I have been haunted by my viewing of "The Sorrow and the Pity" during the holiday break. I'm not sure why. So I'm going to ramble a little to see if I can figure it out.
One thing that has become clearer to me in the last six years is that democracy is for grownups, and most people, whatever lipservice they pay to the concept, really don't want the responsibility of self-rule. I didn't used to think that. I don't know what the percentages are, but I've come to believe that far greater numbers of Americans or Germans or French or whomever, would have no problem embracing authoritarian rule or to hand over their republic to a big daddy like Petain if he promises to keep them safe and relatively prosperous and mouths patriotic slogans about the greatness of the national soul. (If you want more on this tendency toward authoritarianism among a swath of Americans, read John Dean or the new book by former NY Times war correspondent Chris Hedges.)
It doesn't require enormous intellectual capability to grasp this point. At first I thought the problem was that most people didn't understand the threat, but I'm more inclined to think now that it's not a question of understanding but caring. If the U.S. became an authoritarian state, I've become convinced that most Americans would accept it pretty much the way the French accepted the Nazi occupation and Petain's collaboration with it. The Germans were smart enough to give the French the illusion of independence and in doing so to neutralize them for the rest of the war. I believe something similar if subtler is going on in this country--as long as most people feel independent, they don't care what kind of government they have or what crimes it commits.
I think that when all the superficial complexities are stripped away, people fall into two political categories that matter: grownups or children. The former, whether I agree or disagree with them, I can respect. The latter I cannot. The children are subdivided into two prevalent categories--those who are attracted to paternalistically authoritarian regimes and those attracted to maternalistic regimes. The former we associate with the political and cultural right; the latter with the cultural and political left and their various programs to create a nanny state. Both are repugnant to me insofar as either treats its citizens as children who must be told how to think and behave, but the second is less of a threat to us at this time.
Libertarians, in my perception of them, tend to exaggerate in their own minds the country's vulnerability to nanny statism and to underestimate how Libertarian principles applied in the political sphere lead to the other extreme. They have a hard time grasping that the program to strip government of its ability to regulate and tax also strips the broad public of any means to protect itself from the power abuses associated with concentrated wealth. The greatest threat that any society faces is its vulnerability to tyranny, and the quickest road to tyranny is for the broad public to allow aggregations of power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands.
So the irony for me is that the many people who think of themselves as Libertarians also will tell you that they are passionately opposed to authoritarianism. That doesn't change the fact that their Libertarianism abets those trends that will lead inevitably to the authoritarianism they say they despise. Sure, they see big government, authoritarian or otherwise, as the enemy, but what they don't get is that big government will be necessary as long as it's possible for the few to aggregate huge amounts of power and wealth in the private sphere. Big government is the only power with the capacity to work for the interests of the broad public to preserve it from the abuses of concentrated private power.
But government on any level fails in defending the interests of the broad public to the degree that it is
coopted by private wealth and power. And it should be obvious that private wealth and power sees its interests served in either coopting or
disabling the only agency that has the capacity to oppose them. This is the primary reason I have been trying to snap otherwise thoughtful people of my acquaintance out of their Libertarian trance. It's a dangerous doctrine not because it promotes individual liberty and self-reliance, but because it leads to a disorganized individualism that is easy prey for powerful organized minorities to exploit. Individual liberty and self reliance are important, but so is some concept of interdependence, and the balance between them is precisely what's lacking from typical Libertarian thought.
So if the broad public has no protections against concentrated power other than the government, the broad public must always be vigilant about government's allying itself with or becoming coopted by concentrated private power. As I've been arguing here for years now, our current crisis lies in the American public's lack of vigilance, and allowing concentrated power and wealth to coopt the government. It has come to a crescendo in the current Bush administration. Everything from the Medicare Prescription Bill to the War in Iraq has to be understood in the light of this trend. We no longer have a classical capitalist democracy; it is crony capitalist, and the only cure for it is for people to wake up to its dangers and use their democratically elected representatives to combat it before it is too late.
A Defense of the New Deal
The tragedy is that we already figured this out, and the New Deal was the nation's attempt to institutionalize a remedy. But it looks like we have to rehearse the same arguments over and over again for an historically illiterate American electorate, many of whom have become infatuated with the idea that Libertarian principles need to be applied to the political sphere to defend against the non-threat that scares them so: maternalism or nannyism.
So before returning to my attack on Libertarianism, let me first defend the New Deal from the accusation of nannyism. The New Deal is not top-down maternalistic, but subsidiarist. This is a concept that open-minded Libertarians need to familiarize themselves with, because it integrates the idea of freedom and individuality with the idea of interdependence. Subsidiarity recognizes that societies naturally organize in hierarchies, but the purpose of the higher levels is to serve the needs of the lower levels. The higher levels have no jurisdiction in the lower levels unless their help is requested, or in those cases when the basic rights of minorities on the lower levels are being abused by the lower-level majority. Subsidiarity opposes both top-down maternalism or paternalism, but it means nothing unless the people on the bottom insist that those who migrate to the loftier levels of the hierarchy behave as servants of the lower levels. That's what accountability in a democratic republic is supposed to insure.
The principle is easy to understand and follows common sense. But at the risk of belaboring the obvious, let's take a basic government function like emergency/disaster relief as a model to show how it works. Local communities pay for and develop their own emergency and disaster relief infrastructure to deal with the kinds of emergencies that typically come up in the course of a year--fires, traffic accidents, medical emergencies. When large disasters occur that overwhelm the local community's ability to respond to them--hurricanes, earthquakes, epidemics--the higher levels in the hierarchy come in to support them: towns are supported by the county, counties by the state, states by regional networks, and, if necessary, federal agencies like FEMA or CDC are called in.
Subsidiarity requires that local communities be responsible for managing their own affairs, but that they can count on the support of higher levels of organization when they need it. The Katrina disaster was a dramatic consequence of the current administration's disregard of this principle. It should not have been surprising that since it has no commitment in principle or practice to the idea that the higher serves the lower, that it should be so neglectful, if not disdainful, of the needs of those who are lowest on the hierarchy.
Subsidiarity, while it recognizes that everyone is responsible to carry his or her own weight (that's the self-reliant part), also recognizes that sometimes things happen that are too huge for individuals and communities to handle without help from the greater society (that's the interdependent part). Subsidiarity is simply a way to organize neighborliness in a way that effectively deals with misfortunes people on the lower levels of the hierarchy cannot handle without the help of the higher levels of the hierarchy.
It's common sense, and in fact it's the way things work for the most part in the U.S. and elsewhere. The New Deal and its disciples later worked with this principle in the creation of jobs in the WPA when the private sector could not generate enough jobs during the Great Depression. Unemployment Insurance was designed in recognition that the creative destructive power of American market capitalism creates huge, system-wide shifts in labor needs and that displaced workers are a problem too great for local churches and communities to be able to handle. We could talk about AFDC, Social Security, and any number of other programs as following the same logic.
Are there abuses of these programs? Sure. But that does not mean that the philosophy or principles behind their design are flawed even if their execution has been. So why would any sane Libertarian be opposed to any of these uses of government to solve such basic problems? I think it boils down to this: Libertarians believe that governments are more corrupt than private enterprises and that governments inefficiently implement what would be more efficiently implemented by market mechanisms. The market principle, they would argue, provides a more efficient guiding star for solving social problems and meeting social needs than the subsidiarity principle.
I think the flaw in this kind of market libertarian thinking is that for them it's either/or--either the government is driving things or the market is. Subsidiarity recognizes that the market is the natural way that people interact and that it should be allowed to do its thing, but (1) that there are some needs and problems for which there are no incentives for the market to solve, especially for "markets" who haven't the means to pay--(e.g., health insurance); (2) that there are some problems that the market creates that it is incapable of solving on its own terms (e.g., chronic unemployment and/or underemployment at subsistence wages); and (3) that there are some projects undertaken in the public interest that should not be left to the vagaries of the market (police protection, transportation safety, education, essential utilities, food quality, environmental standards, etc.)
The Flawed Libertarian Alternative
Some hardcore ideological market Libertarians might argue each of these points, but hardly anybody with any common sense would. So why has Libertarianism taken such a hold of so many people whom you would think should know better? Why is there such a passion to follow Libertarian logic to privatize everything? Why do so many fall back on Libertarian reasoning to vote down school levies and parks and transportation projects that would improve the quality of life for almost everyone? Why this hatred of governments? After all, isn't government just ordinary citizens pooling their resources to solve problems or to promote the general welfare and quality of life? Is their objection on the level of theory or on the level of practice?
I don't think that most people would object in principle that government has the roles enumerated above to play. Rather, it's that they have lost confidence in government's ability to manage and deliver, and rather than make the effort to exercise oversight and demand that their governments manage and deliver, they take the easy route and embrace the idea that the market will take care of it. Because the one thing that governments have that private businesses don't have are mechanisms that allow for public oversight and accountability, and most people would just rather not bother. Let the market do its thing instead.
This brings us back to the point I was making in the first few paragraphs. Democracy is for grownups. Libertarianism is a high-minded excuse to justify give up on holding our governments accountable by transferring its functions to unaccountable private organizations in the name of freedom of choice. But the consequences are not thought through, and too often we have to learn the hard way by having to go through more Katrina-like disasters before we come back to what we already figured out.
It might seem counter-intuitive at first glance, but Libertarianism in this sense promotes passivity and spiritual torpor. Freedom is at its root a creative, active principle, and freedom as it is exercised in the political sphere should be an active, creative project. The political sphere ought to be the social arena where people come together to take responsibility for their social welfare, to solve problems and promote the commonweal. In the Libertarian scheme, to quote Margaret Thatcher, "there is no such thing as society," just individual consumers fending for themselves. Thatcher gets the self-reliance part, but not the interdependence part.
People who believe only in the individual have a hard time grasping a fundamental truth that is essential for human happiness and well-being: We're all in this together. And people who do not exercise their creativity in the political sphere are reduced to the role of consumers. Libertarianism, whatever it might be in theory, in practice promotes freedom as market-driven consumption. Sure, consumption involves choice, but it is a fundamentally passive activity. It's about choosing among choices created by others for you in the product and job market, or in the political market. And right now that means choosing among politicians who are, with some exceptions, second-rate and third-rate human beings, distinguished from the rest of us only by their superior greed and/or ego-driven ambition--certainly not their desire to serve.
And such people flourish in this market-incentive-driven political culture justified by Libertarian thought. If the best incentives are provided by the Jack Abramoffs, why not take them? Public Service? Sure politicians pay it lip service, but Beltway culture accepts that politicians are primarily motivated by what is in their individual self interest. You have to be a rube like Jimmy Stuart's Mr. Smith to think otherwise. And if K-Street lobbyists offer a politician more attractive incentives than the disincentive of possibly alienating his voters, why should Libertarians object if he takes them? Isn't he just following the Libertarian logic? After all, there is so social responsibility if there is no society--it's every individual fending for himself seeking what is in his best interests.
It follows inevitably from Thatcherism, however much Thatcherites like Andrew Sullivan might object, that free agents when they are powerful and seek their self interest according to the Libertarian logic, inevitably seek to dominate the less powerful. That's a lesson history has taught time and time again, and my fear is that we, or our children, are going to have to learn it once again the hard way.