Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Tyranny of Fantasy

Some ideas just seem so obviously wrong, that we don't even bother with them.  Yet history is filled with terribly wrong ideas that have become enormously popular, and had enormously terrible consequences for society.

Libertarianism is one such idea.  Having only a couple of decades ago been relegated to the fringes of American politics, it seems an idea that has gained enormous traction.  However, its impact seems less as a political philosophy or party on its own, but in the way in which it has taken root in the conservative movement more broadly, most importantly in the Republican party.  One of the candidates causing the most excitement in recent years on the right has been the libertarian Ron Paul, and to some extent his son Rand Paul.

There has always been a strange alignment between the religious right and the economic right.  Libertarianism, of course, doesn't mesh very well with religious conservatism.  This may be why it seemed to have gone under the political radar during the ascendancy and dominance of the religious right over movement conservatism in recent decades.

But society has also been changing.  Social mores have loosened considerably.  While America is still enormously religious, it has also become much more tolerant, to the point of gay marriage - homosexuality openly displayed approvingly in the media - seems an inevitable national right.  Libertarianism's embrace of social tolerance seems a growing fit with the country.

All the while, the conservative movement has only moved further to the right economically.  Even as economic inequality is at historically high levels, and tax rates are historically low, conservatism seems as angry as ever with national spending.  While military budgets have always been criticized by Libertarians, they seem to at least hold some solidarity with the "bare-bones" vision of the Libertarian state - police, military, maybe basic roads, etc. .  While social programs represent the worst sort of "redistributionist tyranny", defense spending - at least in pared-down form -  isn't an ideological anathema.

There are good reasons for why Libertarianism was always kept to the fringe.  Of course, its social liberalism never went over very well in puritanical America.  But its economic vision was also at odds with great American traditions of a healthy, robust government that actively provided services that Americans could actually remember having not existed.  Now, it seems, Americans are quite receptive to the notion that the many government services they used to accept as clearly reasonable and important, are at best wasteful, and at worst a threat to their liberty.

It is difficult to say what caused this change.  It was a slow process.  As social mores shifted, minorities became a larger part of American consciousness - as did their social despair.  The "southern strategy" capitalized on fears of the other, galvanizing resentment.  Manufacturing changed, as the factory model could be replicated overseas for a fraction of hard-won labor pay, American workforce became more fragmented.

Interestingly, I am suspicious it doesn't correlate perfectly with the rise of Rush Limbaugh and right wing radio.  They no doubt gave voice to something lurking in the American soul.  Whether for ratings, or necessity of the format, AM radio was able to fashion a rhetorical narrative, vision of conservatism at war with liberalism, that enraptured millions.  Their language - a mixture of overheated rhetoric, anger, and victimhood - slowly crept into the national conservative dialogue.

Opposition to "Big Government", AM radio's ultimate evil, at the feet of which blame for almost any conceivable social ill could be lain, came to define the Republican party.  No matter that big government often merely meant "things I don't like", it was an easily graspable and repeatable mantra that seemed to boil every possible American anxiety down to a single, eminently attackable bogeyman.

And the more single-minded and ideologically driven people became, having little to debate or argue than how to get rid of this beast, the easier it became to find solace in Libertarianism's utopian vision for what America could look like without big government.  For not content to simply attack government, Libertarianism has actual specific details: get rid of the departments of trasportation, get rid of FEMA, get rid of the EPA, get rid of the department of labor.  Heck - get rid of public schools, libraries, parks - maybe even roads!  With big government being the only real problem, its absence is the perfect solution!

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, an influential anarchist and member of French parliament, summed up the libertarian, now conservative impulse:
To be GOVERNED is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be GOVERNED is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be place[d] under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality.
—P.J. Proudhon, "What Is Government?", General Idea of the Revolution in the Nineteenth Century, translated by John Beverly Robinson (London: Freedom Press, 1923), pp. 293-294. 
This seems as good a place as any to take on this extremely unserious and absurd vision of government.

I have no doubt he was a very smart man. Yet of course, otherwise brilliant people often become so blinded by ideological fantasy that their ability to reason can fall apart. My favorite recent example.

So, the first logical fallacy - I'm not sure its proper name - but he is taking things that sometimes happen, or have a chance of happening, and stating that they always happen. Maybe this.

Maybe this. "The government says it wants to do X. X causes something bad to happen. Therefore the government does not want to do X.

Its just also riddled with inaccurate statements. "To be governed is to be fleeced"?

I wouldn't be surprised if we all shared some of the ideas contained within his incredibly broad and meandering rant. Is to be governed to be law-driven? Regulated? Sure.

It is also inevitably to be abused in some form, in that someone, under government somewhere will likely experience any of his listed laments. But that could be said of nearly any system. To be human, as such, is to be tortured, beaten, enslaved, raped, exploited, etc.

The irony of libertarianism to me - and maybe its grand failure/fallacy - is that it fastidiously picks over an area of government's specific failings, and then assumes that because without that area of government the failings would not exist, the absence of that area of government things will be necessarily better.

An example: Public schools are inefficient, etc. (private schools seem to be better). So getting rid of public schools will mean better schools. (see if you can find the glaring problem there!)

These criticisms always contain the concept of "liberty". When government, defined as tyranny, is imagined away, liberty is assumed to take its place. The opposite of tyranny is liberty, right? Yet this ignores the reality that tyranny comes in many forms - threats of violence, exploitative labor conditions, inequality, etc. Government is generally a response to that tyranny. Because it is not always perfect, does not mean that its absence is necessarily better.

For this reason, the existential rhetoric of libertarianism is a sort of continuous, hyperbolic dishonesty. Which has, it seems, completely washed over conservatism as well. There's a quality of cherry picking and relativism to the enterprise - in that likes are not compared to likes, and generalizations are used as first principles. Its all a bit sloppy and unserious.

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