Book/Article Reviews

Engaging—Just Not Radical

Gillespie, Nick, and Welch, Matt. The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong with America. New York: PublicAffairs 2011. Pp. xvi, 266. Index. 978-1-58648-938-0.

The Declaration of Independents is a breezy, entertaining manifesto. Defending “libertarian politics,” Reason’s Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch make clear that they’re for decision-making that’s bottom-up rather than top-down, distributed rather than centralized. They favor the innovation and creativity fostered by the market over the products of sclerotic, ossified monopolies. Entertaining stories about the things that set people free and the positive effects of freedom help to make their point—stories about rock-’n’-roll behind the Iron Curtain and Southwest Airlines’ fight against the government-sponsored air travel cartel, for instance. They celebrate the abandonment of 1950s-style conformism. They emphasize the liberatory potential of new media, and they explore positive reforms in multiple areas—health care, education, and retirement—designed to respond to the impossible financial positions of governments at all levels and the absence of competition-inducing alternatives in key areas of our lives. They call repeatedly not only for independence from the duopoly of Team Red and Team Blue but also for independence from politics itself—for the opportunity to shape life individually rather than in accordance with top-down mandates from the state. I’d much rather live in their world than in the one we inhabit now.

But that leaves open the question whether their vision of libertarianism really covers the most important bases.

For instance: while Gillespie and Welch rightly note the fiscal crisis the US government is doing its best to ignore, they pay relatively little attention to the military budget—which, if Robert Higgs is right, totals over $1 trillion. (They refer to “monstrously bloated military appropriations, many of which have no effect on actually defending the nation’s citizens and borders” [204] and they realize that the Iraq war has proven to be an “expensive mistake[]” [208], but they don’t develop this idea in detail.)

As an anarchist, I’d like nothing at all to be operated by the state—especially the military. But it should be clear even to non-anarchists that a global empire of bases, a multi-front war in the Middle East, the continued development of offensive weapons designed to devastate noncombatant populations, and countless other features of the military budget are pointless or worse (again, Gillespie and Welch aren’t oblivious [229], but the point doesn’t seem centrally important to them). Maintaining even a government-run military (something which, again, I oppose) genuinely designed to defend the territory of the United States against attack might require spending a tenth of the existing budget for the Pentagon and related functional areas on an annual basis—or even less (especially if the vision, popular with many of the Founders, of military defense on land provided by the militia rather than a standing army were revivified). And ending the US government’s global military presence would doubtless dramatically reduce the risk of attacks on Americans at home and abroad, which would reduce the need for expenses in a variety of areas.

The problems with the global American empire aren’t just economic, of course—they’re moral. US government wars involve tremendous quantities of unjust violence, harming noncombatants, as well as combatants whose only crime is that they don’t like to be invaded and occupied. It’s unfortunate that the sheer immorality of most modern warfare doesn’t figure in the analysis Gillespie and Welch offer.

It’s also unfortunate that they fail to note the impact of intellectual property laws both on wealth concentration and on the positions of the old media companies whose deleterious influence they rightly decry. Similarly, IP doesn’t figure in their discussion of the costs of health care, despite its effects on the pricing of drugs and medical devices. And they note the impact of occupational licensure on health care options and costs only very obliquely (198-99). They express the hope, as an aside, that one of their children might be able to “build[] a house without having to apply for a zoning variance” (231), but they decline to underscore the injustice and the effect on poverty of the petty tyranny expressed in zoning ordinances and building codes. They rightly decry corporate bailouts, but they seem disinclined to treat the Federal Reserve as a serious problem. Civil liberties, especially in connection with the drug war, get some attention (Gillespie and Welch effectively acknowledge the objectionable character of “holding suspected terrorists indefinitely or even killing them outright without anything resembling due process” [211])—but not very much.

The Declaration of Independents seems primarily focused on evoking a libertarian style of thinking about culture and politics. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the American libertarian movement, and Americans generally, would benefit from an accessible libertarian manifesto that emphasized the sheer awfulness of aggressive war, the injustice of empire, the inequitable rapacity of IP profiteers, and not only the venality and inefficiency but also the general destructiveness and villainy of monopolistic government. Gillespie and Welch have shown that they’re perfectly capable of writing that manifesto. I’ll wait for their next book.

  • I agree that much of the US military empire is wasteful, immoral and destructive of the interests of even Americans – along with others of course.

    But I have a question:  Under what circumstances does some collection of cooperating individuals constitute a state?  I ask this because libertarians seem to make a lot of heavy weather over states or governments, and reserve some special category of outrage and opprobrium for these states.    But if neither the US government nor other governments were in the business of building and operating military organizations, then I assume lots of other folks would step into the vacuums created and build military organizations of their own .  Now some of these other groups might be even more awful than the governments.  Or they might not be.   But would they be states unto themselves?  If not, what is the difference?   And under what circumstances should people conclude that the military and security organizations that actually exist are preferable, warts and all, to the forms of organized or disorganized violence and coercive pressure that would surely proliferate in the absence of those forms that presently exist and dominate the present landscape?

    • pjg9g

      “Under what circumstances does some collection of cooperating individuals constitute a state?” I would say, and I’d love to see if others agree, that a group of individuals constitutes a state when it designates certain uses of coercive force as morally imperative. I personally am not an anarchist, and I believe that the State can play a valuable role in actually aiding personal liberty through prudent threats of coercive force. However, it is entirely possible to take a hard line view against any moral imperative to use force.

      • Anonymous

        I think the following definition of a state is pretty mainstream amongst libertarians. An entity is a state when (i) it claims a monopoly of legitimate force in a particular area and (ii) uses nonconsensual taxation to fund itself. Hope this helps. 

  • dL
  • Anonymous

    I’ve been discussing the military expenditure topic a lot recently among friends. I think your 10% number is just about right. We could spend much less even than that if we needed to, but we could be essentially invulnerable for 10% of the current budget. Perhaps we would be even less vulnerable than we are today. How I would love to see that on the policy checklist of either major party: “Reduce all military spending to $100B in two years.” That would rank right up there with “Allow foreign oil to become as expensive as it wants.” Perhaps the free market could do what the past eight presidents have been unable to, and wean us off the stuff.

    So far, no one I’ve discussed this with has been able to produce a military scenario endangering the U.S. that even they thought plausible enough to mention – at the 10% spending level. The biggest objection has been the economic impact of dismantling the plate-glass industry and the plight of all those glaziers. I mean, dismantling the military industrial complex and the plight of all those servicemembers.