Foreign Policy Watch

Geopolitical musings through a progressive lens …by Matt Eckel and Jeb Koogler

C’est Quoi le Libéralisme? C’est Quoi l’État?

There’s been a fascinating debate in recent days over the relationship between liberal principles and Paul-ite libertarian thinking (that’s Ron Paul, not St. Paul), and whether Paul’s largely odious and/or asinine overall platform* should disqualify liberals from appreciating and applauding his anti-war and anti-imperialist politics. I won’t wade into the specifics of the debate because a) I’d add little new, b) Ron Paul isn’t going to be the next president, and c) I’m extremely skeptical that the kind of anti-imperialist baptist-bootlegger coalition that some progressives hope for will have any material effect on U.S. foreign policy any time soon. Empire is an elite affair. It’s nature and viability depends principally on geopolitical constraints filtered through elite preferences. Democracy has precious little to do with it, except at the margins. For those who have somehow missed the debate and yet are still reading this blog, check out Glenn Greenwald, Katha PollitKevin DrumCorey RobinAndrew SullivanGary WeissSteve Walt, and Falguni Sheth for a primer.

One of the original catalysts for the debate was a post by Matt Stoller at Naked Capitalism (to which he’s added a follow-up) arguing that Paul “challenges” American liberals by pointing out implicit tensions between their political economy and their broader ideology:

…the same financing structures that are used to finance mass industrial warfare were used to create a liberal national economy and social safety.  Liberals supported national mobilization in favor of warfare and the social safety net during the New Deal and World War II (and before that, during the Civil War and WWI), but splintered when confronted with a wars like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  The corruption of the financial channels and the destruction of the social safety net now challenges this 20th century conception of liberalism at its core (which is heavily related to the end of cheap oil).  Ron Paul has knitted together a coalition of those who dislike war financing, which includes a host of unsavory and extremist figures who dislike icons such as Abraham Lincoln and FDR for their own reasons.  But Paul, by criticizing American empire explicitly and its financing channels in the form of the Federal Reserve, also enrages liberals by forcing them to acknowledge that their political economy no longer produces liberal ends.

A lot of the responses to the Stoller piece focused on the part of the analysis involving Ron Paul, but a subset waded into the (perennial) debate about what liberalism is and what policies it implies.** David Atkins argues that there is no tension, because the core of liberalism is unavoidably paternalistic intervention in the name of curbing abuses of power. For Atkins, liberals argue amongst themselves about when, where, how and how much to intervene, but these are tactical concerns rather than philosophical ones. In the same space, Digby offered up a more ends-oriented definition: “I will simply say that I define my own liberalism as a belief in egalitarianism, universal human rights, individual liberty and social justice, all tempered by a pragmatic skepticism of all forms of power, private as well as governmental.”

For my part, I’ve always liked Judith Shklar’s elegant definition: “Every adult should be able to make as many effective decisions without fear or favor about as many aspects of her or his life as is compatible with the like freedom of every other adult.” I find this encapsulation, and the broader argument to which it is attached, compelling because it keeps the focus on individual freedom while acknowledging that threats to said freedom (hence “The Liberalism of Fear”) come in many forms. The state, for instance, can be both oppressor and liberator. As can capitalist economic institutions. As can organized religion. As can culture, broadly speaking. It is the Janus-faced nature of the institutional and ideological frameworks through which liberal ideology takes earthly form that Stoller tries to capture with his argument about the Federal Reserve. But modern central banks are just the latest step in a long evolution of strategies employed by elites to collect revenue in wartime. Indeed, according to one prominent argument, the imperative to finance warfare literally gave birth to the national state in an iterative process that began during the Renaissance. “Liberal” institutions like civil liberties, property rights, the rule of law, social service bureaucracies and democracy didn’t emerge because humans became more empathetic or enlightened. They’re the price extracted from elites over centuries in exchange for the financial wherewithal to do what they do best: send their subjects, armed, to die.

This isn’t a contradiction within liberalism at all. It’s the air liberalism breathes. It’s the torrent liberalism attempts to productively channel. Stoller is right that a state capable of launching the New Deal is also a state capable of launching the Vietnam War, and an exceptionally charitable look at someone like Ron Paul does, I suppose, throw that fact into relief. But it’s nothing unique to the United States, nor to the industrial age. The injustices of post-industrial America doesn’t mean liberals need to re-think their philosophy. It means they have to negotiate a better deal with the ones holding the guns.

*Protip: If you literally do not understand what money is and think it needs to be tied to finite supplies of randomly-selected heavy metals, stop talking. And I don’t mean “stop publicly making political arguments.” I mean stop verbally communicating. Don’t order food in a restaurant. Don’t say “good night” to your spouse. Don’t complain about the weather. You’ll be doing the rest of us a favor.

**The English, French and Italian versions of the Wikipedia article on “liberalism,” for example, all carry different definitional emphases.

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  1. “Stoller is right that a state capable of launching the New Deal is also a state capable of launching the Vietnam War, and an exceptionally charitable look at someone like Ron Paul does, I suppose, throw that fact into relief. But it’s nothing unique to the United States, nor to the industrial age.”

    And a early-mid 19th century government, untainted by Lincoln, socialism, or any of that stuff, was capable of waging an offensive war to take half of Mexico’s land.

    Great post.