Among the many problems with critiques of libertarianism from both right and left is the degree to which they confuse principle and pragmatism within the disparate and diffuse arena of libertarian thought. Virtually every hit piece on Rand Paul or libertarianism coming from the likes of Jen Rubin, Commentary, The Weekly Standard, The Washington Free Beacon or other such neoconservative bastions takes the most extreme characterization of non-interventionism and posits that radical isolationism is the norm because libertarian allegiance to the non-aggression principle leads inexorably to a principled and committed stance to never, under any circumstances, use force. Never mind that Rand Paul believes fervently in free trade and global diplomacy and cooperation, qualities that should automatically inoculate one from the “isolationist” slur. He frequently cites how national defense is explicitly framed as the primary duty of the federal government, thus he would not hesitate to use force in a constitutional manner (where Congress regains primacy in the decision).
Paul’s foreign policy sounds more realist and pragmatic than non-interventionist, and it is far from “isolationist.” It’s difficult to imagine a Rand Paul presidency converting us to the Swiss or Icelandic model of foreign engagement, postures which would indeed be isolationist. The even-keel Paul suddenly abandoning his George Kennan infused realism for an erratic, withdrawal-at-all-costs, “leave us alone” retrenchment seems as likely as his giving us the final installment in an Iraq War trilogy. Still, the isolationist pejorative persists because the forces arrayed against Paul on the right stand in rabid opposition to him, simply because he dares to criticize their worldview. It is much easier to slander libertarians as isolationist and equate them with leftists than to actually engage with the criticisms and perhaps be forced into some painful soul-searching. In this regard, neocons mirror progressives, in that their reticence to acknowledge real failures in their foreign policy mirrors the left’s reluctance to acknowledge failures in their war on poverty, the welfare state, economics or healthcare. People hate credible challenges to their ideological dogma, which is why elements of left and right are lashing out at Rand Paul, the bearer of bad news.
Right now the attacks from the right are more noxious and unhinged than the average panicked screed from the left. But the left is no less in error in its critique of libertarianism when it states emphatically that a philosophical hypothetical about the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or Paul’s position on abortion (as if he’s going to be eager to federally ban the practice as POTUS; much more likely he would adopt a state’s rights/federalism stance) will, ipso facto, automatically disqualify him with 100% of the Obama coalition. But can the left really be that confident that the whole bloc of Obama millennials is going to catch the fever for Hillary the same way they did for Obama? Listen to Robert Scheer’s hour long paean to libertarian consistency in fighting crony capitalism in which he declares proudly that Rand Paul would have to be his choice against Hillary Clinton. So we’ve got a principled democratic socialist sounding off on the consistent, principled, laudable positions of Rand Paul and libertarians, and doing so in the context of Paul’s raucous reception from millennials at Berkeley. But we’re supposed to accept the smug liberal wisdom that insists Paul’s attraction to young people is all just a a mirage, because abortion. Please.
In the process of assuring the Bay Area radio audience that he was not a libertarian but a committed liberal who believes in “throwing money at the problem” and “leveling the playing field,” Scheer regaled his skeptical host and listeners with as robust a defense of libertarianism that you are likely to ever hear from someone on the left. He celebrates their consistent contempt for corporatist privilege, applauds the consistent belief in avoiding imperial temptations such as “nation building,” and even pushes back on the naive leftist assertion that libertarians are in bed with the “1 percent” and favor accelerating inequality by pointing out that it was in fact Bill Clinton’s affinity for crony capitalism, the notorious Wall St-Washington D.C. revolving door and the left’s coziness with the Federal Reserve that are chiefly responsible for growing inequality. I don’t necessarily agree with Scheer’s diagnosis, particularly regarding his claim that the repeal of Glass-Steagall was the high crime of the century, but he is surely correct to highlight that nowhere are libertarian policy prescriptions to blame for the economic turmoil of the past decade. I most certainly would not agree with Scheer’s antidote to the so-called inequality “crisis” either, as only stable economic growth in the private economy can enhance prosperity for all (though of course not uniformly; thus even with growth, you will always have “income inequality,” which shouldn’t even be “a thing” in our modern lexicon), but it is beyond refreshing to hear someone on the left instructing fellow travelers to train their ire at the bipartisan duopoly of cronies responsible for the rigged (and ongoing) Big Business-Big Government tryst, not at the libertarians who, Scheer recognizes, are not to be lamented but lauded for adhering to principle in earnest and with consistency.
Scheer also makes a crucial point in this interview about the need for the modern left to come to terms with totalitarian socialism. Though I would argue with him that there really isn’t that much of a difference between democratic and totalitarian socialism, as any system oriented around central planning and expert maintenance of an economy is ultimately going to end in tyranny, whether it begins with democratic elections or not. Managed economies are confused societies, and confused societies are chaotic and prone to corruption, abuse and authoritarianism. Still, how encouraging to actually hear a socialist suggesting that not enough socialists have come to grips with the most abhorrent socialist outcomes? I get the feeling that Mr. Scheer is uncomfortably aware of his own ideology’s shortcomings when it comes to the actual administration of government; that it is impossible to ignore that socialist regimes inevitably abuse the power they seek to consolidate.
So two cheers for Robert Scheer, who deserves the maximum number of cheers this libertarian is capable of bestowing on a self-described democratic socialist. Perhaps one day he might even discard the socialist label and come all the way over to the libertarian reservation, where liberty is exalted, where government and collectivism are scorned, and where the mutton is nice and lean…
Here is an interesting interview Scheer did with Reason a while back: