Jonah Goldberg: Egalitarian — Jonah

Jonah Goldberg: Egalitarian — Jonah Goldberg sounds a dissonant egalitarian note in his reply to Nick Gillespie in the Tech Central Station debate. Now, we can expect Jonah to be vehemently opposed to the redistribution of wealth in domestic policy, or for the purposes of foreign aid. Yet he appears to find it plain commonsense that we should sacrifice both wealth and liberty so that others may be more free. He writes:

So in a very serious sense, I think the anti-war folks who claim that war is the enemy of freedom are often deeply selfish and myopic. Too often they look at captive nations and threatened populations abroad and say “you’re on your own” if it means higher taxes for a few – and most likely temporary – losses of convenience at home. In the truly grand scheme of things this position makes peace-at-all-costs the true enemy of liberty because its adherents hold that the basic rights of millions or even billions are not worth any sacrifice at home.

Jonah’s reasoning here is stunningly similar to the reasoning of leftist egalitarians who find that it is “selfish and myopic” for conservatives and libertarians to oppose “higher taxes or a few . . . losses of convenience at home,” on the grounds that liberty will suffer. If Jonah is willing to admit the general principle that the state may legitmately coerce sacrifice for the sake of improving the prospects of others, then it seems that what divides him from his leftist brethren is merely a question of the best goods to be redistributed, and the means for doing the distribution.

Jonah might reply that economic redistribution does not in general actually make people better off economically. And that would be a good reply. But it applies equally well to the use of war to make people better off in terms of liberty.

The ongoing prospects for liberated peoples depend on much more than throwing out the despots. Freedom, in the long run, is a matter of stable institutions. And instititutions aren’t pieces of paper, they’re patterns of behavior that depend fundamentally on the shared beliefs and aspirations of a people. Freedom won’t blossom because we’ve rained fire on the tyrants. Freedom has to percolate from below, as a conservative should know.

Ending one regime simply makes room for another. And the character of the new one will depend largely on what the people there are like, what they believe in, and what they want for themselves. If liberated people eventually choose against liberty, are we obliged to stop them? Are we obliged to serve as colonial governors, and give people no choice but to accept the institutions of liberty — force them to be free? Are we selfish and myopic if we refuse to do so?

Jonah’s examples of good wars of liberation in his reply to Nick all involve liberating places with a deep-seated tradition of liberty. But Iraq set free from Hussein seems more likely to resemble Belarus set free from the Soviets than France set free from the Nazis.

In the end, Jonah’s appeal against our selfishness and myopia are no more persausive than the left-egalitarians’ appeals. Even if we set aside the questionable moral legitimacy of redistributive coercion in any case, we would need to believe that the point of the coercion would be fulfilled; that people will in fact be made in the long run richer, or more free. Jonah has not begun to show this to be true.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center