Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Anti-state, not just anti-Obama

With thousands of "tea party" tax protests planned around the country on this grim day when we formally surrender a large share of our income to satisfy the ravenous appetite of government, some commentators suggest that tax-protest and anti-government rhetoric has gone too far. One of my own colleagues frets that opposition to the powers that be has crossed the line to actually challenging the legitimacy of the government. Well, I can't speak for everybody, but I do question the legitimacy of the government. I hope the tea party protests are a sign that more people are coming to this point of view.

Says John Zorabedian, the Boston Top News Examiner:

It concerns me that a broad segment of the citizenry has apparently refused to recognize the legitimacy of this government and have opted to take their political opposition outside of the "accepted channels of politics" ...

I started my Disloyal Opposition blog under the Bush administration and have continued it under the new Obama regime, so my contempt for government has nothing to do with the party in power. Not everybody raising heated protests against the government's spending spree and accumulation of power can make that claim. As Anthony Gregory of the Campaign for Liberty, which supports the tea parties, points out:

For eight years, Republican protest of income taxation was scant. Some conservatives complained quietly about Bush’s domestic welfare spending, but all in all they were apologists for the regime we are still paying for. They certainly did not talk about the state as their enemy, as many of them do today. The quickness of their transition to opposition rhetoric has been staggering. ...

Thankfully, there are more Americans than ever who eschew the statism of both right and left, who seek liberty, peace and free markets. Those who resent tax day and are searching for real solutions can join our ranks, rejecting the conservative as well as liberal policies that have gotten us into this mess.

Republican apologists for the Bush years didn't create the tea party protests, and they didn't invent criticism of government. The idea of emulating the Boston Tea Party got a push when CNBC talking head Rick Santelli called for a "Chicago tea party" in a much-publicized on-air rant. That wasn't part of any coordinated effort, though. I'm on a mailing list of bloggers and observed people spontaneously organizing tax-day protests with only scattered and belated assistance from established organizations. A representative of a small-government group sent a query to the list, asking if anybody knew how to reach Santelli, with hopes of getting the broadcaster's support after the fact.

Demoralized GOP functionaries looking for something -- anything -- to reenergize their organization have tried to hang their hats on the tea parties and on the rising tide of anti-state rhetoric. But many of the people issuing the strongest denunciations of the government now were equally harsh about government power and policies during the Bush years.

Economist Robert Higgs, a consistent critic of government power who I frequently quote, has been publicly excoriated for his strong denunciations of policies foisted on us by Congress and the White House. But he has made his criticisms for decades. As he writes:

During the painful years of the Bush regime, we had to endure the slings and arrows of the brown shirts who compose the so-called Republican base. Now that Obama has ascended the throne, the brown shirts of the left are emerging as the more conspicuous barbarians. Thank God it is not the case, as far too many people suppose, that we must be on one of these sides or the other. We can transcend this disgusting political spectrum, placing ourselves neither on the left nor on the right — nor even in the so-called “independent” zone somewhere between them — but rather rising above the entire line and insisting that red-state savagery and blue-state savagery are equally despicable and intolerable.

The problem, ultimately, isn't that "leftists" are in power, just as the problem last year wasn't with the "right wing." The problem, now as always, is that government wields vast power, and it does so with the approval and support of the most powerful political factions in our society. Republicans and Democrats alike bludgeon us with the state when they are in command -- they just have slightly different priorities when it comes to abusing us and and curtailing our freedom.

Simple-minded commentators (and nobody is more simple-minded than a mainstream journalist) insist that we must embrace one faction or another, and that to criticize a government led by one party is to implicily endorse the other party.

But those of us with brains in our heads know that's a false choice. We recognize, as did Leo Tolstoy, that "Government is an association of men who do violence to the rest of us." It remains such an association whether led by team red or team blue.

But we can vote! Isn't a democratic government legitimate because it represents the will of the people?

Not really. Many of us are no more willing to be robbed and bullied by our neighbors than by some dictator or politburo -- and that's even assuming that the democracy works as advertised. But even democracies have a nasty habit of turning tyrannical under pressure. Long before today's financial woes inspired the federal government to subsidize and seize private businesses, H. L. Mencken wrote:

I need not point to what happens invariably in democratic states when the national safety is menaced. All the great tribunes of democracy, on such occasions, convert themselves, by a process as simple as taking a deep breath, into despots of an almost fabulous ferocity. Lincoln, Roosevelt and Wilson come instantly to mind: Jackson and Cleveland are in the background, waiting to be recalled. Nor is this process confined to times of alarm and terror: it is going on day in and day out. Democracy always seems bent upon killing the thing it theoretically loves. I have rehearsed some of its operations against liberty, the very cornerstone of its political metaphysic. It not only wars upon the thing itself; it even wars upon mere academic advocacy of it.

Ultimately, it is liberty that matters, not the administrative means the government uses to decide when and how to violate our liberty. A lack of respect for liberty is what delegitimizes the state.

Because we care about liberty before all other political concerns, many of us have long denied the legitimacy of the government under which we live. I hope that today's flurry of loud and passionate tea parties is a sign that we are welcoming many more converts to our ranks.

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Blogger Kent McManigal said...

"Questioning the legitimacy of government"? There's no question... just like there's NO legitimacy.

April 16, 2009 4:47 PM  

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