Long (Political) Covid

Long (Political) Covid

Who were the libertarians? Now—when the movement has reached its nadir—seems like a good time to consider the question.

I recently received an email from an old friend, an esteemed academic who is foundering miserably in retirement and senescence. Like many men of his kind, he has taken up politics with a social-media-driven religious devotion and, having tried Donald Trump on for size for a few years, has undergone a conversion to the cause of Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who, like Donald Trump, has vermin on the brain.

Kennedy is, of course, a charlatan and a huckster, but more to the point here is that he is a left-wing charlatan and huckster—a man with a view of government and national life that is something akin to that of Sen. Bernie Sanders or an old-fashioned campus Marxist. My old friend is—not was, but is—a doctrinaire libertarian, one of those gentlemen I could go to and commiserate about what a terrible idea the Interstate Highway System was and why we don’t really need an FDA. Oh, sure, Bobby is all wrong about the economics and most everything else, he’ll say, but—and I’ll bet you know where this is going—he got it right about COVID-19 and the vaccines. Donald Trump, he’ll tell you, went along with the worst abuse of American civil liberties since Abraham Lincoln illegally suspended habeas corpus, practically turning these United States into a medical gulag.

Some people would like to forget the COVID era. Some people still can think of little else. The pandemic really was a radicalizing experience for a large number of Americans.

There has, in fact, been a cascade of radicalizing experiences since the end of the 20th century: the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the 2007-08 financial crisis and subsequent bank bailouts, and the COVID-19 lockdowns and vaccine controversies chief among them. These events have had parallel, but unequal, effects on the right and the left.

September 11 in many ways brought Fox News to life and gave rise to a new kind of Republican tendency that psychologically conflated national-security projects abroad with culture-war projects at home—as in the matter of the Islamic Cultural Center on Park Place in Lower Manhattan—while on the left the attack gave rise to an illiterately conspiratorial account of politics (Bush knew! Halliburton!) and a reinvigorated connection with 1960s-style radicalism as the movement protesting the Iraq War looked back to its Vietnam-era precedent. The financial crisis gave rise to the Tea Party movement and its progressive doppelgänger, Occupy Wall Street. The pandemic saw the right adopt a conspiratorial view of vaccines and pharmaceutical companies that once had been mainly a left-wing tendency while the left embraced a Kulturkampf approach toward symbolic public-health measures such as masking and deepened its fondness for expert authoritarianism.

Over the past two decades, the right adopted a more libertarian critique of many institutions and practices and then rallied behind an autocratic would-be caudillo with a distinctly etatist approach to economic policy. The left, meanwhile, has adopted a more radically egalitarian rhetoric even as the Democratic Party got very comfortable with its new role as the party of moneyed professionals and urban elites. Strange times, indeed.

One can see, without much difficulty or strain on the moral imagination, how each of those events would have a radicalizing effect on a certain kind of person. But one can also see that there is a certain kind of person—largely, but not exclusively, Americans—looking for an excuse to become radicalized. Tucker Carlson is one such example, but so is Nigel Farage, those angry Dutch farmers, the people (some of the people) who elected Giorgia Meloni and Javier Milei, etc. The desire to be radicalized is fundamentally a way to emotionally accommodate social alienation. It is the price that has to be paid to indulge hatred.

That distinctive, of-the-moment alienation is, ironically, what we feel when we are all stuck too close together. The modern world is too close and too intimate, and it is, for that reason, full of people who hate their neighbors and require a respectable reason for hating them—which is why everybody says the people on the other side of whatever issue it is that they are pretending to care about are Nazis. That’s the great lesson the Indiana Jones movies taught us: There isn’t anything socially safer than cheering against Nazis, even if you have to find them where there are none.

It is easier to see how this works if you take it out of your own national context. Can you imagine that there were perfectly good reasons for some British people to wish to reestablish their own democratically controlled national sovereignty over British affairs without being superintended by the European Union? Can you imagine that there were other Britons who had perfectly respectable reasons to want to maintain the benefits and privileges associated with living in an EU country? My own sympathies were with the Brexiteers, but there is much that is attractive about being a member of the European Union, and it is not difficult to see why many British people would have preferred to remain so.

There are many Americans who have enough sympathetic imagination to do that, but fewer who can view both sides of the various COVID-19 controversies with similar equanimity. I find myself pulled in different ways, as usual. The anti-vaccine activists are dangerous cranks, and the people who compare the COVID-19 shutdowns to the Soviet gulag are not to be trusted. At the same time, I recently had an appointment with a medical professional who insisted on wearing a mask for the entirety of our conversation—which happened over Zoom, with each of us in otherwise empty rooms.

Of course I wanted to strangle him a little bit—who wouldn’t?

COVID-19 radicalization is something one would expect to see more of among people who already had libertarian inclinations, which includes both the self-conscious libertarians with their Hayek books tucked under their arms and the more traditional “You’re not the boss of me!” American types. The weird thing is that COVID-19 radicalization has made so many of these libertarians less libertarian rather than more so. They haven’t moved from Free to Choose to The Machinery of Freedom, from Milton Friedman to David Friedman, from Ayn Rand fantasies to anarcho-capitalist fantasies. No, they’ve moved from Reason to Breitbart to Mother Jones circa 1985, keeping the radical urgency but giving up on the part of libertarianism oriented toward—what was it, again?—liberty.

Part of this is our aging population: We have all seen relatives lose their minds to Fox News brain (which is a close relative of Facebook brain and Washington Post comments-section  brain). In 1920, only 1 in 20 Americans was 65 or older, while today the figure is 1 in 6. And as our population gets older, our politics is going to get dumber and crazier and crankier and more disconnected from everyday reality.

Maybe I should not be very surprised.

We used to joke that libertarianism was for Republicans who liked weed and porn, or that it is what you get when you slip 5,000 micrograms of LSD into the punch bowl at the Chamber of Commerce. Less jokingly, we would observe that “libertarian” was an adjective preferred by conservatives who were understandably embarrassed to be associated with the Republican Party. (My first presidential vote was for Andre Marrou of the Libertarian Party over incumbent George H.W. Bush, possibly the most sensible president of my lifetime. But there were reasons to be embarrassed by Republicans even back in the golden days of 1992.) To be a small-l libertarian (as opposed to an activist in the Libertarian Party) was to liberate oneself from having very much dumb political stuff to defend for the sake of party solidarity. And the libertarians had (and have) most of the good ideas, as much as I can appreciate Ramesh Ponnuru’s wise line about libertarianism being the perfect political philosophy provided you live in a world with no foreign policy or children. But perhaps the libertarians did not take those libertarian ideas as seriously as I had thought they did.

It may be that libertarianism simply was what was politically and socially available for the would-be right-wing radical from (approximately) the 1970s through the turn of the century. If you were right-ish leaning and had a hankering for something radical-feeling, then libertarianism was where it was at. Surely there is something to that. And here it is probably worth bearing in mind that many important and embarrassing links between the mainstream conservative movement and fringe, conspiracy-minded, and antisemitic movements were championed by erstwhile libertarians: Murray Rothbard and his daft effort to recruit David Duke and the radical left into a unified front against the “welfare-warfare state”; Ron Paul and his bigoted newsletters; Sam Francis and his long journey (but not as long as one might have thought or hoped) from the Heritage Foundation and the Mises Institute to the crackpot-racist lecture circuit.

Maybe libertarianism never was a school of political thought at all.

Schools of political thought are the work of many hands. Political auteurs—sui generis great-man figures—tend to be dictators such as Napoleon Bonaparte or Henry VIII. Politics that take any account of consensus or pluralism tends to be by nature based on coalition-building, and coalition-building politics, in turn, tend toward consensus and pluralism, at least in many cases and to some degree. (Which isn’t to say that collective leadership is a guarantee of decent policy: The Soviet Union was already a brutal mess before Joseph Stalin got hold of it.)

Schools of political thought may be the product of a kind of apostolic succession (Socrates begets Plato, Plato begets Aristotle) or, in a more practical configuration, coalitions of contemporaries—aligned if not necessarily unanimous—such as the American founders or the leaders of the French Revolution. American conservatives—I mean intellectuals in movement conservatism, not Republican-leaning voters at large—long thought of themselves as being more like the philosophers in succession (National Review still calls its seminar program “From Burke to Buckley,” Edmund Burke and William F. Buckley Jr. being two points defining a line from which Trump-era conservatism, such as it is, departs at a 45-degree angle) and less like members of a political party. Conservatives thought that conservatism meant adherence to a philosophy (or an ideology, if you aren’t allergic to the word) rather than loyalty to a coalition.

But as it has turned out, coalitional loyalty—as expressed through prone self-abasement in the Donald Trump cult—is the defining characteristic of politically engaged conservatism in our time. Funny how that worked out.

Many conservatives, including a few leading neoconservatives, could never quite come around to the Republican Party even in its pre-Trump incarnation, and a great many held the GOP at arm’s length. The libertarians had even less to defend in the way of party apparatus: Either they were a small minority tendency within the Republican Party and the wider conservative movement or they were big fish in the minuscule pond that is the Libertarian Party. (David Koch was each of those things at different points in his career.) The libertarians were free to be thinkers rather than party men, café philosophes rather than street-fighting sans-culottes. And that was fine—provided you didn’t feel some deep and abiding need to be relevant.

Radicalism for the sake of radicalism is, of course, the dead opposite of conservatism.

Without going too far into the factional Kremlinology of the American right, the prefix “paleo” is useful here: Take the paleo-libertarians and the paleo-conservatives back far enough and you are mostly talking about the same people, a motley collection of Taft-ites and Southern agrarians, anti-New Dealers and premature anti-New Dealers, America First-ers, Lindbergh-ites, et al., with Albert Jay Nock representing the better sort and H.L. Mencken and the American Mercury crew the inferior sort. That conjunction gave rise to a style of political rhetoric that was very, very good at providing a little pleasurable frisson to the Chamber of Commerce men. It gave rise to more than that, of course, but that seems to be the part that remains most attractive. It goes nicely with three fingers of 16-year-old Macallan.

The economist Tyler Cowen writes about “mood affiliation,” which he defines as a logical fallacy in which “people are first choosing a mood or attitude, and then finding the disparate views which match to that mood and, to themselves, justifying those views by the mood.” An example from Cowen: “People who see a lot of net environmental progress (air and water are cleaner, for instance) and thus dismiss or downgrade well-grounded accounts of particular environmental problems. There’s simply an urgent feeling that any ‘pessimistic’ view needs to be countered.” In our catastrophizing time, the urge to counter pessimism is much weaker than the urge to counter optimism. It is remarkable how easily people move from one issue to another, from one position to another, from one school of political thought to another, without ever changing in the slightest the underlying emotional scaffolding of their politics.

The most obvious example of that used to be the Cold War-era left and U.S. foreign policy: It didn’t matter what happened, what the issue was, or what the outcome was, as long as you told a story in which the United States ultimately was the villain. Many progressives took a similar attitude toward business: If Americans eat too much sugar, take too many opioids, or take out loans they can never possibly hope to repay, it must be the fault of Big Business, somehow.

On the right, you can see the same thing when it comes to illegal immigrants: Medicare would be fine without the illegals, Social Security would be fine without the illegals, the schools would be fine without the illegals, housing wouldn’t be a problem if not for the illegals, etc. (“I didn’t get a ‘harrumph’ out of that guy!”) Today, the thing that really matters for a certain kind of libertarian-ish crank is that government at many levels was excessively risk-averse and heavy-handed during a worldwide viral epidemic a few years ago. There were things to be learned from the successes and failures of the COVID-19 era. We managed not to learn much—even with all that time on our hands.

And what we have learned is that Grandpa probably needs some real-life friends who can gently tell him how crazy he sounds when he starts going on about Bobby Kennedy and the vaccines. And maybe to forgo that third glass of wine with dinner and to switch off Fox News from time to time. Writing a vicious obituary of libertarian crank Murray Rothbard not very long after the infamous events in Waco, Texas, William F. Buckley was acid: “Yes, Murray Rothbard believed in freedom. And, yes, David Koresh believed in God.” True. But what they both really believed in was believing, that beliefs per se could transform a life and give it meaning.

Does belief transform lives? Does it save them? If you are talking about the career of Jesus of Nazareth, then, yes; if you are talking about the career of Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health, then, no. I know a few people who still take Osho (the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh) very, very seriously. Osho bought a fleet of Rolls Royces with this sort of thing:

The whole of life is dialectical. The logos is dialectical and reason is a process of the same. You can think of it in these terms. Dialectics is heterosexual; reason, rationality, is homosexual. Rationality is homosexual. That’s why homosexuality is growing in the West because the West has accepted Aristotle, reason. Heraclitus is heterosexual. He will include the opposite. If you listen to reason you will be homosexual.

Osho, it bears noting, was not anti-homosexuality, in spite of what you might think from the above. He described homosexuality as “pure fun,” an alternative to “dangerous” heterosexuality; his ideal man was a kind of enlightened sensualist he named “Zorba the Buddha.” Is that sillier than Ayn Rand? More meretricious than Robert F. Kennedy Jr.? It isn’t obvious to me that it is. It is the kind of thing that pushes the same buttons and scratches the same itch, albeit for people with a different sensibility and ethos. (Zorba the Buddha is also the name of a very good vegetarian restaurant run by Osho cultists around the corner from the Taj Mahal.)

If you think I have wandered too far afield here, I haven’t: The point is that it isn’t the doctrine that matters to Americans—it is how reciting the tenets of the doctrine makes them feel. That is why sentimental Evangelical megachurches succeed where all the enlightened scholarly Catholics and upright rigorous Calvinists and others of that ilk fail—in marketing, I mean, not in theology. That is why people who are committed free-market men on Monday morning are Trumpist industry-policy men on Wednesday afternoon and howling at the moon with Bobby Kennedy on Friday night.

It is not the case that if you look long into the abyss of American political idealism that the abyss looks into you—there is nothing there to look back, because there is nothing there to see. Only chaos. Typewriters may be a thing of the past, but we still have Facebook and Elon Musk’s depraved X thing, and here we are, the infinite monkeys trying to work out the Declaration of Independence or Democracy in America or maybe at least a brief poetical account of the life and times and peculiar habits of an old man from Nantucket. Infinite monkeys, monkeying infinitely.

The plague has come and gone, and all we remember is how inconvenient it all was, how it made us feel small and put-upon and bullied. And the people who felt that way weren’t always wrong to feel that way. It just doesn’t matter as much as they think it does. Good stoical republicans don’t worry too much about that sort of thing, don’t drive themselves bonkers obsessive about about what it all means. Others, lacking the benefit of philosophy, require some fixed point in the universe to orient themselves, and that point invariably takes the form of a man. Bobby Kennedy is a damned peculiar choice for an idol, but these are damned peculiar times, and strange things are afoot at the Chamber of Commerce.

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