Why I am Not a Libertarian

I did not haphazardly choose Cato as the inspiration for this blog’s name or for my pseudonym. Both the historical Cato as well as the collective of Gordon and Trenchard are inspirational figures. The latter, in particular, are truly the forerunners of the American Revolution and the ideals of the early American republic. These are ideals that, I believe, have been abandoned by the majority of Americans on both sides of the spectrum.

I am not a libertarian, though I am about as close to being one as you could be without actually being one. Am I a classical liberal? Perhaps that’s a better descriptor. Whatever the case may be, I have never been a full-fledged libertarian, and so-called libertarians do their damndest to regularly remind me why I never will be one. Two recent controversies remind me why.

Let’s take the more serious issue first. Recent anti-abortion bills have passed in Georgia and Alabama. The former prohibits abortion once a heartbeat has detected. Alabama’s law is more sweeping, completely banning abortion except in cases where the mother’s life is at risk.

There are prudential reasons even pro-lifers object to these laws. These laws will almost certainly be struck down by lower courts, and there is no guarantee that the Supreme Court will take up the cases. And if it did, there’s a better than even chance that the Supreme Court will not vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.  Clarence Thomas is arguably the only bedrock certain vote against Roe, though Alito would likely join him, as Gorsuch probably would. Justice Kavanaugh and especially Chief Justice Roberts, however, seem to be of the judicial temperament that would incline them against overturning Roe. Therefore we’re back to the drawing board, and arguably we could take a step back.

David French is one of the few voices against restraint, and I agree with him. I think he’s particularly correct in suggesting that instead of simply upholding Roe and laying the hammer down on these states, the justices could work out a middle-ground that modifies the Casey decision. While Kavanaugh and Roberts are temperamentally conservative jurists, I would guess they also do not agree with the Roe decision. I don’t think they would vote to uphold it, full-stop.

While I might understand these prudential concerns, I am much more distressed by some of the feedback from the larger pro-life community. Here’s one example, from Guy Benson.

“I’m pro-life but a bill that actually bans abortion is too extreme.” What? This is incoherent to me. This is more than a pragmatic objection and gets to the heart of the debate. If you’re pro-life, then what exactly are you supposed to be fighting for? This isn’t some debating society thought experiment we’re talking about. The ultimate aim of the pro-life movement is to, you know, ban abortion. This may come as a surprise to some people who call themselves pro-life, but pro-lifers view unborn children as human beings endowed with the right to live. An abortion is thus the deliberate taking of human life. This is not some icky thing we disapprove of but otherwise tolerate legally because we recognize humans must be free to act as they choose. That freedom to choose ends when that choice necessitates killing another person. This is one of the basic building blocks of human society, and I thought it was a sentiment shared by all pro-lifers. Evidently not, because when confronted by the logical conclusion of their position, they are suddenly balking.

Others, however, don’t even bother trying to defend the sanctity of life. The twitter user by the name of neontaster offers up what I think is the position of many libertarians:

So let’s get this straight – it’s not a life deserving of legal protection unless it can survive outside the womb. Of course, this is an even more obscure standard than the heartbeat standard. Medical advances continually reduce the age by which fetuses can survive outside the womb. Fetsuses as young as 21 weeks have now survived. So is the standard the lowest possible age a fetus can live outside the womb? The lowest typical age it is likely to survive?

Aside from being an impossible standard to apply, it’s not logical from a moral and legal standpoint. Either the fetus is a human life or it is not. Its dependence on the mother for continued existence doesn’t diminish this reality.I won’t even get into argument that, taken to its logical conclusion, this would be an argument for permitting the murder of any child up to about age 18, or any special needs child, or anyone dependent on another life. I’ll grant neontaster’s distinction about the ability to live outside the womb, although logically this distinction doesn’t really add up when you think about it. If the child cannot survive without my ability to nurture it, how does that make it any less dependent? Sure, a mother can beg off once the child is born, but the child is still dependent for quite a long time. But, again, for the sake of argument I’ll just grant this distinction. It still fails to address the fundamental humanity of the unborn child. A legal standard that permits abortion as long as the child cannot live outside of the mother’s womb is still a legal standard that permits murdering human life. There is no law if this is law.

Unfortunately this is the standard argument of many libertarians. Some, such as Rand Paul, reject this form of thinking, but they are in the minority. As long as libertarians cherish bodily autonomy at the expense of defending human life, then this is a movement I want no part of.

Another issue where I depart from libertarians, at least in part, is on foreign policy. A kerfuffle surrounding Senator Tom Cotton’s remarks about potential war with Iran is what reminds me of the extremism of the libertarian position. Here is a link to a tweet in which the video is embedded.

Cotton is asked if we could win a war with Iran, and he replied, instantly, that we would. He adds, “Two strikes. The first strike and the last strike.” In the rest of the clip he then clarifies that he does not in fact want war with Iran. The question which was postulated was based on a scenario in which Iran struck us or our allies first. Cotton makes it very clear that he doesn’t want war and wants to exhaust every peaceful solution possible. He things regime change ought to happen, but that it isn’t going to come because we sparked a war with Iran. His response, again, was predicated on whether we would win the war.

This naturally outraged many who accused Cotton of being some neocon warmonger.

Cotton’s “two strikes” comments are admittedly worrisome. A particularly negative interpretation is that he’s talking about nuclear strikes. If not, he is perhaps widely over-estimating the ease with which we would win a military confrontation with Iran. Whichever interpretation you go with, Cotton’s remarks on this score merit criticism. But beyond that, the blowback is hysterical.

First of all, there seems to be a wide contingent of Americans who seem offended by the notion that someone would dare to be confident about America’s military capabilities. Yes, how dare a sitting US Senator think America could win a war – the nerve of the guy. Better for Senator Cotton to respond that America would curl into the fetal position and immediately surrender were Iran to attack us. That’s the sort of 21st century American spirit we have come to know and love.

The rest of the criticism comes from those who have not seemingly watched the entire clip – in other words, the overwhelming majority commenting on it. To accuse Cotton of being some kind of neocon warmonger based on these remarks is a calumny. He does not in any way indicate some desire for pre-emptive war. But to an increasing number of Americans – both on the libertarian side and for large swathes of the right – any mention of military action, even theoretically, sends them into paroxysms of rage. To even think about a military action, even a theoretical one based on the idea that we’ve been attacked by a foreign power, is basically the same thing as wanting to just bomb every country in existence.

Noah Rothman doesn’t exactly address this specific video, but he writes about this general sentiment in Commentary. He shoots down this notion that there’s just some large neoncon cabal itching to fight endless wars.

Rothman is hardly a fan of this administration, but he gets it right. While the Trump administration (and one would think any rational human being) wants regime change in Iran, military action to achieve it would be counter-productive.

Sadly our conversations around foreign policy seem to assume there are only two options: Paulite isolationism or McCain-like bellicosity. There are, in fact, other approaches. A reasonable approach – okay, my approach – is to be incredibly circumspect about military action without completely abandoning the possibility that we might, as a last resort, have to engage militarily with other countries. Discussing the potential of what might happen were we to engage in military conflict doesn’t mean you’re actively pursuing that agenda.

Again, not all libertarians necessarily subscribe to the extremist “don’t even think about it” approach to potential military entanglements, but this is certainly the view of the overwhelming majority. What’s more, for some it seems to go beyond mere principled opposition to military conflict and becomes an almost paranoid fear of the subject, and even a subtle deprecation of the American military.

I’m sympathico with much of the libertarian agenda, but these are just some of the reasons why I will never be a libertarian myself.


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