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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Jan. 30 (Bloomberg) — In a recent essay in the New Republic, Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz contends that Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange reflect a political impulse he calls “paranoid libertarianism.” Wilentz claims that far from being “truth-telling comrades intent on protecting the state and the Constitution from authoritarian malefactors,” they “despise the modern liberal state, and they want to wound it.”

Wilentz gives credit to Richard Hofstadter for the term “paranoid libertarianism,” but he is being generous. Although Hofstadter wrote an influential essay called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” he didn’t call special attention to its libertarian manifestation. Wilentz has performed an important public service in doing exactly that.

Most of Wilentz’s essay focuses on Snowden, Greenwald and Assange, and he offers a lot of details in an effort to support his conclusions about each of them. But let’s put the particular individuals to one side. Although Wilentz doesn’t say much about paranoid libertarianism as such, the general category is worth some investigation.

It can be found on the political right, in familiar objections to gun control, progressive taxation, environmental protection and health care reform. It can also be found on the left, in familiar objections to religious displays at public institutions and to efforts to reduce the risk of terrorism. Whether on the right or the left, paranoid libertarianism (which should of course be distinguished from libertarianism as such) is marked by five defining characteristics.

The first is a wildly exaggerated sense of risks — a belief that if government is engaging in certain action (such as surveillance or gun control), it will inevitably use its authority so as to jeopardize civil liberties and perhaps democracy itself. In practice, of course, the risk might be real. But paranoid libertarians are convinced of its reality whether or not they have good reason for their conviction.

The second characteristic is a presumption of bad faith on the part of government officials — a belief that their motivations must be distrusted. If, for example, officials at a state university sponsor a Christian prayer at a graduation ceremony, the problem is that they don’t believe in religious liberty at all (and thus seek to eliminate it). If officials are seeking to impose new restrictions on those who seek to purchase guns, the “real” reason is that they seek to ban gun ownership (and thus to disarm the citizenry).

The third characteristic is a sense of past, present or future victimization. Paranoid libertarians tend to believe that as individuals or as members of specified groups, they are being targeted by the government, or will be targeted imminently, or will be targeted as soon as officials have the opportunity to target them. Any evidence of victimization, however speculative or remote, is taken as vindication, and is sometimes even welcome. (Of course, some people, such as Snowden, are being targeted, because they appear to have committed crimes.)

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  • wial

    How to spot a straw man argument. Setting the abundant mischaracterizations and smears aside is there a point to this article?

    • daniel bostdorf

      Ok—-if you make this comment….do you think you cpuld expound a bit more past the bumper sticker phrase.???

      How do you define a straw man argument?

      What are the specific mischaracterizations?
      What are the smears?

      It is very easy for you to throw flames….but most of us at National memo REJECT flame throwing..

      So….post a concrete idea OK?

      Your Disqus profile shows all of us who you are…

  • Sand_Cat

    Yeah, great article.
    Point One I can’t imagine how anyone on “the left” could possibly imagine that any government of the US will misuse info and endanger Civil Liberties. Just look at the stirling records of the Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and both Bush administrations, or even the current one, which used a drone strike specifically to kill the 16-year-old son of a suspected terrorist.

    Point two: How could anyone possibly suspect the government of acting in bad faith? The inspiring events leading up to the Iraq war and the blowing of that nasty CIA agent because her husband differed from the official interpretation should be more than enough to reassure those idiotic paranoids. For the really hard cases, just look at all those attempts to declare the country a Christian nation, to pull rank in order to proselytize at the Air Force Academy, to post the ten commandments at courthouses across the land, and to outlaw birth control and abortion on the basis of religious belief. How could these fools possibly believe our government would even consider violating our civil liberties and rights?

    Point three: Just more paranoid claims to victimization: those guys set up for murder by the FBI during COINTELPRO operations just imagined their deaths, and J Edgar Hoover and countless other officials have shown how groundless any thought that illegally-gained information – or legally-gained information, for that matter – might be used to victimize those nasty ingrates who have the gall to dissent from the popular view.

    Point four: Yes, those people who don’t want industrial poisons in their air and water or routine violation of their privacy need to grow up and realize that we all have to give as well as take: one’s health and life sometimes just have to go to allow corporations and others to make huge profits and pay their executives obscenely high “salaries” and bonuses. After all, what’s more important: living things or money?

    Point five: the previous four points should have made it clear by now that those allowed to freely abuse the rights and persons of others for their own gain would never think of asking for more. I mean, look at the native Americans: what fools they were to think that after they were displaced from their ancestral lands that the grateful government of the US would even consider breaching the solemn agreements made to be content. History absolutely swarms to overflowing with people who got what they had no right to expect from someone else and were content with that forever!

    Yes, everyone should realize by now that there is absolutely no basis for any doubts that what the government wants is what we want and need, and – just as importantly – that libertarians “as such,” like Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, and legions of other public benefactors must be absolutely protected from the stigma justly applied to those “paranoid” examples.

    • disqus_ivSI3ByGmh

      Awesome comments, Cat! Good thing I didn’t have a sip of coffee in my mouth! It would have blown through my nose and sprayed the monitor! Too bad too many people cannot recognize sarcasm and satire when they read it.

    • awakenaustin

      The government at the national or any other level is not monolithic. It does not speak with one voice. It is not an organism. It is not a person. Your analysis is more than mildly anthropomorphic.
      In your analysis of government you neglected the positive and valuable things that various agencies and segments of the government have done. Lots of what the “government has done” even when it has been done in and for the public good has been imperfect, not completely adequate, and not infrequently inefficient. This has primarily been because it consists of lots of imperfect human beings more and less competent and motivated to accomplish its particular goals in any particular program at any particular time.
      Point one. It requires a great deal of horn-shoeing and neglect of history and biography to lump Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and the two Bushes and Obama into the same group as equivalents. With categories as broad as you must have drawn them why not Eisenhower, Kennedy, Ford, Carter, Clinton, Lincoln, Washington, Jackson, Jefferson, FDR and T. Roosevelt? Each of them must have done something illiberal viz a viz our civil liberties.
      I am not particularly in favor of killing 16 yr olds who hang out with their dear old dad the terrorist with drones either, I am also not in favor of dear old dad, the terrorist sitting around plotting ways to blow up my brother. Maybe you have a better way to protect all of us from terrorism, I am certain there must be a better way.
      Point two. The government did not lie us into Iraq, the Bush administration did. It is an important and not an insignificant distinction. The rest of that point is a mash up of mostly unrelated actions of private and public actions at a variety of levels and hardly qualify as the government.
      Point 3. J Edgar Hoover is not the FBI. He might have been, but he is not now. COINTELPRO was not sanctioned by “the government” it was sanctioned by Hoover.
      Point 4. Huh? What does this have to do with any point you were trying to make.
      Point 5. The tragedy of this nation’s history regarding Native Americans is less an example of government malevolence than it is a comment on the culture and thinking of white persons who lived in the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries in the lands which became this nation.
      I think you lost the thread by the time you reached the Ryans and the Rands.

      The ability to see only the forest and no trees leads to as many problems as not being able to see the forest for the trees.

      • BuzzLOL

        . Yes, how bad the gov’t is at any one time depends on who is leading it…

  • Buford2k11

    I thought the word paranoid was left unspoken when referring to these libertarian types…it is, after all, one of their main motivations in being crazy and extreme….Anarchists, seem to be closer to their job description…then ya have the Koch puppets…

    • Kathy Miller


      ★★★ ★�★★ ★★★⥭★ ★★★Although Wilentz doesn’t say much about paranoid libertarianism as such, the general category is worth some investigation.

  • gary1224

    Cass Sunstein writing in the National Memo. Boy has this publication fallen into the dumper

  • Gary Graves

    How can you beat that story? paranoid librarians think the sky is falling, doom and gloom, they need to build bomb shelters North Korea is going to use a atomic bomb and wipe out the United States. They these libos were around when I was a kid.

  • ThomasBonsell

    As a lefty in good standings, I have no problem with religious displays on public property. As long as those displays are not government sponsored displays. Private parties using public property for religious displays are fine and dandy as long as that public property is open for displays from all sources. Jews and Muslims have the same rights to display their symbols as do Christians of all leanings. Agnostics and atheists have the same right to display as do religious groups.

    I have great respect for Julian Assange for his work at Wikileaks with one exception. That being he take better care to see that what secrecy he exposes does not do more harm than good. Often it does harm. As for Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald. No admiration at all. Greenwald writes scathing articles about an agency and mission he knows nothing about, but relies only on an informant who doesn’t understand the damage that can be done by his exposures of programs and missions he doesn’t understand.

    When Greenwald wrote about civil liberties that he had a lot of experience in as a civil-rights lawyer, he was much admired. When he decided to write about espionage he is inexperienced in and base his entire writings on speculation, conjuncture and guess work, he lost a devoted fan.

  • BuzzLOL

    . I considered becoming a Libertarian at one time, until I read the Party’s pamphlet of what it stood for, then I became strongly against them…

    • tdm3624

      Me too, until I read their take on economic policy (shudder) no thanks for a return to the robber barons.