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An Interview, Conducted by Sebastien Care

Exclusive to Notablog, this interview was conducted by Sebastien Care and published on 17 August 2005.  Comments welcome (post here).

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In this Notablog exclusive, Sciabarra is interviewed by Sebastien Care, French researcher/Ph.D. in Politics, who lives in Rennes, France.  He is preparing a book about the libertarian movement in the United States, and has interviewed some of the most influential American libertarians.

S: Could you tell me more about your involvements in libertarian groups, from the Students for a Libertarian Society (SLS) to your latter commitments?

C:  Back in 1980, President Jimmy Carter reinstituted draft registration, in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  It caused an amazing ripple effect across the political spectrum.  A national group, Students for a Libertarian Society (SLS), was mobilized by Carter's policy and it attracted a number of college libertarians to join a growing coalition of antidraft organizations.  At the head of SLS were such libertarians as Milton Mueller (who convinced me early on to avoid conservative groups like, say, Young Americans for Freedom) and Jeff Friedman (who is the current editor of Critical Review).  At NYU, I became a co-founder of the local SLS group; eventually I was named Chair of the National Student Board. (I met many of my current libertarian colleagues in that organization, including David Beito of Liberty & Power Group Blog.)  And I participated in a major antidraft rally in Washington Square Park, which was mounted in coalition with several left-wing draft resistance groups.  I distinctly remember handing out leaflets to FBI agents in the park; they thought I was just another lefty, I'm sure, but I insisted they take a leaflet, explaining that unlike the others, libertarians actually believed in the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.

S: Have you ever been involved in any other libertarian group?

C:  I was involved with no other libertarian groups in an activist role, but, as a student, I did attend various seminars and conferences run by institutions, such as the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies.

S:  You seem to be quite atypical, to the extent that you seem to be a "follower" of both Rand and Rothbard, while other libertarians always try to choose their side, as if there were an incompatibility between the thoughts of their two "mentors." You seem to prove that the contradiction is not theoretical, but rather personal. Could you tell me more about that?

C:  Well, I do think there is an element of "partisanship" that has infected the overall libertarian movement.  And that is a shame, in many respects, because I do believe that people can benefit from having many "mentors," many teachers.  I suppose that I was trained, from my earliest student days, to respect different perspectives, to "take what I want," as the old Spanish proverb says, and "to pay for it."  That is:  To incorporate lessons from a variety of sources, and to take responsibility for my own integration of those ideas into what I hope is a coherent whole.  My graduate and doctoral thesis advisor was a key mentor as well---Bertell Ollman; he's also a Marxist who encouraged me to write a thesis that dealt with Hayek, Rothbard, and Marx.  The Marx-Hayek sections became Marx, Hayek, and Utopia (SUNY Press, 1995), which was published ten years ago on August 18th 1995; the Rothbard section section became part two of Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism (Penn State Press, 2000).

Ironically, Ollman had great respect for libertarians, such as Rothbard and Leonard Liggio, whom he'd met during his days in the Peace and Freedom Party.  Ollman was also a Volker fellow who studied under Hayek at the University of Chicago.  In many ways, he passed on to me that spirit of ecumenicalism.

S: Could you tell me what you think about the following definition of libertarianism given by Rothbard (who quoted Lord Acton): "a philosophy seeking a policy"?

C:  I think Rothbard was focused primarily on the primacy of principle to libertarianism.  And on that score, he was surely right: Libertarianism is a principled philosophy.  The thing is:  No principle can be disconnected from the context that gives it meaning or from the preconditions that make it possible.  One can't simply "institute" libertarianism in the absence of that context or those preconditions.

S: What does it mean for you, to be a libertarian? Is it possible, for instance, to draw libertarianism's boundaries above which one cannot be considered as a libertarian?

C:  For me, libertarianism is the political aspect of a much wider philosophical and methodological totality; when I speak of "dialectical libertarianism," for example, I do so precisely because I believe that libertarianism can't be disconnected from that wider context.  So, if what you mean by this is that I draw broad boundaries, I suppose the answer is: Yes.  I just think it is crucially important to understand the conditions that make a free society possible, whether these be cultural, social-psychological, or philosophical.  I think we're living under a delusion to think, for example, that it's possible to simply "impose" a nonaggression political principle on Russia or Iraq, while these countries are dripping in collectivism, tribalism, and a history of state-centered political action.  We can't even "impose" it on American society---which has been damaged by an "entitlement" or "welfarist" ideology and political system for many years now.

S: Would you mean that a libertarian society is impossible without libertarian individuals? For instance, I guess you know the metaphor of the button invented by Leonard Read. If there were a button, and if by pushing it, you could remove the State, would you push that button?

C:  I think that the button-pushing scenario is just not realistic; it's a nice mental experiment´┐Żbut things just don't happen that way.  Sure, I'd like to push a button to eliminate all oppression.  But as Rothbard said:  There may be praxeological reasons that would push a society back toward the "hegemonic" principle.  That's why I believe this is first and foremost a cultural battle. This doesn't mean that we need to create the New Libertarian Man or Woman; of course, it is always desirable to have "better" people populating one's society.  But the key here is that there needs to be a predominating cultural tendency toward the acceptance of the principles of libertarian nonaggression at the very least, not to mention a broader acceptance of certain key principles of individual self-responsibility and accountability, which can be aided by reciprocally reinforcing principles of law. I just don't see how any such radical political change happens without the necessary cultural preconditions.  And I don't see how any of this happens with button-pushing.

In truth, conservatives realize that we face major cultural issues; leftists realize that we face major cultural issues.  Only the most "atomistic" libertarian thinker would suggest that eliminating the state would somehow act as a panacea for all issues, including the cultural ones.

Interestingly, I've seen some recent arguments that libertarianism is not a "Marxism of the Right" (see John Coleman's Liberty article). Well, to a certain extent, I think it should be a "Marxism of the right"---in only one fundamental methodological sense:  A genuinely dialectical libertarian social theory must focus on the reciprocal relationships among the forces of culture, social psychology, economics, and politics.  Because genuine social change cannot happen without changes across these many dimensions.

That's why we can't simply "impose" libertarianism on any society.  I have argued for the longest time that one can't "impose" a libertarian society on a given social structure, anymore than one can engage in "democratic nation-building" on a given country, like, for example, Iraq.  The same principle applies to our own society.  It takes a long, profound cultural movement for freedom to triumph and flourish.

S: If we had to divide libertarians into different groups, what kind of libertarian would you be? For instance, are you an anarchist?

C:  I don't consider myself an anarchist.  I went through an anarchist phase---but became somewhat disillusioned with that ideology because too many anarchists I knew were arguing that the elimination of the State was a social panacea.  But minarchists face the same problem. I think these minarchist-anarchist debates are all somewhat beside the point. As I've suggested, this is primarily a cultural battle, not a political or economic one. 

However, I do think that anarchists like Rothbard have made major contributions to our understanding of the welfare-warfare state and its class dynamics.  And I'm not suggesting that anarchism must necessarily drop cultural context.  I simply think there is a lot more work to be done in order to grasp the nature of social change.

S: What would be the best criticisms of libertarianism you have ever seen? In other words, what is the most difficult issue for libertarianism?

C:  Precisely those issues I've already pointed to:  The idea that a purely "political" principle can somehow be implemented and that it can be used as a cure-all.  So those who have criticized libertarianism for this kind of "one-sided" emphasis on politics are onto something, in my view.  Still, there are many libertarian theorists who, at their best, transcend that kind of one-sidedness.  At their best, such libertarian thinkers have been very "dialectical"---as I argue in my book Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism.

S: You criticize the "one-sidedness" of some libertarians. Don't you think that this "one-sidedness" is due to the fact that many libertarians don't really read their criticisms, or at least, don't take them seriously? Do you mean that some libertarians are unfortunately "blind" and dogmatic?

C: What I mean by "one-sidedness" in this context is not that libertarians are isolated or ghetto-ized or insulated.  On average, I'd say most libertarians I know do read their critics---it is very easy to do that, after all, because the critics are omnipresent and plentiful. My comment about one-sidedness deals, instead, with a tendency among some to focus on the state as if it is the focal point of all the problems in human society, such that its elimination would start one great human celebration. But the problem of human oppression is not only political and economic; it is rooted in larger cultural, social-psychological, and philosophical factors that are sometimes obscured by a politics-only or economics-only analysis.

S:  What kind of "dialectic" do you rather advocate? Between libertarians and their critics or between libertarian ideas and reality? What is the mere difference between pragmatism and the dialectic you endorse?

C:  I define "dialectics" as "the art of context-keeping," and what I'm arguing is that libertarians need to move beyond an economics- or politics-centered analysis to embrace a more full-bodied context, that is, a more comprehensive social critique which is as interested in cultural, linguistic, aesthetic, pedagogical, social-psychological, and broadly ethical questions, as it is in politics and economics.

The "dialectic" of which you speak, however, is a more traditional give-and-take conception of dialectics as "dialogue" that is useful, if only because it helps one to broaden one's vantage points, one's perspectives on a problem.  Looking at a problem from many different sides, as is possible in a multisided dialogue, helps one to emerge with a better understanding of how to grapple with it, how to resolve it.  So even the more "traditional" conception of dialectic as "critical dialogue" is one that is related to this essential context-keeping orientation of which I speak.  The more "sides" one engages in the exploration of any social problem, the fewer possibilities there will be that one will obscure or ignore factors that might be critical to its resolution.

S: According to you, what would be the best strategy for achieving a libertarian society? What do you think, for instance, about the right-wing populism advocated by Rothbard?

C: This is a very difficult question; I don't think there is an overall "best" strategy for achieving a libertarian society. The reason for this is that however universal the libertarian ethos might be, it must still be related to a historically specific society, that is, to the conditions of a particular time and place.  One could not adopt the same strategy for achieving a libertarian society here in America as one would in, say, Russia or China. Each country has its own set of social and cultural conditions that must be taken into account when proposing possible libertarian alternatives. In this country, it is very hard to say at this stage---only because the issue of the "war on terror" has predominated the political discourse; it also threatens freedom on a variety of levels.  Given this situation, I think that the "right-wing" is among the very last constituencies with which I'd be apt to cooperate.  I can see the value in building coalitions on both the right and the left on an ad hoc basis, much as Rothbard did as he moved from the Old Right to the New Left to the GOP Buchananites.  But I do think that there are very real problems among those Buchananite right-wingers, despite my occasional agreement with many of Patrick Buchanan's foreign policy pronouncements. I don't believe the right-wing of the Republican Party, which is quasi-theocratic, can, in the long-run, serve the goal of liberty. That speaks to a cultural issue:  I don't believe that fundamentalists of any stripe---be they Christian, Muslim, etc.---are friendly to liberty.

S: What do you think about the Libertarian Party (LP)?

C: It has its usefulness as a pedagogical organization---one that can, by its mere presence, teach people that there is such a thing as a "libertarian" alternative to the conventions of left and right. But I don't see the LP making any significant strides in the context of the US two-party system.  If and when such strides are made, it will probably be because the LP has been co-opted into that system in some way.  I suspect that, given the realities of the political system, it would be a rhetorical co-opting quite apart from any substantive change in the political landscape.

S: How would you explain the low percentage of votes it normally receives?

C: The US is dominated by a two-party system, and it is very, very rare for third parties to make inroads; it has been a long time since parties like the Progressives, for example, made any appreciable difference in an election, though third-party candidates have had some influence over the years.  But that's more about the phenomenon of popular (or populist) personalities, like George Wallace in 1968, or Ross Perot in 1992, or maybe Ralph Nader in 2000, etc.

S: Don't you think that the Libertarian Party results could be considered, at least, as a sort of barometer of libertarianism's popularity?

C: The Libertarian Party serves an educational function for sure, but I don't see it making any substantial inroads in a process that has been so dominated by the Republican and Democratic Parties.  And I'm not even sure that its vote tallies are a proper barometer of the popular impact of libertarian ideas.  For one, many people vote for a third party out of frustration with the two-party choices. One measure of the popular impact of libertarian ideas, however, might be in the extent to which the dominant party candidates ape the rhetoric of libertarianism on things like privatization, drug decriminalization, lower taxes, etc.  But even that is no real measure because the candidates very rarely connect all these dots together:  The typical conservative is more of a free marketer on economic issues, while disdaining civil, social, or personal liberty; the typical liberal is more of a civil libertarian, while advocating government regulation of the economy.  Few favor a fully integrated libertarian political stance.

S: Is there, for you, any issue to which the libertarian philosophy does not give a completely satisfactory answer?

C:  If we restrict libertarianism to a strictly political realm, which is how it is traditionally viewed, it is clearly not designed to answer questions of personal morality, etc.  However, given my own view about a more context-sensitive libertarianism or "dialectical libertarianism," I don't think that questions of personal morality are outside the scope of the political discussion.  They may be tangential to political issues, but they affect politics, sometimes decisively, insofar as they nourish a free society---or undermine it.

S: What could the development of the Internet bring to libertarianism?  Is it just a nice tool for you?

C: I do think it is a very nice tool, but I also think it has a way of democratizing the flow of information. This can potentially affect the discussion so that one might see, throughout the Internet, a more regular appreciation of alternative and dissenting viewpoints.  It is also one of those remarkable examples of the spontaneous development of a parallel institution---in spite of its origins in military networks.  It is certainly something that libertarians should continue to exploit.

S: Are you optimistic about the future of libertarianism?

C: It is very difficult to be optimistic in the midst of war and its related catastrophes; barring any apocalyptic scenarios concerning weapons of mass destruction, it is still going to take a remarkable effort on the part of libertarians to mount the case for liberty, especially when so many politicians are willing to sacrifice liberty in the name of security or of spreading "democracy." But as long as we can continue to speak out, there is hope.  The struggle continues.

S: How do you translate your libertarian beliefs into your daily behavior?

C: At the basis of all free trade, of all free exchange, there are certain implicit virtues:  honesty about the value of one's work and the value one offers to others; integrity; the justice of giving value for value; and so forth.  And most importantly, from a social perspective, an unwillingness to force or coerce others in the exchange of values.

Ayn Rand once said:  "Anyone who fights for the future, lives in it today."  All the more reason to try to embody these principles in one's everyday life to the best of one's ability.

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