I haven't been paying attention to this latest example of a former Bush employee-turned critic, but it seems to be the most important issue is not his supposed credibility or lack thereof, or imagined motivations or lack thereof, or love affair with Bill Clinton or lack thereof, but rather, and simply, whether he can shed any light on the intelligence & comportment failures that enabled the Sept. 11 massacre.
Right on. It's painfully obvious that a lot of people are looking desperately for excuses not to take Clarke seriously, as though they have no interest in new data that might contradict their ideas about Bush, Iraq, and the war on terror. They appear to have the same disease that many leftists suffered from in the fall of 2001: an inability to revise their worldview in the face of new evidence.
Note: "take Clarke seriously" does not mean "like Clarke personally" or "agree with all of Clarke's analysis" or even "believe everything Clarke says." It does mean weighing the evidence with an open mind, which would require -- for example -- paying at least as much attention to the credibility of Condi Rice, Dick Cheney, et al as you pay to the credibility of the man who's criticizing them.
I'm really pissed off about this. Perhaps too pissed to write about it as coherently as I'd like. For now this will have to do.
SELF-PROMOTION: My latest column for Reason Online is now live; it's about the unwelcome return of the Culture War. I'm also in the new print edition of Reason, with an article on the Hobbesian degeneration of The Sims Online and a brief squib on Late Communism in China.
ELABORATION: I might have been unclear on Saturday. When I knocked the practice of "dreaming up a utopian endstate that has no connection to the world we live in now," I didn't intend to dismiss the labor that David Friedman and Murray Rothbard, or for that matter Kropotkin and Proudhon, put into conceiving what a radically libertarian society would look like. Their work is especially useful when they tie their thought experiments to empirical research into how different necessities have been delivered when they haven't been provided by a state. Social change is much easier when you've spent some time imagining the alternatives to the status quo.
What annoys me is the belief, widespread among libertarians, that the way you make the world freer is:
(a) map out in detail just how the society you'd like to see will look,
(b) persuade as many people as possible that your model is both practical and desirable, then
(c) wait til a magic number of people has been converted to your philosophy, at which point they'll vote you into office, rise up against the powers that be, or otherwise blink your beliefs into reality.
In the 1970s, libertarians debated the "gradualist" and "abolitionist" approaches to liberty. Advocates of the second course declared that, if they could push a magic button, they would eliminate the state (or 99% of it) overnight. Advocates of the first preferred to dismantle the government piecemeal. Neither approach made sense unless you imagined the speaker was somehow put into a position of power, so he could either push that button or pull all those levers in succession. It wasn't clear which was less realistic: the idea that the abolitionist could find his magic button, or the idea that a series of moderate reforms could someday add up to radical change.
I prefer a different approach. Albert Jay Nock distinguished social power, rooted in the voluntary institutions of society, from state power, rooted in coercion. Both coexist in our culture, each one waxing as the other wanes; the libertarian's goal is to maximize the former at the expense of the latter. Washington is not always the best place to do this. The most promising transformations in America over the last few decades have taken place not when state officials voluntarily relinquished some of their authority, but when social institutions either seized new ground or (more often) crept onto it while no one was watching. Examples range from the homeschooling revolution, which achieved tremendous victories while school choice legislation was at best sputtering forward, to the various DIY alternatives eating away at licensed professions from building to broadcasting. Useful libertarian activism is a matter of defending the zones of free action that exist and assisting the people who are trying to push them further.
That leaves a lot of room for reformism, particularly when the reforms in question simply make room for the voluntary and autonomous provision of services once monopolized by the state or its privileged partners. It also leaves a lot of room for radicalism, especially when you remember that the institutions already on the ground include full-fledged contractual local "governments." You'll see how far society is able to go when you see how far it's willing to go. As Lenin once said in another context, you should be as radical as reality.
I'm happy to speculate about the many forms such change could take, and I'm glad that folks like Rothbard and Kropotkin have made such speculation less difficult. But it's a lot easier to imagine the future when your eyes are trained on the society you're in, not the society that merely could be.
Just wish that we might all live in a state of perfect liberty, free of taxation and intrusive government, and that we should all be wealthier as well as freer. Now wish that people should, despite that lack of any restraint on their actions such as might be formed by policemen, functioning law courts, the SEC, and so on, not spend all their time screwing each otaher in predictable ways ranging from ordinary rape, through the selling of fraudulent stocks in non-existent ventures, up to the wholesale dumping of mercury in the public water supplies. (I mean, the general stock of water from which people privately draw.) Awesome huh? But it gets better. Now wish that everyone had a pony.
Blogger: I've just learned that some people believe things that sound strange to me.
Interlocutor: How interesting. Are you going to read up on the literature that defends their ideas and, perhaps, addresses some of the questions you might have as to why someone would believe such things?
Blogger: No, that's far too much work. I'm just going to make a joke about it.
Interlocutor: Oh. Will it be a funny joke?
Blogger: Why bother?
Buried in those bloggers' complaints, you'll find a point I actually agree with -- though not one that's necessarily relevant to the Reason debate. Libertarianism to me is a matter of defending and extending the zones of free action, not dreaming up a utopian endstate that has no connection to the world we live in now. Talk all you want about the liberty you'd like to impose from above; I'm much more interested in the sort of change that's rooted in social institutions and percolates from below. Radicalism is fine. Too much abstraction is not.
I could elaborate the point, I guess, but I've got something else on my mind. What's really interesting to me, because I'm such a navel-gazer, is the new variations this burst of blogging has given to that familiar theme, "What Reason believes." A commenter on Kevin Drum's site refers to "Reason Randite Nozick Utopians," then remarks that "many Reason types...dream of Arcadia, the Jeffersonian semi-rural landowning freeman." You can add this to all the other theories you'll hear from people who rarely bother to read the magazine: that Reason is a bunch of neocon Republicans, that we're a bunch of Bush-hating liberals, that we're "Beltway libertarians" with no interest in radical libertarian thought, that we're radicals who sneer at any libertarian who isn't sufficiently hardcore, that we're "cultural leftists" who don't know the difference between libertarianism and libertinism, and -- always popular, though it has the least basis in real life -- that we're Objectivists. Collect them all!