We’re All Libertarians Now (Except David Brooks)


[Re-posted from earlier today]

In a characteristically astute and bracing essay, Mark Lilla recently remembered – with mixed feelings – “the grand drama of political and intellectual life from 1789 to 1989.” It strikes me as an important piece, because it comes at a propitious time to regroup and rethink recent history a bit more seriously. The world really did change in 1989, finally ending a period of two centuries of ideological struggle – a struggle that gave meaning and structure to billions of people on both sides. By the 1990s, the organized, intellectual armies of right and left effectively and slowly peeled away from a battlefield in which democratic capitalism (with varying levels of social welfare) had triumphed by default.

And I think Mark is specifically emphasizing: by default. Yes, the right, in many ways, won the philosophical argument. But the right’s victory left us domestically with a profoundly unreflective libertarianism:

Whatever ideas or beliefs or feelings muted the demand for individual autonomy in the past have atrophied. There were no public debates on this and no votes were taken. Since the cold war ended we have simply found ourselves in a world in which every advance of the principle of freedom in one sphere advances it in the others, whether we wish it to or not.

The core idea of this post-ideological new age was simply expanding the freedom of the individual – and it was embraced economically by the right, socially by the left, and completely by the next generation of pragmatic liberaltarians. Here’s what Mark posits as the core of the libertarian ethos:

This outlook treats as axiomatic the primacy of individual self-determination over traditional social ties, indifference in matters of religion and sex, and the a priori obligation to tolerate others. Of course there have also been powerful reactions against this outlook, even in the West. But outside the Islamic world, where theological principles still have authority, there are fewer and fewer objections that persuade people who have no such principles. The recent, and astonishingly rapid, acceptance of homosexuality and even gay marriage in so many Western countriesa historically unprecedented transformation of traditional morality and customssays more about our time than anything else.

Think also of the astonishing speed with which marijuana seems on its way to legalization.

One thing I’d emphasize: this outlook also deeply informs our view of the world and America’s place in it, in ways we are less familiar with. Just as government or some governmental authority Berlin During The Cold War: Then And Nowaxiomatically shouldn’t curtail an individual’s right to do what she wants and be who she wants, so a super-power, even a benevolent one, has no right to dictate the choices and fate of any other individual country, however despotic and evil its regime might be. This libertarian foreign policy is observed even in the breach. There is, for example, nothing to stop Putin from annexing Crimea – but he loses international standing and is increasingly isolated as a consequence. Ditto Israel’s constant excesses in the occupied West Bank; it goes on ad infinitum, but so too will Israel’s pariah status as a result. And, of course, the cause célèbre of this entire movement is the Iraq War, a catastrophe now regarded as utterly illegitimate by everybody on the planet, apart from a few Cheney dead-enders and Tony Blair.

In fact, the only addendum I would add to Mark’s argument is that libertarianism has had a much bigger impact in foreign policy than we care to admit.

To wit: if your axiomatic worldview is live and let live, and it permeates all your non-thinking prejudices, then interventionism abroad has a much higher bar to meet than in the past when it was justified by a dangerous and global state enemy or by a firm belief in a world-historical mission. In the wake of the triumph of the West in the 1990s, this was not obvious. So we over-played a somewhat triumphalist hand, expecting Western values, having vanquished Soviet and Nazi ideology, to spread spontaneously around the globe. So we pressed NATO to the Russian border, expanded the EU to 28 states, charted maps of democracy’s invincible rise across Asia and then, in a fit of hubris, actually decided to force it upon Iraq and Afghanistan of all places as a panacea to all the Islamic world’s ills as it struggles fitfully to come to terms with modernity.

We know better now – but that lesson means that the bar for intervention is future is likely to be extremely high. Legitimacy matters – and in the last ten years or so, America has lost most of its international legitimacy, whether the neocons and liberal interventionists recognize it or not. The question is: how do we respond to this? And there are, it seems to me, a liberal and a conservative option.

The liberal one is to fight back in defense of universal values, American droit de seigneur (also known as American exceptionalism), and democratization as a sacred duty. Which is why, when push comes to shove, David Brooks is a liberal. His column in response to Lilla’s essay uses a peculiar word – “spiritual” – to define his crusade:

Such is life in a spiritual recession. Americans have lost faith in their own gospel. This loss of faith is ruinous from any practical standpoint. The faith bound diverse Americans, reducing polarization. The faith gave elites a sense of historic responsibility and helped them resist the money and corruption that always licked at the political system. Without the vibrant faith, there is no spiritual counterweight to rampant materialism. Without the faith, the left has grown strangely callous and withdrawing in the face of genocide around the world. The right adopts a zero-sum mentality about immigration and a pinched attitude about foreign affairs. Without the faith, leaders grow small; they have no sacred purpose to align themselves with.

So in response to the end of ideology, Brooks wants a new-old one, a national commitment to “universal democracy” (undefined) that is sacred. If we don’t have that faith, we are somehow reduced. I guess I’m just being an atomized individual, but my own “counter-weight to rampant materialism”, for example, is Christianity. But this faith is, for David, insufficient. It doesn’t strengthen the nation! I must join some Berlin During The Cold War: Then And Nowcollective, secular spiritual mission to complete my life and one, moreover, that goes out into the wider world to find monsters to destroy or countries to civilize. The fact that this ideological mission is deeply out of step with this moment in world history and has just been discredited on a massive, comprehensive scale sails past the need for it to exist in Brooks’ mind. Which is my best read on the cognitive dissonance in the column.

But there is another, saner response to this, and Lilla points the way. It is to re-exercize the intellectual muscles that created and then defended the idea of democratic capitalism – and to use them, first of all, to address the democratic deficits in our own too-often bought-and-paid-for republic, to build and defend intermediate institutions that check individualism’s acidic power – families, churches, neighborhoods, school-boards, sports leagues, AA meetings. And so we match gay freedom with gay marriage and military service, embracing libertarianism but hitching it to institutions that also connect it to the community as a whole. Abroad, the sane response to our political and intellectual moment is to abandon the crude idea that democracy – purple fingers and all – is all that matters, and direct our attention at the specific things that make a difference in very different societies, and away from the grand principles and systems that cannot be imposed by force or even constant suasion.

Lilla puts it this way:

The big surprise in world politics since the cold war’s end is not the advance of liberal democracy but the reappearance of classic forms of non-democratic political rule in modern guises. The break-up of the Soviet empire and the “shock therapy” that followed it produced new oligarchies and kleptocracies that have at their disposal innovative tools of finance and communication; the advance of political Islam has placed millions of Muslims, who make up a quarter of the world’s population, under more restrictive theocratic rule; tribes, clans, and sectarian groups have become the most important actors in the post-colonial states of Africa and the Middle East; China has brought back despotic mercantilism. Each of these political formations has a distinctive nature that needs to be understood in its own terms, not as a lesser or greater form of democracy in potentia. The world of nations remains what it has always been: an aviary.

For which you need an aviarist, not an ideologue.

Even though it seems foolish to deny that most countries still seem headed over time toward Western norms (Fukuyama remains basically correct), in the here and now, all sorts of hybrids are forming and will form, as they always have. Our goal in foreign policy is to understand them better by using the vast apparatus of political philosophy bequeathed to us by our Western canon, and tapping into our collective reserves of diplomatic and military experience, and adjust accordingly. That means bracketing the simple democracy-spectrum and looking for how to deal with various forms of oligarchy, kleptocracy, or emerging democratic society. Now and again, a little nudge might help (see the Balkans in the 1990s). But for the most part, the changes we want will happen without us (Tunisia, anyone?), and the places where we simply act as if the world were a blank page ready to be filled by democracies (Israel, Libya, anyone?) will turn out to be a case study in the frequent destiny of good intentions.

What Mark is saying, it seems to me, is that only conservatism, properly understood, can rise to the challenge of governance in this post-ideological age. And conservatism in America is, alas, as widely misunderstood as it is routinely ignored.

(Photos: 1) Roses stuck in a gap of the memorial of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 2013 on occasion of the 24th anniversary of the fall of the Wall. By Stephanie Pilick/AFP/Getty Images. 2)In the first composite image, a comparison has been made between Berlin in the 1960s and Berlin now in 2014. In the color photo above traffic, cyclists and a horse-drawn carriage carrying tourists make their way across the intersection of Friedrichstrasse and Zimmerstrasse at former Checkpoint Charlie on April 1, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. In the black and white photo Soviet tanks (behind) and U.S. tanks confront one another at the same location on October 26, 1961. By Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images. 3) In the second composite image, the color photo shows a man walking a dog past the memorial to the Church of Reconciliation, which was demolished by East Berlin authorities to make way for a widening of the Berlin Wall, in Bernauer Strasse on February 25, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. In the black and white photo people in West Berlin look at an early version of the Berlin Wall in front of the church at the same location sometime in 1961 or 1962. By Imagno/Hulton Archive via Getty Images.)