Seeing Red

A popular expression for being angry is “to see red.” It gets at an important truth, which is that anger causes a sort of partial blindness. When you put on red-colored glasses, you start to miss important details; grey turns into black.

I would advise Jacob Hornberger to take off those glasses, take a deep breath, and read my essays again. Perhaps then he would stop attributing to me views that I cannot be said to hold, and perhaps then his blows would land on me, and not on the air, or on strawmen.

The idea of military service sends Mr. Hornberger into ludicrous fantasies of armed resistance against the state’s jack-booted thugs, as if such a hypothetical would teach anybody anything; as if that is any sort of defensible response to a democratic law deemed unjust. (Don’t get to close to Mr. Hornberger’s house around tax day, you might catch a stray bullet.)

Mr. Hornberger writes that “no doubt” I believe the state has “omnipotent power” to decide the citizen’s obligations, while linking to the essay where I specifically write that the state loses its legitimacy once it infringes on the citizens’ natural rights. He faults me for not explaining the specific terms of these obligations. The reason, as I wrote, is that it is up to each nation to do so for itself. He takes me to endorse unfettered majority rule when I write that the social contract theory I uphold cannot be held as an open-ended writ for it.

Is Mr. Hornberger really serious when he writes that I “see society as a great big bee hive, one in which everyone exists to serve the greater good of the hive”?

He writes “Where Gobry goes wrong is with his assumption that the state, not the individual, is sovereign.” He could have written “Gobry is a 250 pound woman from Montana” and his readers would be equally well informed.

Through Mr. Hornberger’s monochromatic vision, we see that there are only two kinds of people in the world: libertarians and “statists.”

Either the individual is sovereign, or else the state is. If you are not a libertarian, why, you must believe that society is just a “great big bee hive” and that “slavery” to the state is legitimate. No middle ground! No grey areas! All or nothing!

Libertarians “believe in fundamental, God-given, natural rights that preexist government, rights that are immune from the will of the majority.” That’s very good for them, because so do I. (Would it blow Mr. Hornberger’s mind if I told him most quasi-socialists do, too?)

In the end, Mr. Hornberger has written something that I never could: a very convincing reductio ad absurdum of libertarianism. If libertarianism were really this stunted, Manichean worldview, it would have nothing to recommend in itself.

The libertarianism I admire and learn from is the one of Milton Friedman, empirical, nuanced and uplifting; and of F. A. Hayek, whose starting point is the recognition of the inherent complexity of human affairs and limitations of human beings, one that leads not just to rejecting central planning, but to a fundamental epistemic humility. This humility leads to a belief in the justice of limited government, but also to respect for the institutions that have for so long sustained human flourishing, including community and nation.

Of course, that’s what I would say. After all, I’m a conservative. Maybe I’m wrong. But Mr. Hornberger hasn’t convinced me, nor, I suspect, anybody else who wasn’t already convinced.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry argues that libertarians ought to support compulsory military service, at least in principle, as a means of defending a free society. While it is true that such service entails compulsion, it is also true that the freest peoples in all of history have relied upon it.

    Compulsory service would have some good public choice effects as well. In particular, it would change the incentives in the decision to go to war: When all must bear the sacrifice, wars will be fewer and less deadly. Finally, Gobry notes that our ancestors commonly bore similar burdens, and we owe them a debt of gratitude — one he believes is best discharged by following in their footsteps.

Response Essays

  • In a vehement dissent, Jason Kuznicki argues that the so-called libertarian case for compulsory military service is an illusion. To the ancients, liberty meant something very different, and we should reject their definition, which rests on militarism and compulsion. Our liberty rests on commerce, not on conquest. Taxes are at best a necessary evil, and conscription is always worse than taxation. Moreover, it is not at all apparent how we might settle a debt of gratitude with the past. If we even have one.

  • Zach Maurin argues that what we need now is not universal military service, but universal civilian service. In his proposal, this service will not be legally required, but it will be federally subsidized and available to all who want it. He argues that there are many ways the United States could be made better, and he suggests that civilian service is the way to accomplish these goals, from feeding the hungry, to education, to health care.

  • Jacob Hornberger asks what the advocates of compulsory national service would do with determined resisters: Are they prepared to use force? If resistance continues, are they prepared to kill? Hornberger insists on the moral right to resist coercion, regardless of the nobility of the cause for which it is deployed. To him, it is a question of trust: Can free people be trusted to take care of themselves and their society? Or do they require some coercion? If they are coerced, they are not free, he concludes.