Really Strange Bedfellows

My roll in the hay with John Walker


While it's undeniably true that politics makes strange bedfellows, I had no reason before this past Wednesday to ever think that I'd find myself rolling in the hay with John Walker, a.k.a. John Lindh, a.k.a. the "Taliban's Frisco Kid" (as one West Coast newspaper waggishly dubbed him).

I owe the unexpected coupling to Jonah Goldberg, perhaps the only reason to skim National Review now that the final Fatima secret has been revealed (well, along with Aloise Buckley Heath's Edgar Allan Poe-like Christmas stories and Mal's similarly gothic cartoons). In his online column, Goldberg tossed me into the figurative sack with Walker, who is "one of the most interesting cultural Rorschach tests we've had in a while," the inevitable outcome of being raised by Bay Area, Hate America First commie-pinkos. (It's a funny thing, but conservatives are never so quick to call Rorschach on one of their own: For instance, when it came to light a few years ago that George Roche III, the fabled president of conservative Hillsdale College, had been carrying on with his unstable and suicidal daughter-in-law for years, that twisted scene carried no definitive ideological import.)

Of course, as the editor-in-chief of a libertarian magazine that stumps for "free mind and free markets," I'm no Chomskyite lefty. But by Goldberg's light, I'm part of an odious crew of "cultural libertarians" who are in part responsible for the likes of Walker because we push a "whatever-floats-your-boat" ethos.

Let me tell you, man, it was a real Eyes Wide Shut scene over at National Review Online on Wednesday. Besides me and Walker, Goldberg also had well-known politico-moral degenerates Andrew Sullivan and Virginia Postrel hitting the sheets. Though us libs have our differences, Goldberg says we all promiscuously espouse "a form of arrogant nihilism" that insists "we should all start believing in absolutely nothing."

Goldberg's particular beef with me is linked directly to my editor's note in the January print edition of Reason (as a premium to subscribers, that edition of the mag is not yet available on line, but my note can be read here). Our January issue has a number of stories about the insanity of the drug war and in the editor's note, I openly discuss my own rather voluminous drug use–a newsworthy gesture only in a grotesquely prohibitionist society.

I won't dawdle too long over Goldberg's (willful?) misreading of my note. He asserts, for example, "Reason has essentially arguedthat being a drug addict is a lifestyle choice like any other." The actual point that I–and other contributors to the magazine–consistently make is that the equation of drug user with drug addictfundamentally misrepresents how the vast majority of individuals use drugs. As with alchohol, there is such a thing as responsible drug use, and it's the rule, not the exception. The inability–or unwillingness–to accept this reality underwrites any number of shameful public policies that lead to the arrest and imprisonment of tens of thousands of people. (Curiously, Goldberg acknowledges that he has done lots of things in his life that are "un-conservative" and that such backsliding may even make him a "hypocrite." But not to worry: In this case, hypocrisy is simply the tribute that vice pays to tyranny.)

At the heart of Goldberg's case against libertarians is a rather different point, one that has precious little to do with drugs or John Walker per se. "Cultural libertarianism," he writes, "is rapidly replacing [contemporary leftoid] liberalism as…the true opposition to conservatism." He's quite right, I think, in suggesting this and given his recurring interest in the topic, he seems a bit anxious about it. Nothing exercises National Reviewers quite so much as the sense that despite their standing athwart history yelling stop, it still keeps on a rollin' without them. Goldberg generously references the dead philosopher Michael Oakeshott. Allow me to rely on an equally dead thinker, the Nobel economist Friedrich Hayek, who noted in his great essay, "Why I Am Not a Conservative," that prior to the rise of socialism, the enemy of the conservative was the classical liberal–or libertarian, in modern parlance.

With the collapse of socialism as a viable alternative social system (as Christopher Hitchens pointed out in a great interview in the November Reason), it only makes sense that conservatives and libertarians would start to line up on different sides of the barricades that surround the battleground of individual choice and autonomy. Why? In part, because the libertarian doesn't fear change or blindly respect "established authority" the way conservatives tend to.

More fundamentally, though, it's because, pace Goldberg, libertarians do believe devoutly in something. They believe, writes Hayek, that "to live and work successfully with others requires more than faithfulness to one's concrete aims. It requires an intellectual commitment to a type of order in which, even on issues which to one are fundamental, others are allowed to pursue different ends. It is for this reason that to the liberal [libertarian] neither moral nor religious ideals are proper objects of coercion, while both conservatives and socialists recognize no such limits."

Goldberg sniffs that such a world leads to–horrors!–"individualized, designer cultures" as opposed to, one presumes, mandated mass cultures that are forced on people whether they like it or not (substitute "religion" for "culture" to get a sense of whether more choice in human affairs is a good thing). He even quotes G.K. Chesterton ripping off Dostoevsky: "Chesterton pointed out that when a man stops believing in God, he won't believe in nothing, he'll believe in anything" and then neatly underscores his own flight from such a rigid, old-style world by adding, "God isn't necessarily the issue here." What a personalized reading of Chesterton.

What Goldberg can't acknowledge is that human history has always been a search for such "designer cultures"–what is different today is that, certainly in an American context and increasingly in a global one, larger numbers of people are able to do what only kings and priests once could: Live life on something approaching their own terms. For all sorts of reasons–greater wealth, generally higher levels of education, technological innovation–individuals have gained more of what Nobel economist James Buchanan has described as a right of "exit" from systems that serve them poorly (the Afghan people are among the most recent beneficiaries). Such a right inscribes tolerance and respect and is rightly seen as the crowning triumph of the "Western values" Goldberg and other conservatives claim to be worried about. By all accounts, it was exactly this sort of "decadence" that enraged bin Laden's gang about the U.S.

Believing in tolerance–and in allowing people to pursue and discover their own definition of happiness to the greatest extent possible while maintaining peace–is not believing in "absolutely nothing." True, it does rob conservatives of ex cathedra pronouncements–and recourse to force–when attacking those different than them. (By the same token, they're free to make their case.)

Whatever. Go ask the English sectarians of the 17th century who developed the ideas of tolerance in the first place if freedom from forced systems of belief made them less thoughtful or ardent in their faith. Indeed, it had quite the opposite effect, and their libertarian legacy certainly doesn't underwrite John Walker's extremism–even as it continues to fire up righteous contempt from the Taliban and latter-day conservatives of all stripes.