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The Enemy Is Always the StateTags Free MarketsOther Schools of ThoughtPolitical Theory
The web loves nothing more than a good brawl, so people often write me to ask me to respond to a critic of LRC or the Mises Institute. There's certainly no shortage of them, and they come from the Left, the Right, and everything in between. My first thought on the request is that the archive speaks for itself, and a response would amount to little more than reprinting. And yet the criticisms in themselves are interesting because often they come from people who liked one thing we said and then felt betrayed by another thing we said, so we get praise for the first thing and attacked for the second.
There is a response to make that covers all these critics, but first let me give you a better feel for what I'm talking about. Let's say that we run an article exposing how the corporate elites are working in league with the government to make profits from war and destruction. The Left cheers. The next day we attack the idea of a new tax on corporations or some antitrust action, and come to the defense of big business. The Left screams betrayal and announces that our side of the debate has sold out.
On a much lower level, the same happens concerning party politics. We attack Republicans and Democrats cheer. Then we attack Democrats and they scream at us for failing to back the party line to the end.
The same happens on the Right. One day we attack the organized victim lobby for pushing for government privileges for blacks or gays or women or for using "multiculturalism" as a moral imperative to curb the right of free association. The Right celebrates that we have enlisted in the culture war! The next day we attack Christians for demanding coerced prayer in coerced school or for backing surveillance in the war on drugs. Then the Christian Right says that we have sold our souls to the Devil.
Another example of a more complicated topic concerns immigration. Throughout modern history, the state has used immigrants as a tool to ratchet up power for itself. This takes the form of requiring tax-funded services like public schools and medical services, or in browbeating the citizens to love and embrace all newcomers while enforcing antidiscrimination law. Nor are citizens under these conditions permitted to notice the rise in crime that accompanies some immigration or the demographic upheavals that people resent. The result of immigration waves is to diminish liberty for American citizens.
At the same time, anti-immigrationist sentiment can also be used by the state to expand its power. In the name of a crackdown, the state invades the rights of business and demands the documentation of every employee. It sends its bureaucrats all over the country and works toward a national ID card. It makes it virtually impossible for corporations to hire people, even temporary workers, from other countries, all in the name of national security or stopping immigration. The state is happy to whip up nativist frenzy in the name of loving the homeland in order to enhance its power. This harms productivity and makes us all less free.
So you see the problem here. The state uses both pro- and anti-immigration sentiment in its favor. To battle this problem, the libertarian will be sympathetic with one point of view in one political context and another point of view in a different context. It really depends on what kind of rhetorical apparatus the state is using at the moment. The groups that deserve support are those that are resisting the state. It is not unusual to see those very groups won over by the state at a later stage of the development of statism, in which case libertarian sympathies have to change.
Murray Rothbard noted this his entire life. When he was young, the resistance league was found among the remnants of the Old Right that opposed the New Deal and wartime planning. But then the Right was won over by the warfare state, and Rothbard's sympathies changed to the point that he sided with the New Left against the state. But of course the Left then gained power and its ideologues sold out, and the Right went into resistance mode again. Murray chronicled the shifts while they took place—while maintaining a hard and fast adherence to principle.
Let's look at recent political history to see how this works. In the 1990s, the Right was the resistance. It battled Clintonian socialism and warfare internationalism. It resented the regime's tendency toward centralization and its relentless putting down of the cultural attachments of the American bourgeoisie. The resentment was felt intensely by the middle class, which swept George Bush into power on the promise of smaller government and a less belligerent foreign policy.
But the middle class had been bamboozled yet again, and the very cultural impulses that the Clinton regime attacked were used by the Bush regime as a means of expanding its domestic and international empire. Christianity was invoked not as a reason to resist the state but rather to obey it in all things, since Bush claimed its wars were godly and its domestic policy was moving Christianity to the front of the political bus. The booboisie fell for it in every way, creating the scary political machine I've called red-state fascism.
So of course the red-staters are going to feel betrayed if they expect us to be sympathetic with their political impulses regardless of whether they are fighting against the state or fighting for the state. These are completely different motives with opposite results. Power corrupts anyone who gets it, whether that is the Right or the Left or anything else in between. And the consistent libertarian must battle power no matter what its color or variety. This is what Mises did in his life. Rothbard too. So too for the entire liberal tradition. The true liberal, in pursuit of fixed principles, must never have fixed political alliances. They must change based on the ruling rationale of the moment.
Let me state this as plainly as possible. The enemy is the state. There are other enemies too, but none so fearsome, destructive, dangerous, or culturally and economically debilitating. No matter what other proximate enemy you can name — big business, unions, victim lobbies, foreign lobbies, medical cartels, religious groups, classes, city dwellers, farmers, left-wing professors, right-wing blue-collar workers, or even bankers and arms merchants — none are as horrible as the hydra known as the leviathan state. If you understand this point — and only this point — you can understand the core of libertarian strategy.
There have been tremendous advances in state theory in the 20th century. Start with Franz Oppenheimer's The State (1908). Read A.J. Nock's Our Enemy, the State (1935). Learn from Chodorov's Rise and Fall of Society (1959). Turn to Rothbard's unsurpassed masterwork For a New Liberty (1973). To understand the historical sweep, see Martin Van Creveld's Rise and Decline of the State (1999). Then you will understand why we do what we do. Until then, our critics are only unknowing dupes of the very forces they should be fighting.
[Originally published May 20, 2008.]