Sunday, March 13, 2005

The New Politics Cont'd.

Now down to business. Here are the issues before the House: Matt Welch argued for reshaping the Democrats as a party committed to limiting the encroachments of state power. Dan Munz took exception, on the grounds that "government is just like anything else: In good hands, it does good," and he cited the Clinton presidency as an example of the good uses of government power in good hands.

In all likelihood (I hope), Dan's opposition was not to the specific proposals Matt insinuated. How could it be? They were: budgetary restrain (good idea); cutting the tax burden of those people who would benefit from a lower tax burden (good idea); abolishing the FCC (great idea); federalism in general and drug issues in particular (good idea); fighting the government's Eminent Domain abuses (long overdue idea); and junking knee-jerk anti-free trade rhetoric in favor of policies that will make globalization more equitable (unavoidably necessary idea).

The objection Dan and maybe a lot of other Democrats will make is not to taking positions that happen to be anti-government because they coincide with liberal values, or even to using anti-government rhetoric and policy instrumentally, but to adopting anti-government positions for their own sake.

This is a pity. I'm in a difficult position to say why: the basis of my own libertarianism is unsticking principles of freedom-maximization from principles of government minimization. But here goes.

First, a historical point: The Clinton presidency was anything but exemplary of the benign application of state power. Clinton's record on civil liberties was a horror-show, and it was Clinton's concessions to Republican authoritarians (e.g. the Effective Death Penalty and Anti-terrorism Act) that laid the groundwork for the Bush administration's civil liberties abuses. The reason the Patriot Act and its successor policies passed with barely a whimper is that the public was conditioned to accept, and maybe even affirm, an erosion of its own freedom. They had become, to coin a term, "normalized" to it. Clinton wasn't the originator of this phenomenon. But he was an enabler.

Now a political argument. Dan writes:
Liberals don’t dislike government. To many liberals, Reagan’s declaration that "government is the problem" amounted to political hate speech. I still bristle at Clinton’s "era of big government" schtick.
I hope he doesn't mean this. Liberals don't dislike government? Everyone raise your hands who's dealt with the friendly service at the DMV. Seen payroll taxes deducted from a paycheck. Been turned away from an R-rated movie, from buying cigarettes, liquor, or pornography. Been told what to eat, drink, or smoke, and threatened on pain of legal sanction for defiance. Been subject to encroachment on property through pointless zoning regulations. Etc. These are things people dislike, and dislike profoundly, and these are everyday expressions of government power in people's lives. Liberals might rationalize them on any number of grounds, but liberals are still people. If they actually enjoy these infringements, they have become zombies, but I'm optimistic enough to doubt that.

Government power is a corrosive thing. In principle it is possible to use it for justified and beneficial ends. In practice, it tends to be used for just the opposite. The reason for liberals to be at best skeptical of exansions of government authority and power is that the things liberals care about most are often threatened by them. Let's say for the sake of argument that universal healthcare is a Good and Necessary Thing. Its enactment requires an expansion of the sphere of government into individual life. This is a trade-off that can't simply be wished away. And an expansion of government power is content-neutral. It enables Good and Necessary Things one moment; and in the next, the very same expanded power enables Bad Things. I don't know exactly how to decide what's more important in a particular case, doing Good Things or limiting government power. Denial that this tension exists is pure illiberalism.

As I said, Dan's problem with the "Goldwater Democrats" idea is a problem with the justificatory process and not its conclusions:
None of the causes he listed - none of them - are supported by liberals because of a belief in limited government. Our support for gay marriage stems from a belief in equal rights; how many liberals would use the limited-government argument to oppose a constitutional amendment guaranteeing gays the right to marry? Support for environmentalism and marijuana legalization stem from a belief in providing the best natural environment and health care possible, irrespective of ideology. Our paeans to fiscal responsibility are premised largely on our disgust with what created our current deficits: A dubious foreign adventure, and two unnecessary tax cuts that screwed the middle class with their pants on.
I doubt a lot of this very much. The limited-government argument against the FMA is the argument that government has absolutely no business imposing moral (cough, religious) norms on a civil institution. That just is the contrapositive version of the equal rights argument. Support for environmentalism and marijuana legalization cannot possibly be rooted in the same concern, and the latter in particular surely has very little to do with wishing for an improvement in national healthcare. The reason marijuana should be legal is not that it's good for people with certain kinds of serious illnesses (though it is, and that's why bans on medical marijuana are beyond morally indecent); marijuana should be legal because there isn't one, not one, non-bullshit reason for it to be illegal, and because absent such reasons, government exceeds its legitimate authority in constricting personal freedom. I don't deny that there are self-professed "liberals" who disagree; there are also self-professed "liberals" behind the ubiquitous bans on tobacco smoking. Liberalism is not equivalent to bien-pensant PC puritanism, and liberals are in a heap of immediate and long-term political trouble if they don't realize that.

Now permit me a philosophical moment. It occurs to me that I've never really defined my own libertarianism on this blog, so I'll try to do so.

What is libertarianism? I ask because the definition seems so multi-form. The most concrete and specific definition I would give without fear of committing myself to any propositions I would reject is that libertarianism is the political philosophy that seeks to maximize individual liberty wherever possible and to the full extent possible. One might add further provisos making exceptions for temporary suspensions of liberty in gravely urgent circumstances. As for calculating how individual liberty is maximized, I leave that as a question for empirical political and social science, the only fields, however flawed, that have a prayer of providing an answer.

The conditions for defining libertarianism among a probable majority of self-professed libertarians (leaving aside the anarcho-capialist sub-set) might more accurately be described as favoring an extension of Smithian/Ricardoian (is that the right adjective for Ricardo?), or perhaps Friedmanian economics across the full range of political and social issues. Just how such an extension is made is certainly contentious---though that never stops individual (self-avowed) libertarians from claiming that their own unique political theory is an indubitably valid deduction based on the (primarily) economic premises that serve as first principles.

If libertarianism is going to be defined as a principle of minimizing the involvement of government in the lives of citizens A) in all cases without exception, or B) to the extent that's practicable running asymptotically to the point where the state ceases to exist (that captures the essence of the fork)), then I think we can rather easily identify counterexamples that force a re-examination of the principle both its strong (A) and weak (B) forms.

Consider the state in which the government collects exactly zero tax revenue, and functions to do nothing other than provide a collective defense and define national boundaries, with the funding for the military coming from revenues garnered from business conducted in precisely the same manner as a corporation, namely providing for-profit goods and services to individual consumers at market-determined prices rather than conducting involuntary collective transactions at arbitrarily determined prices (setting aside the issue of second-order justification of market values, i.e., in virtue of what the market price is the right price). If we want to get really detailed, we can say that the government builds its military from volunteers drawn from across the state, who are quite happy to join the army because the government's various agitprops for recruitment (also funded by business profits) is consistently successful at maintaining necessary troop levels.

This, I think is the minimal state. (If there's something more minimal I'd like to hear it). I hope we can all imagine the infinitude of ways that such a state could as easily be a libertarian hell as a libertarian heaven. Since there is a absolute vacuum of centralized authority in all areas except the distribution of military force, any private entity, however benign or malevolent, can seize whatever spheres of domestic life it is within its power to seize. The composition of the government itself, whose members wouldn't really be responsible for anything other than approving defense budgets and nationalistic ad campaigns, could take any form whatsoever, from one man rule to Athenian democracy. Those libertarians who would contend that the "invisible hand of the market" or something like that will preserve a persistent equilibrium in which maximal liberty is available are not contending much more than "just because I say so." If the state's only concern is national security, then any private entity has perfect freedom to infringe on the liberties of others so long as he/it/they does/do not overreach into the highly limited sphere of purely state affairs. Such a state could (and likely would, given how fundamentally crappy human nature is) devolve into an amalgamation of corporate-controlled regions in which individuals have zero political power and only as much personal liberty as is necessary to support target levels of productivity. Those who say that what we're actually talking about are separate states that are all ruled despotically are ignoring crucial socio-cultural data: common national identity and self-identification, common culture, common language, common demographic distributions, cross-regional unified military service, popular acceptance of the state's legitimacy within its recognized boundaries, etc.

Furthermore, if we were to ignore all that for the sake of argument and just assume that the above description is not of a single state but of several, then the strong-form state-minimalism is still making a fatal concession, namely that the potential for private-sector despotism and oppression is built into its definition. The point of all this, is less concrete and more meta- than I have perhaps suggested. There quite simply is no a priori logical relationship between the state-minimization principle and the liberty-maximization principle, so any connection between them is going to be (excluding the weird analytical philosophers' problem cases of contingent a priori and necessary a posteriori propositions) contingent and synthetic. In fact, what we have seen is that any formal resemblance between the states governed on liberty-maximization principles and the states governed on strong-form state-minimization principles are going to be purely incidental and indicative of nothing either in counterfactual or future instantiations. And you'll find as well that the same is true---any correlation is accidental---between weak-form state-minimization theory and liberty-maximization theory, though the contingency and unrepresentativeness of such correlation is easier to mask because the weak form of the theory is willing to make compromises.

How does this relate back to, say, gay marriage? Well, since I've already gone on too long, I'll leave it at this: I think it's contentious whether or not legal ratification of gay marriage is justified on pure state-minimization grounds. (I think it is, as per above.) But this doesn't matter because the state-minimization criterion is fatally flawed and hence unreliable as a rubric of individual liberty expansion. Conversely, the legalization of gay marriage, I think, is quite self-evidently justified on maximization of personal liberty grounds. And this poses a problem for liberals like Dan who apparently reject libertarianism: what is deficient about such a justification of gay marriage or gay rights in general?

If I have mischaracterized libertarianism I'll be pleased to hear why. But I'd contend, echoing Wittgenstein, that labels like "libertarian" are empty vessels, and the only definition of libertarianism that is even remotely intelligible to me is one that proceeds from some form of liberty-maximization principles.

If one's agenda is only and always shrinking the size of the state, then one would be foolish not to pursue policies that achieve that end, but don't insist that there is some indivisible equivalence between that aim and one that has nothing, except perhaps accidentally, to do with it, namely the expansion of liberty.

Here’s why my initial comment on Matt's column was that he nailed it: The connection between liberty-maximization and state-minimization might not be true in virtue of meaning, but it is a real connection despite its syntheticity. For the duration of the Bush administration, embracing the former and embracing the latter will look like very much the same thing. The point Dan misses, I think, is that they will resemble each other pretty closely even when Democrats are in power, too.

Unlike Matt, I'm at least registered as a Democrat. But let's be citizens first and Democrats afterwards. We'll be better Democrats, and better democrats, for doing so.


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