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Will Wilkinson


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Liberalism, Libertarianism, and the Illiberal Security State

Henry Farrell’s thorough levelling of Sean Wilentz’s charge against Snowden, Assange, Greenwald and their ilk–that they are driven by a suspiciously libertarian animosity to the liberal state–put me in mind of a thought that’s been rattling around my noggin for a while, which is this: the actually-existing, so-called liberal state is impossible to justify on the mundane liberal terms most intellectuals claim to accept. But this is generally overlooked, and I blame libertarianism. Not really. I blame confused liberals. Libertarianism has only antagonized them into confusion.

Libertarianism, as it’s generally taught and understood, isn’t a philosophy of government so much as an argument against the possibility of legitimate government. Libertarians tend to reject standard justifications of political authority. Liberals, who wish to defend the possibility of a legitimate state, have become accustomed to rebutting such libertarian arguments. Of course, it’s crazily illogical to reason that the actually existing state is justified on liberal terms just because the libertarian critique of the state is false, and a legitimate liberal state is possible. That’s really silly. Yet I feel like I’m running into this sort of reasoning all the time. There’s something about the libertarian-liberal dialectic that leads liberals to confuse the identification of the illegitimate, illiberal practices of the actually-existing state with the libertarian argument against the very possibility of legitimate state.

I guess it’s not so hard to see what that something might be. The existence of unacceptably illiberal practices of actual “liberal” states raises a perfectly good question about whether it is realistic to expect states to refrain from these practices, or whether there’s something in the basic logic of the state that tends inevitably toward the abuse of power. Simply admitting that this is a good question seems to play rhetorically into the hands of libertarians, something the champions of the possibility of the good state are loath to do.

But liberals ought to be able to stand their ground better than this. It is a little puzzling to me how seldom one hears liberals argue that standard policies of state secrecy, as they are actually implemented, run afoul of standard democratic theories of legitimacy in a very straightforward way. Or maybe it’s not so puzzling.

Liberals and socialists often accuse libertarians, not without justice, of acting as unwitting apologists for plutocracy. Many free-marketeers do have a bad habit of confusing our unjustifiably rigged political economy with a very different laissez faire ideal, and their defenses of the actually-existing “free enterprise system” really do redound to the benefit of those the system is rigged to enrich. Likewise, liberals do have a bad habit of confusing actual, nominally liberal states with a very different liberal ideal, and their defenses of the actual “liberal state” do tend to redound to the benefit of the insidiously illiberal segments of the state that cannot be justified or accounted for on almost any standard liberal theory of legitimacy. The point being that too many “liberals” are really conservative apologists for the status quo political order, just as too many “libertarians” are really conservative apologists for the status quo economic order.

One thing we have learned from the Wikileaks and Snowden controversies is that the defense of the illiberal activities of the actually-existing state cuts across superficial partisan lines, and that the dominant political philosophy of both American parties is a venerable ideology of realpolitik imperial supremacy that deploys the rhetoric of liberalism as pacifying propaganda and recasts the completely mundane application of basic liberal-democratic principles–the kind at work in the activities of Wikileaks and Snowden–as irresponsibly adolescent, anarchical, and even libertarian (eww!) challenges to the very idea of the liberal state. “Liberal” apologists for the actually-existing criminal state spook actual liberals from the practice of actual liberalism by insinuating darkly that any doubts about the liberal legitimacy of the security state probably make you a loathsome, possibly racist Paultard. In any case, that’s the thrust of Wilentz’s TNR piece.

However, the fact is, mundane liberalism is flatly incompatible with the security state as we know it. That anyone spurred to action against the illiberal security state by the democratic jusificatory ethos of mundane liberalism has come to seem a little “libertarian,” and may even therefore confess some personal “libertarian” sympathies, suggests to me a problem with “liberalism” as it is embodied in actual political discourse and practice. It suggests that liberalism is effectively a corrupt form of statist institutional conservatism, and that the democratic justificatory ethos of mundane liberalism has somehow survived within the ethos of “libertarianism,” even if, as an explicit doctrinal matter, libertarians are generally hostile to the ideas of democracy and the legitimate liberal state. It’s nice that libertarians have kept liberalism alive, but it would be even nicer if it were possible for liberals to espouse liberalism without therefore being confused for libertarians.