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Monday, September 1, 2008

Freedom Is Not the Issue? It Just Ain’t So!

James Bovard is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy, Terrorism and Tyranny, Lost Rights, and other books.

The Friends of Leviathan are once again encouraging people to forget about freedom. In a May op-ed piece in the New York Times, columnist David Brooks announced, “The central political debate of the 20th century was over the role of government. The right stood for individual freedom while the left stood for extending the role of the state. But the central debate of the 21st century is over quality of life. In this new debate, it is necessary but insufficient to talk about individualfreedom. Political leaders have to also talk about . . . ‘the whole way we live our lives.’ ”

Brooks, the “liberal” media’s favorite “conservative,” has long sought to place a halo over Big Government. In 1996 he urged Americans to forget their fears of politicians and embrace “national greatness.” He proclaimed that “energetic government is good for its own sake. It raises the sights of the individual. It strengthens common bonds. It boosts national pride. It continues the great national project.” Brooks’s paean to government was almost indistinguishable from a 1932 tribute by Benito Mussolini, who declared, “It is the State which educates its citizens in civic virtue, gives them a consciousness of their mission and welds them into unity; harmonizing their various interests through justice, and transmitting to future generations the mental conquests of science, of art, of law, of human solidarity.”

But fascist ideas are not tolerated in the United States—if they are labeled fascistic.

In last May’s article Brooks gushed over how British conservatives are placing “more emphasis on environmental issues, civility, assimilation and the moral climate.” When Brooks talks about “moral climate,” he presumably means politicians lecturing citizens about the need to act responsibly. Brooks ignores the fact that the greatest irresponsibility comes from politicians. Consider his reaction to one of the worst abuses of the Bush presidency.

Brooks was a gung-ho advocate of invading Iraq. In the days after the Abu Ghraib torture photos appeared in May 2004, he bewailed; “We were so sure we were using our might for noble purposes. . . . Far from being blinded by greed, we were blinded by idealism.” Brooks and other pundits congratulated themselves for having swallowed politicians’ hokum and leading their readers and the nation over a cliff.

His response to the torture scandal epitomizes how he wants Americans to view government. People are supposed to believe wonderful things about it. Then, when government commits atrocities, people are supposed to “move along because there is nothing to see here.” Instead, it is on to the next opportunity to put government on a pedestal and urge everyone to bow down to it.

The great political issue of our times is not liberalism versus conservatism, or capitalism versus socialism, but statism—the belief that government is inherently superior to the citizenry, that progress consists of extending the realm of compulsion, that vesting arbitrary power in government officials will make the people happy eventually. What type of entity is the state? Is it a highly efficient, purring engine, like a hovercraft sailing deftly above the lives of ordinary citizens? Or is it a lumbering giant bulldozer that rips open the soil and ends up clear-cutting the lives of people it was created to help?

The issue of government coercion has been taken off the radar screen of politically correct thought. The more government power has grown, the more unfashionable it becomes to discuss or recognize the abuses, as though it were bad form to count the dead from government interventions. There seems to be a gentleman’s agreement among many pundits and political scientists to pretend that government is something loftier than it actually is and to wear white gloves when discussing the nature of the state.

Government Without Romance

Unfortunately, individuals often are unaware of government’s true record because the media are working hand in glove with the ruling class.

Statists rely on political arithmetic that begins by erasing all of government’s abuses from the ledger. Instead, people should begin by pretending that Leviathan doesn’t exist—and then ask what politicians can do to make the masses happy.

Modern political thinking largely consists of glorifying poorly functioning political machinery—the threats, bribes, and legislative cattle prods by which some people are made to submit to other people. It is a delusion to think of the state as something loftier than all the edicts, penalties, prison sentences, and taxes it imposes.

Like Tom Sawyer persuading his friends to pay him for the privilege of painting his aunt’s fence, modern politicians expect people to be grateful for the chance to pay for the fetters that government attaches to them. Even though the average family now pays more in taxes than it spends for housing, clothing, and food combined, tax burdens are not an issue for most American political commentators.

To call for government intervention is to demand that some people be given the power to compel others to submit. But coercion is a blunt instrument that produces many ill effects aside from the purported government goal. To rely on coercion to achieve progress is like relying on bulldozers and steamrollers for routine transit. The question is not whether a person can eventually reach a goal driving a steamroller, but how much damage is left in his wake and how much faster the destination could be reached without crushing everything along the way.

Americans and Washington

Many people in Washington believe that Americans are so helpless that they cannot be fulfilled unless their rulers give them a reason to live. Brooks proclaimed in 1996 that “ultimately, American purpose can find its voice only in Washington.” He did not explain where exactly in the memos, meetings, and machinations which engross the capital that “American purpose” arises. Brooks warned that Americans’ mental health depends on the feds proclaiming a purpose for the people: “Without vigorous national vision, we are plagued by anxiety and disquiet.”

Recent opinion polls show that much of the anxiety in this nation is the result of the follies and deceits of the federal government. It was government and politicians, not freedom, that failed Americans in the new century. It was not freedom that wrecked the U.S. dollar. It was not freedom that made federal spending explode. It was not freedom that spurred a foreign war that has already left tens of thousands of Americans dead and maimed, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead. It was not freedom which announced that the Constitution and the statute book no longer bind the president.

Brooks became a media darling in part because of his vehement warnings about the danger of cynicism. But it is not cynical to have more faith in freedom than in subjugation. It is not cynical to have more faith in individuals vested with rights than in bureaucrats armed with power. It is not cynical to suspect that governments which have cheated so often in the past may not be dealing straight today.

Trust no intellectual who tells you not to worry about Leviathan.

  • James Bovard is the author of ten books, including Public Policy Hooligan, Attention Deficit Democracy, and Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty. Find him on Twitter @JimBovard.