Monday, July 20, 2009

Pope, Cop, Nanny, or None of the Above: A left-libertarian critique of the American political landscape.

Conservative Republicans all along the spectrum, from socially liberal fiscal conservatives to the most frightening religious demagogues and neoconservative economic and social Darwinists, expound on the threat posed by the 'liberal nanny state' (as advocated by moderate Democrats and some moderate Republi) that would deprive individual Americans of the right to manage their own risks in return for exonerating them of responsibility for their own lives and success or failure. The popular movement among libertarians, at least for the most part, has been roughly parallel to conservative Republicans: the nanny state is a dangerous threat to individual freedom and responsibility. Indeed, the Libertarian Party has nominated two different 'rogue' conservative Republicans (Congressman Ron Paul of Texas and former Congressman Bob Barr of Florida) as its presidential candidate in recent memory. Though both join with libertarians in opposing the nanny state and strong central government (and Paul, at least, shares many libertarian economic principles), neither is a great advocate of individual personal freedoms in areas where conservative Republicans would restrict them in the social sphere. Barr is an outright right wing culture warrior, while Paul shares many of their tendencies and can be linked (either through direct authorship or allowing his name to be used as endorsement) to questionable racial views.

Liberals (and some centrists and some few conservatives), on the other hand, tend to express strong opposition to the 'police state' advocated by neoconservatives and many of their allies within the Republican Party. They view many law enforcement and national security measures advocated by the right as violations of individual civil liberties and violating constiutional republican protections of individual freedoms and privacy and unconstitutional extensions of government power without writ or warrant. They see habeas corpus, right to fair trial in the legal system, protections from cruel and unusual punishment, and proper procedure by law enforcement and national security personelle as inviolable and suspensions of these rights or extensions of government power that supersede these rights as extremely dangerous.

Liberals (and many centrists) also oppose what they see as the extension of religious doctrine into civil law and the establishment of a state church (or at least a state governed on principles of religious and cultural chauvinism as dictated by a specific group of churches) to the exclusion of believers of all other stripes and non-believers from full participation in the American system and full rights under the American constitution. They see such reform as fundamentally opposed to their view of the American spirit of freedom of conscience and antithetical to the freedom of religion granted by the First Amendment. They see the threat of Dominionism and greater restriction of American freedoms in the name of religious belief inevitable if such reform is established on a national level.

All of these arguments have some validity. Certainly, the nanny state imposes constraints on choices Americans should be free to make. Seatbelt laws and motorcycle helmet laws for adults able to make their own decisions, smoking restrictions that remove elements of choice from the owners of bars or restaurants and their patrons, auto insurance mandates (which are always unfunded and provide no assistance for those forced to buy auto insurance to avoid criminalization), certain gun control laws (I favor handgun licenses for self-defense, as long as criminal codes against gun violence are enforced, but support assault weapons bans) and other similar 'nanny state' laws do restrict personal freedom in return for questionable or negligible protection of society at large... and unfunded mandates forcing everyone to comply regardless of financial ability, without providing necessary assistance for those without the financial freedom to comply do not really do anything to protect society because those who cannot afford to comply with the law simply violate it. Society is no safer and the working poor are criminalized.

Since it is the advocates of the nanny state who claim to be the defenders of the 'have nots', this makes a great deal of nanny state legislation (such as auto insurance mandates) particularly offensive. Of course, much of this 'nanny state' style legislation is actually supported as much by centrists of both parties and even some conservatives as liberals when it comes time to actually vote for or against it. Conservatives are as likely to support mandates that support corporate industries as liberals, and campaign donations are often more important than political ideology in developing and supporting these mandates. The government mandate forcing the entire country to switch to digital television transmission enjoyed broad bipartisan support.

However, many elements of the 'nanny state' (such as child protection laws and agencies to enforce them) serve an important purpose. The welfare state, health care reform, food stamps, social security, unemployment, and other key elements of any society's economic safety net are frequently decried as being part of the nanny state as well. In many of these instances, the conservative defense of 'personal responsibility' is really a defense of economic and social Darwinism. No one is 'personally responsible' for a recession, for corporate layoffs, for corporate outsourcing, or for catastrophic illness in such a manner that they are undeserving of society's support and assistance. Indeed, such a social safety net ultimately strengthens society. Nor does it threaten individual liberty if properly administered, and those alleging it is improperly administered do not wish to administer it properly. They allege it is improperly administered as part of a campaign to scrap it.

One can clearly, then, oppose real restrictions on personal freedom and personal choice without choosing to abandon those genuinely in need of assistance. It is also clear that while there is a real encroachment on personal freedoms by well-meaning laws written 'for everyone's good', this danger is being heavily exaggerated in many areas. If one is worried about the nanny state, one can oppose stupid measures with intelligent fact rather than railing against the dystopian future in which the government changes all our diapers.

On the flip side, the threat of the police state has proven very real at more than one point in our nation's history. The internment of Japanese and German Americans (not aliens, but American citizens, and in the former case frequently many American citizens who had never seen Japan or spoken Japanese) during WWII showed the damage a paranoid government can do to its own. Indeed, there is evidence that the post-war growth of the American Nazi Party was in part due to young German-American internees in camps like Crystal City feeling that the only people standing up on their behalf were the Nazis who led protests against camp administration. During the 1950s, the Cold War led to the Red Scare and the era of McCarthyism, HUAC, and the black list. Americans were prosecuted, lost their jobs, or were placed under government surveillance because of suspect political beliefs. The number of Americans actually involved in subversive activities was relatively tiny, and even some of the guilty verdicts are suspect in the eyes of objective history. The government's more recent domestic security programs undertaken as part of the So Called War on Terror, or earlier (and ongoing) violations of civil liberties as part of the ridiculous Sitzkrieg on Drugs, show that this danger has not at all receded.

On levels closer to home, law enforcement strategies undertaken by Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York City and Police Chief William Bratton of Los Angeles (who served as Giuliani's police commisioner before mocing to LA) have shown dramatic results that have justified violations of proper police procedure and civil liberties in the eyes of many Americans. Making the trains run on time justifies quasi-fascism for those whose only concern is getting to work on time. Aggressive, intimidating police tactics in low income neighborhoods are praised by the middle class if it makes them feel safer.

California's Proposition 8 stands out as the most jarring example of the attempt to establish the religious state. That it occurred in the midst of seeming positive reform in the direction of gay rights only magnifies the dangers inherent in fundamentalist demagogues seeking to outflank legislatures and courts by appealing directly to the population by the means of misleading and disingenuous ad campaigns. It is an excellent example of why republican government is often superior to direct democracy... the ballot initiative allows the majority to force its will on the minority regardless of moral perogative. Liberals advocating term limits and greater legislation by direct democracy should be aware of the warning implicit in Proposition 8.

It is not the only example, however. Though the religious right appeared to lose power across much of the nation during the recent presidential election, it appears to be establishing a greater stranglehold on control of the Republican Party. Local and state governments have seen bitter fights to establish anti-educational measures undermining the school system by seeking to force the teaching of junk science embraced by idealogues in the areas of biology and climatology.

I think it is fair to say that the forces behind the police state and the state church are much more powerful than those behind the nanny state. While the nanny state should be repudiated by civil libertarians, priority should be given to the real and long-term dangers to freedom posed by the human urge for security and the very human desire not to have one's misconceptions challenged by facts.

Food for thought.


Mike b.t.r.m said...

It is a real emotional rollercoaster reading your posts. So much of what you say I'm just cheering away: Yes! Right on! Then bam, it hits, and then, I'm like: No! No! It is all enjoyable to read. I don't know how many parts I want to pick at, but the biggest one that bothers me is the safety net concept. You make the point that personal responsibility can't guarentee protection against something like a recession. I agree. But time and time again, as you have aptly gave examples of in your article, the government has abused their power. Make good laws, oppose or abolish bad laws, but I oppose every dime of government financial expansion. If something is critical that we are lacking, then we have to cut something else. I'm a bit of a hawk, but if I were able to cut deals I'd put any military cuts on the table at least if we could turn the tide on this spending. Like you said, once people can't afford the things they need, they tend to get them anyway, only illegally. The feds are proven, reliable, consistant wasters of money. We've got to stop it now. Proposition 8 a threat on freedom? What activity does prop 8 stop compared to financial servatude of people who can't pay for fuel get to their place of employment. Give me a name of someone who has been arrested for "illegally marrying". Anyone you know that has been criminally charged for visiting a same-sex partner in a hospital? Where are these travisties occurring? I guess those stories must be being suppressed by that right wing radical media. Mike b.t.r.m

Mike b.t.r.m. said...

From your background that you have shared, I'm pretty sure you are familiar with the Bible story of Gideon. I see the government's response to the mortgage meltdown much like the Midianites response to Gideon's attack. By panicking they ended up fighting each other. The tarp bill, stimulus bill, and expanding budget is killing our own economy that it was trying to save.

Chris Richards said...

I was a Republican once, and while I was never a social conservative I was quite fiscally conservative. I've always been of the thinking of Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney, William Scranton, and other former Republican icons (all of whom would be defined as 'socialist' by the element dominating the GOP these days) in advocating spending money intelligently rather than not spending money at all. When conservatives say 'we can't spend our way out of this mess' they, of course, are right in principle. At the same time, one cannot do what is necessary to address and attempt to solve real problems for free.

Defense cuts and tax increases are both political bombs no one likes to touch. However, we should be spending our defense money more intelligently and weeding out corruption in the contract system. We are, for instance, paying civilian contractors far more money to do jobs the army used to do itself for far less (and frequently did better) in the 1950s and 1960s. The privatization of many of these jobs was pitched as saving the government money, but instead it has became a slough of corporate corruption. The government really can do some things for itself far better, because it doesn't need to make a profit from itself. Remember that the money wasted on iffy privatization schemes is taxpayer money too, and taxpayer money spent on government programs isn't making people who are supposed to be making a living in the free market rich at our expense like privatization schemes do.

I agree with the pay-go system you advocate in theory, especially if defense spending can be cleaned up and made honest, wasteful privatization schemes can be scrapped, and intelligent, efficient defense cuts can me made to make our military more relevant to the real world of today.

The problem with pay-go, though, is that no one wants THEIR pet programs cut. Even in a fully functional system, eventually one has cut all the bad spending and one has to either cut good spending or raise taxes.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, another Republican icon, said, 'Taxes are the price we pay for living in a civilized society.'

A simplified, well-regulated, well-enforced (by which I mean eliminating loop holes for the rich and prosecuting white collar tax evaders rather than taking the homes of blue collar families) tax code would increase government revenue without the need for huge tax increases... but a reform of the progressive tax system to raise taxes at the top is needed as well.

Keep in mind that in the period of greatest American prosperity, marginal tax rates for the top tax bracket were at 90%. I am not advocating a 90% marginal rate for the richest Americans, but I believe a marginal rate of 40% (the current rate is about 30%, after the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush tax cuts) would be reasonable for the top bracket.

As for the issue of the abuse of government power, bad government is not an argument against good government. We, as citizens, and our elected representative, as responsible officers, should view government not as an authoritarian power structure but as the nexus of communication by which society administers to its group needs. Far too many people fear or covet power, rather than understanding that in a republican system of government it is the constitutional system itself which 'rules' rather than the elected officials.

Prop 8 means gay couples are not free to marry.

From a basic conservative standpoint, the right to free contract is one of the fundamental property rights government is designed to protect. Depriving individuals of that right, by law, and worse, /constitutionally/ depriving them of that right, is a constraint of freedom and a violation of their rights as American citizens.

It is absolutely ridiculous to say that someone is 'free' because they are not in jail, if their right to enter into a free contract is constrained by law.

Chris Richards said...

Speaking, again as a former Republican, I have this to say about the government's reaction to the mortgage meltdown: it is a classic conservative response.

It mirrors Herbert Hoover's bailout of the banks during the Great Depression (which DID do a great deal of good in the long term but did not ameliorate the conditions of the depression in any way) and Ronald Reagan's bailout of Chrysler in the 1980s. It also mirrors the Liberal Democratic (despite the name, they are Reagan-W. Bush style conservatives) Party's bailout of the Japanese corporate trusts during the 1990s... a bailout that has kept the corporations going strong but has had unfortunate side effects on the microeconomy.

TARP, the Paulson bailout, was straight from Hoover and was a horrible decision. In my view. I am reserving judgment on the auto bailouts. In my view they are good if they work and bad if they fail. I think they should have been structured in a way that granted less freedom from consequence to the management and secured American jobs and manufacturing more solidly. I think that both labor and management should have taken pay cuts (particularly the high level execs responsible for years of bad business decisions) and that the companies should have been structured as cooperatives on the model of Saturn before GM bought it back from the employees (during which time it was immensely successful, which is why GM bought it back) so as to assure that the same corporate leadership could not continue to pat themselves on the back and mismanage things.

The economic bill could have been better. I would liked to see a more straightforward New Deal-style infrastructure, social, technological, and industrial investment program rather than the mess that resulted from 'bi-partisan' compromise. I'd also like to see less welfare for big corporations and more for small business and entrepreneurs.

That's the problem with an essentially conservative administration, however. President Obama appeared to be willing to add New Deal elements to a Hooverian program, but not to launch and actual New Deal.