Towards a genuine understanding of the stakes

Jane Galt's recent post on the offenses to individual liberty posed by Democrats vs. those posed by Republicans is quite sobering and thoughtful. Though she's not my favorite blogger by any means (I can't stand the systematic reduction of life to dry economic calculation that seems to plague female libertarian bloggers inclined towards the dismal science) she brings up a question that needs to be asked, even if it doesn't affect your politicial position:

I think that a lot of libertarians think that the next step is a police state. And that's not necessarily, or even probably, true. Governments in Europe have quite a lot more freedom to spy on and detain their citizens, and they manage not to have police states. Democratic traditions and social constraints . . . especially ones as longstanding as ours . . . do matter a lot, even where the legal traditions do not provide as firm a check as we would like on state power. Which doesn't mean that we shouldn't worry about these things. We should, because they're wrong. But the arguments against them have to stand on their own, not on the premise that if we permit the Bush administration to waterboard suspected terrorists, in a few short years the Thought Police will be knocking at our doors in the middle of the night. We could do these things, and they could be used against a tiny fraction of the population, most of whom are not citizens, and it could go no further. Britain pulled all sorts of unsavoury legal manoeuvres against the IRA, and it didn't spread to terrorising journalists. I'm having trouble writing this because it sounds like I'm saying that warrantless wiretaps don't matter. They do matter, a lot. But they matter because they are bad in principle, not because it is at all likely that if we allow them, the Bush administration, or any successive administration, will shortly start making inconvenient persons "disappear". To take an example I've been harping on recently, there are all sorts of appalling violations of power by local police and prosecutors, as Radley Balko has recently exposed with his superb work on the Cory Maye case. Many prisoners endure such brutalization that if I had to choose between going to a high-security prison and being interrogated by the Bush administration's favoured methods, I'd pick the waterboarding. This is a stain on our national honour, an outrage, an abomination. But does it mean that our society is not worth living in? Are we not free? Have we no liberty? Do we live in a police state because some peoples' liberties are thusly threatened? Are we close to a police state? Were we under the Democrats, when such abuses were equally likely to occur?

Two voices emerge within my head on reading this.

The first voice says not only that she's right, but that she's capturing the truth behind the public's apathetic complicity in the Bush Administration's despicable policies. Sure, we're walking close to the line, but we're just not going to go over it. The status quo will be maintained, and life will go on. The creeping fascism is targeted; the popular effects of same are miniscule. Europe really is a great example of how few of our Consitutionally-guaranteed rights are necessary to have a modern, liberal life.

The second voice says that I don't want to be Europe. I don't want to settle for a modern, liberal life. I want this country to be what the people decide they want it to be - not through elections, but through self-determination in every action, every day. The principles that guide that desire for sovereignty and autonomy matter, and even if they could be safely surrendered to the political elite, would it be worth it? I don't want the choice between a police state and a free state to be in the hands of politicians, even if they never take us past the point of no return.

Jane seems to be attacking "the politics of fear": scare tactics that represent our political situation as tending dangerously towards a fascist police state. Now, I think that pointing this possibility out is a good way to fight the expansion of government authority, because none of us know what is possible. Furthermore, a lot of what we take for granted in our current society would have been considered totalitarian not too long ago. What I'm questioning is not the honesty of campaigning based on a fear of government but the degree to which the danger actually exists. Misrepresenting it risks discrediting ourselves.

It's impossible to tell with any objective certainty; ascertaining any clear cases of dangerous abus necessarily implies values and principles which I'm no longer sure we can count upon the average American to hold. Europe is a good example of squishy principles with respect to the state. While Europeans do give a lot of leeway to their governments as a matter of course, they tend to be more homogeneous culturally (with some exceptions) and less likely to wax biblical on the nonbelievers' asses. They have values that hold government to an arguably more humane standard than ours, just as a matter of being more socialist. We need to be extremely careful when superimposing their society on ours - the histories, class struggles, and social memories are all different.

On the other hand, we need to find a way to promote skepticism towards the state without being dismissed as crackpots or paranoid. Evidence must be assembled that clarifies a concrete position which cannot be ignored by the typical American. We need a strategy that accurately and convincingly plots our position on the "road to serfdom", placing us closer to a police state than the electorate realizes. A sense of urgency must be honestly and more persuasively transmitted, and it must come from a frank assessment of we stand vis a vis civil rights and government submission.

Essentially, we need to become clear on what is genuinely at stake and frame our radicalism around that. Perhaps this is already obvious to the reader, but I don't think it's uncalled for that Jane has questioned our fear. It is incumbent upon us to demonstrate the erosion of traditional social restraints on the state, the drastic evolution of the character of government in recent years, and the ferocity of the consequences for letting things continue. All of those things are arguments that challenge the assumptions Jane describes - and average Americans hold; assumptions that encourage slience in the face of approaching danger.

In a sense, we aren't required to prove the danger - fundamentally the threat is obvious given any understanding of history and politics. What we must remember, however, is that getting people to take that history and those politics seriously is a matter of marketing as well. A nation of people examining the true state of things is not a foregone conclusion. We must make ourselves impeccably credible and accessible just to get people to consider the possibility we fear. Because if we truly cannot scare people sufficiently with the evidence, if our fellow citizens really are that complacent, then we have to ask ourselves whether or not we don't already live in "a liberal European state".

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Written on Wednesday, October 11, 2006