07 April 2010

a check against rhetoric

Excellent piece in Reason

A libertarian vision of the world contends that state power should be curbed, should be limited or non-existent on many issues, and should exist solely to protect the rights that citizens (or residents of that jurisdiction) are granted through law, ie, against abuses from other people or government(s). This vision of the world would conclude, I think rightly, that extending liberties to people who have previously been ignored or at least denied substantial freedoms is a positive thing. This would lead us to conclude, again rightly, that there are substantial advances in the premise and use of liberty present right now that did not exist in previous epochs of American history (or any other nation's supposed golden era of history). Any determined opposition and peculiar annoyance at the special expansions of government power and bureaucracy should not be confused for an unchecked progression of government power against the rights and liberties of the people. I get into repeated fights with other libertarians and, in particular, ignorant conservatives, who think our "Road to Serfdom" path is somewhere deep down the line when I'm fairly confident we are somewhere around steps 5 or 7 on a 20 step road, and that we've even made steps at times that carried us away from the path. We are still an admirably free country on many counts and while it's certainly fine to oppose new expansions of government authority on the premise that these expansions will restrict liberties of the people, such as many of our counter-terrorism methods or airport security or narcotics laws and subsidies for education or food, it is a little naive, perhaps even stupid, to believe that no expansions of government power ever liberated people against tyranny. This is often the sort of belief that somehow reconciles an idea that white men dressed in sheets committing acts of terrorism were responsible for the expanded liberties of black men who were former slaves, as an example.

It is certainly true that a libertarian and the thread of the intellectual movements up from classical liberalism often opposes such abhorrent uses of power as to condemn members of society to second-class status as had been the case of various immigrants, new or unpopular religious faiths, slaves and former slaves, and women. It is however necessary to grant that it was agitation toward the government by its subjects who were motivated to share and expound upon the great advantages that these groups of people would provide were they to be unshackled of the rules of society, often laid down by that government, and that it was the eventual use of the powers of government which often overturned such abusive notions. Had governments not seen fit to set out the powers to make such declarations and resignations as to the status of "others" within our midst, this might not have been necessary of course. Since governments do so, and importantly, did so during the supposed eras of liberty and even eras supposedly governed by reasonable men (crucially, these were almost always men of course), it's clear that agitation is needed to get governments to stop doing so or even to do their opposite number.

One of the principle missions of a libertarian is to overcome a conservative bias toward the status quo, where that status quo preferences actions which are contrary to liberties (both economic and social). This is why when conservatives have made their ridiculous claims about defending Medicare and have to (if they are intellectually honest rather than political hacks) acknowledge that their think tanks came up with a health care reform very similar to that of Obama and the present Congress run by these supposedly out-of control liberal Democrats/Marxists, libertarians have some free reign to criticize. "We" condemned those reform plans and focused largely on the problems of health care caused by previous intrusions into the markets (such as preferential tax treatment for first-dollar health care insurance). It is also why we have usually little interest in the imperial designs of American military might or the preference for preserving "American culture" against waves of immigrants. These things make us annoying to other political groups in their turns. But in the pragmatic sense, it is necessary to look for things and methods that will work to expand our liberties and freedoms, whatever those may be. It appears, with some misfortune, that the government will not magically be removed by our wishes and it is thus necessary to remove where possible and to disclose where not what that government does to limit freedoms (and why) and what may be done, even by that government, to expand those freedoms instead (even if often the answer is write a law which overturns previous bureaucracies).

This is a very different mission statement than to propose that the erosion of liberty from some previous epoch is at hand. It is far simpler to simply expound upon where and what erosion of liberty is ongoing and to oppose new obstructions than to compare our history and weight the barriers and obstructions of those eras against our own. This is most probably a game that the present cannot win over the past with great reliability and in particular with a broad appeal anyway. Libertarians tend to have enough trouble with the premise that they are lumped together on the conservative end of the left-right American political spectrum to have to simultaneously contend with the (sometimes popular) notions that this is a political philosophy which has a limited racial or gender based appeal and does not serve to advance the causes of any social demographic other than wealthy white businessmen. It is best not to publicly pine away for the supposedly heady days of the 1790s as a consequence.
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