[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]
Since Christopher Hitchens gave up socialism, I’ve ironically enough gone from disagreeing with him 40% of the time to disagreeing with him 80% of the time. I used to look forward to his mordant skewerings of the mighty, but lately he seems to have morphed into a mean-spirited shill for the establishment.
But at last comes a Hitchens editorial I can happily endorse; despite his having fallen to the neocon/prowar dark side, he makes a good case against executing Saddam Hussein. (Conical hat tip to Christopher Morris.) I share Hitchens’ misgivings both about the death penalty in general, and about the legitimacy of the vanquished being tried by the victors rather than by a neutral court.
While I’m on the subject of Hitchens, though, I also want to comment on something he said about libertarianism in his Reason interview a few years back. While this was after the beginning of his rightward shift, it’s basically a left-wing criticism, and like most left-wing criticisms of libertarianism it’s partly right and partly wrong:
I threw in my lot with the left because on all manner of pressing topics – the Vietnam atrocity, nuclear weapons, racism, oligarchy – there didn’t seem to be any distinctive libertarian view. I must say that this still seems to me to be the case, at least where issues of internationalism are concerned. What is the libertarian take, for example, on Bosnia or Palestine?
There’s also something faintly ahistorical about the libertarian worldview. When I became a socialist it was largely the outcome of a study of history, taking sides, so to speak, in the battles over industrialism and war and empire. I can’t – and this may be a limit on my own imagination or education – picture a libertarian analysis of 1848 or 1914. I look forward to further discussions on this, but for the moment I guess I’d say that libertarianism often feels like an optional philosophy for citizens in societies or cultures that are already developed or prosperous or stable. I find libertarians more worried about the over-mighty state than the unaccountable corporation. The great thing about the present state of affairs is the way it combines the worst of bureaucracy with the worst of the insurance companies.
Part of being a left-libertarian is that on the one hand you’re constantly trying to prod fellow libertarians into moving farther left, while on the other hand you’re constantly trying to show fellow leftists that libertarianism is already farther left than they realise. This is certainly an occasion for both responses.
Hitchens is certainly right to say that libertarians have often been less concerned about issues like racism, oligarchy, and corporate power than they should be – that they have stressed the evils of state oppression but often turned a blind eye to nonstate forms of oppression. On this general topic see this recent post of mine and this recent post of Wally Conger’s.
But at the same time Hitchens is certainly mistaken in supposing that libertarians have neglected these issues entirely. I need hardly point out to the readers of this blog that there exists, for example, an enormous libertarian literature both on war and on corporate power, and indeed on issues of class generally; in fact libertarians pioneered modern class analysis. (One suspects Hitchens hasn’t spent much time poring through Left & Right, Libertarian Forum, New Libertarian, or the JLS.) And he is also right to worry that his inability to “picture a libertarian analysis of 1848 or 1914” or other such historical events may stem from “a limit on [his] own imagination or education,” since here too there is plenty of such analysis available.
Thus I close with the ringing slogan, proudly inscribed on the streaming banners of the left-libertarian vanguard: Libertarianism: Less Left Than It Should Be, But Lefter Than You Think.