In every land and every generation there have been men whose overriding priority is acquiring power over others. They've espoused dogmas of many kinds, such that one cannot easily find an ideological thread to connect them all. But in one respect they've been entirely consistent: They've all labored to increase the power of governments over those subject to them.
The success of their efforts has varied from nation to nation. Now and then they've triumphed completely; in several places, their grip on power has yet to be seriously threatened. Even in the United States, they've made inroads far deeper than those of us who love freedom like to admit...and most of us are at a loss to comprehend or explain how that came to pass.
I've begun to think that habitat might provide the answer.
The concept of habitat as a locale whose characteristics conduce to the flourishing of particular species can be extended into the realm of abstractions. If a particular set of ideas must be established for persons whose livelihood depends on the widespread acceptance of those ideas to flourish, those ideas constitute a non-geographic sort of habitat: an ideological foundation which, when established among a populace, will permit persons whose ambitions they favor to rise in prosperity, prestige, and influence.
This sort of habitat is unlike the natural sort in a critical way: Those who desire to exploit it can take action to construct it.
There are many directions in which I could take this concept, but the one in which I have the greatest interest is the slow erection of a habitat for socialist premises and Big Government in the United States.
A country as large as the U.S. makes room for many sorts of ideas, and thus for communities dedicated to them. As early as the 1820s, persons such as Robert Owen and John Humphrey Noyes built communes -- proto-communist states -- within America's borders. Those, of course, were entirely voluntary communities; their members were free to depart at any time. Nevertheless, they constituted a womb for the embryonic theories they expressed in practice...theories which persons of more abstract bent, such as Marx and Engels, would develop to their full malignancy shortly thereafter.
It's not perfectly accurate nor entirely fair to those early utopians to call them socialists or Communists. They had a vision of a "good society" that they hoped to achieve by departing from the prevailing norms. Why they thought they could improve on conditions in the larger society around them isn't easy to determine. Though their experiments failed to provide the results they sought, the ideas they germinated did not fail to find supporters and promulgators.
A period of general prosperity is a tough one for promulgators of radical doctrines. When people are happy with their stations in life and the fruits of their labors, selling them on the notion that the society that made their advancements possible is wholly incorrect in its premises is almost impossible. Yet throughout the nineteenth century, socialist ideas kept a fingernail grip on just enough minds that when conditions for their dissemination became more favorable, there were dedicated, energetic promulgators available to spread them.
The period approximately from 1880 to 1900 saw a downturn in the fortunes of rural communities, at least in comparison to those of the rapidly industrializing cities. Though the records don't compel one conclusion over another, it's possible that the most important aspect of the economic tensions of those years was a nostalgia, among farm communities, for the time before the industrial surge -- a time when you didn't have to worry about how you'd "keep 'em on the farm," because the farm was essentially all there was. Rural families experienced significant "losses" to the centers of industry, where the prospect of quick riches glittered, while coping with the recognition that their own labors could not match the opulence available from the enterprises that clustered in the urban zones. Resentment, exacerbated by the inexcusable favoritism shown by Washington and the state governments to certain industries and the captains thereof, swelled.
That period saw the emergence of the Progressives, whose chief public face, William Jennings Bryan, was personally responsible for the largest political realignment yet observed in American history. But Bryan was little more than a poster boy for a set of ideas that were finding the resentments of the rural populace fertile soil from which to flower.
A few names:
- Edward Bellamy
- Jeremy Bentham
- Lincoln Steffens
- Jacob Riis
- Upton Sinclair
- Richard Ely
- Colonel Edward House
- Herbert Croly
- Charles Sanders Peirce
These were the major promulgators of the socialist / Big Government ideas which, after careful laying of groundwork by the Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson Administrations, would burst forth from FDR's New Deal as a replacement doctrine for traditional American conceptions of individual freedom.
Convenient crises -- the Panic of 1906; World War I; the Great Depression -- played a part in this progression, beyond all question. But the ideas had to be "waiting in the wings," already well established in a sufficient number of Americans' minds and favorable to the ambitions of energetic, opportunistic men, to exploit them. That idea-foundation provided just enough habitat for the earliest acolytes of the Omnipotent State to flourish and expand.
We've come a long way downhill since those critical decades. Today, the suggestion that there should be any topics, any areas of enterprise, or any venues of human interaction deemed off limits to the State is considered "controversial." Property is now considered conditional. A man's body is a thing to be regulated and "protected" by political force. Even freedom of speech is widely regarded as a charming vestige of a primitive time: something our forebears could tolerate, but which our "more complex era" cannot afford. In all things, the needs of the State come first -- and woe to him who thinks to stand in its way.
We stand upon the threshold of a complete rejection of the concept of individual freedom.
Amidst all this, we who love freedom speak of a vulpine "political class," no member of which can be trusted. We orate that it must somehow be removed from the levers of power, so that persons who genuinely love freedom and appreciate the importance of objective law can get to work at restoring those blessings. More openly than ever, sincere Americans, men of good will, mutter about the probable necessity of a Second American Revolution, aimed at deposing the current ruling class and restoring the Constitution in full and literal effect.
But wait: hearken first to Bertrand Russell:
Those who have seized power, even for the noblest of motives soon persuade themselves that there are good reasons for not relinquishing it. This is particularly likely to happen if they believe themselves to represent some immensely important cause. They will feel that their opponents are ignorant and perverse; before long they will come to hate them...The important thing is to keep their power, not to use it as a means to an eventual paradise. And so what were means become ends, and the original ends are forgotten except on Sundays.
Let's imagine for a moment that a revolution were to take place. Imagine further that it were to succeed in deposing our current political masters. Given the assumptions and ideas prevalent among Americans generally, what would most likely follow?
It could be worse, of course:
In the end, the French and Dutch electorates voted No to the new [European] constitution. One recalls the T-shirt slogan popular among American feminists: "What part of 'No' don't you understand?" In the chancelleries of Europe, pretty much every part. At the time of the constitution referenda, the rotating European "presidency" was held by Luxembourg, a country slightly larger than your rec room. Jean-Claude Juncker, its rhetorically deranged prime minister and European "president," staggered around like a collegiate date-rape defendant, insisting that all reasonable persons understand that "Non" really means "Oui." As he put it before the big vote, "If it's a yes, we will say 'on we go,' and if it's a no we will say 'we continue.'"...
...For his part, the architect of the constitution -- the former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing -- was happy to pile on: why, even if the French and the Dutch had been boorish enough to want to vote no to the constitution, they would have been incapable of so doing, as the whole thing was designed to be way above their pretty little heads. "It is not possible for anyone to understand the full text," declared M. Giscard....The point is that his ingrate subjects had no need to read beyond the opening sentence: "We the people agree to leave it to you the people who know better than the people." [Mark Steyn, America Alone: The End of the world as We Know It
Europe, the majority of whose nation-states are nominal democracies, has proved utterly unable to shake off its masters, despite the well-established opposition of the majority of ordinary Europeans to them and their socialist-superstate scheme. The Old World has had longer to marinate in socialist and superstate ideas, though one might well wonder why the proximity of the largest failed socialist superstate in history hasn't dampened their affection for them. What those ordinary Europeans fail to grasp is that their demands on their governments, jointly and severally, constitute a demand for exactly what's being done to them. The ideological habitat of contemporary Europe is immensely favorable to authoritarianism, socialism, and the Omnipotent State, and ferociously hostile to freedom, capitalism, and national sovereignty.
And that is the direction in which the United States of America is headed.
To destroy a species, or even to compel it to relocate, one must destroy its habitat. When the habitat exists in the minds of men, there is one and only one way to do that: ideological warfare.
There's little point to debating what income tax rates should be. There's even less point to carping about "too much regulation." We will not liberate this country by accepting the totalitarians' premises and then haggling over details.
But are enough of us properly armed and motivated for a true combat of ideas?