October 30, 2013

A simple argument against liberalism

This is the epiphany which transformed me from a leftist into a dedicated, if somewhat nuanced, conservative. It is really an argument against not only liberalism, but against leftism in most of its forms.

One has to understand that, for the liberal, the government has two chief functions. One is to constrain the greed of private enterprise, and the other it to steadily improve society. Phrased that simply, those sound like admirable things to do – and it isn’t difficult to understand why many people find liberalism appealing. Every liberal I have ever spoken with believes, whether they think about it or not, that the twin virtues a society should strive for are fairness and progress. If our leaders were angels, this might be an acceptable basis for government. We do not live in a world run by angels, however, but in a world run by less than perfect human beings.

To understand the heart of the liberal worldview, let’s imagine that every businessperson on Earth is ambitious to the exclusion of the slightest sense of compassion. In know this isn’t true – I personally know a CEO of a midsize corporation who spends a good portion of her time dispensing charity – but, for the sake of argument, let’s give liberals their cherished meme. Let’s imagine private industry is a den of heartless sociopaths. Isn’t it obvious, then, that it’s in everyone else’s interest if these evil people are regulated, punished, and suppressed?

No, it isn’t. The first thing one must recognize, when we are talking about the real world, is that the ruthlessly ambitious, who do exist, are not attracted to business per se. They are attracted to positions of power. Money is power, but so is political authority. Marginalize business with too many taxes and regulations, make business people society’s hated pariahs, exalt the status and authority of government, and you will only put the determined and ruthless few on a new career path. When government is small and business is booming – the ambitious gravitate toward business. When business is precarious and government is expanding – the ambitious gravitate toward government. History and common sense both bear this out.

At the height of that corporation’s power, the CEO of General Motors didn’t have the authority to arrest me, imprison me, seize my property, fly a surveillance drone over my house, draft me into his company’s security department, take my money without selling me something, or force me to buy health insurance. While the power of a major corporation is considerable, its power over individual rights is limited. Government’s power over the individual is fundamentally unlimited. They enact the laws. They direct the people who have the guns. In those instances in which corporations have trampled the basic rights of ordinary people, they have almost always done so by manipulating governments. While such corruption is genuinely appalling, it must be pointed out that corporations are only buying the coercive power that governments possess by their very nature. When a corporation buys influence, it can only do so because influence is for sale.

When a person advocates for an ever larger government with ever fewer Constitutional limits on its authority, he or she implicitly imagines a government that will be run by angels – which is to say, by some breed of people who are above the petty and self-serving motives that the rest of us are prone to, and certainly a far better breed than the wicked, predatory monsters that run business. More, the liberal imagines that these angels are not merely selfless but nearly all-knowing – having the capacity to know more about what is good for us than we ever could ourselves. The liberal trades freedom in a competitive, difficult world for the illusion of an eternal happy childhood in the household of the governmental parent. Even if it worked out that way, eternal childhood is a sad condition for a grown-up human being to be reduced to. In reality, since our leaders are neither angels nor all-knowing, expanding government is unlikely to produce much happiness, and very likely to produce exactly what Friedrich Hayek said it would – serfdom, suffering, and passivity.

1 comment:

  1. I honestly appreciate the philosophical argument presented (although I think it does not profit from the unnecessary characterizations of liberalism).

    I am a bit confused by the simultaneous ennobling of CEOs while asserting that, in an ideal world, the ranks of CEOs would rife with sociopaths. It seems odd to assert that liberals think of CEOs as power-mad and then make an argument that says, essentially, as long as we have sociopaths we should restrict them to the less dangerous position of business leaders rather than government. Wouldn't your desired policy result in CEOs being rife with sociopaths?

    Ultimately, though, this is less a vision of government than it is a surrender. It is asserting that we will always be the victim of the bullies on the playground, and the best we can do is to pro-actively give them our lunch money before they get violent.

    The liberal would argue that the only method for constraining the coercive power of the individual (after all, violence is the action of an individual on another) is the collective power of the group. To this end, arranging a society so that power is metered in votes rather than dollars mitigates the power of the few over the many, insomuch as the few cannot amass more than a few votes (while their ability to amass dollars seems effectively unlimitable). In other words, a direct refutation of your thesis: an argument that government restrains the power of the few more than capitalism does, by virtue of how it denominates power.

    Against this you offer the coercive power of force wielded by government, and supposedly absent from corporations. If I point out that corporations have, in the past, overwhelmed government so much that they used that power to their own ends (i.e. the strike-busting actions of the robber barons), you might well argue that is a reason to reduce the power of the government even more.

    But this presupposes that the power of force, when removed from government's hands, will simply _disappear_. It presupposes that corporations, freed from crushing government oversight, will not adopt the use of force themselves. How do you simultaneously limit a government to the point where it has so little force that it cannot be co-opted by corporations to their benefit, and yet retains enough force to prevent corporations from simply using force on their own? Surely the Mafia must be a degenerate form of corporation, or commercial enterprise; surely GM or Sony would not hesitate to emulate their tactics if the government were not in a position to stop them.

    Yes, of course, tyranny remains a problem; but that is less a function of the size of government than it is its constitution. We liberals fail to see how denominating power in a form that can be heavily concentrated is supposed to prevent serfdom, while denominating power in a form that must be widely diluted does not. Nor do we understand how the use of force can be abolished; indeed, like the cold-eyed realist, we recognize that force will always be with us, and thus is best bought and sold with votes rather than dollars.

    There will always be men with guns; all that we can change is their boss. I would rather that boss be held in check by my vote than by my purse. Reducing the size, power, and scope of government does not create more freedom for the individual; rather, it allows corporations to swell in power. Your conservative (or more accurately libertarian) position requires me to believe that my freedom is maximized by my ability to choose to purchase or not purchase a corporation's goods more than it is by the ability to directly vote for or against an individual. But what about when one of those goods is food?