That adroit member of the British Parliament Enoch Powell once said that “the supreme function of statesmanship is to provide against preventable evils.” This duty, incumbent upon politicians endowed with wisdom, is made difficult because “by the very order of things such evils are not demonstrable until they have occurred.”
Well, the market crash has finally occurred, and laid bare the “evils” of America’s monetary policy. This month saw the worst stock market crash in nearly forty years. The next month will see hundreds of thousands, if not millions, marching into unemployment. Whole industries find themselves on the brink of bankruptcy.
Those in power, and their court economists, will scapegoat all problems on the coronavirus pandemic. But the virus, the incidental trigger of the market panic, must not be confused with the cause of the economic bust: a broken banking system.
In healthy economic growth, businessmen borrow the savings of others—the size and existence of which is indicated by an accurate interest rate—and use it to invest in capital goods and workers. Production increases, and the standard of living rises.
But in our septic central banking system, real savings are substituted by cheap credit that only exists on a banker’s balance sheet. Dials are twisted as the Federal Reserve system manipulates the rate of interest, causing distortions as businessmen are given false signals. This easy money, confused for real loanable funds, is borrowed and put into malinvestments that distort the structure of the economy.
The story is the same whether you’re describing 1929, 2008, or 2020. The market inevitably hits its tipping point as businessmen realize that the money they’re playing with is nothing but smoke and mirrors. The bubble bursts, and the boom, toxic from the beginning, busts.
And now that the good times are over, and the promise of false prosperity has crumbled in their hands, politicians have lined up to bail out big business in the most repulsive form of corporate welfare our system has to offer. The airline industry requested fifty billion dollars from the federal government, more than triple what they received in assistance after the September 11 attacks. Boeing, that behemoth of defense contractors, asked for sixty billion all for itself. Then comes the cruise lines, the hotels, and half a dozen other interests ready to get a handout from a half trillion-dollar slush fund.
The right response, both ethically and economically, would be to let them fail. It’s not right for Main Street to bail out Wall Street, allowing insolvent corporations to feed like vampires on the people’s tax money collected by their crony politicians. And saving them is the start of the same process that created our economic catastrophe in the first place.
The harm bailouts cause goes beyond first impressions. Yes, hundreds of billions of dollars are wasted, as our ominous national debt creaks and groans under its own weight. But it’s the secondary effects that produce the real rot.
Capitalism is about profit and loss. Businesses succeed or fail on their ability to serve the demands of consumers at the cheapest price. But when you have a policy of “too big to fail,” where you bailout inadequate firms and their managers, you destroy both business incentives and the market’s self-regulating mechanism. Bailouts are a function of state capitalism and corrupt corporatist structures.
And what would happen if the airline industry was allowed to go bankrupt? Their planes wouldn’t be melted down for scrap. The capital structure wouldn’t disappear. Instead, it would be sold off to younger, more capable entrepreneurs who would be more adept at serving the public. Free markets encourage dynamic and creative change, while bailouts and cronyism only encourage the preservation of dinosaurs and legacy brands.
This sort of clearing house ought to take place in every sector of industry. Malinvestments must be allowed to liquidate and free up wasted capital, instead of being kept on life support, a continuous drain on the economy. President Ronald Reagan and Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker understood the wisdom of necessary, short-term pain in exchange for a return to long-term health. The recession of the early 1980s was deep, short, and politically damaging. But the result was real growth, not another series of cheap credit bubbles.
Our leaders today don’t have the wisdom of Enoch Powell to prevent disaster, or the intrepidness of Reagan and Volcker to see the disaster through once it occurs. Instead, they make blanket promises that a state intervention will fix all that ails you, as if the piper never has to be paid. Donald Trump and senate Republicans could have done the right thing: refuse the bailouts, allow a much-needed market correction, and take the electoral results on the chin in November.
They didn’t though. Instead they’ll hand billions of dollars to the big businesses that bankroll their campaigns, while simultaneously sinking trillions more in harebrained stimulus packages. That’s because we’re not ruled by statesmen. No, instead we’re overseen by men like Senator Richard Burr, scoundrels who enrich themselves off the public purse while the national interest be damned.
Men like that, Powell said, who create and perpetuate these preventable evils, “deserve, and not infrequently receive, the curses of those who come after.”
Non-interventionists are not used to having a seat at the power table. Lacking any amount of institutional influence, believers in the anti-war cause are used to spending careers tinkering at the margins of the conversation, living from hand to mouth off of minimal fundraising. No one ever got rich towing the line for “Big Peace.”
This unfortunate situation has, over decades, left a cynicism for anything located in the beltway of Washington D.C. That’s where principles go to die, and good people go to sell out, don’t you know?
This characterization is far from unfounded. There is an endless list of grifters, double-crossers, and Fausts who have sold their soul for a couple zeros added to their paychecks. But should past betrayals define our attitudes to the possibilities of the future?
In the past week, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft held its first event since its inaugural launch in December. Named after former secretary of state John Quincy Adams and founded through big money donations from billionaires Charles Koch and George Soros (among others), the think tank was established, in the words of Chairwoman Suzanne DiMaggio, “to bring about a fundamental reorientation in U.S. foreign policy.”
The event, titled “A New Vision for America in the World,” was pilloried before it even occurred. Criticism revolved around the speaker’s list, which included individuals who had spent years advocating, defending, and even participating in military adventurism overseas. This is where a dose of context is important.
The event was pitched as a forum between the Quincy Institute and Foreign Policy, whose conception of its eponymous topic is decidedly status quo hegemony. Registration, the speaker’s list, and the day’s schedule were available exclusively on Foreign Policy’s website. Quincy was discernably the junior partner in the conversation.
Each side chose its champion. Foreign Policy originated the idea to host disgraced former Major General David Petraeus, who commanded U.S. forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Since his conviction for sharing state secrets with his mistress as Director of the CIA, Petraeus has spent years attempting to rehabilitate his image and spread the gospel of counterinsurgency that failed American forces in the Middle East.
In opposition stood Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna of California. A self-described “progressive capitalist,” since his election in 2016 Khanna has made a name for himself as a voice for military restraint in Washington. He’s done more legwork to stop American support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen than any other member of congress.
The event’s original conception was to have a debate between Petraeus and Khanna on stage, where the two could challenge each other directly. Petraeus refused to countenance this option, a Quincy insider revealed to the Libertarian Institute. So instead each man sat down, back-to-back, with their respective interlocutors; Petraeus with Foreign Policy Editor-In-Chief Jonathan Tepperman, and Khanna with the Charles Koch Institute’s Vice President for Research and Policy Will Ruger.
Tepperman opened his segment with a joke that fell on deaf ears. “Our next guest will be immediately recognizable to all of you, I’m sure, unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last twenty years,” he smiled. “That’s ‘under a rock,’ not ‘living in Iraq,’ in which case you would definitely recognize him.” Try telling that one-liner to the Iraqi teenagers who have gone their entire lives without clean drinking water, or the Iraqi men who continue to live without arms or legs, or the Iraqi mothers who gave birth to babies with abominable birth defects because of America’s use of depleted uranium ammunition. Yes, I’m sure they’d definitely recognize David Petraeus.
The proceeding twenty-four minutes of dialogue was the same insipid pablum that Petraeus has used to justify his speaking fees for a decade. The United States must remain stationed in Afghanistan to keep an Al-Qaeda sanctuary from being reestablished, he argued. “There is some affinity they have for Eastern Afghanistan,” the former general said, even though the reasoning “was lost on me.”
Would Petraeus be open to a reassessment of U.S. strategic interests; the kind of retrenchment advocated by the Quincy Institute? “I think, to be perfectly honest, the debate here—should we be more restrained—of course we should be more restrained,” he answered coyly. “Until we shouldn’t.”
When Congressman Khanna began his segment afterwards, he wasted no time in cutting Petraeus down to size. “I thought the title of this conference is ‘A New Vision for American Foreign Policy,’” Khanna said, “and I was wondering when he was going to say something new that we haven’t heard for the last twenty years.”
“If I understood General Petraeus, he’s basically saying we need to have a permanent troop presence around the world, in any place that’s a failed state. I mean I thought we were a republic. I thought that was totally counter to what our founder’s envisioned,” explained Khanna.
While he displayed a depth of knowledge on U.S. conduct overseas far exceeding the average representative, it was Khanna’s conception of America’s metaphysical place in the world that stood out most prominently. When foreigners think of the United States, he hopes their first thoughts are “our culture, our art, our technology, our writings [that] reflect those values.”
“I don’t want…the first thing when they think about the United States [to be] our military or bombs,” he said resolutely. This sentiment brought to mind that cataloger of American localism, Bill Kauffman, who lambasted the “sham patriotism” of “the chickenhawk who loves little of his country beyond its military might.”
Ro Khanna holds to that older notion of America, of a republic on a human scale that focuses on its own betterment, not the siren song of empire. “I think every member of congress should read John Quincy Adams. He’s more eloquent than all of us put together,” he counseled.
Unfortunately, Petraeus had already departed out the side door before he could be infected with anyone else’s perspective. He had a better exit strategy from the conference than he ever did in Iraq or Afghanistan.
So lopsided was the “exchange” that after Khanna concluded Tepperman felt the need to defend his interviewee. “There was a big mismatch between Petraeus and Khanna. In the sense that, Ro Khanna is a politician. David Petraeus is not a politician,” he said, eliciting an eyeroll from Ruger. The absurdity to claim that Petraeus, who earned the antagonism of his fellow commanders by being one of the most outwardly political generals in modern American history, obliged Tepperman to admit moments later that, “Petraeus is a better politician than most.”
Outside the main attraction, the conference also included a discussion between two other House members, and three theater-focused foreign policy panels. Each panel’s membership was split between people selected by Quincy and those selected by Foreign Policy, allowing a more open exchange of ideas than usually seen in the beltway. The Quincy Institute’s staff, particularly Managing Director for Research and Policy Sarah Leah Whitson, ably articulated the concepts of realism and drawing back from our seemingly endless wars.
Some purists will still complain that the Quincy Institute soiled itself by cohosting its first conference with Foreign Policy, and for allowing the likes of Petraeus to speak. But the fact is, Quincy created a space where a sitting congressman could publicly clown the man who lost America’s two twenty-first century invasions. It created a space where renowned Pentagon reporter Mark Perry could rile the audience into a frenzy like a Rockstar performing a set of his greatest hits. And it created a space where Code Pink co-founder Medea Benjamin could be cheered by a crowd for interrogating a panelist about his financial connections to Saudi Arabia.
This new, freer environment is something to be celebrated. The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft might have started the forum as the unofficial junior partner to Foreign Policy, but it closed it by punching above its weight class.
On matters of global security, the most important relationship in the world is between the United States and Russia. Mutual respect and cooperation between them are necessary for de-escalating tensions in Eastern Europe, restoring equanimity to the Middle East, counterbalancing growing power in Asia, and instituting strategic arms control agreements on nuclear weapons.
Unfortunately, these critical issues have been sidelined in favor of distrust and hostility.
From America’s revolution to Russia’s revolution, the two nations enjoyed amicable relations with no contravening interests. The United States’ twentieth century Cold War with the Soviet Union was an ideological conflict, not a national one. The threat was always the idea of a monolithic communist superpower, dominating the globe from Central America to Central Africa to Central Asia. When the Soviet Union dissolved, so should have animosities.
However, U.S. policymakers chose hubris and hegemony over humility and realism. Years after the Warsaw Pact was disbanded and the Red Army demobilized, NATO was expanded to Russia’s doorstep. Instead of being respected as a significant power in its own right, Russia was disregarded as the Cold War’s loser. The United States sowed seeds of discord and has reaped the whirlwind.
Now Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia for two decades. Through obstinacy in the face of American demands and a prudent expenditure of smart power overseas, Putin has returned his country to what he sees as an appropriate stature on the international stage.
Meanwhile, American power has diminished as the country overextended itself in an ill-fated attempt at global predominance. To forestall further calamity, American officials must relearn the give-and-take of geopolitics, and that means negotiating with Vladimir Putin. The Russian president may strong arm domestic opposition and flout democratic norms, but in foreign affairs he’s been clear-eyed and predictable. If Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Richard Nixon could shake hands with Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, the bloodiest butchers of the past century, then modern leaders can sit down with an old-style Russian nationalist like Putin.
Repairing damaged relations means first, both countries must forswear all future interference in each other’s elections. Accusations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election have become a cancer on the body politic of America. A political system where all challenges to the status quo are labeled as suspect, where outsider candidates are labeled as “Russian agents,” is not a healthy one. Overreaction to interference has done more damage to domestic dialogue than Russian Facebook ads ever could.
Secondly, the United States must develop a more prudent assessment of its national interests, with more focus on the physical nation and less on global policing. For forty-five years of Cold War, American presidents from Truman to Reagan realized that while the Soviets must never be allowed to cross the Elbe River, events in Eastern Europe did not concern the security of the American people. With the current threat of a Russian military invasion of its western neighbors dubious at best, their appraisal of the situation stands.
A new referendum in Crimea ought to be held (with international observers present) to decide the political future of the peninsula. Warfare in Eastern Ukraine must end with promises of autonomy for culturally Russian regions. NATO must end all attempts to bring Ukraine or Georgia into its military alliance.
In exchange, Russia must recognize forthwith the United States’ sphere of influence in the Americas. Russia’s security is not benefitted by stationing soldiers in Nicholas Maduro’s Venezuela, or giving encouragement to the Cuban regime. Their purpose is only to spit in the eye of Uncle Sam. An adjustment of relations would correct this.
Going forward, the United States must reassess the priorities of its military budget and redesign it to fit the new, technological age. Military strength won’t be measured in tank battles in Poland, but in cyber capabilities. Russia has pursued this as cheaper, farther-reaching alternative to traditional hardware, and the U.S. should follow suit. The dynamics of cyberwarfare, where it’s easier to attack than defend, indicate that a policy of mutually assured destruction can sufficiently keep war an idea too costly to contemplate.
Outside of outmoded institutions and ideological rigidity, there are more areas of compatibility between American and Russian interests than not. This includes a long-sought final settlement in the Syrian Civil War, mutual pressure on North Korea during diplomatic summits, and cooperation in counter-terror actions.
By readopting the principles of realism and restraint, the United States can rejuvenate its foreign relations with Russia and improve security the world over.
A person would be hard-pressed to find a day in the Washington D.C. calendar where there isn’t some kind of conference. They’re typically small affairs with free lunches, and more useful at hitting a think tank’s spending quota than influencing policy.
As a libertarian Republican, my attention was grabbed by the prospect of a “national conservatism conference” in the most international (read: imperial) of capitals. With keynote speakers like Tucker Carlson, John Bolton, and others, the three-day event as least promised to be interesting.
After attending earlier this week, my reaction changed from interested to disappointed.
The conference is the brainchild of Dr. Yoram Hazony, a dual citizen whose 2018 book, The Virtue of Nationalism, uses Israeli nationalism as the gold-standard model. His cohost in the proceedings was David Brog, president of the newly-minted Edmund Burke Foundation, which organized the conference. Brog is the former director of Christians United for Israel, the largest Christian Zionist organization in the United States, and is the cousin of former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. The peculiarity of Israelis hosting a conference on American nationalism was not lost on attendees.
Donald Trump was elected on a nationalist-populist platform in 2016, a political victory that predated any kind of physical or intellectual movement infrastructure. Now, just as John Maynard Keynes’ 1936 General Theory was used to retroactively give justification to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term economic policies, a coterie of conservatives wants to give coherence to Donald Trump’s new Republican platform. The four legs of this stool consist of economic nationalism, immigration restrictionism, doubling-down on the culture war, and pulling back on foreign adventurism.
While Hazony has been skeptical of the efficacy of America’s twenty-first century wars, the conference lineup did not reflect that. Foreign policy was sidelined to only one panel, which, as one associate told me, would have been just as comfortable presenting at CPAC circa 2005. For a summary of Carlson’s and Bolton’s remarks, see my earlier reporting at The National Interest.
One attempt at explaining good-natured foreign policy was attempted by Michael Anton, former member of Trump’s National Security Council and author of “The Flight 93 Election.” Giving a speech called “Downsides of Hard & Soft Imperialism,” Anton used examples from the ancient world to demonstrate the adverse effects of imperialism on the home country. Using Xenophon’s fictional biography of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Empire, as a case study, Anton described how imperialism leads to hubris, the erosion of liberty, political centralization, the loss of speech, and moral rot. He closed with a warning for the “soft Cyruses who run the world today.”
While well-researched and intellectually stimulating, the speech was more high-brow than explicitly germane to specific, ongoing U.S. actions abroad.
The foreign policy panel consisted of economist David P. Goldman, Hudson Institute Senior Fellows Rebeccah Heinrichs and Michael Doran, and Cliff May, founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Goldman argued that Red China is not a nation-state but an organizing principle. It has existed as an empire for thousands of years; the only difference now is that it has the ability to expand. While amplifying the threat of China to the United States, Goldman did clarify that they did not intend to replace us as the world’s superpower, a view often taken for granted in mainstream commentary. Instead of replacing us militarily, the Chinese would prefer to build a new Sino-economic order sheltered under American power.
Goldman concluded by emphasizing China’s growing professional class and our failure to compete with their economic expansion. His example was our inability to stop Europe from partnering with Huwei’s 5G telecommunications network, while not providing them with an alternative. “They won’t wait for us,” he said.
Cliff May condemned Barack Obama as a “non-interventionist,” who pivoted away from the Middle East, gave Iran a “pretend” deal, and left North Korea unmolested. This ignores the Obama administration’s decapitation of the Libyan regime and that country’s descent into civil war, training and funding Islamist rebels in Syria to exacerbate their own civil war, giving blessing to the 2009 coup in Honduras, coordinating the genocidal blockade of Yemen with Saudi Arabia, escalating tensions with Russia, reintroducing military forces into Iraq, and unleashing a global assassination campaign with unmanned aerial drones. Barack Obama was as much a non-interventionist as Cliff May is an honest operator.
Pretending that this is just the world we live in, May said that stopping “endless war” is as ridiculous as trying to stop the rising tide. That is quite a determinist view to take on America’s wars of choice. As Ron Paul as said so many times, we just marched in, and we could just march out.
To make sure our forever wars remain so, May gave endorsements to Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Congressman Dan Crenshaw of Texas as the future of the Republican Party. Both military veterans, Cotton is the personally groomed protégé of Bill Kristol and the Senate’s leading exponent of striking Iran, while Crenshaw is an unreconstructed Bushite who advocates remaining in Afghanistan in perpetuity.
Stealing a page from John Bolton’s unilateralist playbook, May called the United Nations an “expensive failure,” along with the whole concept of the international community. May’s observation is correct, in the sense that international institutions have been useless at reigning in American abuses of state sovereignty, or Israel’s colonization of Palestinian lands.
Michael Doran agreed with May’s characterization of Obama’s foreign policy as a “retreat,” while describing Trump’s foreign policy as “trying to do more with less.” Doran structured his entire talk around building a regional order in the Middle East composed of Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. If the U.S. ever wanted to extricate itself from the region, it must empower these three allies “just to keep the wolves at bay.” He even pointed out Hazony in the audience to say that his recent op-ed calling the Turks a toxic ally was incorrect.
Congratulating Donald Trump on taking a wrecking ball to the foreign policy consensus, Rebeccah Heinrichs said the president was forcing people back towards first principles. She proceeded, in bullet point fashion, to propound her truths of American foreign policy.
“A flexible, credible, reliable nuclear deterrent in the hands of the American people has been a force for good,” she told the audience. While credible deterrence and the strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction have prevented a nuclear monopoly state from holding the world hostage, experts agree that the U.S. could achieve the same deterrent effect with as few as three hundred functioning nuclear warheads. This is far below the government’s stockpile of several thousand, which amount to dangerous overkill. But to make sure the U.S. can preserve this unnecessary payload, Heinrichs made sure add how liberating it was to leave the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the hallmark of Cold War disarmament.
In Heinrichs’ opinion, the Saudi-American alliance has been a good deal, and we should accept Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman “for all his warts.” Bin Salman’s warts include responsibility for the world’s worst humanitarian crisis happening in Yemen, the kidnapping of the Lebanese Prime Minister, and as the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
While the panelists were unredeemable, perhaps there was hope in the audience. A questioner asked these “experts” what their thoughts were on recreating Nixon’s 1972 trip to China, which split the Sino-Soviet alliance and helped win the Cold War. The question received applause from people who clearly weren’t represented on stage.
Cliff May responded that thinking Vladimir Putin could be any kind of strategic partner was “delusional.” After receiving an equal amount of applause as the questioner, Heinrichs agreed with the assessment.
During his keynote, Tucker Carlson warned that “A lot of the people we’ve been told are the good guy, are not, at all. I’ll let you figure out who.”
I think we figured it out.
In a previous article at the Institute I argued that by opening up the foreign policy conversation, Donald Trump had done a great service to libertarianism, other downsides notwithstanding. I still believe in the potency of strategic alliances with both the left and right on the most important of issues, war and peace. Short-term strategic alliances require compromise and ignoring a partner’s worse tendencies to achieve real, measurable progress.
However, a national conservatism that does not prioritize foreign policy, or outsources it to neoconservatives in a political deal with the devil, leaves nothing for libertarians. A significant portion of the audience was actively hostile to any kind of economic theory. A libertarian can appreciate traditional social values as much as a conservative, but not when it degenerates into right-wing social engineering. If conservative nationalists cannot deliver a foreign policy of peace and prosperity, libertarian supporters ought to jump from a ship that has changed its course.
Immigration is shaping up to be the defining political issue of the 21st century. It is a debate that just five years ago state officials wanted to ignore, preferring that details be worked out in the quiet backrooms of capitals than on public stages with widespread input. But their preferences were discounted as people in the United States, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, and all over the western world made it clear at the ballot box that they had a lot to say about the mass movement of people.
This pushback, expressed in the form of Donald Trump, Brexit, Matteo Salvini, the Alternative for Deutschland, and Viktor Orban, keeps kicking the already dead horse of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history.” Far from embracing the futuristic ideal of fully transnational individuals, large numbers of people (in some countries, electoral majorities) have yelled loudly and proudly that they’re holding onto their socially unfashionable ideas of borders, nation-states, distinct cultures, and tribes.
This turn of events has made libertarians the world-over wince. Immigration is a tough issue for libertarians; it’s a political football that divides us down the middle, and where we do agree, no one will listen. Most libertarians can be fairly placed in one of two groups. The first are the “Immigration Enthusiasts” who believe the free movement of people is a natural right inherent in the non-aggression principle, who believe that immigration is an enormous economic positive from the increased supply of labor, and who believe increased cooperation, cultural understanding, and rich diversity are all positive benefits of immigration. The other camp is the “Immigration Restrictionists” who believe the utilitarian argument against mass immigration is too strong to ignore, that the added costs in social services outweighs any economic benefit, and that “diversity” leads to intranational infighting and the dissolution of social cohesion, a prerequisite for liberty.
Arguments on both sides have merit, and most importantly, they’re honest enough to debate the central question: should the state regulate or restrict movement between current state borders? Enthusiasts say no, Restrictionists say yes. But there is a third group of libertarians, who in an attempt to find a “third-way” position, end up deflecting the core problem.
These libertarians are the types who say the immigration debate is caused by the tragedy of the commons. If all the public land was privately owned, then there wouldn’t have to be this political debate because each property owner could decide for themselves who to interact with. They think that by stating the obvious, they’ve expressed a genius dipped in ideological purity, above the messy fray of sectionalism.
In reality they’ve added nothing to the conversation. Pure libertarians, both Enthusiastic and Restrictionist, agree that a fully market-based, privatized social order absent monopolized state violence (e.g. anarcho-capitalism) is the ultimate ideological goal. One side believes this would lead to free and open movement, the other side believes it would lead to very regulated movement. Whoever is correct, both would vote for the privatization of borders if it was an option.
But it is not an option. We live in a world of governments and state violence. There is no reason to believe our end goal is around the corner. This real world we live in is a world of limited options and imperfect solutions. The perfectionist mantra of “just privatize it!” hinders real progress because it removes libertarians from the debate. Murray Rothbard realized as much.
In his 1967 article “War Guilt in the Middle East,” Murray Rothbard berated libertarians who absolved themselves of having to debate ongoing political issues because of an undue sense of purity. Libertarians are great at realizing a logical, universal moral principle, “[b]ut the trouble is that the libertarian tends to stop there…” In this instance, Rothbard was talking about state responsibility for aggressive wars, but the same could be said about libertarians on immigration. Describing this “Third Camp” position, he explains:
“This is a comfortable position to take because it doesn’t really alienate the partisans of either side. Both sides in any war will write this man off as a hopelessly ‘idealistic’ and out-of-it sectarian, a man who is even rather lovable because he simply parrots his ‘pure’ position without informing himself or taking sides on whatever war is raging in the world. In short, both sides will tolerate the sectarian precisely because he is irrelevant, and because his irrelevancy guarantees that he makes no impact on the course of events or on public opinion about these events.”
As immigration continues to dominate politics, real decisions are being made, policies are being created and enforced, and nations are being changed. These “Third Camp” libertarians would have us opt out of the discussion. “No,” said Rothbard, “Libertarians must come to realize that parroting ultimate principles is not enough for coping with the real world.”
The same can be said for libertarians who focus on the welfare state in the immigration debate. If the problem is too many immigrants using social services, they answer the Restrictionists, then abolish the welfare state, don’t restrict immigration. This is a reasonable argument that should not be dismissed. But it is not an argument that the political world is having.
There is no serious movement to roll back the welfare state in any western country, as much as libertarians wish there were. Outside immigration hardliners, there are few in the mainstream arguing for any kind of Prop 187 measure. Neither are there ongoing arguments for a complicated sponsorship program of individual immigrants. To repeat, the only politically relevant question on the table is: should the state regulate or restrict movement between current state borders?
Immigration Enthusiasts have their answer. Immigration Restrictionists have their answer. It’s time for “Third Camp” libertarians to pick a side and join the conversation, one way or the other. As Murray Rothbard advised, “let us become relevant.”
As a political junkie, I’m excited whenever my personal hobby enters the cultural mainstream. When the trailer debuted for Vice, a biographical comedy-drama following the career of Dick Cheney, I was ecstatic. A dozen of my friends must have messaged each other simultaneously to comment on how good it looked.
Imagine my friends and my disappointment to discover that it’s one of the worst films of 2018. I love going to the movies, it’s one of the little things I treat myself to. Vice is the 13th movie I’ve seen in theaters in 2018 and it ranks far below the others.
The sole reason for that is its director, Adam McKay. Known for directing Will Ferrell comedies and the 2015 hit The Big Short, McKay fails here as a filmmaker. The first rule of filmmaking is “Show, don’t tell.” Film is a visual medium, and a good director utilizes the tools of his craft to show a scene to his audience, who will then understand the subtle emotion, message, or plot that is imbibed in the acting, the dialogue, or the cinematography.
Vice is overlaid with a narration that’s almost as big a crime as the Iraq war itself. We’re introduced to a narrator, Kurt, who’s existence is wholly separate from the plot until the final minutes of the movie. It’s clear from the beginning that Kurt’s voice, smeared in between and over almost every scene of this over two-hour movie, is a stand in for McKay’s own commentary.
McKay is such an incompetent director that he feels the need to spoon-feed plot points, motivations, context, and exposition to his audience instead of allowing the actors to do their jobs and develop their characters. And the characters are the only bright spot of the film. Christian Bale is Dick Cheney. His performance is Meryl Streep worthy, his physical appearance, otherworldly. It’s some of the best acting of his career, and ironically, 2018. Amy Adams as Lynne Cheney is a strong performance and a good counterpart to Bale, although she’s sidelined in the second half of the movie. I loved Steve Carell as Donald Rumsfeld, and honestly, I would watch a whole separate movie starring him based on Andrew Cockburn’s biography. Sam Rockwell is a fine George W. Bush, although like Adams he’s given little to do in the second half. And Tyler Perry (of Madea fame) makes for a surprisingly good Colin Powell. They are diamonds in the rough, but it’s hard to justify mining through several miles of earth just to find them.
For a movie about Dick Cheney, Adam McKay feels the need to pull away from his main character and take pot shots at other aspects of the Republican Party platform. This includes deploring the end of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine and the rise of FOX News, smearing Antonin Scalia, and villainizing the use of the term “death tax” to protect the inheritance of the rich. Libertarians aren’t spared either, since the Koch Brothers and the CATO Institute are included in the two-minute hate of the 1980s.
While the first half of the movie is Cheney’s rise to power, the second half is about the aftermath of 9/11 and any sense of overarching plot disappears. The movie becomes a hodgepodge of scenes that McKay throws together as he rants over them almost incoherently.
The causes of the Iraq War and the lead up are muddled and unclear. The Gulf War is skipped over, and we never see Cheney as Bush Sr.’s Secretary of Defense. We’re told that Cheney mapped out what oil companies would get which parts of Iraq before the attacks and that he saw them as an opportunity. In a national security meeting (where cabinet members ask who Osama bin Laden is, as if the 1998 embassy attacks or bombing of the USS Cole never happened), Steve Carell’s Rumsfeld argues with Powell and George Tenet that they should hit Iraq before Afghanistan. Cheney pulls the leash on him and its agreed the invasion of Afghanistan will proceed. Later, during a focus group, people say they’re confused about what al-Qaeda is, and why we can’t just invade a regular country. In response to this focus group, a dinner table of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Scooter Libby decide to invade Iraq. So, the invasion was an advertising campaign gone wrong? McKay’s editing is so choppy, and his narration interrupts the flow so often that this is the impression audiences are left with. The Office of Special Plans is mentioned in a blip, and it’s bombs away.
There is a long aside about Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian jihadist and leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq. It’s mentioned that al-Zarqawi was located northern Iraq and had met with Osama bin Laden. McKay “debunks” the connection by saying the two had a personal dispute because bin Laden’s mother was a Shia. It’s not explained how this is repaired or relevant, since al-Zarqawi did eventually pledge loyalty to Osama in 2004. And under McKay’s interpretation, it was the Bush administration’s emphasis on al-Zarqawi that made him “famous,” and he leaves the audience with the idea that he was the popular leader of the Iraqi insurgency.
There is no mention of the fact that al-Zarqawi was in the Kurdish region of Iraq (under American military protection for a decade) or that Saddam Hussein had a price on his head. The tactical disagreement between al-Zarqawi and bin Laden on whether or focus fire on the Americans or local Arab leaders is overlooked in favor of Osama’s mother. And McKay’s portrayal of the Iraqi civil war is wholly inaccurate. Al-Qaeda in Iraq was one of the smallest groups in the insurgency, one that got oversized publicity due to their graphic and murderous terrorist attacks. The Iraqi insurgency was a broad-based fight by the Iraqi population against the American occupying military force, and an sectarian war between Sunni and Shia about political control in Baghdad. There’s a chance that Adam McKay’s inaccurate explanations about Iraq could cause more harm than good for the antiwar movement.
Out of Oliver Stone’s presidential trilogy, W. is the weakest. But it still surpasses Vice in its telling of the Iraq War rationale, simply because Stone is a filmmaker head and shoulders above McKay. Stone is politically liberal, who also relies too much on the “war for oil” mantra, but he first realizes that a successful antiwar movement must be above left-right divisions, and second, he allows his characters room to breathe, explain, and talk among themselves. That’s why his situation room scene succeeds where Vice fails.
While Christian Bale takes on everything to portray Dick Cheney, so much is left on the table. McKay chose to tell the story in a non-linear fashion, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it does rob Cheney of transitional character development. In the beginning he’s portrayed as an alcoholic, punch-throwing power lineman who dropped out of Yale. After promising Lynne that he’d improve his behavior, next time we see him he’s a suit-wearing intern for the Nixon Administration under Rumsfeld. Wouldn’t it have been beneficial to see his transformation, or how he developed from a drunk to a deft political insider?
In the same vein, Cheney never has a deeper, overriding motivation. The narration describes his career as a “servant of power.” When he becomes an intern, Cheney says he’s a Republican only after he finds out Rumsfeld is one, and when Dick asks Don “What do we believe?” his mentor laughs and shuts the office door in his face. Cheney’s congressional votes are implied to be based on pleasing rightwing businessmen instead of coming from his own ideological center. Finally, in the closing scene of the movie, Dick Cheney turns to the camera (in a blatant House of Cards rip-off) and explains that he has no regrets and says he did what he did to keep the country safe from terrorism. This last scene shows a Cheney absent from the rest of the movie, one with beliefs and ideas about how the world works and how the United States should act. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to see that character throughout the movie, one who is portrayed as coming to believe in empire instead of just a conception of power?
Few movies are without any positives, and Vice barely jumps that hurdle, beyond the stellar cast. The movie does a good job of explaining the roles of David Addington, Scooter Libby, and how Cheney’s crew infested the different offices of the Executive Branch. Douglas Feith and Lawrence Wilkerson make brief appearances. McKay goes about it in the lazy, ham-fisted fashion he directs the rest of the movie, but if you’re familiar with these less than famous personalities, you’ll get a smile hearing their names and seeing them included in such a major picture. Rumsfeld describing how small conversations in ugly little buildings in DC can change the world (for better or worse) to a young Cheney is well performed without unnecessary commentary.
And I must bring attention to the only ounce of talent McKay adds to his profession. As Sam Rockwell’s Bush reads a speech to the American people from the Oval Office about bringing democracy and freedom to Iraq, the camera pans down behind the presidential desk to reveal Bush’s nervously shaking leg. The scene cuts to inside a house in Iraq, as a family huddles under the kitchen table as bombs explode outside their home. The father’s leg shakes just like Bush’s. This subtle takeaway almost makes up for McKay’s pointless, artsy inclusion of a Shakespearean dialogue between Dick and Lynne Cheney, the explanation of civil liberties abuses as a restaurant menu, or when in a faux scene Cheney proposes to President Gerald Ford and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger that they put tiny wigs on the tips of their penises and pretend they’re puppets.
If one message is imparted by this movie, it’s that Adam McKay hates Dick Cheney and every facet of the Republican Party. If one message is imparted by the mid-credits scene of this movie, it’s that Adam McKay hates every Republican. We’re ushered back into the focus group, as an obese man in a sports jersey says the movie we just watched was liberal propaganda. Another focus group participant says the movie was fact-checked. The first accuses the second of being a “libtard” who probably voted for Hillary. The second refers to Trump as the Cheeto-man in the White House, and the first sucker-punches him.
Adam McKay sought to make a movie about Dick Cheney where he could shout at his audience rather than making a watchable film. He’s more interested in expressing his hatred for all Republicans (including ones that opposed the Iraq war) than making a bipartisan movie for peace. Vice isn’t worth watching beyond select scenes that’ll be on YouTube in a couple months, and it certainly isn’t worth paying for.
Since President Donald Trump’s comments in Brussels during the recent NATO summit, the merits of the Atlantic alliance have been up for debate in public discussion—a nice change of pace, considering the normal establishment consensus emanating from Washington D.C. on America’s decades-old system of treaties. President Trump’s follow-up interview with FOX News’ Tucker Carlson brought concerted focus on the nation of Montenegro which was admitted to NATO last year.
Pillars of beltway media opinion, both left and right, have gone into high gear defending the continued utility of NATO and why its post-Cold War expansion has been necessary. A friend, who agrees with that opinion, sent me a National Review article, “Tiny, Faraway Countries and Us,” written by Senior Editor Jay Nordlinger. The article argues in favor of collective security through NATO and uses the 1930s as its primary example.
Nordlinger first seeks to establish that not only is Montenegro worth defending, it already needs defending. This is due to accusations of Russian interference and even a failed coup attempt, a narrative that seems far from coherent.
He then launches into comparisons between Trump’s sentiments and those of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain described the Czech crisis as “a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” This was an opinion shared by the British public at the time.
An opinion likewise shared in France. Nordlinger reminds us of the question that was being asked by Frenchmen in 1939: “Why die for Danzig?” Danzig was an over 90% German city that was separated from Germany in the Treaty of Versailles and turned into an autonomous city-state. Separated from the “Fatherland” by the Polish Corridor, it was a longtime goal of German interwar foreign policy to see the city returned to German sovereignty.
Nordlinger answers the nearly eighty-year-old question. “Why die for Danzig? In a year, Frenchmen were dying for Paris.” This far leap rests on the common assumption that German invasion was inevitable and unstoppable, so the best thing to do was to start the fight then and there. This assumption has been continually challenged by those who think Nazi ambitions existed in Eastern Europe only, and that the Reich’s leadership had no interest in a wider war with the West. This argument has been laid out thoroughly in both popular and academic histories. And it’s important to remember: France lost the war in 1940 and was militarily occupied. Going to war with Germany in 1939-40 cannot be said to have been in the French national interest or beneficial to the French people.
Inspired by Polish official Radek Sikorski, Nordlinger lays out his idea of deterrence. If multiple countries ally together for mutual defense, they can make a strong enough front to prevent aggression from outside powers and lower the risk of war. “After two world wars, the wise heads who founded NATO decided that collective security was the best defense — the best way of preventing further war.” These are mindboggling examples to use to defend “collective security.” In 1914 Europe was divided between two military alliances, the Central Powers and the Entente. The great empires assured each other of support in war, and all this did was lay a tripwire that eventually exploded. Far from preventing conflict, the system of alliances ensured that an incident between two countries in the Balkans spread war across multiple continents. Likewise, in Spring 1939 Prime Minister Chamberlain gave the British war guarantee to Poland. This did not prevent the September 1st invasion by Germany. It only obligated France and Britain to declare war on Germany, leading to the former’s occupation and the latter to rely on the English Channel for protection from the same fate. Collective security did not stop Hitler’s invasion, but put the Western powers in a war they clearly were not prepared to fight. The world wars, far from showing the necessity of collective security, show how it can go wrong.
Fast-forwarding to the present, we are reminded that East European countries like Poland and Estonia have sent soldiers who have “fought and died in Afghanistan.” Sending marginal padding to one of America’s colonial wars (in Estonia’s case, 163 soldiers as of 2011) benefits neither the American people or Poles & Estonians.
Nordlinger admits that Estonia would have no chance of victory in a metaphorical war with Russia. Which pushes the most important question to the forefront: when should the American people fight for a country that is not their own? Only the most hardline of pacifists would say the United States should not defend its own borders and territorial integrity if invaded. In the same vein, only the most hairbrained promoters of American hegemony would say that the United States needs to vouch for the collective security of every country and fight to defend the current world’s borders in perpetuity. There is a middle ground.
American leaders knew throughout the Cold War that Eastern Europe did not fall within the U.S. national interest. In 1956 when Soviet tanks invaded Hungary, in 1968 when they crushed the Prague Spring, and in the 1980s when they suppressed Solidarity in Poland, America stood by and did not intervene. That is because Eisenhower, Johnson, Reagan and those in between realized that while it was important to the people of Bozeman, Montana and St. Augustine, Florida to stop the Soviet Army from ever crossing the Elbe River, American lives were not worth sacrificing beyond that point. That was all when the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact posed a reasonable threat to Western Europe. Since communism’s fall in 1991, American taxpayers ought to question why they’re still writing checks for foreign militaries.
Quoting one of his earlier articles, Nordlinger says “If NATO crumbles, that will have big effects elsewhere. U.S. guarantees will be seen as worthless. Japan and South Korea will be resigned to China. And so on.” A full U.S. exit from NATO doesn’t have to mean the alliance “crumbles”—it merely means Europeans will have to defend Europeans. And the idea that all U.S. guarantees must exist forever, otherwise they have no value, is ridiculous. The United States has guaranteed the defense of Western Europe for seventy years, including three decades where the original threat hasn’t existed. That’s more than enough to prove American commitment. And if Japan and South Korea, the third and eleventh largest economies in the world respectively, must carry more of their own weight, is that apocalyptic?
Nordlinger ends with a point I agree with—NATO should not be an assumed positive but should be argued. He says this is necessary “as memories of past crises fade.” In fact, it’s necessary as past crises are misremembered.
“I like it. A lot of good things,” said Donald Trump, describing libertarianism in late 2015. I’m skeptical if President Trump, then or now, could give even a basic definition of the liberty philosophy. But despite that ignorance, I believe Trump has paved the way to make the Republican Party more libertarian.
At a cursory glance, that seems a ludicrous proposition. Between the increase in drone strikes, the tariffs, the empowerment of ICE, the belligerent tweets, as just a handful of examples among an apparent never-ending list of statist abuses and outright evil, how has Donald Trump benefited libertarians in any way? He singlehandedly destroyed previously untouchable third rails of the Republican Party platform.
I have been an active College Republican for the previous four years. For even longer I’ve been a dedicated libertarian in the Rothbardian tradition. Needless to say, this has created the occasional tension and difference of opinion with my peers. My freshman year, after intense lobbying, I convinced the club to choose “the legacy of George W. Bush” as the weekly discussion topic. For over thirty minutes I argued alone against 15 fellow Republicans. I condensed as best I could every sin of that presidency, every breach of conservative (and moral) principle. And I got nowhere. I was rebuffed with continuous “If it wasn’t for him it would have been worse,” “I disagree” with no follow-up argument against flat fact, and of course “He’s a good person.”
When I argue with my more mainstream Republican friends, as I do every week, a new phrase has entered my vocabulary: “I agree with the President.” We were lied into Iraq, we should improve our relations with Russia, we should pull out of Afghanistan, and Obama is responsible for supporting Islamic terrorists in Syria. Those are all points that can follow the former statement. In this circumstance, it’s easy to say that such an appeal to authority is not a real argument. But it is a very convincing rhetorical tactic.
There has been a shift in the Republican Party. Among conservatives I interact with, few will openly defend George Bush, those who know Bill Kristol openly mock him as a liberal tool, and they rousingly cheer the phrases “Drain the Swamp” and “America First.” Like libertarianism, I’m sure Trump is wholly ignorant of the America First Committee and the proud history his adopted phrase carries. But the fact that he’s breathed life into a two-word phrase with an antiwar tradition that is easily explained as a national interest driven, noninterventionist foreign policy is the greatest gift a libertarian debater could receive.
This is precisely what radio host and Libertarian Institute Managing Director Scott Horton has elucidated as the Horton Strategy. You must attack the right from the right and the left from the left. On foreign policy, I’ve moderated several of my friends from the extremes of interventionism. I’ve done that by being righter than right, a committed America Firster, and I could not have made that progress with them without Donald Trump.
We are still in Afghanistan. We are still nearly $21 trillion in debt. We are still combating a growing police state. Donald Trump has not implemented libertarian solutions, and it’s unlikely he will. But he has given libertarians the rhetorical tools to try, and that should be recognized and appreciated.
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