Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Buckley on Rothbard.

I'm too young for Bill Buckley to have been an acquaintance. The best I can say is that he was a friend of a friend of a friend. Such distance does not preclude admiration, at least not of a man's clear strengths.

Buckley, or at least the public Buckley, was at his best when looking for the faults of others. Consider his 1995 National Review obituary of Murray Rothbard, a balanced piece with two real zingers:

Murray couldn't handle moral priorities.

It was a great pity, but his problem ought not to be thought of as tracing to the seamless integrity of libertarian principles. In Murray's case, much of what drove him was a contrarian spirit, the deranging scrupulosity that caused him to disdain such as Herbert Hoover, Ronald Reagan, Milton Friedman, and--yes--Newt Gingrich, while huffing and puffing in the little cloister whose walls he labored so strenuously to contract, leaving him, in the end, not as the father of a swelling movement that "rous[ed] the masses from their slumber," as he once stated his ambition, but with about as many disciples as David Koresh had in his little redoubt in Waco. Yes, Murray Rothbard believed in freedom, and yes, David Koresh believed in God.

One has trouble finding a more astute criticism of Rothbard-style libertarianism (not to be confused with Rothbardian anarcho-capitalism), this "purism" which consists of inventing bumper-sticker scruples, then throwing a fit when reality, sense, or ethics causes one to deviate from the last moment's invention by some tiny epsilon, or worse still, to reject the scruple but not the underlying values. Believe that pressing the "button" to get rid of all government overnight would be disastrous and even morally wrong? You're a socialist, no better than Hitler or Stalin: out you go! Believe that "self-ownership" is sophist's hooey? You're even worse. The guru's own weirdness, of course, gets a free pass.

This is the "libertarianism" of LP chair candidate Ernest Hancock, of presidential candidates Christine Smith and Barry Hess, and of numerous lumpen activists in the movement and the Party, including quite a few involved in the center of downmarket libertarianism down at Auburn. (Lincoln apologist? Must be a socialist!) To Hancock and the rest, Buckley's words still apply today.

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