The Left, The Right, and the State
© 2009 Lew Rockwell
“Society is held together not by a state but by the cooperative daily actions of its members.”
Who’s up for six hundred pages of essays on politics and economics? I read this over the course of half a year, owing to its size, its nature as a large set of independent pieces, and the common tattoo being drummed out throughout the collection. The book brings together Rockwell’s views on American politics, from the late eighties through to the 2008 election with Clinton and George W.’s admins attracting the most content. Such a massive collection of material defies summation, but I’ll give it the old college try.
Lew Rockwell has been active in political and economic circles at least since the seventies, co-founding the Mises Institute alongside Murray Rothbard, the father of anarcho-capitalism. I’m familiar with Rockwell through his frequent appearances on the Tom Woods show, and so for the most part there were few surprises here, content-wise. Rockwell is a welcome and consistent voice — if sometimes an overly acidulous one — haranguing the state for its wars, its abuse of civil liberties, its bullying of its people, its manipulation of the money, etc. Rockwell is as I mentioned consistent, sometimes astonishingly so: his essay written on September 12, 2001, was particularly impressive: here we were with a massive gaping wound in the American heart, and Rockwell says: stay calm. Don’t let the pain and righteous anger of this time carry us away into making a costly mistake in the middle east. The alterations of the American state after 9/11, its final corruption through the Patriot Act, the explosion of warrant-less surveillance, etc, were the events that began waking me up to the dangers of the modern state — and Rockwell saw them coming. He also writes — in 2003 — on the potential for mischief with oil prices because of Bush & Cheney’s interests in the industry. Not all of the content is political, though; one essay concerns Y2K and the banks, and I found the essays on historic events I remembered from the nineties on to be especially interesting, prompting me to think on how I interpreted those events then and now.
Many of the essays are Rockwell riffing off of contemporary events, or using them to argue a more pressing point. When Clinton complained that his private life was being invaded by the press, quick on the scent of the Lewinsky scandal, Rockwell chuckles in a fit of schadenfreud and points out the ways that DC has invaded the private lives of everyone. In another example, he discusses subsidiarity and secession amid the Soviet Union’s breakup, promoting the latter as self-determination. In other sections, he moves away from current-events contemporary to write more generally: reviewing the works of various economists,or discussing the role of inflation in economic busts, and the perverse effects of war on the economy. By far the weakest section is that on the environment; Rockwell dismisses conservation and hazard containment altogether, regarding progress and industrial growth as absolute goods. Although environmentalism and libertarianism are often at loggerheads over the heavy-handed ways that environmental legislation is handled, there are perfectly plausible arguments to be made for environmental concerns from the libertarian camp. The first time I saw Rockwell in person, for instance, I was attending the 2015 conference of Young Americans for Liberty, and several of the booths selling books outside were from green libertarian groups. Rockwell’s stance in this is so strident and narrow that it undermines credibility.
Despite this, Rockwell’s collection of writings here was worth plowing through over the last few months. In the beginning, I appreciated the view that libertarian-leaning individuals who work with the government to help it function better by introducing some ersatz market measure — school vouchers, say, or social security privatization — do the cause of liberty a disservice by making it the handmaiden of its enemy. Liberty, he writes early and emphasizes throughout, is not a public policy. It is the end of public policy. Despite being familiar with and sympathetic to many of Rockwell’s viewpoints, I also delighting finding a lot of content here that challenged me, like Rockwell’s defense of planned obsolescence. I still don’t like planned obsolescence, but it’s good to consider the arguments for or against a thing. The collection could have used some tighter editing, at least in the beginning.
In the balance, this collection was worth reading for me — but I was trying to coax someone into Liberty’s camp I’d use something less bellicose. There’s a lot of good content here, and some lamentable blind spots.