Viewpoint: National Review and the Pro-Government Coalition


I have contended for some time that libertarianism has been making great strides in American life, both as an organized movement and in the adoption of its ideas and attitudes by the general public. Some libertarians have chided me for an absurdly overoptimistic view of recent developments. Yet, it is increasingly clear that the forces engaged in defending government in the United Stateswhether left, right, or centeragree that libertarianism is beginning to have a powerful influence. And so they have begun to coalesce to form the praetorian guard in defense of the State and to attack libertarianism and the libertarian movement with great bitterness. In the course of their attack, the differences among left, right, and center statists are beginning to look ever more puny.

The recent wave began with the March 16 lead editorial of the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal, entitled frankly "In Defense of Government." Commonweal bewails the fact that not for generations "have there been so many intelligent people bent upon proclaiming that the state is the enemy," and it deplores an antigovernment movement led by "doctrinaire libertarians" and particularly economists, "a group occupationally conditioned to look fondly upon market solutions."

A more heavyweight attack from the left came shortly afterward from Philip Green, a member of the editorial board of the Nation, in a two-part article in the March 31 and April 16 issues, the last one entitled "Two Cheers for the State." Green particularly chides libertarians for their "selfishness"it being assumed that when people move into the governmental arena, their selfishness becomes magically transmuted into an altruistic passion for the common good. Green trumpets the slogan, "the common good precedes individual good," a perhaps unwitting echo of the identical slogan of the Nazis in the 1930s ("Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigennutz"). Cheering for the State, Green warns: "Weaken the state and it is almost certainly our collective capacity of self-defense against the powerful that will be most gravely threatened."

If the intensity of devotion to the State may be gauged, however, by the degree of hysteria in attacks against libertarians, then the praetorian-guard prize must be accorded to National Review, which devoted two articles, twelve pages, and the front cover of its June 8 issue to a scurrilous and frenetic attack on the current libertarian movement, most particularly on me and my associates at the Cato Institute in San Francisco. True to the right wing at its scurviest, the major thrust of both articles is that I and my associates are Soviet apologists and perhaps even Soviet agents, "apologist(s) for Stalin," "anarcho-totalitarians" with important positions "indistinguishable from the Communist position."

That National Review believes that such imbecilic hogwash will be taken seriously is a measure of its desperation in the face of the burgeoning libertarian movement. For we take conservatives' occasional (all too occasional) obeisances to libertarian rhetoric seriously and are thus siphoning off many of the conservatives' best people and best supporters.

To me, it is particularly amusing to be once again read out of the conservative movement nearly 20 years after Bill Buckley and National Review had already done so, with considerably less fanfare. Apparently, the anathema hadn't taken, and so this time, NR returns with bluster, Red-baiting, bell, book, and candle.

One of the NR authors, one Lawrence W. Cott, former editor of National Review's McCarthyite appendage Combat, is obsessed with the bomb-murder in Washington in 1976 of the Chilean leftist exile Orlando Letelier, and the Letelier question forms the leitmotif of his article. Unfortunately, he seems to think that we at Cato are equally obsessed and that our major interest in life is to avenge the Letelier murder, perhaps at the behest of the international Castro conspiracy. In two and a half years at Cato, I have not given a single thought to nor heard a single word about Orlando Letelier, nor have I seen any bearded Cuban agents hanging around. But perhaps in the "delusional" world (to use a favorite term of the other NR author, Ernest van den Haag) of National Review, this only shows what devious and sinister Soviet-Cuban agents we really are.

Van den Haag's is the major article in the issue. Here I am bemused to find myself in the company of that other "delusional" Soviet apologist, the great libertarian psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, whom van den Haag judges to be dangerously soft on Soviet psychiatry. Van den Haag also slings around his own alleged authority as lay psychoanalyst, pondering whether or not "an unmanageable obsession has taken possession" of Szasz, and engages in what I suppose he considers heroic self-restraint by not elaborating on his critique that "the libertarian movement has attracted more than its share of kooks, neurotics, and perverts" and that "the attraction of ideas is not unrelated to the character of those attracted." But he is certain that both Szasz and I have gone "to Stalin's school."

Thomas Szasz has been the victim of countless despicable verbal muggings by psychiatric and psychoanalytic hatchet men, and he is perfectly capable of taking care of himself. But I will only add that there is no one else in the world with whom I would rather be Red-baited and psycho-smeared.

Who is Ernest van den Haag, and what are his qualifications for doing a hatchet job on libertarianism? He is well qualified by being known to some as the right wing's "enforcer," from his major emphasis on increasing punishment for any and all crimes. He is even better qualified by not having a single libertarian bone in his body. Running through virtually every aspect of the social sciences, he has managed to take consistently pro-statist and antilibertarian positions in every area. He is a self-proclaimed ultra-Keynesian economist and proponent of the welfare state. In this very article in National Review, van den Haag:

• attacks Mises, Hayek, and Austrian economics, breaking again into favorite clinical terminology by opining that "generally, libertarian economists suffer from a degenerative form of the Austrian disease";

• attacks the gold standard as a "mystical article of faith";

• strongly attacks natural rights or any belief in rights and proclaims utilitarianism (David Friedman, despite his professed anarcho-capitalism, gets curiously off van den Haag's hook, ostensibly because David is at least a utilitarian, although one may be pardoned for suspecting that NR doesn't care to offend David's famous father, Milton);

• affirms, against libertarianism and Enlightenment rationalism, the centrality of tradition and of original sin;

• opposes to anarchism his embracing of the State as a sovereign power that must not be regulated by law, quoting the French defender of absolute monarchy Jean Bodin; and

• attacks the idea of applying moral principles to politics.

But enough! There comes a point when one goes down into the muck, even in self-defense, that the stench becomes overpowering. Suffice it to say that in selecting van den Haag for its smear job National Review chose a man who, along with the egregious Rabbi Baruch Korff, was the last defender of Richard Nixon. With that record of success for van den Haag, the future of liberty looks particularly bright.