20 March 2014

The paradox of libertarian 'isolationism.'

Neocon Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin is furious at what she sees as Sen. Rand Paul's "pandering" to the anti-surveillance paranoia of college students during his recent appearance at Berkeley. For Rubin, the younger Paul's remarks -- he said blacks should be especially concerned about NSA surveillance because of past government surveillance of civil-rights leaders -- merely reconfirmed the Tennessean's paranoia and isolationism. She scores a fair hit on Paul when she notes that he didn't discuss his opposition to abortion and gay marriage at Berkeley, and warns that whatever support he hopes to win from college kids will vanish once his more Christian-right positions on some issues are better known. But for now let's focus on the Paul family's record of skepticism toward the War on Terror and foreign entanglements in general. The Senator recently warned against gratuitously "tweaking" Russia over the Ukraine crisis, while other Republicans feel a compulsion to voice their Russophobia. The difference doesn't seem to make sense at first.

Across a wide swath of the American ideological spectrum, there is a shared perception that the world is divided between "freedom" and "tyranny." Ever since the U.S. came into existence as a revolutionary government, Russia has almost always been part of the "tyranny" team in the American imagination. In effect, as some see it, there's been a kind of cold war going on for nearly 250 years, with one side actively promoting "freedom" and "liberty," while the other is accused of actively promoting "tyranny," whether its the monarchic reaction of the 19th century Holy Alliance, the totalitarian agenda of Marxism-Leninism, or whatever it is that Vladimir Putin is selling. As we've seen this month, many Americans feel an imperative to show solidarity with people representing "freedom" when they struggle against "tyranny." They feel that any victory for "tyranny" on the globe is a blow to "freedom" everywhere, and that anyone who stands against a perceived "tyranny" is necessarily on the side of "freedom" and thus morally entitled to as much support as "free" nations can offer. In our time, Putin's dogged support for the Assad government in Syria marks him as an advocate for "tyranny" around the world, while many Americans feel a moral obligation to help the Syrian rebels, the Ukrainians, etc. as much as our resources allow. The curious thing is that, in the U.S., the libertarians are supposedly the people most obsessed with "freedom," yet if the Pauls really represent American libertarianism, then libertarians do not share the perception of a global cold war between "freedom" and "tyranny" described above.

Are libertarians, despite their "isolationist" reputation, simply less xenophobic than Republicans or even many liberals -- less likely to see foreign governments as threats to their personal freedom? Possibly, or else libertarian xenophobia may be so comprehensive that they have no interest in whether foreigners anywhere are free -- but this seems unlikely. It is curious that they seem less paranoid about foreign powers than they are about their own government. Perhaps their own bias against the state makes them skeptical toward foreign affairs, since these are always primarily the relations between states rather than the theoretical entities "freedom" and "tyranny." Since the state inevitably conducts foreign policy, libertarians may feel that no government, not even their own, can play the role of "freedom" that liberals, neocons and others idealize. Enemies of libertarianism may see any anti-interventionist bias in the movement merely as further proof of its essential selfishness -- of course they don't give a damn about anyone else! But there may be more of a principle involved as well. Libertarians presumably share with Republicans a belief in "personal responsibility." In the economic realm, that means that each person should do everything legally in their power to make themselves useful to society rather than accept dependence upon the state and its taxpayers. In foreign affairs, libertarian "isolationists" like the Pauls are arguably being consistent. They may believe that it's up to the Ukrainians, the Syrian rebels, etc. to fight their own battles -- that they have no more right to win the struggle between "freedom" and "tyranny" than anyone has a positive right to anything. Liberals in particular see "freedom" as a set of guarantees enforced by a necessarily impersonal state, above all the right to dissent from leaders without fear of reprisal. Libertarians may also talk about natural rights, but they lack liberals' confidence in the state as an effective or consistent guarantor of those rights. For that reason, and with evidence from Afghanistan and Iraq to back them up, they may doubt whether intervention by a foreign power can really secure "freedom" for any nation. Whatever the reason, libertarians don't seem to see the world -- the world of nations, that is -- the same way that Republicans do. That will be a problem for Sen. Paul if he actually wants the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, but if libertarians, however ironically or paradoxically, see the world more clearly than mainstream American politicians, rejecting their perceptions entirely may cause problems for all of us.

No comments: