When I was a lass (I am about to date myself), communism was dying on its feet, a system of failure for the ages. Not only was it murderous (something most systems have been throughout history), but even when moderated after Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin, it was unworkable, inefficient, and unrealistic.
And yet, when I was 15 or so and degree-hunting, one of my most vivid memories is visiting various university campuses and towns in Australia and the UK and spotting them: the Marxists, I mean. People selling beige, dog-eared books (The Communist Manifesto, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism, etc) that emanated from “Progress Publishing” in Moscow and later Beijing. The Marxist stall-staffers couldn’t be more doctrinaire: what they were telling me was ‘scientific’, ‘proven’, and ‘consistent’.
It was also stark raving mad.
I have had cause to remember the loopy Marxists of my youth in recent times: when I’ve witnessed doctrinaire libertarians make utter, utter noodles of themselves in debates with either saner libertarians (as happened to our own Rachel Burger, on foreign policy), or make airy pronouncements indicating they are unaware that other disciplines even exist. The latter piece is particularly annoying, because there is an entire tradition (legal positivism) that argues, persuasively, and with a great deal of empirical evidence to back it up, that there is a general duty to obey the law. That means that yes, you may well think a given law is unjust or wrong and choose to disobey it, but if you live in a Western democracy, then you have to take the rap when you do.
So there is a serious argument that Edward Snowden, while in the right in exposing his government’s creation of a surveillance state, is wrong to run away to an ugly, gay-bashing autocracy. There is also a serious argument that, in doing what he did, he was in fundamental breach of contract and ought to accept the consequences of that breach, as should Chelsea Manning. Those arguments cannot be dismissed lightly or held to be somehow ‘unlibertarian’ (assertions I have seen made in a number of places this week). For what it’s worth, I agree with the first but disagree with the second, but I still recognize that it has force.
For me, what gives classical liberalism its salience is its consistent refusal to engage in the same airy theorizing that made (and makes) Marxism such nonsense. Not for nothing are most leading libertarians economists, people forced by their discipline to evince a resonant respect for the world as it is.
One final point: the historic ‘fusionist’ alliance between classical liberals and conservatives is rightly coming apart. However, as it moves closer to many of the ideals associated with the political left, libertarianism needs to take one bit of conservatism with it. It needs to respect reality, and not fall into the trap (common on the left) of thinking one can change people or systems by sheer force of will. That way lies madness, and possibly worse.