The modern Reagan Republican Party, the modern conservative movement, if you want to know what it’s going to do … imagine a table and around it are all different groups. And on the issue that brings them to politics, not on everything, but the issue that moves their vote, what they want from the government is to be left alone. Taxpayers -- I run Americans for Tax Reform -- don’t raise my taxes. The Second Amendment community -- I’m on the board of the National Rifle Association -- leave our guns alone. Four million members of the NRA, five million guys with concealed-carry … they don’t go knocking on doors saying you should own guns; they don’t insist public schools teach books with titles like Heather Has Two Hunters. They just … leave us alone and we’re happy. The home-schooling movement, now about two million students, maybe 600,000 parents; the property-rights movement, particularly strengthened after Kelo; the business community that doesn’t want subsidies, they just want to not be taxed and not regulated. The guys who are in Washington asking for checks are not part of the coalition. . . .
Around the table you’ve got Pat Buchanan and others who look and see all the fissures on secondary and tertiary issues, and he’s right. But on the vote-moving primary issue, everybody’s got their foot in the center and they’re not in conflict on anything. The guy who wants to spend all day counting his money, the guy who wants to spend all day fondling his weaponry, and the guy who wants to go to church all day may look at each other and say, "That’s pretty weird, that’s not what I would do with my spare time, but that does not threaten my ability to go to church, have my guns, have my money, have my properties, run by my business, home-school my kids." … Grover Norquist
If government is necessary, bad government, at least for conservatives, is inevitable, and conservatives have been exceptionally good at showing just how bad it can be. Hence the truth revealed by the Bush years: Bad government--indeed, bloated, inefficient, corrupt, and unfair government--is the only kind of conservative government there is. Conservatives cannot govern well for the same reason that vegetarians cannot prepare a world-class boeuf bourguignon: If you believe that what you are called upon to do is wrong, you are not likely to do it very well. Alan Wolfe
In the last few years, I have gone from lionizing this president's courage and fortitude to being dismayed at his incompetence and now to being resigned to mistrusting every word he speaks. I have never hated him. But now I can see, at least, that he is a liar on some of the gravest issues before the country. He doesn't trust us with the truth. Some lies, to be sure, are inevitable - even necessary - in wartime. But when you're lying not to keep the enemy off-balance, but to maximize your own political fortunes at home, you forfeit the respect of people who would otherwise support you - and the important battle you have been tasked to wage. Andrew Sullivan
This is the post I was planning to put earlier in the week, but if you don't have much time, read Alan Wolfe's "Why Conservatives Can't Govern." It's more important and more interesting that what I'm writing here. This is but a gloss on it. He puts the whole business of conservative philosophy of governance in historical perspective and he makes as strong a case as I've seen why what we're seeing in Washington is not an example of bad conservative governance, but pretty much the only kind of governance that follows logically from conservative presuppositions. Read it, and then read it again.
My goal in this post is to look at Grover Norquist as the paradigm of the "Leave-me-alone" Libertarian faction of the the GOP which leads to the disastrous inevitable consequences that Wolfe describes. The quote above comes from a talk he gave to folks at The American Prospect. Read the whole thing if you have the time. He makes as reasonable a case for small government Libertarianism as you're likely to find, and he's a pretty savvy player on the Washington political scene. It's just interesting.
In this post I am particularly interested to engage those readers of ATF who are still not convinced that Libertarianism is the unwitting ally of tyranny. That's the title of a post I wrote in April, and it's been a theme I've pursued also here. The point is not that people like Norquist who profess to be Libertarians want or endorse tyranny--they want just the opposite--but that tyranny is the unintended consequence of their philosophy or attitude or whatever you want to call it. This is also, I believe, the point that Alan Wolfe is making. The Andrew Sullivan quote succinctly summarizes his having been forced to recognize that the embodiment of his ideals at the beginning was a sham, and that he was conned. I respect his honesty, but he still doesn't seem to understand that the Bush fiasco is the unintended consequence of his idealistic conservatism. My point, and Wolfe's, is that any conservative leader, even if he were the perfect embodiment of the conservative philosopher king, would fare no better than Bush.
I'm trying to make plausible something that I know for Libertarians is counterintuitive and hard to accept. I don't expect you to be persuaded; my only hope is that you play with these ideas as a possibility, and see if after awhile it connects the dots for you more effectively than the mental scheme that works for you now.
Before developing my reasons for why Libertarianism is a problem, let me identify the parts of Libertarianism where I share common ground. I am with Libertarians insofar as they think a society has lost its way when it becomes a top-down rather than a bottom-up process. I think that the quasi-anarchism of principled Libertarians (as opposed to those who just use it as an intellectual justification for their avarice) is rooted in a basic desire to have a bottom up society, where the freedom of individuals and local communities are free to pursue their interests with minimal interference from clumsy, unresponsive governmental bureaucracies.
I'd be fine with a form of
government in which the higher the level, the more passive it would be,
like the supreme court, waiting only to deal with those political
issues that couldn't be solved at the lower levels. I understand
people's problem with an activist court, and I understand people's
problems with an activist government, especially when the government
seems to have an agenda that seems more determined by bureaucratic
processes than in serving people's real needs. Some of that's
inevitable, but I understand where people are coming from in their
concerns about government's over-reaching. And generally speaking, the
more that can be initiated and developed locally the better. So I support that as a basic principle. Bottom-up, good. Top-down, bad.
But large, complex societies develop large, complex problems that too often cannot be dealt with exclusively on the local level. And 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.
Conservative idealists like Grover Norquist, Andrew Sullivan, and Matthew Continetti can complain all they want about how the conservative politicians they supported betrayed their conservative ideals. But their very advocacy of the small government, leave-me-alone Libertarianism promotes precisely the abuses that they condemn. Their celebration of the Ayn Randian heroic industrialist and their advocacy of economic freedom, deregulation, and privatization which seem the very embodiments of the American idea, at the same time lead to its destruction.
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--the 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.
So all the Libertarians want, according to Norquist, is for the government to leave them alone. For them the only job the government has is to make sure nobody bothers them. Well that's fine so long as every individual minds his own business and doesn't infringe on the freedom of other individuals. But what if some individuals organize and start to infringe on the rights of individuals? And what if the government isn't big or strong enough to control these organized infringers? You've got two choices--you either do nothing and let these organizations continue their abuses or you build up the government's capacity to control the abuses.
That's the point--the only tool ordinary people have to protect themselves from non-governmental abusers of their rights is the government, and it has to be big enough to do the job. And so when the abuse is something as huge and widespread as the Jim Crow laws in the south, when it's as huge as the monopolies and trusts that developed during the Robber Baron era, when it's as big a problem as that posed now by the interests of oil and pharmaceutical companies which are promoting policies that are not in the interest of the common good, when it's an issue as huge and complex as global warming, what tool is there except a government responsive to the will of the people to act as a tool to fight such threats?
This is what drives me nuts about people like Continetti, Sullivan, and Norquist. Wolfe puts it well:
For a disillusioned idealist such as Matthew Continetti, Washington, D.C. is now filled with "people who mouth conservative principles while getting rich off conservative power." But what good are conservatives principles without conservative power? And what chance was there that conservatives could gain and hold political power without their joined-at-the-hip connection to K Street? Nearly every electoral and legislative success conservatives have enjoyed over the past six years has been crucially aided by the organizational and financial contributions of corporate lobbyists. The conservative vision of the world, because it is so hostile to government when government is so essential to the way we live now, remains unattractive to most Americans, which is why Republicans must rely on money to substitute for the large popular majorities they are unable to build and sustain. The idea that it could have been, or can be, different is a fantasy.
The question is not whether big government is a good or bad thing--it's unavoidable in a complex world. The real question is whom does it serve? It's as if the conservative idealists are smitten by a fantasy to return the world so that it would be an ideal place like the Hobbit's Shire where the most important office is the mayor whom nobody takes seriously. But the problem is that there is a dark power gaining strength of which conservative idealists seem oblivious and against which they will be completely powerless when it is ready to destroy their happy little privatized world. Powerless because the government that could have protected them, is now owned by a power that could care less about them and will be accountable only to itself. That's my definition of tyranny.