Monday, 17 July 2006

Opposition to Tyranny

Ideologues of all varieties often think of themselves as opposed to tyranny. And so they ascribe to opposing ideologies a tendency to produce tyranny. On this point they may be largely correct, while remaining blind to the tendencies of their own ideology to do the same.

Years ago I took on the mantle of liberal, and still I like it as well as any - though arguments can be made that progressive is the better label for the ideals I ascribe to. And so it was that "conservative" philosophy was what supposedly stood in opposition to my ideals, and indeed it has been rare that I could rightly be described as conservative. And yet I have often found individuals who self-label as conservative to be decent folk as genuinely committed to principles founded on moral behavior as many of my liberal colleagues who are quite genuinely committed to principles of equity and opportunity for all.

During my college years I still recall the excitement with which a friend extolled a new ism, which seemed to capture the piece of liberalism which was true and right, but without some of the naivete often ascribed to it. I listened, not fully convinced, to his description of libertarianism which in the late 70s was far less well known than it is today. Certainly the notion of individualistic freedom which was already engrained into me as an American was appealing. It seems that only a few days or weeks later, that the same friend came back disillusioned, describing these libertarians as nothing more than laissez-faire capitalists minus the puritanical authoritarianism of our caricature of traditional conservatives.

Reagan co-opted the economic piece of libertarianism and branded the Republican party with it, much to my dismay, but undeniably to the political advantage of Republicans who now tapped into a whole new constituency raised in a more permissive generation not likely to go back to the more restrictive brand of conservatism, but amenable to this new animal. But it is this economic libertarianism which I now find more pernicious than the stodgy old-fashioned conservatism, and more in opposition to my own ideals.

But there are pieces of truth in any way of thinking. What we should agree on is that tyranny must be avoided. Libertarians seek to avoid the tyranny of big government, liberals seek to avoid the tyranny of big business, conservatives the tyranny of permissiveness, et cetera. The ideals always feel principled, but the reality is that mundane concepts like checks and balances remain the best weapon against encroaching tyranny, and at any given time the greatest threat of tyranny lies in the hands of whomever it is that holds the most power. Jack Whelan, at After the Future writes:
in the world we live in the real threat of tyranny comes not from the political sector, but from the economic. For me the fundamental flaw in Libertarian thinking is its failure to recognize this. Tyranny derives from the abuse of power, and so it follows that the greatest threat to freedom comes from those who have the greatest concentrations of power. Look around you. Does that power lie in the hands of Liberal congressmen and professors? Of course not. It lies with those factions within American society which have enormous economic power. And the greatest threat to American democracy lies not in the power of big government if it serves the will of the broad electorate, but in the power of big government if it serves the will of those with enormous economic power.

The Libertarians fixation with freedom and economic prosperity seems to blind them to how their emphasis of them leads to problems with the distribution of power. They seem not to care at all about the dangers associated with the growing concentration of economic power in fewer and fewer hands. They seem not to realize how that concentration of power is the direct result of their hard work to pull back government power as a counterbalance to economic power. The kind of crony capitalism that we're seeing in Washington now is not caused by a failure of conservatives to live up to their ideals; it is the inevitable result of economic power moving into the territory from which good government has retreated. If the government won't stand as a counterbalance to economic power, it inevitably winds up being coopted by it. And then neither principled conservatives nor principled Liberals get what they want--they both have to deal with a big, bloated government serving the needs of big pharma, big oil, or the big companies that make their money from military spending.

He also points to an excellent article at Washington Monthly by Alan Wolfe "Why Conservatives Can't Govern"
Eager to salvage conservatism from the wreckage of conservative rule, right-wing pundits are furiously blaming right-wing politicians for failing to adhere to right-wing convictions. . . . A conservative president and an even more conservative Congress must be repudiated to enable genuine conservatism to survive. . . . [They say the Bush presidency failed] because Bush and his Republican allies in Congress borrowed big government and foreign-policy idealism from the left. . . . Of course, many of these dissidents extolled the president's conservative leadership when he was riding high in the polls. But the real flaw in their argument is akin to that of Trotskyites who, when confronted with the failures of communism in Cuba, China and the Soviet Union, would claim that real communism had never been tried. If leaders consistently depart in disastrous ways from their underlying political ideology, there comes a point where one has to stop just blaming the leaders and start questioning the ideology.
The brilliance of liberal democracy as conceived by our founding fathers was that it spoke to ideals but relied on the mundane instruments of checks and balances to keep new tyrannies at bay. If it needs any tweaking, that should be based on any new imbalances that may creep in. It's why I am often a broken record here concerned about corporate wealth and power, for surely that is the primary clear imbalance in our own country, and by extension to a large degree throughout the world, which of course has plenty of pockets of extreme tyranny of other descriptions which are also to be despised. One tyranny cannot justify itself simply by spending some of its energy in opposition to another tyranny. I suspect Osama bin Laden is genuinely appalled by Western profligacy even as he is blind to the horrific nature of his response to it. We should rightly oppose the tyranny of bin Laden or Saddam or Mugabe or Kim Jong Il, but we needn't therefore champion the growing disparity of power in our own country just because it can be manipulated in opposition to the former -- even if it had been done more competently.

Right now the most important thing we can do as Americans is to preserve our democratic institutions and insure that we retain pluralism and restore trust in our vote counting mechanism. We are certainly due for a correction - if that correction is made unavailable by corruption and tampering with our democratic processes it will be huge loss not only to America, but to the world at large as well.

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