Sunday, September 5, 2010

Musings on the Empire of Liberty

What would you advocate doing if a criminal organization took control of an American city or state by force, imposed their own illiberal laws brutally, and suspended or made a sham of elections? Well first, of course, the courts and the police would battle this organization throughout it's rise to power - but let's say it ended up taking power anyway. The federal government would come down on it with overwhelming physical force. Not only would this organization inevitably stumble into some sort of inter-state or otherwise federal crime justifying federal involvement, but any sort of dictatorial power-grab would be a violation of the Constitution which guarantees a republican form of government at the state level. This sort of thing seems and probably is inconceivable for the time being, but if it came to that we would see overwhelming force from the federal government. And rightly so.

When I read things like Matt Yglesias's post sharing evidence that Dick Cheney wanted to invade Syria after Iraq, my first reaction is further revulsion at the man I already found repulsive. I did support the war in Afghanistan, but I was strongly opposed to the Iraq war from day one, so needless to say I would have been opposed to a Syrian war too. But why? Why is this sort of neo-conservative "empire of liberty" mindset so problematic for us? It is for one reason: nationalism. The concept of the nation-state. If we had what H.G. Wells called a World State, adventures like a Syrian war would be considered entirely justifiable - as readily supported as a campaign against a crime syndicate taking over New York or Los Angeles would be supported. The only thing standing in the way of this sort of thing is the perseverance of the nation-state and the conceptualizations of sovereignty that come with it. When you think about it, this is an extremely unsettling realization. There's something deeply unsatisfying and arcane about the very idea of "national sovereignty". At one time, one must admit, nation-states, sovereignty, and self-determination served a valuable purpose in the struggle against autocracy and imperial oppression. But now national sovereignty seems to also conceal great evils. We acknowledge what we call "universal" and "human" rights - mostly standard civil liberties that are recognized in the U.S. - but although we nominally recognize their universality, these rights are easily discarded if a nation-state makes it its business to ignore them. Such rights, then, aren't in practice universal at all. I think it's plausible and perhaps even good that we are moving towards a World State and away from national sovereignty. It will be slow, and it will probably evolve from some sort of confederacy and collection of international institutions that already exist or that will be created. But because it is in all likelihood coming, I don't think we can just dismiss these neo-conservative wars. They are here to stay, I think they will increase, and I think they will become more palatable. We have a framework for acknowledging universal rights, and within that framework military action to stop genocide or terrorism has already become palatable - again, as it should be probably. As the universality of these rights is accepted more broadly, and as it is formalized, it will be harder and harder to justify intervening in the case of genocide but not, say, dictatorship. Many neo-conservatives lament the criminalization of terrorism in the sense of terrorists being treated as criminals rather than enemy combatants. Ironically, though, it is this very process of criminalization that is going to make it possible to forcefully pursue a broader and broader array of international bad guys. At first glance this is very troubling. I haven't abandoned my opposition to the Iraq war, after all, so its unsettling to think about it in these terms. But if I think about what we would do if someone like Saddam set himself up with a similar outfit in a U.S. state, what I would consider to be the appropriate reaction would be entirely justified by the most basic understanding of domestic law enforcement. An easy-out might be rejection of the idea of a World State that would make this change of perspective possible (because it would essentially turn all acts of military and state aggression into criminal acts). It's not quite as much of an easy-out for me because I actually embrace the idea of an eventual World State. But even if I were to use a rejection of the idea of a World State to assuage my opposition to the Iraq war, I would still have to accept that all of this opposition to the invasion of Iraq is predicated on an embrace of the abstraction that is nationalism.

And that's not very satisfying either.

So where do we go with this? Anarchism seems like the only way to consistently avoid such wars and avoid the World State or nationalism. But anarchism isn't personally satisfying to me. Libertarianism won't do the trick - libertarians certainly support the protection of civil liberties by law and basic policing powers. So a libertarian that wants to reject both pure anarchism and these neo-conservative wars (and most do) would have to be a pacifist nationalist (because as I said, libertarian principles applied in a World State would accept the necessity of using the force of law to guarantee civil liberties). But I don't think a pacifist nationalist libertarianism really works. Any libertarian principled enough to be a pacifist is unlikely to be a nationalist.

So, unless we embrace anarchism we seem to be stuck with either neo-conservatism or nationalism (or, if we elect neo-conservatives before we institute a World State, both). This is troubling to me. I suppose it shouldn't be surprising. Man is a violent and divisive species. This is not news. And if we want a liberal society we may need more than sugar and spice and dreams and hopes to get it. As you all know - I'm not a libertarian or an idealist and I don't mind it when things are ambiguous, messy, or indeterminate - so I can accept this. But it's still all fairly depressing.


  1. So, have you read "The Empire For Liberty" yet?

    "But because it is in all likelihood coming, I don't think we can just dismiss these neo-conservative wars."

    The odd thing is that you consider them "neo-conservative wars." They are American wars, and they are well within the historical tradition of the U.S. They aren't in any way aberrations. Honestly, that is by far one of the biggest myths associated with the Bush administration - that somehow it fought wars outside of the mainstream of U.S. history.

  2. Anyway, the U.S. has always been invading or proposing to invade places in order to bring the light of American culture or liberty or religion or whatever. For example, from the very start of our country there was all sorts of talk of Canada becoming a part of the U.S. ... Madison merely acted upon that impulse. We really must stop thinking that there was some point - 1898 or the advent of the Monroe Doctrine - where we stopped being innocents. Expansion by military force of our civilization has been part and parcel of our way of doing things from the start - it is also a truly unremarkable habit.

  3. Xenophon - I don't think being "American" and being "neoconservative" are mutually exclusive. I called them neo-conservative because they haven't been exclusively American, and really it's just justification of these wars that's important for my discussion here, not the nationality engaging in them. America has fought non-neo-conservative wars and the UK, for example, has fought several neo-conservative wars.

    As for Canada - I might be thinking of something somewhat different. Canada, for me (and not just the talk but the actual invasion during the Revolutionary war and earlier than that even by New England) strikes me as a good old fashioned war of conquest. And you're certainly right - if a war of conquest is part of some "age of innocence", that's news to me. I'm not sure what the earliest war is that I'd actually consider a "neo-conservative" war. I think of a neo-conservative war as one whose primary purpose is ending human rights abuses, regime change, putting down unfriendly dictators, etc. - not necessarily any territorial acquisition involved.

  4. thanks abe - welcome to the blog.

  5. I strongly encourage you to read "Empire for Liberty."

    "I don't think being "American" and being "neoconservative" are mutually exclusive."

    That is not what I am getting at ... they aren't "neoconservative" wars, they're just regular old American wars ... there is no such thing as a "neoconstructive" war.

    "And you're certainly right - if a war of conquest is part of some "age of innocence", that's news to me."

    It is a commonly used and believed myth ... "America went to shit when X happened." It is common in common parlance and academic literature.

    Invading Canada was justified as an expansion of liberty - of stripping Canada of the British yoke.

  6. This is probably one of my favorite reads on here in a long time.

    So, unless we embrace anarchism we seem to be stuck with either neo-conservatism or nationalism (or, if we elect neo-conservatives before we institute a World State, both). This is troubling to me.

    This is why a lot of people turn to anarchism. They see the eventual growth of government over time. Limiting government doesn't seem to do anything. The American experiment failed.

    I'm glad you at least discussed the philosophy of anarchism without immediately rejecting the premise. I can offer good literature on the subject if you like.

  7. So nation's rights will be withered away like state's rights? I hope not. I believe political diversity and competition are healthy and should be preserved.

  8. Lee Kelly -
    Well, what I'm trying to get at is that as we increasingly conceive of human rights as univeral human rights, and as we become more integrated politically, what we identify now as "national rights" or "national sovereignty" is going to increasingly be identified simply as criminal. If the mafia took over an American city and brutalized the population we wouldn't see it as inviolate because of some notion of sovereignty - we would see it as criminal and we would address it as such.

    Same with a state government even. I'm a supporter of states rights and a robust federal system. When there is a World State I'd like it to be a federation. But even in the U.S., we have a constitutional guarantee of a "republican form of government" at the state level. A state governor that sets up a dictatorship would be outside the law.

    So what I'm arguing as we integrate internationally, banana republic dictators will be treated less like bad guys that we can't do anything about because of notions of national sovereignty - and more like criminals. That doesn't necessarily mean that we're going to see national rights or any sort of sub-governmental rights fade away - simply that we will probably see them as less of an excuse for the violation of civil rights and individual rights. This is essentially the neo-conservative program, is it not?: eschewing concerns about sovereignty and establishing democracies by force.

  9. Mattheus - thanks
    At this point I don't think anarchism is anywhere close to the answer, but I of course would be interested in any material.

    Actually - I was thinking a lot of Nozick when I wrote this. What do you think of him?


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