Soft Tyranny of Good Intentions

Dystopian stories enthrall me.  Because I expect our cities will someday look like the set of Blade Runner, and that our government will one day openly embrace the tenets of 1984’s Ingsoc, I fear these dystopian tales presage reality.  Therefore I am in complete agreement with the comment my friend David Hochman (read his blog) left on a recent Yawper post.

Hochman wrote that the contests between Republicans and Democrats have become dull because “the only important contest in our society is between authoritarians and non[authoritarians].  I agree.

Faced with a simple division in stark terms, I assume most Americans would embrace anti-authoritarianism.  After all, it is part of the national DNA.  Alas, the terms are rarely that stark.

Jonah Goldberg, in his Liberal Fascism, does a masterful job chronicling the growth of well-meaning but ultimately fascistic ideas of the Left.  Starting with the progressivism of Woodrow Wilson, Goldberg provides a torrent of evidence for the slow adoption of authoritarian initiatives delivered to us by academic and cultural elites, who “know better,” and have our best interests in mind.  These folks like to cite a reliance on reason and science and throw around words like “fairness” and the truly Orwellian “social justice.”

Despite the racism, anti-Semitism, and eugenics of the Progressives I believe most of their supporters did earnestly care about “the people.”  Yet there is that old saying about the path paved with good intentions.  In the end, French Jacobins, German National Socialists, Italian Fascists, American Progressives, and many more sought to wield the power of the state to impose a more perfect world – at least according to them.

Cloaked in euphemism, ignorant of history, and lacking the full impact of logical consequences, designs to improve society are enticing.  The allure of the non-organic society, that is one sustained artificially by tradition or constructed from theoretical reason, is not limited to the Left.  Today many on the Right seek to reclaim ascendency for their values, knowing and believing that their ethos would lead to a better world.

If only we could…, if only we would …, if only the country adopted what I know is best, everyone would benefit.  How could an intelligent and caring person think otherwise?

Ben Franklin famously said, “they who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”  It goes further.  Not only will they be undeserving of liberty and security, but they will not receive it.  Yet here we are, drifting toward ever more authority – some actively paddling toward it.

What happened to the anti-authoritarianism root of America?  Here civic education has failed.  Liberty and equality are opposing forces, but most do not understand.  Specifically, equality in opportunity and equality in outcome are incompatible.  The brilliant Thomas Sowell compares it to playing basketball against Michael Jordan.  With equal opportunity, the game starts at zero-zero.  However, to provide an equal outcome we would have to grant Sowell a big head start, and probably force Jordan to play with cinderblocks tied to his knees.

I was shocked last week when liberal titan and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg remarked that she would not look to the U. S. Constitution if she were drafting a constitution today.  The shock turned to outrage yesterday when the New York Times – ever reliant on ivory tower authority – wrote of the downfall of U.S. Constitutionalism.  The Times stated plainly that the Constitution simply does not guarantee “entitlement to food, education and health care.”

Noble goals all, but each wrought with horrific authoritarianism.

If you have a Constitutional right to food, who provides that food?  Would not the provider be within their rights to determine when, how much, and what food is provided?  Naturally, that provider would have to secure proper production necessary to serve the population.  As much as I dislike reductio ad absurdum arguments, it is easy to see that a federal entitlement to food would result in wage manipulations (perhaps even forced labor), property seizures, and vast bureaucracies to mange logistics and regulate nutrition, consumption, and such.  Obviously a black market would quickly emerge that would require confrontation by the force of government.  Besides, all this has already been tried by some governments, always with negative consequences.

The U.S. Constitution is a document of broad liberties.  Yes, it is a social contract, but only so much in that it serves as a barrier to the Hobbesian state of nature.  Still it must be remembered that the U.S. Constitution does not grant rights (man has natural rights), instead it is specifically designed to limit the government.  As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “A government big enough to give you everything you need, is a government big enough to take away everything that you have.”

To borrow from Richard Weaver, ideas have consequences.  Freedom and liberty will result in winners and losers.  This is the organic truth of life.  It is as John Kennedy said, “there is always inequality in life.”  Conversely, the forced equality of authoritarianism imposes a fairness under which we all lose.


3 thoughts on “Soft Tyranny of Good Intentions

  1. It should be noted that David does not endorse my point of view. Approaching issues from a very different perspective David may well object to all my conclusions. I only meant to cite him for his shrewd insight into a major conflict in political debate.

  2. Amber Toland Perry writes: “I too am a dystopian nerd (one of my classes is reading Oryx and Crake this semester, a fun example of a post-apocalyptic dystopia). This divide between authoritarian and anti-authoritarian you make is important and worth watching. Unfortunately there seems to be many non-liberals who are also pretty clearly authoritarian in their goals (read: social and religious conservatives). Also related are those whose policies may allow authoritarianism from outside the government (the dystopia I am teaching this semester is corporate-driven and takes place in a world distinctly removed from government controls).”

    My response:
    I agree that authoritarianism comes from both sides. I would quibble about degrees, but in a rough estimate I would say I find about 99% of the Left “agenda” authoritarian and only about 66% of the Right “agenda” to be authoritarian.

    Regarding corporate dystopianism I confess to holding no fears, provided that the corporations do not operate under the shield of government. Government has force, corporations do not. Corporations exist (ideally) in a competitive world – the more competitive the better I say. It is when government picks corporate winners and losers (bailouts, $0 taxes from Obama-approved GE), that havoc is wrecked on liberties.

    Corporations win and lose. In 1955 1st, 3rd, 5th, & 7th place on the Fortune 500 were GM, US Steel, Esmark, and Armour respectively. By 1985 the latter three have vanished with companies like ATT and IBM taking their place. In 1995 WalMart appears, basically out of nowhere at #4. By 2005 Walmart is #1 and a new comer like Bank of America is 5th. My point is that corporations fluctuate.

    Corporations become outdated, they do not adapt, are easily boycotted, or simply avoided. Individuals get to vote for corporations each and every day. Not so with the government.

    I do agree that companies are ammoral, or at least agnostic, toward authority or liberty. They play to win, as rules change, they change their game accordingly. They do not adhere to values. So I have no great fear of them – despite there being many I loathe and root against.

    I do fear the “remedy” one may have toward big business. Simply because the remedy again usually carries the force of government, and in an increasing number of cases is done by regulatory mandate, not political vote (I’m thinking of the Obama pressures on the siting of the Boeing plant.)

    Unfortunately, I am certain that I – if I can claim the mantle of anti-authoritarianism – will be on the losing side of history.

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