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News Link • Philosophy: Libertarianism

Against the Zeitgeist


Ladies and gentlemen, the first task for any intellectual or ideological effort is to understand the environment surrounding it. Whether we like it or not, we live in a decidedly illiberal age: an age hostile to private property, individualism, civility, speech, academic freedom, culture, even to civilization itself. The spirit and tenor of our time are not at all conducive to liberal arguments; in fact such arguments are perverted into justifications for state action. Because of this sober reality we should resist the zeitgeist, and resist the language, narratives, issue framing, incivility, and purported egalitarian ends of the anti-intellectual landscape around us.

If you've read Murray Rothbard on the Progressive Era, you know he hated a reformer. And he especially hated a Yankee pietist reformer. No one embodied this kind of reformer like John Dewey, the psychologist who earned Rothbard's wrath through his evangelical though secular zeal for saving the world through progress and statism.

Dewey had what Rothbard called a "seemingly endless" career, with significant influence– which he bolstered with frequent columns in The New Republic—  a new magazine in 1914, created as an unholy alliance between big business and leftwing public intellectuals.

An astonishing article Dewey produced for The New Republic in 1917 bore the perfect title for our discussion today: "The Conscription of Thought." Dewey, like his colleagues at the magazine, urged the US to enter the Great War in Europe, and they did everything they could to encourage a "war spirit" among stubbornly doubtful Americans.

Now his pro-war perspective had nothing to do with the realities on the ground in Germany or Britain or France, or even US interests in those areas. His focus was entirely domestic– war would help lead America to socialize its economy and greatly expand the powers of the state. War collectivism in Europe should be admired and emulated. War could be used as an "aggressive tool of democracy" at home and help "foist innovation upon the country."

For Dewey, then, rejecting neutrality had nothing to do with the outcome of the war per se, but instead was critically important to his quest for achieve National Greatness– America could not afford to miss out on an opportunity to join an historic war and unite its citizens as a world power rather than a provincial observer.

In other words, he adopted a pro-war view solely to advance the Progressive program at home. And he knew that once "Conscription of Thought" was achieved– once American minds were conscripted for the war effort or any other Progressive cause– then their bodies and wallets would follow.

What an astonishingly honest phrase- "Conscription of Thought." It applies in spades to America and the West still today, even more so today. We have accepted the premises and framework of the state, and thus we accept the degradations that follow from statism. The only corrective, in Dewey's time and our own, was a full-throated intellectual challenge to those premises and framework.

Yet it is precisely this challenge from which the Zeitgeister shrinks.

Succumbing to The Zeitgeist

Lew Rockwell brings up the old adage, the smaller the movement the more– and louder– the factions. Now I know what you're thinking, but this is not a talk about libertarian factions: Left vs. Right, thick vs. thin, modal vs. paleo, or Beltway vs. populist.

No, this is not about factions. The Zeitgeist Libertarian transcends these categories by accepting the purported ENDS of Progressivism and state action while only suggesting different MEANS– and in most cases only slightly different means.

Like John Dewey hectoring stubborn Americans still stuck on WWI neutrality, the Zeitgeisters hector us to give up the old modes of thinking– that dreary talk about rights and property and the state– and instead happily accept the spirit and tenor of the age. The details matter less than being in the game. In this sense the Zeitgeister accepts the Conscription of Thought– accepts the parameters set by the political world, and focuses on influence within those parameters over all other considerations.

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