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Liberty and Tyranny

I recently encountered an childhood friend. We started talking politics, and it turns out that our thoughts politically have developed in very different directions. In keeping with the grand tradition of proxy war, we each agreed to choose a book for the other to read and comment on. He told me to read Liberty and Tyranny by Mark Levin; I countered with The Great Derangement by Matt Taibbi. My thoughts on Levin’s book follow.

My largest complaint is that the book is not intellectually rigorous; it contains a series of assertions, but they don’t necessarily follow from each other. To be fair, politics wouldn’t exist if it were possible to prove or disprove every assertion through logic. Still, it galls me to see Levin put together a chapter which masquerades as a logical argument but in fact is nothing of the sort.

Take his chapter on faith, for example. As an aside, in just three pages, Levin proves the existence of God! His argument works like this:
1. Premise: The Founding Fathers declared in the Declaration of Independence that all men were endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
2. Premise: The Founding Fathers were paragons of humanity and their legacy is comprised of perfect documents whose every implication, no matter how far from the purpose of the text, was understood and intended by them.
3. Premise: Unalienable rights only exist in the context of an absolute moral code.
4. Premise: An absolute moral code can only exist supernaturally; a human moral code cannot be absolute.
5. Premise: It would be terrible if an absolute moral code did not exist; people would then have to think about the ramifications of their behavior. In fact, people are incapable of behaving morally or ethically without strict guidance from a supernatural power.
6. Deduction: Given 1 and 2, you should believe in God because they did.
7. Deduction: Given 3, 4, and 5, you should believe in God because failing to do so means that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not actually technically unalienable. This contradicts 1 and 2. Therefore, God must exist!

There are any number of problems with this train of logic, but the biggest ones come from premise 2. Here’s a funny thing: he never explicitly states premise 2; he just assumes it’s a fundamental part of his readers’ worldview. Even so, I disagree with it. These people were smart, innovative, and dedicated to the nation they were helping define, but they were still human. It makes no sense to take their works as holy writ, perfect and infallible, then prove that God himself only exists because they said so.

If you don’t implicitly accept 2, both deductions fail to stand. As it happens, I also have major problems with 5. I don’t want to get into those here, though; it would only distract from my point, which is this: Levin rolls on and on like a juggernaut through this book, laying out argument after argument without stopping for breath. The vast majority of them are flawed. Refuting them all would require me to write a book of my own, and I don’t feel like doing that. Instead, I want to write a more general counter, explaining where I stand.

Fundamentally, I start politically with libertarianism: people should be free as much as possible to do whatever they want, and government should be constrained to the minimum necessary. However, I only need one example to point out why we do want some government instead of none at all: Somalia. That place is an anarchist’s dream; it hasn’t had a real government for over 15 years now. It is a terrible place to live.

So if we do need some government, what should its functions be? Let’s start with the most important one: establish the rule of law. That right there fixes Somalia’s biggest problem. However, it introduces another one.

Nobody’s conquered Somalia because it’s a violent shithole with few natural resources. A bunch of nations have the military capacity to just kill every Somali and take the land, but they don’t because that’s evil. Taking over without just killing everyone there means establishing the rule of law, and to say that’s hard is an understatement. Establishing the rule of law where it doesn’t exist is very difficult; particularly when the particular laws you want to impose aren’t the same ones the majority of the people want. This is the problem the US faces in Iraq and Afghanistan right now, and in Somalia in 1993. If, however, the people have a central government that they respect, conquering the nation becomes a lot easier. You just have to get the government to surrender, instead of forcing every person to on their own. The second priority of a government then needs to be this: defend itself and its people from external threats.

It might be interesting to live in a nation whose government restricted itself to those two principles. If nothing else, it’d be a test of how the free market actually holds up in comparison to a government for ensuring the quality of life for the people. Still, to the best of my knowledge, that hasn’t been tried since the middle ages. (Those sucked for the simple reason that 99% of people were serfs who had no rights and whose lives were nasty, brutish, and short.) Since then, every government on earth has had a third priority: the construction and maintenance of necessary infrastructure. Roads, bridges, ports, power lines and facilities; all these are traditionally government projects which fall under the infrastructure category.

Here’s where it gets political: infrastructure segues somewhere, in a messy and ill-defined way, into social services. The Founding Fathers were convinced, for example, that an efficient Postal Service was critical to the success of any democracy. Is that infrastructure, or social service? Is it more important to have the capability to cheaply transport pieces of paper, or bits of information? Finland recently established that broadband access to the internet is a legal right of every citizen. Is that the way to go?

I’m of the opinion that there are certain social services that the government should make available to every citizen. A stable national currency. Fire departments. Education, through at least a high school level. Health care, to at least a minimal standard, in the fields of emergency medicine, pharmacology, ob/gyn clinics, pediatricians, preventive medicine, and geriatric care. I’m not saying that the government should claim a monopoly on these services or that individuals should be required to avail themselves of the government’s offerings; I see no reason to deny the market the ability to compete to provide premium services. However, baseline offerings should be free to every citizen.

Calling these services rights seems a little silly to me. I wouldn’t mind, for example, if the government refused to treat the lung cancer of someone who’d smoked for 40 years, or obesity at all. You can’t deny someone their rights, but you can allow them to forfeit access to social services through personal choice. I’d argue that each of these services is productive for the government to provide because each of them improves the nation as a whole. The benefits of fire departments and a national currency should be self-evident. Public education, since its institution a century ago, has been a sore spot for most of that time, but I haven’t heard anyone arguing that children should not have the option to be educated regardless of their parents’ circumstances. Mostly, people agree that it is a good thing to have. 100 years forward, I expect people to treat health care the way we do public education now: a national service that, while often outperformed by the private sector, is so manifestly useful that essentially nobody is seriously arguing that it should be done away with.

Here’s the thing: there are services that government provides which aren’t rights, but which are nice. Streetlights are a good example. It costs a fair bit to erect a streetlight, and even more to keep it supplied with electricity and replacement lightbulbs. You could argue that streetlights reduce crime, or that they enhance driving safety, but I’ve seen no statistics about that and would actually tend to be skeptical even if they were produced because studies like the ones which would produce those results often have some sketchy methodology. Even Levin doesn’t complain about streetlights, though you’d expect him to: a government boondoggle with unproven results siphoning money out of the taxpayer? Call Rupert Murdoch! Have a Tea Party!

Here’s the thing: in the grand scheme of things, streetlights are cheap, and they’re nice to have. Through general affluence, technology, or rarity of necessity, other services sometimes become cheap and nice also. How much would it cost to maintain soup kitchens sufficient to entirely eliminate starvation in America? How much does it cost to maintain a single wing of F-22s (to say nothing of the purchase price!)? Which better serves the needs of the nation: preventing our citizens from dying directly, or maintaining an air superiority fighter without an opponent?

As it happens, starvation isn’t as weighty a problem as obesity; don’t misunderstand me as crusading here for the anti-starvation cause. The point is that if the cost is small enough, it can be worth providing a service which is unnecessary but nice.

Levin’s boojum, the demon he fears above all others, is the Statist: a terrible creature devoted purely to the consolidation of power in the government and the elimination of individual freedoms. There’s a wonderful description on page 15 of how utterly terrible this monster is. It’s a fierce and entertaining straw man, and a rhetorical trick that he may be physically addicted to. They’re everywhere! The media is full of them; the courts are comprised of them; the entire Democratic party is a thin front for them. Been to college? Beware, all those academics are Statists! Believe in separation of church and state? You’re a Statist! Think human activity is causing global warming? You’ve been taken in by a Statist conspiracy! Want the government to provide communal services? You’re on your way to being voted Statist of the Year! Also, actors are pretty much all Statists: “It is the rare actor who challenges the fraternity.”

Alas, though Levin goes on at length about the media’s tendency to invent a Terror of the Month, there’s no satisfying pull quote about inventing straw men to serve a political purpose. It seems he’s a bit too introspective for that.

Levin closes his book with a Conservative Manifesto: a list of goals and assertions which summarize his political position in a traditional, elephant-shaped package. At best, he comes off as someone who’s honestly trying to work for the best future of the nation, even if his methods and goals diverge from mine. At worst, it’s hard to believe he inhabits the same universe that I do. We have this in common at least: we both believe that people should seek to understand the world around them and work to improve it for the future. We both are glad to live in a society in which we can disagree vehemently and in writing about the way the nation should be run. We both think that individual liberty is the premise, and the Constitution is the basis, of the US system of government.

We just disagree about everything else.

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6 Comments

Comment by Explodicle Ubuntu Linux Mozilla Firefox 3.0.14
2009-10-19 20:48:57

About the Somalia thing; I’ve read a lot of folks claim “well if you like Anarchism, you must LOOOOOOOOOOOooooOOOOve Somalia!”

I don’t think it’s any more fair to call Somalia an Anarchist’s dream than it is to call the Soviet Union a Communist’s dream. There’s a lot of variety in the Anarchist spectrum, but nearly all of them endorse some sort of social order which Somalia lacks. Somalia isn’t just anarchy; it’s chaos.

Comment by Rourke Windows XP Mozilla Firefox 3.5.3 Subscribed to comments via email
2009-10-19 21:52:29

Before I respond, note that (1) I know almost nothing about anarchism except for the bits I’ve read on Wikipedia, and (2) similarly, I know almost nothing about Somalia except what I’ve read in The BBC, Wikipedia, and other news sites.

Having said that: I have, in fact, been one of those people to say “if you like anarchism, you must looooooooooooove Somalia!” Despite this, I’m aware that there are varieties within anarchism, and I’m aware that Somalia right now isn’t really “anarchist” in the sense that it’s de facto anarchy anyway. It’s not like anybody in Somalia was inspired by any anarchist ideas, it’s more that Siad Barre’s government collapsed and nobody took control afterwards. It’s not like the Somali Islamists picked up Proudhon or Bakunin and declared an anarchist paradise.

But. But. Having said all that, I think it’s correct for Coriolinus to say Somalia is an “anarchist’s paradise” inasmuch as Somalia has lacked an effective government for as long as I have been alive. Not 15 years, more like 18 years and counting. They’ve had, what, ten or fifteen “transitional” governments? One thing you can say about Somalia, then, is that it at least fits the dictionary definition of “anarchy” and therefore can be poetically described as an “anarchist’s paradise” without actually implying that Somalia is politically influenced by Western anarchism.

 
Comment by coriolinus Ubuntu Linux Mozilla Firefox 3.0.14
2009-10-20 03:27:23

The Soviet Union was the closest the modern world’s ever come to instantiating an ideologically pure form of communism. If it turned out not to be particularly dreamlike, that tends to be interpreted as an indictment of Communism as a political philosophy.

In the same vein, Somalia is the closest the modern world’s ever come to instantiating an ideologically pure form of anarchy. The fact that it’s chaos leads me to suspect that among humans, there is no shared social order without a government to enforce it. That’s kind of a sad thing to say about humans; it’d be nicer if we really could just get along without anybody forcing us to. Still, when the observed facts about the world conflict with my wishes about how the world works, I have to let the facts guide me.

Comment by Rourke Mac OS X Mozilla Firefox 3.5.3 Subscribed to comments via email
2009-10-20 21:48:08

You said:

“The Soviet Union was the closest the modern world’s ever come to instantiating an ideologically pure form of communism. If it turned out not to be particularly dreamlike, that tends to be interpreted as an indictment of Communism as a political philosophy.”

Unfortunately, I used to say that around 2006 about Communism. Nowadays, though, I’m more interested in the distinction between Communist regimes in name or in fact (China, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, North Korea) and socialist regimes in name or in fact (Norway, Sweden, and sundry other European governments). While there is an ideological connection between the two, it’s not necessarily the case that “because X Communist State sucks, socialism sucks,” it’s more “because X Communist State sucks, Communism sucks.” I, at least, see a difference between the two. The former is almost entirely undemocratic; the latter can easily coexist with democracy, although it’s not necessarily inherently democratic.

Anyway. You also said:

“In the same vein, Somalia is the closest the modern world’s ever come to instantiating an ideologically pure form of anarchy. The fact that it’s chaos leads me to suspect that among humans, there is no shared social order without a government to enforce it.”

Indeed. That statement I would strongly agree with. With the earlier comment, I was merely trying to say to Explodicle “there’s a difference between ‘de facto anarchism’ and ‘anarchism caused by an ideological revolution.’”

Comment by Rourke Mac OS X Mozilla Firefox 3.5.3 Subscribed to comments via email
2009-10-20 21:50:55

P.S. By the way, when I wrote up there “Unfortunately, I used to say that around 2006 about Communism,” I meant “I used to defend Communism per se even though the USSR and North Korea in particular are the closest we’ve ever got to an ideologically pure form of Communism, and they are/were absolutely, unarguably horrible places to live.” I didn’t mean “oops, I used to say bad things about the USSR.”

 
 
 
 
Comment by Rourke Windows XP Mozilla Firefox 3.5.3 Subscribed to comments via email
2009-10-19 21:46:41

“We have this in common at least: we both believe that people should seek to understand the world around them and work to improve it for the future. We both are glad to live in a society in which we can disagree vehemently and in writing about the way the nation should be run. We both think that individual liberty is the premise, and the Constitution is the basis, of the US system of government. We just disagree about everything else.”

Today in Faith & Culture class, we had a vigorous debate over the question “does the country have any religious roots?” (I took the position “No — whatever the Founders thought, whatever the people of the 1770s may have thought privately, the genius of the Founders was to create a government which guaranteed neutrality free of ideological or religious loyalty tests.”) I was reminded of that debate by your ending paragraph, because fortunately that’s where the debate basically left off. Even the farthest-right Republican in the class agreed on that kind of thing. (People with last names A-M got put into the “Enlightenment-secular” side, people with N-Z got “Christian-religious”; I was lucky to be in the side I agree with.)

Also, I found the above few paragraphs a nice summary of your beliefs. As in, I’ve gotten impressions of your politics from other places, but nowhere have I seen you state it all out in an as easy-to-understand way as you have here.

 

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