Viewpoint: National Review

Round 2


To its credit, National Review's August 3, 1979 issue published a number of objections to the earlier assault on libertarians by Messrs, van den Haag and Cott. My own contribution, admittedly too long and rambling, was shortened to fit. Some of the material that was cut will be quoted here to help clarify the rest.

Ernest van den Haag found "no point in responding" to my "pointless confusion," so perhaps there is no point in responding to his refusal to respond. Still, the equally irrelevant replies to a number of his other critics indicate that more patience may be required to get the points across.

To the rather serious charge of having misrepresented the mainstream of libertarian thought, van den Haag merely replies that Murray Rothbard and Roy Childs are among the featured speakers at the Libertarian Party convention. Yet the Libertarian Party's entertainment committee has no more authority to define the essence of libertarian thought than Republican conventions could be described as the embodiment of the theoretical ideal of conservatism. Murray Rothbard has also been a featured speaker at the Mont Pelerin Society, to which both van den Haag and I belong, yet van den Haag doesn't therefore conclude that the Society has "gone kooky." He also conveniently ignores my contrary evidence that the Rothbardian camp is a small "radical caucus" even within the Libertarian Party, as he does Bob Poole's survey results indicating low support for the caucus positions within the California LP and the Society for Individual Liberty.

My claim that REASON is far more typical of libertarian thought than is Inquiry is dismissed as "wishful thinking." Inquiry is a new, heavily subsidized magazine that makes no pretense of being libertarian. Rothbard explicitly writes that Inquiry is not "strictly speaking" libertarian; the word is almost taboo at that journal. REASON is older, larger, and unambiguously libertarian. A section of my letter that was cut pointed out that REASON had itself published two critiques of Inquiry over a year ago.

Van den Haag prefers to use the Libertarian Party as a source but ignores letters from its two past presidential candidates explicitly disassociating themselves from the Cato Institute. These are facts, not wishes, despite van den Haag's stubborn refusal to acknowledge that an attack on Inquiry is not an attack on libertarian ideas.

Here is a relevant passage omitted from the published version of my letter:

One might suppose that conservatives would be particularly sensitive toward the practice of discrediting a whole body of thought by highlighting the more extreme views of an extreme faction. It was not so long ago that all conservatives were widely dismissed as "extremists" or the "lunatic fringe." Subtle distinctions, as between American Opinion and National Review, are sometimes crucial.

It would be rather easy to pull strange quotes from a variety of publications that might be loosely labeled "conservative" and use that to indict the entire body of thought. Personally, I wouldn't have the stomach for it.

Van den Haag takes me to task for "irrelevant quotations," which is interesting, since most of the surviving quotes were from him. Still, the meaning of contrasting his remarks with those of Hayek, Meyer, and Burke was probably lost in the condensation. I was indeed saying that van den Haag's pragmatism is not even recognizably conservative. He just suggests that we look at each case of State "coercion (law)" and see if it serves some useful purpose, regardless of legal tradition, natural rights, or any visible concept of morality. If he did not mean to "equate" law with coercion by treating one as a parenthetical synonym for the other, I can't imagine what he did mean. If I wrote that "every lasting relationship requires love (sex)," people might reasonably assume that I equate love and sex. Van den Haag's remarks about "enforcing" social norms likewise seem to mean just that.

No editor should resent being edited, but here is one missing passage that seemed to cut out the bone of my argument rather than the fat:

The late Frank Meyer (In Defense of Freedom, 1962) noted that "the liberal-collectivist dogma…assumes the existence of an organism, 'society,'" as the being to which, and to the good of which, all moral (and by the same token, political) problems finally refer.

One can imagine what Meyer would have thought of van den Haag's interpretation of conservatism, in which people revert to cannibalism unless "society" imposes on individuals a virtuous cultural and social order "articulated and defended in essential respects by the state, through the monopoly of legitimate coercive power."

In contrasting Hayek's views with those of van den Haag, I likewise concluded that "the rule of law in conservative thought never before meant the momentary whim of legislators." If I were a little more paranoid, I might wonder why there was room for my chatty conclusion but not for this passage:

So we have two intellectual pillars of the American right, Meyer and Hayek, describing crucial liberal-collectivist themes in terms that sound essentially the same as van den Haag's ideas regarding society and law. Little wonder that the libertarian emphasis on individuals is unwelcome from the perspective of an organic view of society and a Hobbesian view of legislative omnipotence. What is surprising is that the latter passes for conservatism.

It is true, as he insists, that van den Haag "did not accuse Rothbard of Communism." It is equally obvious that I did not accuse him of making that accusation. What I did say (condensed out of the published version) was this:

Van den Haag insinuates that all libertarians are totalitarian because Murray Rothbard hopes to establish a group of full-time people to spread the word. But what is the American Conservative Union if not "an organization to advance and propound the truth"? It is not inconceivable that Lenin could teach the opposition something about strategy, and that doesn't imply totalitarian goals or violent methods.

Cott calls Rothbard "an apologist for Stalin" simply because Rothbard makes the obviously correct observation that Stalin 'failed to make adequate provision against Nazi attack." Cott claims that Rothbard "ignores" the pact with Hitler, yet Rothbard clearly says that pact was the cause of inadequate Soviet defense. Cott claims that Rothbard also "ignores" the Soviet recaptures of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia and the battle with Finland, yet all of this is discussed on the same page of Rothbard's book.

Incidentally, I don't agree that we must rule out practical alliances with persons whose views are otherwise antithetical—environmental extremists and free marketeers against synthetic fuel subsidies, for example, or leftists and Friedmanites against the draft. This—not force or violence—is what van den Haag somehow describes as "unsavory alliances" and "Communist tactics." And from that flimsy "evidence," he leaps to the unsupported conclusion that anarchists are really "totalitarians." It is probably surprising to van den Haag, but some of us don't like being called "totalitarian" much more than we like being called "communist." (Speaking of "unholy alliances," what would my friends call me if they knew that I once coauthored half a book with van den Haag?)

Van den Haag closes by accusing his critics of "evasiveness" (in my case, "prolix contentiousness") and of not offering a "defense of libertarianism." This feeble effort to shift the burden of proof is unconvincing. Van den Haag has not even adequately defined what it is he is attacking and has deliberately ignored many entire books defending libertarianism. It is sufficient for the critic of an article to point out its errors of fact and logic rather than to write another article.

Here, for example, is yet another missing piece of my original critique:

Some libertarians are isolationists like the Old Right (H.L. Mencken, Robert Taft), but others are not. Some may be persuaded by Rothbard's arguments for disarmament (or at least by the observation that when government expands for war it rarely shrinks in the subsequent peace), but others see unacceptable risks. In short, "libertarian" is no more monolithic a concept than is "conservative." Being individualists,libertarians generally think as individuals. The common theme is simply to maximize the realm of individual choice and to establish rules and procedures that prevent people from initiating force against others, whether privately or by manipulating the state.

I did not write a defense of those ideas because they don't seem to need defending—certainly not against van den Haag and Cott.

The conclusion from my unexpurgated version will still serve in this rerun:

There is certainly nothing wrong with swapping criticisms of specific proposals of specific individuals and groups within the libertarian or conservative camps. But such criticisms must accurately describe what they are opposing, explain why it is wrong by accepted rules of logic and evidence, and not seek to translate a limited area of disagreement into a wholesale repudiation of an entire generic category of social thought. That is, a critical analysis of, say, Rothbard's isolationism or Nozick's concept of natural rights must grapple with their arguments and must not pose as a blanket indictment of all libertarians. Both van den Haag and Cott clearly fail these simple tests of mature debate.