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The Human Heart Still Sings for Liberty

Not so very long ago, many astute observers thought that liberal democracy was in decline globally. Enlightenment values of individual rights, liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, and constitutional government were outmoded, irrelevant to the needs of modern society, and threatening to long held beliefs and traditions.  Populist authoritarianism was in ascendence and providing a new model for the world.  Counties like Russia and China were increasingly seen as providing a more efficient mechanism for “getting things done” without all the messiness of individual choice and democratic rule. 

Yet, if one looks around the world today, authoritarianism is being challenged everywhere.  The struggle for – and desire for – liberty is seeing a rebirth. 

In Ukraine, a liberal democracy, admittedly flawed but fundamentally embracing ideals of liberty and self-determination, has proven more than a match for the authoritarian behemoth that invaded it.  The Ukrainian success, of course, owes much to western aide and Russian incompetence.  But the ultimate key to the Ukrainian fortitude we are witnessing in the face of hardship and atrocity has been the belief that they are fighting for freedom and independence.  Compare that to Russian conscripts forced to fight for a system that they neither care about nor cares about them.  

Meanwhile, women and others have risen up in Iran in the wake of the death of of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old student likely murdered by the regime’s infamous morality police.   The authorities have responded with brutal force, arresting thousands, and killing more than 300.  Yet, the protests have continued for nearly four months, if anything growing larger, under the slogan, “Women, Life, Freedom.”

Even in China, long considered the epicenter of the authoritarian alternative, is now experiencing unprecedented protests that have sprung up across the country.  The protests, small by international standards, have not been seen since in China since the 1989 protest in Tiananmen Square.  These latest protests started in opposition to the country’s draconian “zero COVID” policy, but now the demonstrators are calling for freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and “the democratic rule f law.”  Some have even called for President Xi and the Chinese Communist Party to relinquish power. 

Of note, in this country, voters in the midterm elections largely rejected the most extreme candidates and delivered a strong rebuke to those who flirt with anti-democratic norms. 

Of course, to differing degrees, all these pro-liberal movements may fail.  It seems unlikely but Russia could get its act together enough to complete its conquest of Ukraine.  The Iranian protests may fizzle out the way others have in the past.  China’s demonstrations are almost certainly not going to topple Xi.  In the US, troubling strains of extremism remain among both political parties.  New threats to freedom will arise, and old ones will have their triumphs.

Yet, successful or not, we are seeing that the desire for liberty is unquenchable.  We should have understood this.  After all, we’ve been through dark times before. We’ve fallen short of our ideals and seen liberty stumble and be momentarily eclipsed.  But always the spark has rekindled.   

We should remember.  We should continue to fight the good fight and to support those who share our struggle.  And we should be optimists.  In the end, liberty will triumph.

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Some Thoughts about the War in Ukraine

War is always a horrible thing – and the war in Ukraine is bringing that home to us in a way that is impossible to ignore.  Moreover, I have friends and people I have worked with, fellow libertarians, in both Ukraine and Russia.  As the war grinds on, and the Ukrainian people continue to suffer, I think it time to offer a few thoughts.

The case for staying out of the conflict is not an unserious one, and the concerns shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.

To start with, it takes more than a bit of gymnastics for the U.S. to claim the moral high ground on matters of war and peace.  It’s not just the U.S. invasion of Iraq, it is decades of propping up dictatorships and/or supporting regime change in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.  Even now, we continue to provide military support for Saudi Arabia’s barbarous war in Yemen. 

And, we probably should have been more sensitive to Russia’s geopolitical concerns in our race to expand NATO.  Russia may be paranoid, but that’s a long-standing condition of Russian foreign policy, and we knew it going in.  Moreover, there are still questions about whether the defense of Europe might better be accomplished through some-sort of EU-linked force rather than through an organization that by its nature threatens to drag the United States into a wider war.

Nor is our assistance to Ukraine cost-free.  The most recent package of military and economic aid runs to $40 billion on top of what we’ve already spent.  We will almost certainly end up spending even more before it’s all over  That’s real money, even by Washington standards.  The Biden administration may spend like there’s a magic money tree out behind the White House – but there’s not. 

Finally, the risks of our being drawn into a direct, shooting conflict with Russia are real and could be catastrophic.  If Russians and Americans start shooting at each other, the road to Armageddon beckons. 

But despite these legitimate concerns, I still favor aid to Ukraine for reasons of both morality and national interest.

Let’s be absolutely clear, whatever we’ve done wrong in the past, there is no justification for Putin’s brutal aggression against Ukraine.  Not only is the invasion unprovoked in any realistic sense, but it is being executed in the most criminal way.  Russia’s deliberate targeting of civilians, destruction of Ukrainian culture, and other war crimes are not something that can be ignored.  The idea, pushed by some on the far right, that Putin is conducting some sort of noble crusade against wokeness is a vile calumny that should not be entertained by civilized people.

Most wars are painted in shades of grey.  This one is far less so.  Ukraine was undoubtedly imperfect before the war, but there is a clear aggressor here.   Moreover, as noted above, the Russians are carrying out their aggression in a particularly heinous fashion.  I don’t believe that as a nation (or as individuals) we can turn away from helping the Ukrainians defend their country.

Moral outrage by itself is probably insufficient to justify U.S. intervention.  After all, horrors are being committed all around the world.  The U.S. cannot and should not be the world’s policeman.  Most often, that type of intervention not only fails to solve the original problem, but it can also generate more bloodshed and expand the conflict (see, for example, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria…).  The U.S. should only intervene if its national interests are at stake.

That appears to be the case in Ukraine.  Russian aggression has destabilized the post-war geopolitical and legal order in a way that threatens to invite other conflicts.  The outcome and the price inflicted on Russia and Putin will be watched carefully by dictators everywhere.  Moreover, Putin gives every indication that his aggression is unlikely to end with Ukraine.  Certainly, Moldova is in his sights, but so is much of Eastern Europe, the Caucuses, and elsewhere.  I’m generally skeptical of appeasement analogies, but this looks like a situation where it applies.

Under the circumstances, it seems more than reasonable to provide the Ukrainians with the support that they need to defend themselves – including weapons.  The Ukrainians are not asking for U.S. troops – I would oppose that – but are doing the fighting themselves – bravely and effectively.  Of course, we cannot give Ukraine a blank check.  At some point, we will have to discuss the differences between their interests and ours.  But for now, we should do what we can.

And regardless of what side of the larger debate about U.S. government policy you come down on, I urge all my readers and friends to contribute voluntarily to those charities and other organizations supporting the courageous Ukrainian people in their fight for freedom and independence. 

Slava Ukrayini!