against "drugs" or "terror," wars in which no enemy can ever surrender or ever be defeated. Patrick needs to grapple with that, it seems to me. Being a pro-war libertarian is possible if you see the war as an unavoidable measure for basic security. But Iraq, to take an obvious example, long ago ceased to be that. What being pro-war in the GOP today tends to mean is an unskeptical Hannity-Giuliani enthusiasm for war, and judgment that more of it, not less, is what we need. When you combine that with contempt for civil liberties, pride in waterboarding, disdain for even minimal judicial oversight of wiretapping, and a reflexive bent to accuse all domestic critics of treason ... then you are far, far away from libertarianism, or my kind of conservatism. That's why, in my judgment, Ron Paul is right to insist on the radical degeneracy of today's GOP establishment. And why, for all his eccentricities, I'm immensely grateful he's doing so well.

And some quibbles. No, you can't be a pro-wire-tapping libertarian.

You can be for wire-tapping with judicial safeguards, but that's not Bush's mojo. And it's simply absurd to say that Paul "blames[s] America for 9/11." That's hogwash. It's Giuliani's ally, Pat Robertson, who blamed Americans for 9/11. Paul merely sought to establish that part of al Qaeda's murderous ideology was fueled in small part by American troops in Saudi Arabia and the US's long-time support for autocratic regimes in the Middle East. This is simply indisputable. And Patrick's laudable attempt to square the circle is misguided:

Absolute freedom within our borders, for our own citizens; eternal vigilance and (when necessary) ruthlessness abroad.

The trouble is: this war knows no geographic boundaries and so the warpowers we have rashly given to the president against anyone he calls an "enemy combatant" inevitably affect US citizens and residents. The clear divide Patrick wants is impossible, alas. It seems to me that the most rational divide is to treat all non-citizen enemy combatants as prisoners of war (with traditional baseline protections against mistreatment) and US citizens as criminals, accused of the most heinous crimes and facing the direst consequences.

But at a deeper level, conservatives have to decide what their deepest value is: security or freedom. And how many have the balls, like Paul, to choose the latter if it really comes to that?