Sunday, November 29, 2009

Lessons from the Recent Elections

The dominant philosophy of our culture, pragmatism, has resulted in a short term-oriented focus on concrete issues, at the expense of broad abstract principles. The casualty has been a subject that is desperately needed today – political philosophy, or the application of principles to politics. Without political philosophy, there would be no United States of America. The Founding Fathers were intellectuals who took ideas very seriously, and so were able to study history and the Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke and apply its lessons to their work in creating this nation. It is only through philosophy that one can bridge the gap between history’s civilizations that are vastly different in concrete terms, and learn from them. It is by virtue of the abandonment of a belief in principles as a practical guide that America is sliding along a path toward statism, despite the ominous parallels to the lessons of past society’s slide into dictatorship and destruction that history screams out to us.

One of the fundamental concerns of political philosophy, and of the Founders, is the proper role and nature of government.

A Washington Post column by liberal Obama media field general E.J. Dionne, entitled On Election Day, a win for Government, is very interesting both for what it omits, what it assumes as the given, and the lessons it teaches. I addressed one of the key issues that Mr. Dionne deliberately omits (or evades) in my posted comments to the article. Mr. Dionne begins his article with:

"Here's a story you may have missed because it flies in the face of the dreary conventional wisdom: When advocates of public programs take on the right-wing anti-government crowd directly, the government-haters lose."

And here is my published response:

One of the gimmicks statists use to promote their authoritarian agenda is to frame the important issue of the role of government as ... for or against. Thus we get catch phrases such as “the right-wing anti-government crowd”.

Of course, what today passes for the “Right” is a diverse array of frequently antagonistic elements such as Conservatives, Libertarians, and Religious Rightists. But that aside, the purpose of painting anyone who advocates any rollbacks or even restrictions on the further expansion of government power as “anti-government” is to obliterate any acknowledgement of the proper purpose and limits of government. So let’s get some clarification here.

A government is a unique institution. It and it alone possesses a monopoly on the legal use of physical force. This is as it should and must be. The apprehension and prosecution of domestic criminals and the protection of the nation from foreign military aggressors is the job of government (among certain other functions relating to human association), and that requires the organized use of force. No civilized society can exist without a government. Without government, society would quickly degenerate into mob rule and chaos. Government is a necessary good.

At the same time, government’s status as a vehicle of physical coercion also makes it the gravest threat to its citizens. To alleviate that potential threat, a government must be strictly contained, or limited. What standard defines the nature of those limits? The principle of inalienable individual rights. What is the method for implementing those limits? A constitution. This is the original American system. Rights, it should be remembered, are a guarantee and a sanction for freedom of action within the context of social organization (such as the right to freedom of speech, religious practice, and the earning and use of property). Rights are not an automatic entitlement to “home nurse visits” or any other product or service that must be provided by others.

So the choice is not, as Mr. Dionne suggests, between pro- and anti-government positions; or between a government of unlimited powers and anarchy. The choice is between a government limited to the protection of the rights of its citizens and a predatory government that is a tool of any political party, special interest pressure group, or voting block to be used to extract economic privileges at the expense of the rights and property of others.

The “win for government” is a loss for the revolutionary American system. Our nation - which was founded upon the principles of individual rights and limited, rights-protecting government – has degenerated into a chaotic political free-for-all of power-seekers competing for temporary control of the reigns of government’s unique powers of legalized coercion. The winner is any one or group laying temporary claim to the title of representative of that mystical historical siren song of all those who seek forcible domination over the lives, property, and productive work of others … the common good.

Today, the role of our government is being progressively inverted. Instead of protecting our lives, freedom, and property, it has become a major violator of our rights. Instead of protecting us from criminals, it is increasingly using its unique powers for what amounts to legalized criminal activities. I submit into evidence the former Bush Administration and the current runaway statism of the Obama Administration – especially the 2000 page House blueprint for totalitarian control of American medicine.

Growing government power and the consequent loss of individual liberty is a trend that has been going on for more than a century in America. Today, our government is breaking free of all constraints of the constitution and the rule of objective law. If not reversed, the consequences will be dire. Americans desperately need to rediscover the principles of individual rights and the proper role of government.

What Mr. Dionne and the “left-wing pro-government crowd” (to adopt his catchphrase) want us to accept as the unchallengeable given is all of the functions that government has heretofore improperly arrogated to itself, at the expense of the private sector. Mr. Dionne explains:

[The anti-government crowd] lost in part because opponents of the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights measures (known as TABOR) did something that happens too rarely in the national debate: They made a case for what government does, why it's important and why cutbacks in public services can be harmful to citizens and the common good.

In Maine, one ad featured several taxpayers warning about what less government would mean in practice: "Our school budgets have already been cut. This would mean even less money for our classrooms. . . . Community health centers could be cut. People rely on them, especially now." A sympathetic-looking man then appeared on the screen to add: "My wife relies on our home nurse visits. What will we do?"

Nor was the anti-TABOR campaign confined to what individuals get out of government. Another ad highlighted the larger social and economic impact of public education. "Without strong public schools, our kids won't be prepared for good jobs," the announcer said. "Maine's future could be in doubt."

Notice that what Mr. Dionne and the anti-TABOR forces are counting on is for the voters to protect that which they have already become dependent upon government for. Based upon the vote margins, that strategy worked beautifully, at least in the liberal states of Washington and Maine. And that is precisely the danger. The more dependent private citizens become on the rights-violating government programs, the less will people have to fight for their own freedom by voting for rollbacks of government power. Embodied in Mr. Dionne’s article is a dramatic concretization of the abstract fable relayed by Dr. Evan Madianos on 8/27/09.

And this is and has been the implicit strategy of the statists/collectivists to bring socialism to America, without openly advocating that thoroughly discredited ideology. It is a continuing trend; its momentum carried forward not only by the Left but, sadly, by conservatives and alleged “Rightists” as well. Mr. Dionne notes that:

"Opposition to these measures went well beyond the ranks of ideological liberals. Recall that on the same day that Maine rejected TABOR, it also rejected gay marriage. In Lewiston, a socially conservative working-class city, 59 percent voted against gay marriage -- but 58 percent also opposed TABOR.."

Mr. Dionne apparently sees a contradiction there. But, in fact, Lewiston voted against individual rights on both counts. So much for the idea that conservatism necessarily stands for individual rights. Conservative or liberal, too many people are willing to reject any attempt to cut their socialism. This fact is readily exploited to advance the next government program. Just in the past decade, and using existing government programs as a precedent, we have seen the bipartisan expansion of Medicare, SCHIP, educational control (via funding increases) of pre-school and college, government control of home mortgage and finance, etc.

There is no mystery behind the seemingly inexorable statist trend that just keeps going, like the Energizer Bunny, through both liberal and conservative political seasons.

The crucial lesson for pro-freedom forces to learn here is the incredible importance of explicitly naming one’s principles and then applying them consistently. It’s not enough to fight for some vague notion of “smaller government”. One must be courageously willing to challenge the moral validity of compulsory public education (government-run schools), government-funded Community health centers and home nurse visits, etc., etc., etc.

(This does not mean that one must necessarily forego the use of the government services one opposes. When one is unjustly forced to pay for something one concienciously objects to, one is nonetheless entitled to its use, even while fighting to abolish it. This is not hypocritical, and one must not be cowed by those who hurl that accusation. This is a rather complex issue, and refusing to partake of some government program on principle, despite taxes paid and if one can afford it, is always commendable. I anticipate having to defend myself when I sign up for Social Security and Medicare, despite having consistently opposed both programs on principle since the mid sixties, and I will do so vigorously)

These and a myriad of other similar government functions are all based on the premise that there is a “common good” that exists apart from the good or interests of “individual citizens”. There is never any definition of what is actually meant by the common good, or why some government program must be forced upon everyone based upon that vague catchphrase.

Strictly speaking, only if some function is voluntarily accepted as good by every single citizen can it be said to be in the common good. That being the case, if everyone agrees, there ceases to be any need or reason for government to violate the rights of its citizens by imposing that particular function. If a single citizen (or more) believes that some alleged common good imposed by governmental force is harmful to himself, then the good ceases to be “common” and instead becomes a special privilege bestowed on some at the expense of one or more others.

The “common good” argument, as I pointed out in my posted comments cited above, has become nothing more than the rationalization to protect existing illegitimate government powers and to justify further expansions of coercive government interference into our lives. There is, in fact, just one fundamental common good – the abolition of physical force from human relationships … i.e., the recognition and protection of individual rights. All else that concerns societal organization flows from, and must be subordinated to, that principle. As Ayn Rand explains in her important essay The Nature of Government:

Man’s rights can be violated only by the use of physical force. It is only by means of physical force that one man can deprive another of his life, or enslave him, or rob him, or prevent him from pursuing his own goals, or compel him to act against his own rational judgment. [Note: Fraud, breech of contract, and the like would fit under the principle of the initiation of physical force because they separate a party from their property or interests against their will.]

The precondition of a civilized society is the barring of physical force from social relationships—thus establishing the principle that if men wish to deal with one another, they may do so only by means of reason: by discussion, persuasion and voluntary, uncoerced agreement.

The necessary consequence of man’s right to life is his right to self-defense. In a civilized society, force may be used only in retaliation and only against those who initiate its use. All the reasons which make the initiation of physical force an evil, make the retaliatory use of physical force a moral imperative.

If physical force is to be barred from social relationships, men need an institution charged with the task of protecting their rights under an objective code of rules.

This is the task of a government—of a proper government—its basic task, its only moral justification and the reason why men do need a government.

A government is the means of placing the retaliatory use of physical force under objective control—i.e., under objectively defined laws. (Emphasis is Rand’s.)

Though Mr. Dionne trumpets the twin defeats of the TABOR referendums as a “win for government”, the truth is not quite that simple. It may be, but until and unless the voters are offered a real alternative – i.e., a principled moral, philosophical, and practical defense of freedom – we’ll never really know for sure.

One thing that is for sure: The principles of individual rights and limited, rights-protecting republican government have no major political party sponsorship. That is the province of political philosophy, and that is what is desperately needed today. The E.J. Dionnes of the world need to be made to face the issues squarely and honestly, rather than being allowed to dance around the issues at will. Their free philosophical pass must end.

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