Libertarians are characterized by a commitment to limited government and a clear-eyed devotion to empiricism, facts and the boundaries of human knowledge and planning.
So says Mona over at Inactivist, Jon Henke’s interesting new project (and by the way, what is it with Henke, McQ and Franks? How do they find the time to post the way they do at QandO and engage in all this other stuff? Plus whatever they do to earn a living. Just sayin’.) As a libertarian of sorts I am of course prone to think so, but I see little evidence that we deserve all that praise. Mona thinks we fall short as well and good for her, but she seems to think the Iraq War is an aberration. I think not. The failings of course go both ways in this debate and Mona unwittingly proves it. I have sat on this post for a week, and in no small part because of a dictum that Matt McIntosh lays out. However, I think I will post it anyway.
Mona also wants to begin a debate about who really is a libertarian. McQ has a lot to say on the matter and the idea that the Iraq war is a litmus test of who is exhibiting the above mentioned devotion to empiricism, facts and boundaries, as does Dale and the comments are as always interesting. As for myself, libertarians, even though I feel the free market view is correct, seem usually to be no more grounded in reason than any other ideology. I think we are right despite being as prone to dogma, prejudice and exaggerated pretensions of knowledge and wisdom as any other group of people.
I submit that too many libertarians today, namely, those who supported the invasion of Iraq but who refuse to face the reality that it is a hugely expensive debacle, are not operating as Hayekian libertarians generally do. Rather, they are frequently evading the ugly truth and engaging in overt blame-shifting, deplorable scape-goating, and rank excuse-making. They are doing everything, that is, save for manfully (I know, I know) accepting responsibility for having been utterly wrong; most certainly these libertarians are not crediting those who have been tragically proven right.
Once again, read McQ and Dale on this, but despite Mona’s assertions about using Hayekian reasoning, she needs to re-read him. This passage and the rest of her post suggest a fundamental misreading of Hayek. Of all the libertarian icons it would be hard to find a person more humble before the uncertainties of life. For someone who has just extolled the hayekian understanding of the limits of human knowledge Mona goes on to give blanket assertions about the way the world is which no human being could possibly know. Empiricism? The misapplication of scientific methods to the social sciences was a major concern of Hayek’s. Any pretensions that the various “correct” and “prescient” predictions of various figures were some kind of scientifically derived prediction that has now been empirically proven would have struck Hayek as ridiculous.
To the extent that Hayek was an empiricist, it was a popperian empiricist. That means falsification with the variables carefully controlled. Hayek was aware that such methods in what we call the social sciences were very problematic, and devoted a great deal of ink to critiquing the use of the methods of the physical sciences to social phenomena. I can hardly imagine an area less amenable to such study than foreign policy. Exactly where are the easily controlled for variables in the case for Iraq? Wouldn’t the prospective (as opposed to retrospective) hayekian critique have been as valid in the case of Kosovo or Afghanistan? This is a lot of inside baseball, and most people probably don’t care what Hayek would or would not have thought, but this is the kind of post that Hayek would have hated and I hate to see him dragged into it. It matters to me, if no one else.
In Mona’s attempt to purify the libertarian movement she takes a completely ass-backward reading of Hayek, decides being a Hayekian is the sine qua non of what it means to be a libertarian (though if we have to have an oracle he would be my choice, provided the people endorsing the creed know anything about what the man actually believes) and those who donâ€™t measure up are to be sneered at. Such as here:
And I repeat, if you eschew Hayek and Friedman, and do not accept the broad contours of their factual assumptions and conclusions, then it is very difficult to see how you could be a libertarian. Maoists are and were Marxists. Whatever fine-tuning and spin this or that communist sect puts on it, they start with Karl Marx. At a minimum, they would have to embrace a good deal that Marx also did, or they could not, by definition, be communists.
What that really means is that someone who doesn’t endorse her view of Hayek and Friedman’s thought is to be eschewed. If we take their thought in a “big tent” way, then both her posts are to be ignored. If she means it more narrowly we exclude a pretty big group of libertarians, including Milton Friedman’s own wife, Murray Rothbard and a bunch of anti-war anarcho-capitalists. It is especially troubling because libertarians who think like she does are very reminiscent of communists who splintered themselves into innumerable tiny factions, only achieving power by means of mass bloodshed to keep everybody in line. I will not spend any time discussing how historically wrong her view of Marx’s essential nature is to being a communist except to say communism existed prior to The Communist Manifesto, and communists during his lifetime had quite disparate views. If they are all to be identified as having to agree with Marx broadly then I can claim George Bush is a libertarian. Don’t worry Mona, I won’t.
It should be noted that Mona claims that she supported the Iraq invasion to begin with. This is an odd claim if she is one who was both informed at the time, and feels that the arguments against the war were and are obvious. Was she just inattentive, ideologically incapable of accepting the concerns about the war from “realists,” or blindly following Bush? I don’t know, but pretensions of scientifically understanding something as complex as this now, don’t say much for her judgment then either.
She then goes on to misread Michael Wade’s argument on this very blog (though Michael was honest enough to admit to not being as clear as he should have been):
I would ask Michael W, in light of a steady flood of bleak news such as that, why should Democrats, or libertarians, reject the so-called “anti-war left,” when war opponents were manifestly right?
Wait a minute. Michael was not saying that war opponents should be avoided. He said (and so does she, oddly, which makes the non sequiter all the more irritating) they should reject the anti war left, not anti war libertarians, or realists like Brent Scowcroft. He was talking political strategy, not who was right about Iraq. (As a quick aside, it doesn’t seem at all unwise for Michael to suggest that the Democratic Party would do better to concentrate on appealing to small government types as opposed to the anti war left. The anti war left is likely to vote Democrat anyway; the small government types are now up for grabs. I think that is Michael’s point.) As for the anti war left being “manifestly right,” that is poppycock. She may have a point about many others, but the anti war left’s critique was not based on Scowcroftian realism. They may be rejoicing in what they perceive as Bush’s failure, but supporters of ANSWER and fans of Michael Moore were more blinkered and wrong on the specifics than Feith or Wolfowitz. The ones who look prescient are not Dean or the Kos kids, but traditional conservatives and libertarians who are rightly skeptical of any government policy. If anybody can claim to be right (taking it as a given for the sake of argument that the war was a mistake) it was those on the right who were so miserably treated by the left when they decried the interventionist Clinton years and were derided as “isolationists.”
Why is having been prescient treated as an utter irrelevancy? Hillary Clinton and other “centrist” Democrats who enthusiastically signed on to Bushâ€™s most excellent Iraq adventure were, well, wrong. Further, many pro-war libertarians, like most war supporters, know that they and centrists such as Clinton were wrong. Hence some remarkable, if ignoble, antics we now see on display.
Of course we are treated to the inevitable Greenwald link where he asks:
Was there anything Dean was wrong about or his critics right about?
Forget about the Iraq story not being finished or the role he and people like him have had in making the enterprise more difficult. Instead, let us look at all the reasonable fears Dean had. Some have come true, others however have not. Read the Greenwald piece and see how many of his fears, especially those about Iraq’s armed forces being more difficult to defeat than we expect:
It is possible, however, that events could go differently, and that the Iraqi Republican Guard will not sit out in the desert where they can be destroyed easily from the air.
It is possible that Iraq will try to force our troops to fight house to house in the middle of cities - on its turf, not ours - where precision-guided missiles are of little use
Hmmm….. That didn’t happen.
But if you talk to military leaders, they will tell you there is a big difference between pushing back the Iraqi armed forces in Kuwait and trying to defeat them on their home ground.
It actually wasn’t that hard, though during the invasion many of those prescient generals were busy saying our invasion plan was unsound and our supply lines were iffy. We heard about all the difficulties the military campaign was about to face as we got bogged down and had to fight our way into Baghdad. So Dean was wrong on some things. This demonstrates the problem with prescience claims, if you list enough disasters and a project does fail, well, some of them will certainly be right. That is a point Hayek certainly would have made.
Of course I could point out that I supported the invasion and I predicted that the exact same things that Dean worried about might happen, plus a lot more. I had a long list. I guess I am prescient as well, so where does that leave us?
Kern’s TCS co-blogger Pejman Yousefzadeh, takes a different path , cavalierly advocating, as if it would be the easiest-wrought solution imaginable, that partitioning Iraq is the thing to consider, and would not — he is clear about this — have to constitute failure. Well golly gee, it is a page from those old Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney movies where we all decide “letâ€™s put on a show!” Head for the barn kids, and break a leg, weâ€™ve got a partition to do!
Well, she sure studies the Greenwald handbook. Pejman gives a reasoned argument for why partition may make sense and she reduces it to a joke. I guess she hopes we don’t click the link as it seems Greenwald assumes, a suspicion given more weight by the fact that the link doesn’t go anywhere. So far nobody seems to have noticed who has praised the piece, they obviously didn’t click through I suggest you follow my link and consider it yourself. I have always considered it an option; I certainly think it should be on the table. Even if the Iraq War is some kind of a failure, so what? If it is the best option available we should look at it. This objection is just childish. Failure happens all the time. The key isn’t to avoid failure but to adapt to achieve success. If this idea makes sense then we should pursue it. It is especially odd given that a great many of those prescient realists advocate it as well. I guess their Empiricism and devotion to facts is escaping them this time. Of course, I guess in the Mona world it is better to have an abject failure than a partial success, say a stable independent Kurdistan, which, by the way, may be the most exciting place in the Middle East. We have had some successes Mona, at least for the time being.
Then there are those pro-Bush bloggers such as Dan Riehl (h/t Glenn Greenwald) who are laying the groundwork for admitting Iraq is a debacle, by blaming those who were right about the venture and denouncing them as “cowards” and “traitors” whose (correct) dissent purportedly “weakens America’s prospects” for winning our wars and defeating terrorists. These â€œunAmericanâ€ critics of Iraq policy do not permit us to “effectively let slip the dogs of war,” and we must consider treating them accordingly. It is their fault if Iraq is awash in tribal bloodshed.
To the extent Iraq is a debacle, or becomes one, it certainly makes sense to look at all of the reasons. It may be convenient for Mona to blame “the right” but I personally think there is enough blame to go around. Criticism and dissent of many varieties does weaken the war effort and give strength to enemies. I’ll refer you to my post on the Euston manifesto (and more importantly the document itself) for an example of a principled way to oppose the war and support a good outcome, but regardless of the rightness or wrongness of the dissent it does help our enemies. That is one of the paradoxes and tensions of a free society. Life just doesn’t provide for a simple neat set of rules of behavior. There are costs to dissent and those doing so have to weigh them. If more Iraqis die because you give jihadis and Baathist thugs hope that we will pull out or moral legitimacy, then that is a real cost to be weighed. It may be uncomfortable that doing what we may feel to be right may be helping a great evil in other respects, but that is what you have to weigh. Myself, I like the way the Euston Manifesto puts it. Regardless of the merits of invading, once we were there our primary concern should have been with making it succesful.
And always, good Democrats and libertarians should blame everybody but the Republicans for the sectarian conflagration in Iraq, and that most especially means we must castigate that Dark Force (shuddering in dread of the very words), “the left.”
If libertarians can’t castigate leftists and fascists who can we? I am certainly reaching out to the left, but a different left than Mona seems to think I should associate with. I know Michael feels the same, as he wrote about the Euston Manifesto long before I did, and I know Omar had read it as well. So spare us the reading into Michael’s views that are not warranted Mona. It just confirms your prejudices, not any actual knowledge. As for the bold portion of the above quote, well I can’t comprehend the reasoning here. I understand that the Bush administration could have done a better job. However, the primary people to blame for the sectarian violence are those committing it. Our foes fight back. I never expected different. What is amazing is that from Mona’s own comments she didn’t really think they would at the time when the choice was made:
That is not, not even remotely, how this war was sold. The American people were not told that we would be ushering in a bloody civil war because the tribal and sectarian pathologies in Iraq would be unleashed, and could not be managed by military might.
Obviously she didn’t see this coming or expect our enemies might fight back. She swallowed “cake walk” hook, line and sinker. Maybe that is why she is so upset, she feels foolish and wants to lash out. What is sad is that there is a good Hayekian case against the Iraq invasion and occupation, I know because I have made it, and Mona at times hits upon it before losing any of the subtlety and intellectual humility with which Hayek approaches such things. Oh well.
Quintessential libertarian, F.A. Hayek, once wrote:
Personally, I find that the most objectionable feature of the conservative attitude is its propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it… Should our moral beliefs really prove to be dependent on factual assumptions shown to be incorrect, it would hardly be moral to defend them by refusing to acknowledge facts.
I will say this is a great quote. First of all Hayek wasn’t talking about American conservatism (though it certainly applies to some degree, but that is generally true of any political movement) but about European conservatism, which is a very different animal. The real problem however is Mona seems to believe that foreign policy, an area with more variables than any computer or human is capable of comprehending, can be reduced to a few facts, to empiricism, is a fantasy. Hayek would have never applied this quote to something such as foreign policy, it is an affront to everything for which the man stood.
It is a dangerous fantasy as well. Jon Henke has a good counterpoint to McQ’s views over at QandO. He points out the inherent difficulty in analogizing the past. However, if Munich is an uncertain guide to future policy, I suggest arriving at some empirical formula about Iraq will be even more so. That is certainly what Hayek would have thought.
I don’t really mean to pick on Mona, her view of the war is quite reasonable, it is her view of the people who are supporting it and opposing it that is an issue for me and the people who want to believe they are right so badly that any argument showing what the “truth” is can be applauded. She is not all that exceptional in that regard, nor is it a failing I am immune from as well. The difference, if there is one, is that I don’t pretend to know unknowable truths.
Update:XRLQ adds his thoughts on Mona and her purge.
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