Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Power Canard

     [Inasmuch as the Left has been laboring mightily to eliminate freedom of expression, I’ve decided to resurrect yet another piece from the old Palace of Reason. The following first appeared there on June 7, 2002. -- FWP]

Part One: What is power?

     Someone recently ventured to resurrect the old saw that "money is power." Inasmuch as both terms are undefined to most people, I thought I might lend my offices to the cause of clarity.

     At this time, the wealthiest man in the world is William H. Gates, founder and chairman of Microsoft. I've met Mr. Gates. I came away from the meeting with no great opinion of him personally. But I didn't fear him, nor feel a need to please him. Yet, if "money is power," I should have been terrified of eliciting his slightest displeasure.

     Gates, by virtue of his immense wealth and his captaincy of a giant corporation, has a proportional ability to influence the decisions of others -- if those decisions are more sensitive to the prospect of getting some of Gates's bucks than to other factors. However, were he to commit a felony -- say, rape -- his billions would not avail him, except to buy him the best legal defense available. Were he to take umbrage at someone who had slighted him, he could only refuse to do business with that person henceforward.

     Gates has "power to": the power of the Level and the Square. He can undertake vast projects with distant horizons, with a better chance of success than virtually anyone else in the world. But he has not one shred of "power over." He cannot forcibly deprive one human being of his life, liberty or property, not even some utterly derelict, friendless junkie who sleeps on a Washington D.C. heating grille, without exposing himself to legal redress... unless he succeeds in purchasing immunity from the agents of the State.

     Political power is "power over": the power of the Gun, the power to deprive men of their lives, liberties, or properties without fear of a legal backblast. Consider the lowest, scrawniest bureaucrat from the Department of Health and Human Services. He wields "power over", over all of us. His ability to write regulations with the force of law, to levy fines, to order U.S. Marshals to take citizens into custody and to kill them if they resist, is infinitely more "power over" than Bill Gates has on the best days of his life.

     Politicians and bureaucrats have managed to confuse "power to" with "power over" in the public mind. They have induced the people to forget that "power to" can do them no harm unless "power over" is for sale -- and that the more "power over" we tolerate, the more of it will inevitably be for sale, as those who wield political power are always drawn from the lowest of the moral strata.

Part Two: The proper limits of power.

     Once we're past the "power to" vs. "power over" confusion, much becomes clear about the American Left. One thing that ought not to occupy us, not for a second, is why they want power over us. Motives don't matter. Ask the citizens of the former Soviet Union.

     The question lefties hate is, "Where's the stopping point? At what point does the individual's right to be left alone forbid further expansion of the reach of government?" The true answer, "there is no stopping point," wouldn't go over big with most Americans, no matter how "compassionate" their inclinations. So they slide around it.

     But it's necessary, in conversations with the still-reachable, to be able to demonstrate this. The best evidence is the evolution of the left-wing attitude toward freedom of speech.

     When freedom weenies get into a discussion of this, it's usually misdirected toward matters like the Mapplethorpe or Serrano obscenities. This is a waste of time for us. The issue there isn't freedom of speech, it's coercive government funding for the arts, about which there's no debate. If the cretins who purvey pictures of crucifixes in urine and bullwhips protruding from men's anuses had to get by on the merits of their art, rather than on their ability to woo funding from the NEA, they'd starve to death in a month.

     The American Left started out as passionate about the idea of free expression, but over the last thirty years, the trend has reversed. Today, freedom of expression is reserved, in their view, only for people who agree with them. Folks such as Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin have orchestrated a national campaign for the idea that words are just as deadly as bullets, and should be even more closely regulated... by themselves.

     The seed idea comes from Herbert Marcuse's 1965 essay "Repressive Tolerance," in which he argued that the importance of achieving preeminence for socialist ideas was so great that to tolerate dissent from them was itself a crime. He called unabashedly for suspension of the rights to free speech and free assembly, until society had been restructured to fit socialist premises. The past thirty-five years have seen the American Left, once passionate in defense of this freedom, move into an ever-closer embrace of censorship in support of that ultimate chimera, "social justice."

     If free speech, which for decades was the only freedom the Left would rise to defend, must be disposed of when it impedes the socialization of America, then what freedom would remain? And what becomes of their claim to represent any "liberal" idea?

Part Three: Classifying the American Power-Seeker.

     So: Their followers may not know it and may not want to believe it, but the inner circle of the American Left is interested solely in gaining unlimited power over the rest of us. Where does this put them on the Great Taxonomic Chart of Politics?

     Communism -- nationalization of all industry and commerce -- is utterly unworkable and leads to mass poverty. Even folks who still call themselves Communists will admit it. But there's another totalitarian political faith that tries to avert Communism's failings while preserving its core. That creed leaves the nominal ownership of things in private hands, but then regulates their use and interplay as tightly as possible, and confiscates the greater part of the earnings from all commerce. It also extends into private lives, regulating and planning as much of human existence as possible -- all the while preserving the fiction that private life and private property still exist. It's this alternative to Communism that bears the greatest resemblance to the Left's program today.

     "Why bother to socialize industries? We socialize human beings." -- Adolf Hitler.

     Of course, typical Leftists will be horrified at the fascist label. But the similarities between the Left's programs and those of Mussolini are striking, especially as regards the ever-tightening regulatory web and ever-higher taxation the Left advocates. Yet, when compelled to concede this, they will insist that their purposes are utterly benign, so there can be no comparing them to the historic monsters that designed their ideological model.

     But really, is a social-welfare fascist any better in practice than a garden-variety fascist?

     In his 1944 book The Road To Serfdom, economics Nobelist Friedrich Hayek included a stunning essay titled "Why The Worst Get On Top." Its penetration of the dynamics of unlimited power caused the socialists of the Western world to crusade for a ban on Hayek's book. Yet Hayek's common sense thesis can be summarized in two points:

  • When unlimited power exists in the State, the man most likely to grasp it for his own will be the man who wants it most, and is most willing to use it.
  • Once someone stands at the pinnacle of power, his attention will be given primarily to eliminating threats to his hegemony, which means surrounding himself with henchmen who will do as he directs, without questions or moral qualms.

     When Gerald Ford said: "Any government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take everything you have," he was stating a truth that went completely over the heads of many well-meaning Americans. But it was a warning to be heeded. Social-welfare fascism, the operating principle of the American Left, would be no more "compassionate" once established here than Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini were.


Kye said...

Excellent as usual, Mr. P. I have never considered fascism to be the socialization of people not just economics for the benefit of the state. It's like communism on steroids. Plus, it lies to those it seduces by claiming they get to "own" property when they really end up not even owning themselves.

Paul Bonneau said...

It seems to me we have a mix of fascism and communism or socialism. For example, government schools are socialism. Obamacare bumped medicine from a previous fascist flavor to more socialist. The military, and what it is used for (imperialism), looks more fascist. I wonder about the utility of making these distinctions, since in any case it's not liberty.

DN3 said...

While reading your descriptions of power it occurred to me that each description complements the classic liberty distinctions. "Power to" aligns with Negative Liberty while "Power over" is practically a requirement of Positive Liberty.