The Nation You Now Live In

One of the categories on this blog is “liberalism, classical and pragmatic.” What is that? That is a concern with political freedom. Freedom is a complex, multivalent notion and it garners many conflicting accounts from people. Let me say a little bit about what I mean by freedom. First and foremost, freedom means freedom from this:

One way that the government can get itself into the position of being able to treat you this way is by playing on your fears, real or imaginary, of non-governmental threats to their freedom. And these threats are not nothing, and government exists primarily to protect you from them. That, as every liberal knows, is the timeless dilemma of government: how do we make government able to protect you from private oppression without becoming itself the instrument of far greater oppression? We have many mechanisms for trying to achieve this. Codification of fundamental rights is one. Democratic elections which can peacefully expel oppressive administrations is another. Rule of law, dictating proper procedures when the government uses its power to detain and to punish, is another. Separation of powers to limit executive overreach is another. Look, if you’re reading this, you speak English, which means that you must have some passing acquaintance with these notions as a part of our cultural heritage.

Now the power to tax is also a potentially abusive exercise of government power, which is why I call myself a classical liberal, because liberal simpliciter has come to imply a failure to appreciate this point. But here’s the thing: if the power to tax is exercised according to the rule of law in a democratic state, and the effects of such laws are not unduly burdensome because they respect sufficiently the ability to pay, there is really very little grounds for complaint. Yes, government should be kept small, for all sorts of economic reasons. But the exercise of power under rule of law in a democratic state is legitimate. By which I mean: consider the alternatives. We have had self-funding governments before. They are called “monarchies.” Until we find a way to make government magical and cost-free, this is the best we can do.

There are many people in this country who believe that being taxed at all is theft, and as such, an invasion of their liberty regardless of whether the tax respects ability to pay, is under rule of law, and is the product of a democratic state. Catering to the desire of those who so believe (and there are many many more such people than simply the wealthy; in a true democracy, wealth alone simply cannot equal political power) the previous administration enacted an extraordinary tax cut, and not during a recession when there might be a Keynesian argument for such. It did this in the name of freedom.

But it also did this. From the very beginning I have warned conservatives who care about freedom that wars of aggression, now euphemistically called “pre-emptive,” and the erosion of constitutional rights for the detained that has accompanied it, are the greatest threats to freedom there are. We have been reassured implicitly that these powers could never possibly be directed against ourselves, but only against mysterious, exotic Others, who speak a mysterious exotic Semitic language and practice a mysterious, exotic non-Christian form of monotheism. And so, to paraphrase Martin Niemöller, when they came for the Muslims, we said nothing, because we were not Muslims. (Do I really need to say again that we are not and have never been at war with “Islam” but with a criminal organization that claims to speak in its name, much as Anders Breivik claimed to speak for your civilization as he fired his rifle at children?)

And so at long last, they came for you. Or at least one of you. Donald Vance was working for the FBI, investigating possible military corruption in Iraq. Guess who ‘detained’ him? Guess who ‘interrogated’ him with ‘enhanced’ techniques? YOU DID. Your government did. But at least you are free… from enough taxation to pay for the government spending you voted for yourself.

The question is not “what is the meaning of freedom?” Yes, some will argue that we are not free unless various goods are provided, while others will argue that we are not free until they are no longer provided. But ALL agree that you are not free if you are tortured. And I believe that YOU are not free as long as you permit your fellow citizens to be tortured, and thereby expose yourself to the possibility in principle of being tortured. And some of us know enough history to know that torture thrives in an environment of xenophobic, aggressive, hypernationalism. Some of us are (now, at least) detached enough to know that this is precisely what we have been, and to some extent, still are.

So what is my question? Simply this: the German people subjected themselves to decades of reflection and self-criticism after World War Two. Are Americans as good as that? Or not? Are we capable of recognizing and taking responsibility for our betrayal of our own values? Can we strive to learn from this and do better?

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