Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Freedom Under Siege

[Please read this article, all the way to the end. If you can reach the end without bursting a blood vessel, feel free to proceed to the following repost of an article that first appeared at Eternity Road on June 20, 2008. -- FWP]


About thirty years ago, Professor John Hospers told an audience of young libertarians that though the forces of liberty are on the march, so are the forces of tyranny. Their comparative rates of advance, not the ardency of their allegiants, would determine the future of human freedom.

Professor Hospers meant that statement as a call to engagement and action. Some persons received it as such, but not enough to stem the tide of totalitarian encroachment upon Americans' freedom. Nowhere near enough. The results are before us.

***

Freedom has been under siege since the Wilson Administration, but these past three decades have seen an intensification of the assault -- an accelerating totalitarianization of American society -- to which nothing in our history can compare. We who understand and love freedom are being sorely pressed...and there appear to be fewer of us than ever.

Note that phrase: "we who understand and love freedom." Few enough persons understand it. Still fewer love it -- at least, they don't love it as much as their income tax breaks, their corporate subsidies, their kids' government-run schools and government-subsidized colleges, and the dirty thrill of bossing their neighbors around about things that are none of their BLEEP!ing business.

Liberals would have you believe that freedom means the "right" to vote, and nothing else. They contend that all matters great and small should be subject to governmental prescription and proscription. After all, why would we elect legislators if we didn't allow that they're smarter than we are? Surely our lives will be safer and more comfortable in their hands than in our own, far clumsier and more ignorant ones!

Authoritarian conservatives hold to a similar thesis, but without the voting part. Some of them, such as Ernest van den Haag and Russell Kirk, made it sound attractive by dressing it up with religious references and appeals to tradition. But religion is a matter of individual conscience, not coercive social control -- Muslims in the audience can wrap that in garnet paper, roll it into a cone, and shove it up their asses, with my compliments -- and tradition, while it encapsulates much wisdom, only tells us how our forebears coped with the challenges of their day. Neither of these sources is infallible, and neither will accept responsibility for any failings it might incur when put to a practical test.

Yet both these camps claim to be defenders of freedom. If freedom means only "the right to vote," or "the right to do what you're told and nothing else," then I, for one, want a refund.

The original concept expressed by the word freedom has been under heavy theoretical and practical attack for decades. Let's have a quick restatement of that concept:

Freedom is the absence of coercion or constraint in all choice or action that does not inflict force or fraud on another. ["John Galt," Dreams Come Due: Government and Economics as if Freedom Mattered]

Alternately:

A man is not free because he’s permitted to vote for his political masters. The subjects of the late, unlamented Soviet Union enjoyed that “right.” So did the subjects of Saddam Hussein.

A man is not free because some portion of his earnings is still his to spend on a variety of attractive goods. Not if the government can punish him for choosing goods it has not approved.

A man is not free because the long arm of the law has not yet descended on his neck. That’s more properly called a stay of execution.

A man is free if, and only if, he has the unchallenged right to do as he damned well pleases with his life, his property, and with any other responsible, consenting adult, provided only that he respects the equal freedom of all other men. [Francis W. Porretto, "No Law Abridging!"]

Where does freedom stand today? Where are the truly free of our time? Let's have a look around.

***

Richard Ely, a commentator of note early in the Twentieth Century, said that "Freedom today means more than being let alone." John Dewey, he who gave birth to the government-run school system from which we suffer today, defined freedom as "effective power to do specific things." Franklin D. Roosevelt attempted to redefine freedom for his own purposes, by equating it to "freedom from want" and "freedom from fear," neither of which are within any government's power to create or maintain. Their inheritors have derided classically understood freedom with phrases like "freedom to hate" and "freedom to starve." By relentlessly pursuing the implications of those infamies, their political admirers have saddled the nations of the West with a set of Leviathans whose power and scope would make Thomas Hobbes's skull explode.

It would seem that, by the classical understanding, the West is no longer free. Even we Americans, with all our wealth, are not free, for today we must get permission from the State for just about everything we might take it into our heads to do -- and the State may grant or withhold that permission at its whim.

Yet we continue to call those countries where freedom, classically understood, is at most a memory the "free world." The nations of Scandinavia, for example:

As a final note on this whole sorry state of affairs — the Swedish parliament passed a law yesterday which orders comprehensive electronic surveillance of all citizens:
Swedish lawmakers voted late on Wednesday in favour of a controversial bill allowing all emails and phone calls to be monitored in the name of national security.

This law will make Sweden more totalitarian than even the former Communist dictatorship of East Germany.

A case is often made that in practice, the masters of such a regime permit individuals more latitude than the power they've arrogated would imply. But this argument confuses freedom as a right -- what I call freedom de jure -- with the de facto ability to "get away with it," whatever "it" might be. At any given moment, with regard to any particular issue, the State might lack the enforcement power to impose its will upon its subjects wholly or uniformly. Or its attentions might be elsewhere, resulting in an opportunity for some individuals to do as they please with their lives and property without penalty. This is not freedom; it's only the successful evasion of punishment.

At this time, every government on Earth claims the power to do as it pleases to anyone and anything within its sway, for any reason or none. Governments, including the 88,000 governments that operate within these United States, compel, forbid, and expropriate without regard for any assertion of rights; that's what "compelling government interest" means. Nowhere that a government claims jurisdiction are men truly free. But were you to ask a hundred recent high school graduates whether Americans are free, ninety-five or more would answer in the affirmative. Ask them why, and they would reply, "Because we get to vote!"

So much for the understanding of freedom.

***

Those who still understand freedom are not unanimous in loving it. Many authoritarians and aspiring tyrants understand freedom well enough; that's why they hate it. And many persons who claim to be in favor of freedom understand it equally well; they just want to chisel a little off its edges.

I need not detail how opposed American liberals are to freedom. It screams from every word they say and every deed they commit. They're hostile to every expression of freedom: privacy, property, and life itself. All things must be put under the supervision of the State: production, commerce, family, race and gender relations, religious institutions, and whether you're permitted to dry up that damp spot in your back yard. Their rationales are legion, but in every case reduce to either we can stop you, and we will or you must, and we'll make you. Most are fools; some are well-intentioned dupes; the rest are simply evil. Yes, I mean that exactly as it sounds.

Conservatives are in somewhat better standing with me; after all, I style myself a conservative, though with some reluctance. But even the best of them are all too willing to make exceptions to the principle of freedom, in favor of something they value more. For example, Jonah Goldberg, one of the most articulate of modern conservative commentators, has openly said that he's in favor of censorship -- censorship being properly understood as laws that forbid the expression of certain thoughts or the presentation of certain images, on pain of punishment. More, he claims that you and I are in favor of it, too; we simply differ on what should be censored, in what media, and under what conditions. Some conservatives advocate the return of military conscription -- involuntary servitude, with the added fillip of risk to life and limb. Other conservatives make exceptions to the principle of freedom to ban particular drugs, sex for hire, gambling unapproved by the State, the sale of professional services without a government license, the ownership of certain kinds of firearms, and so forth.

No one in either of these ideological camps is consistently in favor of freedom, as classically understood. Whatever their reasons, whether on some topics or in all things, they're against it.

Genuine libertarians, for whom freedom of the classical sort is the only legitimate end of a political system or political activity, are very few. Nor are all of us united on how best to maximize it and defend it.

***

Just recently, I wrote a series of essays on the unacceptability of the current Republican Party, to which an unfortunate number of Americans look for the protection of what de facto latitude we still possess:

Those essays were assailed far and wide as being "unrealistic." John McCain, my detractors said, is appreciably better than Barack Obama; there are enough reasons to vote for him even if he isn't a good conservative or in any other way a friend of freedom. Put McCain in the Oval Office and we'll be spared the immediate communization of the United States, at least. We'll have a few more years to try to rescue the GOP from its statist devolution.

To me, "unrealistic" is exactly what those arguments are: short-term thinking at its worst. Reinforcing a behavior evokes more of it. Reinforcing the statist descent of the GOP by awarding it victory in November would persuade its strategists and kingmakers that that orientation is the key to continued electoral success. Worse, it would allow the new regime to complete the hamstringing of our ability to resist it:

  • John McCain is opposed to the private ownership of firearms.
  • He co-sponsored a law that censors political expression within 60 days of an election.
  • He's opposed to fencing the southern border.
  • He's in favor of massive new regulations to combat "global warming."
  • He's "reached across the aisle" to thwart the elevation of demonstrably qualified, freedom-friendly jurists to the federal bench.

So if you want to be stripped of all means of self-defense, if you want the country to be flooded by still more illegal immigrants, if you want to be forbidden to campaign for your preferred candidates as you please, if you want American enterprise tied down too firmly to create new jobs and new wealth, and if you want to see the liberals in the judiciary continue to eviscerate the Constitution and the rule of law, John McCain's your boy. And he'll do it all while mumbling every sonorous platitude you've ever heard, including how it's all in defense of "freedom."

If you want an ever more statist, ever more socialist Republican Party, vote for its current crop of candidates. Tell yourself that you're doing the only think you can to preserve what freedom remains to us. But don't come crying to me when your hopes and good intentions turn to gall in your mouth; I told you so, and I won't be abashed about reminding you.

***

So what do you think of it all, Gentle Reader? Are you quite happy with the way things are trending? Do you think the alternatives the major parties have presented us include one that could reverse the tyrannizing trend of the Twentieth Century? Or have you decided that things are as they are for reasons beyond your control, and that no exertion of yours could possibly affect them?

Do you understand and love freedom?

What are you willing to do about it?


[Fran here once again. No, John McCain did not prevail in 2008. Neither did Mitt Romney in 2012. Out of utter despair, I rooted (and voted) for Romney. I was wrong to do so -- and should a similarly unprincipled power-worshipper become the nominee in 2016, I pray that I'll have the clarity I lacked two years ago, and the resolve not to repeat my mistake.

The nation has now had the best lesson it could ever receive, short of martial law, in the wages of Government Uber Alles. The events of the past five years have left us with no margin at all. If the American people don't elect principled, freedom-loving men to Congress this coming November, and to the White House two years hence, they will have made an irrevocable choice. It is quite possible that even if the people's choices are good ones, they will nevertheless be overridden: by vote fraud, by voter intimidation, by other political subornations, or by the determination of the Obamunists to remain in power regardless of all else. All the same: short of an actual armed uprising, the elections are all we have.

Use them wisely:

  • Get involved with your county and state Republican Party chapters;
  • Agitate for the most principled, pro-freedom candidates you can find -- yourself, if necessary;
  • Make sure your choices know that you'll be watching, and you'll tolerate no nonsense;
  • Support your choices with your money, your labor, and your votes.
  • Hold them to the strictest standard imaginable once they've taken their seats.
Start now.]

2 comments:

  1. In my dotage, I no longer fear the prospect of violent revolution as much as I used to. The question then becomes, given that no good will come of it, how long dare we wait?

    M

    ReplyDelete
  2. All I have to say to "conservatives" in favor of censorship: You cannot use the Ring. It's nature is evil and it consumes those who would wield it.

    ReplyDelete

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