September 04, 2003

Truth and Lies, a Libertarian Conundrum

A month ago, I wrote about a dilemma facing the Bush administration's prosecution of the War on Terror. Yesterday, The Agitator got around to addressing the issue and he's not happy with the idea of anything but full, immediate disclosure. His fire is mainly aimed at Randy Barnett but what he's disagreeing with is an instance where Prof. Barnett was referring to me over at NRO's the Corner.

"I'm always amazed at how willing otherwise sound libertarians are to cut government slack in times of war", he remarks. And that's really the nub of the problem, he just can't see the difference between war and peace. A great deal of the libertarian ethic, the libertarian tradition rests on truth telling. A good case can be made that in some way or another, it all rests on it.

Libertarianism holds that we are as we are as individuals and the State should not club us down for it but we should persuade each other to fashion a better society. We are drawn to capitalism, not because we are obsessed with money or economic gain, but because free markets are the most honest of economic arrangements, giving value for value for the betterment of all parties (though later, some may regret their choices). Libertarian political instincts tend to be uncomfortable with subterfuge as well, which is why you don't see the sort of cross-endorsement for patronage deals that, for example, eventually destroyed the Liberal party in NY State.

At every stage, at every turn, there are special pleaders saying this bit of coercion, that bit of deceit, is justified. 99 times out of a hundred there are real life examples of how to get similar or superior results honestly. And in that hundredth instance, almost every single time there is a strong suspicion that if we were just smart enough, wise enough, had good enough tools, we could figure out how to do without coercion in those instances too.

The number of special pleadings an educated libertarian has to concede haven't been sorted out can be counted on your fingers. But two of the big ones are war and foreign policy.

The Agitator asks why some libertarians cut the government slack in these cases. I can't speak for others but I can say that my motivation is simple, that I've read, studied, and examined military history and military affairs enough to understand that imposing specific, special rules on government conduct during war that relax the normal restrictions is not simply one policy option among many, it is the only option in a war for national survival. Make no mistake, that's where we are right now.

Deception plays a great part in warfare and can range from the tactical misdirection of changing a ships course unpredictably to avoid torpedo strikes, to the actual landing point for the invasion of France in WW II to large strategic deceptions where mutually exclusive treaties are signed and nobody is really sure which will be honored when war is declared.

But this does not mean that we've sold our birthright of freedom for a mess of pottage labeled security. Patriotic libertarians need to check and double check to see that the new rules are temporary, that the state will not only not stay fat and corpulent (for war is the health of the state) but will be set for an even bigger reductions after the war passes. Furthermore, the most important thing that libertarians must be on guard against is that the war is not lengthened unnecessarily, that the threat does not become a boogie man that is used to scare us from taking up our rights in full measure.

This is a very difficult task, a dance on the edge of a knife blade and one that free societies have traditionally not managed to pull off. This is the great test of our generation. I can only hope that we succeed where others have failed before us.

Posted by TMLutas at September 4, 2003 06:02 PM