A Time for Liberty

by James Ostrowski

Political Class Dismissed book cover
"Rightful liberty is unobstructed action, according to our will, within limits drawn around us by the equal rights of others." - Thomas Jefferson

The job of an orator is to discern events in their beginnings, foresee what is coming, and forewarn others. - Demosthenes

These do not appear to be good times to be a libertarian or classical liberal. We are at war, war is the health of the state, and there's no end in sight. The terrorist attacks were blamed on too little intervention abroad and too much freedom at home. A major industry was recently bailed out by the state with virtually no debate, and this was done by a supposedly conservative House of Representatives and President, to say nothing of the totalitarian legislation being introduced on a daily basis.

The failures of our foreign policy interventions have not, as one might expect, been the cause for serious re-evaluation in the corridors of power. Quite the contrary. Our power elites are stirring the pot for massive and unprecedented and dangerous foreign adventures.

One recalls what Ludwig von Mises said about the reaction of politicians and pundits to failed economic interventions: "The failures of the interventionist policies do not in the least impair the popularity of the implied doctrine. They are so interpreted as to strengthen, not to lesson, the prestige of these teachings."

There is good news, however, if only we look beneath the surface and beyond the present. What the American people want is peace, freedom, prosperity and security. To paraphrase the farmer from Maine, I'm afraid you can't get there from neoconservatism. Only libertarianism and classical liberalism appear to offer coherent answers to the most pressing questions.

How did we get into this mess?

Any way you look at it, we got into this mess because our own government and other governments have not exactly followed the principles of minimal state Jeffersonian/libertarian republicanism. We have trusted the United States government to protect the homeland, and use its "intelligence" to ferret out enemies, but all the while we were left vulnerable. Even worse, the US government has created breeding grounds for terrorism by actively intervening in the Middle East for at least fifty years. As the result of these intrusions, millions of Arabs and Muslims hate our guts and thousands of them want to kill us.

Neoconservatives say these people are ignorant and crazy and deluded fanatics, and I say, they do exist, do they not? You say, but many of our military actions have been on behalf of Muslims (Kosovo, Kuwait). And I say, you remind me of a guy who keeps sending flowers to a certain lady who keeps turning him down for a date. What is it about "Get the hell out of here!" that you don't understand?

Neoconservatives never cease to remind us that some Muslims apparently celebrated the destruction of the World Trade Center. They fail to see the real significance of this. Evidently, these Muslims believe American foreign policy has not been favorable to them. There are two possible explanations for this. Either U. S. foreign policy has been unfair to them, or it has been fair, but for a variety of reasons, they are absolutely certain it has been unfair. It really doesn't matter whether, in some scientific objective sense, this feeling is justified. Those who wander into far corners of the world take the risk that they will be misunderstood. What matters is that, as the result of our numerous interventions into the Middle East, the United States has made millions of enemies, enemies who form an infrastructure for terrorism.

The traditional libertarian foreign policy is non-intervention and neutrality. This was recommended by Washington and Jefferson and expounded more recently by the modern libertarian tradition. The point is not that we think foreign states are sacrosanct. Murray Rothbard, in particular, thought most were murderous kleptocracies. No, the case for non-intervention is based on hard-nosed realism:

What about cases where a state is clearly attacking, even murdering, its own citizens? The libertarian would urge the citizens of that country, using their right to bear arms, to overthrow the despots. Notice that the right to bear arms, only fully respected by libertarians, is the key to preventing and remedying such a state's terrorism against its own citizens. Gun controllers all along the political spectrum proffer a clumsy solution: Other states, far, far away, which do have the right to bear arms, will come to the rescue after a couple of hundred thousand have been killed. There has got to be a Nobel Peace Prize waiting for anyone who claims to have authored that neat doctrine. Bill Clinton?

Libertarians have no objection to private individuals from other countries assisting in the effort, with their own money, guns, and bodies. What we object to is such sympathizers using the government designed to protect our rights, to force us to spend our own money and bodies (conscription), or the bodies of our troops, defending the citizens of other countries. When in the course of domestic policy-making, discrete private interests use the state to impose costs on the general public for their own selfish desires, we have no problem applying special interest group analysis and condemning the practice. We have been fairly blind, however, to the phenomenon of special interest group politics operating on foreign policy.

Some segments of the population, for historical, religious, or ethnic reasons, have an attachment to some foreign country. They use the federal government to assist that country at the expense of their fellow citizens who are either indifferent or hostile to the interests of the foreign state. Using others against their will to achieve one's goals is as reprehensible in foreign policy as it is in domestic policy or in private life generally. These special interest group foreign policy interventions, like their domestic counterparts, tend to snowball, both by example and by way of their unintended negative effects. Government creates its own demand.

What exactly is the mess we are in?

Obscured by a motley crew of seemingly disparate ideologies, the basic political divide is between those who believe that individuals should be free to live and act according to their own judgment (e.g., Jefferson), and those who think that people should be compelled to live according to the judgment of those in charge of the ruling collective or government (e.g., Mussolini). Alone among political philosophies, libertarianism supports the liberty of the individual. All other ideologies affirm the efficacy of centralized force, differing only in degree or emphasis.

Regardless of how they describe themselves, or for what particular reasons they wish to push people around, all non-libertarians can be counted on in the end to join forces to oppose the dangerous concept that individuals have the right to control their own bodies, minds, and property. For example, conservatives signed onto the welfare state lest they lose the power they needed to force people to be good and to fight their global crusade against communism. Liberals, fearful of being seen as soft on communism, lose power and not be able to create the "Great Society", decided to fight the commies in Viet Nam. Now, another conservative sell-out: the real reason George H. W. Bush reneged on his "no new taxes" pledge was to gain liberal support for the Gulf War. Finally, another liberal sellout: liberals like Charles Rangel signed onto the drug war, again, so as not to lose the political power they needed to expand the war on poverty. By the way, they called it a "war" on poverty because the original warriors wanted to apply the methods they used fighting WWII to the problem of domestic poverty.

As these examples illustrate, superficial differences between and among various ideologies on the basis of the kinds of government intervention they favor, are essentially illusory. All government intervention – foreign, cultural, or economic – involves the use of force to transfer life, liberty or property from some people to others, causing negative consequences for the victimized group, and leading to demands for further intervention to remedy the problems caused by the initial intervention. Support for intervention in one area, by reinforcing the principle that force is an efficacious means of solving human problems, tends to legitimize intervention in other policy areas. Since illibertarians believe in the use of aggressive force in principle, they lack a principled basis for opposing its use even in ways that make them uncomfortable.

Since power is their ultimate premise, conservatives and liberals will logroll over liberty to maintain their power. In the end, we got all the bad stuff even though certain groups paid lip service against each program: Cold War, hot war, war on poverty, drug war. Notice that all these wars were brought to you by a coalition government of liberals and conservatives and featured massive centralized state coercion aimed at preventing Americans from living their lives as they wished. You cannot trust a liberal or a conservative to advance liberty. In the end, they will always pick power over principle and power over you.

It is no wonder then that libertarians tend not to be elected to office and libertarian ideas tend not to influence policy. Libertarianism is not simply one of a number of competing political philosophies along with conservatism, liberalism, neoconservatism, neoliberalism, Greenism, communism, and socialism. In reality, those groups form a solid front against the libertarian agenda. Because all non-libertarian groups work together to oppose liberty in practice, it is fair to group them together as one de facto ideology.

What shall we call this broad-based statist coalition? It is apparent that there are two basic political mindsets: libertarian and fascist, the latter term being used here in its colloquial sense to mean imposing your will on others. Even a more academic definition is not far from my usage. Fascism involves "the glorification of the state and the total subordination of the individual to it. The state is defined as an organic whole into which individuals must be absorbed for their own and the state's benefit." (Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.) Sounds like America at war. Or FDR's first inaugural address:

If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we can not merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. This I propose to offer, pledging that the larger purposes will bind upon us all as a sacred obligation with a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife." (Emphasis added.)

The fascists of all parties have put their faith in the agency of massive centralized force – the state. Now, the essential vulnerability of the strongest state ever created has been demonstrated. That demonstration challenges the core of modern political thought – the notion that peace can be secured only by giving the state a monopoly on the use of force.

Yet another casualty on September 11th was Hobbes' Leviathan, the bible of the modern state. Mr. Leviathan, our formerly "mortal god to which we owe...our peace and defence", you are no longer able to secure that "peace and defense" (as if you ever were), because you no longer have the "natural force" to subdue all your enemies. You no longer have the "common power to keep them all in awe." Rather, you are now in awe at the ability of your enemies to strike back at you.

The modern state is magnificent at destroying people and things. It is, however, largely incapable of preventing others from destroying people and things other than by the threat of retaliation. When the destroyer can remain anonymous, the threat of retaliation does not deter. Also, when the destroyer is willing to commit suicide or be executed or serve a long prison term, the state is incapable of deterring that person.

If the state can no longer use force without catastrophic retaliation from its enemies, its original premise – the efficacy of monopoly force – must be seriously questioned. If an unemployed ex-army man can respond to the state's paramilitary assaults at Waco and Ruby Ridge with far greater destruction at Oklahoma City; if a crazed chemist can mail three envelopes and close Washington D. C. for a week; if 19 fanatics with box cutters can devastate a nation, is it not the case that the state's power has been checkmated?

Private Sector versus Public Sector Terrorism
Relative Efficiencies
  9/11 Attacks US Air War on Serbia
duration one day 78 days
cost $500,000* $4 billion*
personnel 19 36,000*
tools box cutters, airline tickets F-16s, Cruise missiles, B-52s
casualties 4,500* 6,500*
property destroyed $30 billion* $30 billion*
*Estimates based on a variety of sources including BBC News.

The modern nation-state is like the dinosaurs moments after a gigantic comet struck the earth 65 million years ago. They are still the biggest, strongest creatures in the neighborhood, but they are doomed to extinction because the environment has suddenly and radically changed. They are too stupid to realize their days are numbered. They go merrily on their way, thinking nothing has changed, bumbling, stumbling, and stomping around.

The problem is then that the state no longer has an effective monopoly on the use of force, but its leaders and allies refuse to acknowledge this. They continue to exercise their aggressive powers as they have done for hundreds of years. It is difficult to imagine a more dangerous situation.

How do we get out of it?

In theory, this is the easy part. Once we understand the problem and how we got into it, the solution should be easy. In reality, the solution will be difficult to enact. Many benefit from the current regime. Many have invested lifetimes in ideas that are now obsolete. It is a huge blow to the ego to admit that your fervently held beliefs were wrong all along. Yet, it must be done. Emerson said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesman and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do." These days, a foolish consistency could be fatal. Ideas must change to accommodate to the new reality. If bad ideas don't die, good people will.

Libertarians, unlike all other political points of view, have a cogent and coherent theory of terrorism. Terrorists talk back to the modern state using the language the modern state has taught them: force and violence and murder and terror. Only a fool would deny that the modern state in the last 100 years murdered, tortured and maimed over 150 million people in pursuit of its nefarious goals. Throughout the 20th century, the modern state ran a tuition-free clinic in terrorism. In this unique context, please allow a breach of decorum as I quote from a speech I delivered on September 4, 1993:

Now I contend that – and the building I used to go in every day was nearly blown up in the New York, the World Trade Center [Feb. 23, 1993] – I contend that learning by government example is the root cause of most terrorism. Terrorists, sometimes victims themselves of various forms of state tyranny – simply adopt the violent methods of the governments that plague them. Private citizens learn moral lessons from big government by example and by rationale. Those who learn by observing, see the government using violence to achieve its goals. Those who learn by thinking a little bit beneath the surface, learn that violence is necessary when you cannot accomplish your goals by rational persuasion. Either way, the message is the same: force works, use it!

And they do. Our best chance to stop private sector terrorism is to stop public sector terrorism. Governments must accept the principle that they are bound by the same rules of morality binding on private individuals: no more lying, cheating, stealing, and murdering. As Victor Hugo wrote: "Increasing the magnitude of a crime cannot be its diminution. If to kill is a crime, to kill much cannot be an extenuating circumstance. If to steal is a shame, to invade cannot be a glory."

We must immediately adopt a foreign policy of non-intervention and neutrality. We must bring the troops home. Most can be released with our thanks into the private sector. Some can be deployed actually defending the country at home.

This agenda will be difficult to enact. Inertia, the 100-year-old interventionist mindset, and a variety of special interest group pressures stand in the way. The first priority must be to disabuse people of the notion that our foreign interventions have been necessary to secure the free flow of oil. In truth, the only thing that threatens the free flow of oil is our senseless foreign policy. If the United States was neutral among the disputants in the Middle East, none of the oil-producing states there would be inclined to use oil as a political weapon against us. The simple fact is that those who possess oil can either drink it, burn it, or sell it. Certainly, the dictatorships that control large amounts of oil will try to manipulate the market to gain the highest price. One can only hope that ultimately these dictatorships are overthrown from within and the oil deposits returned to private ownership. Even if they are not, in the long-run, the free market, that amazing repository of the creativity of humanity, will defeat any energy cartel.


While the benefits of this program should be felt immediately, we will still have to deal with the lingering remnants of terrorism for several years. As with any major change of policy, it takes time for the consequences to be fully realized. For example, years from now, we may still face terrorist retaliation for the innocent people killed by our "smart bombs" in Serbia and Afghanistan.

The libertarian program gives us our best hope of defending against residual domestic terrorism. One of the founding fathers of the modern libertarian movement, F. A. "Baldy" Harper wondered why, if freedom is good for dealing with the challenges of life, it must be curtailed during emergencies such as wars? He believed, correctly, that it is during emergences that we need our freedom the most.

For example, we most urgently need a free market when facing wartime shortages. The market is the perfect means for rationing, through the price system, scarce resources, and encouraging, through the profit mechanism, the future production and distribution of scarce goods and services. The fascist method for dealing with shortages is disastrous price controls. Price controls increase shortages and cause distortions in the market with goods and services not reaching those who most urgently desire them and are willing to pay higher prices. They also reduce the incentive for increased production of scarce goods by reducing expected profits and by destroying the information pipeline to producers, that is, the price system.

There is no reason to think the state can handle any other terrorist or war-related emergencies better than free individuals cooperating in a free market based on property rights. The state is responding to this emergency with its usual set of tools: increased spending, inflation, reducing individual freedom, regimentation of the population, roadblocks, magnetometers, and the like. If a hammer is your only tool, every problem begins to look like a nail.


The state is punishing the entire public in an inept effort to stop a few fanatics from terrorizing us. No terrorist has laid a hand on me since September 11th. I wish I could say the same about government agents. Due to the current get tough on law-abiding people strategy, yours truly – a 43-year-old, U. S. citizen by birth, of Polish-Irish descent whose people have been here for 120 years, and an attorney who has cleared two criminal background checks – has been manhandled three times by law enforcement agents who apparently thought I could be a terrorist. Though no terrorist has picked my pocket recently, I remain "free" to give forty percent of my income to the state. If I do not "freely" contribute, I will be escorted to a place more unpleasant than a cold mountain cave. Sometimes it is hard to tell who the enemy is without a program.

The basic problem is that the state is inefficient at accomplishing goals other than the advancement of the power, wealth and prestige of those who control it. It has little incentive to do anything else. I say this, not merely as a theoretical deduction, but as a lawyer who has dealt with all branches of the federal government in the course of heated and contentious litigation. Believe me, people, the feds can be ruthless in pursuing their own interests and utterly indifferent to anyone else's.

If you want to know the likely results of the war against terrorism, you may wish to review prior federal government "wars": the 84-year-old war on drugs, the 36-year-old war on poverty, the war in Afghanistan twenty years ago which led to the Taliban regime, the war on Serbia on the side of Osama bin Laden, and the war in Viet Nam.

The war on drugs is illustrative of the radical incompetence of those we now rely on to protect us. It has not only failed to stop or even reduce drug abuse, but has created a permanent crime wave here, and violent political chaos in drug-producing countries, like, guess what, Afghanistan! Yes, our war on drugs funneled tremendous sums of money to the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

In May of this year, the feds agreed to give the Taliban $43 million as a reward for their alleged drug eradication program. So I ask you, why would any reasonable person have confidence in a government that helped bin Laden get his start in Afghanistan twenty years ago, supported his side in Yugoslavia, supported a policy that puts millions of dollars of illegal drug money into his hands, and recently gave millions of dollars to the regime it now says protects bin Laden?

Messrs. Bush, Ashcroft, Ridge, Powell, and Rumsfeld, and Ms. Rice, cannot protect you. That was proven on September 11th. The beauty of libertarian freedom is that you have every right and opportunity to protect yourself. You have the right to bear arms! You have the right to exclude others from your property without explanation. You have the right to refuse to associate with other people, for any reason that strikes your fancy. You have the right to produce security services and sell them to others, or buy the same from other security producers. We will find in the coming years, that these rights, which only libertarians fully support, will be critical to our survival in a world made dangerous by the modern nation-state.


There is indeed a disease loose in the land, a fatal and contagious disease: the widespread belief that the modern nation-state can improve human life by means of massive aggressive force. This disease continually causes a secondary infection: terrorism, which in turn strengthens and reinforces the malady that gave rise to it. These two diseases symbiotically threaten the life of the human race.

There is an antidote – available only at libertarian and classical liberal pharmacies. We can have freedom, prosperity, and security. We need only to take the medicine prescribed by Thomas Jefferson: peace, free trade, the free market, strictly limited republican government, decentralization, and most of all, the individual rights to life, liberty, and property. Do not tarry. Recall the sad words of King Richard II, in prison and no longer in control of his fate: "I wasted time, and now doth time waste me."

November 17, 2001

James Ostrowski is an attorney practicing at 984 Ellicott Square, Buffalo, New York 14203; (716) 854-1440; FAX 853-1303. See his website at http://jamesostrowski.com.

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