Saturday, July 12, 2014

Citizen Scaife

The countless obituaries, tributes, and encomiums that have appeared following the recent demise of Richard Mellon Scaife, publisher of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and all-around philanthropist, typically call attention to his support of the Republican Party and his conservative political views, although Scaife apparently considered himself more of a libertarian than a conservative in the usual sense. But at the same time, he is presented as having been a firm advocate of what is called a “strong defense” and a “vigorous” or “muscular” foreign policy – what some of us would call empire building. Now, the question that no one seems to want to deal with – mainly because no one even considers it an issue – is in what way neocon-style foreign policy is, or can be made, compatible with libertarianism. Libertarianism is, of course, a general concept and reflects a certain view of government, and thus, one would think, of both domestic and foreign policy. In other words, it has a theoretical base, and is not just a passing fad or an expression of mindless selfishness (as it is typically accused of being by the liberals and the mainstream media). So the question of compatibility has to be expressed in terms of ideas and concepts, and not just specific policies (or, obviously, specific political parties, government programs, and politicians).

Libertarianism, to cut to the chase, is the idea that we would all be better off if we left each other the hell alone, and if government left us alone. So the libertarian concept of government is minimalistic, but not anarchistic, that being an entirely different position, although (as usual) often confused, by the usual suspects, with libertarianism. (And I guess if you're committed to totalitarianism, even of the “soft” variety, libertarianism and anarchy are going to look about the same.) And although America in its early days may not have been explicitly founded on libertarian principles, the practical consequences of the ideas it was founded on produced a society which libertarians can only dream of in our time. And it's not that there weren't plenty of bumps in the road, but I would be willing to claim that America was, for all intents and purposes, a libertarian society up to the Progressive Era, when all of a sudden it was deemed desirable for the government to redistribute income and wealth – I.e. to take money out of Person A's pocket (or keep it from ever getting there) and put it into Person B's pocket. This was, if one studies the matter, always a fear among political thinkers even from the founding, and was considered a potential weak spot or Achilles heel in the American system – a fear which has been more than borne out in our time.

Progressivism, as originally conceived, was the notion that government had to fill in where voluntary charity had failed. And it wasn't as if charity did not exist in the old days; it did, and much of it was based on religious ideas and sponsored by religious bodies. But there were gaps, and yes, people did “fall through the cracks” on a regular basis. So, for good or ill, we embarked on an extra-Constitutional program which continues to this day – first providing a “safety net” to keep people from becoming homeless, or from starving, or from being poisoned by other people. And yet this was apparently not enough, because the time came when we needed the New Deal... and then the Fair Deal... and then the Great Society... and Equal Opportunity... and Affirmative Action... and “hate crime” laws... and now Obamacare. And the struggle is far from over. It has gotten to the point now, as in Russia under the Bolsheviks, where if your neighbor has one more goat than you have, he's immediately branded a capitalist, landlord, exploiter, racist, homophobe, sexist, what have you. So the collectivist, totalitarian ideal is alive and well, even though it had comparatively modest beginnings over 100 years ago.

But that's all about ideas. How about implementation? The great and mighty hammer that the Progressives came up with was the graduated income tax, which is, sadly, still with us. But it was supplemented by a mountain of other laws and regulations, and an army of bureaucrats and enforcers on all levels. All in the name of charity and compassion, mind you – and you can decide whether money extracted at gunpoint has anything to do with charity or compassion; my answer is that it doesn't. But even here there is a point to be made. The premise is that human beings, including Americans, lack sufficient charity and compassion to care about, or care for, the “underprivileged” among us, and this is why government has to step in and bridge the gap – although I have yet to perceive any trace of charity or compassion in government. It is a thing, not a person, after all – despite propaganda like “The Grapes of Wrath”.

Oh, but government is just an instrument – a means to a just end – you'll say. OK then, maybe the charity and compassion lie with those in charge of the government – with politicians and bureaucrats. Tilt! Oh, but maybe they, even given their manifold faults, are only acting on behalf of a charitable and compassionate electorate. But if that's so, why doesn't said electorate exercise charity and compassion in a direct manner, rather than hiring others to make and enforce laws that, once again, are designed to achieve the desired result at the point of a gun? Well, it's because, in the aggregate, people are more likely to want be on the receiving end rather than the giving end – to be takers or tax receivers rather than givers and tax payers. Even on an individual basis, my bet is that most people would prefer to give a little and get a lot – which means that the individual's place in the social order has degenerated to that of a gambler in a casino, betting that his input will be more than compensated by the casino's output. And yet casinos continue to make money, and government continues to become larger, more intrusive, and more oppressive, and its operatives become more prosperous and more numerous. Thus we see the effects of a great fallacy.

And this is just fallen human nature at work. So maybe the Progressives had a point. Maybe society really is a social compact, and if we want to be members in good standing we have to be willing to make sacrifices. The problem is that, eventually, the number of people on the take exceeds the number on the give – as is happening in our time. So the government, which is supposed to right all wrongs and make all the crooked paths straight, winds up with a cash-flow problem, and we have a national debt that can never be paid off, and so on. A related issue is that our definition of “poverty” -- i.e. what constitutes being needy – has degenerated to the point where our “poor” have a higher standard of living than most of the rest of the world – and yet there are still demands for more. More social justice, more reparations, more affirmative action, more preferences, etc. etc. And these demands can never be satisfied; this is the point. We could adopt a system of radical collectivism like China under Mao or Cambodia under Pol Pot, and it still wouldn't help. The best one could hope for would be equal misery for all... and yet that is precisely what many of our liberal, AKA “progressive”, politicians seem to be aiming for. (And please note, those systems still include a wealthy power elite, but that's OK since they're the people with all the great humanistic, Utopian ideas so they deserve to get to the head of the line.)

While Mr. Scaife might have agreed with some of the above – maybe even for the right reasons – the idea that this necessitated supporting the Republican Party can be termed delusional at best. The Republicans have had nothing to do with libertarianism since... oh, I would say the days of Robert Taft, although the Goldwater campaign provided some faint echoes, as did the Reagan administration. But the state of things in our time is best reflected in the fact that the libertarians got bodily ejected from the 2012 Republican convention. The Republicans find the libertarians annoying... disturbing... and downright terrifying, and I suspect it's largely because the libertarians make the Republicans feel guilty – that they have sold their birthright for a mess of pottage.

So here you have the first contradiction -- but that's only on the domestic side. The main point is how one reconciles libertarianism, even the kind that is willing to appear under the Republican banner, with neocon-style, empire-building foreign policy. Some possibilities:

  1. Libertarianism for us, to hell with everyone else.  Another way of putting it is this:  Is "libertarian foreign policy" a contradiction in terms?  This position may be economically arguable, but it's politically (not to mention diplomatically) suspect and morally bankrupt. One could call it cynical. And yet it's not that uncommon a point of view. Is it because we believe that only Americans are fit for, and deserving of, liberty and that all others are invincibly ignorant and doomed to exist in hopeless squalor and perpetual night? Well... when one has a look at things that are going on in Africa and parts of the Islamic world, it would be tempting to come to that conclusion. But surely we haven't given up on at least setting an example... or have we? Can we be at once optimistic about our own future and despairing about the rest of the world? Or to put it another way, are we willing to leave them alone out of charity, or because we've given up on them?

    The practical consequences of this position are, basically, isolation combined with a strong defense – by which I mean real defense... defense of our borders, and nothing more. At least this would have the conceptual advantage of eliminating the bogus concept of “terrorism” -- there would only be us and them, and if they hate us we don't especially care why (vs. the obsessing that followed the events of 9/11). Job One of defense is to keep them from killing us and taking our stuff; we don't care about their motives. This would at least be a clean and uncluttered position. But it was not Mr. Scaife's.

  2. Libertarianism for us, and spread the blessings abroad. This is close to being the core of the stated neocon position, as represented by the Republican Party, “talk radio”, and – yes – the “Tea Party”. Liberty is good for us, and it would be good for the rest of the world as well, if only they could be convinced. And it's not enough for us to just set an example, we have to jam it down their throats by, first, invading, then taking over their governments, installing our stooges as “leaders”, and hitting them with (after the drones have done their thing) a barrage of propaganda, social workers, etc. Call it “tough love” on an international scale. This was standard operating procedure in Iraq as it is in Afghanistan... and the question is not how well it works, because it doesn't. The question is, was this actually our intent? And my position is that it wasn't, no matter how many purple thumbs come filing out of polling stations in the middle of the desert. We insist on some trappings of democracy in order to validate our actions to the international community (on those rare occasions when we care what they think), but the real agenda is otherwise. It's about conquest for its own sake, number one... and economics, and neutralizing threats to Israel, and... well, that's about it, actually. It's about making some people very rich, increasing the power and scope of government (domestically, note), and producing “war presidents” (and every boy born in a log cabin wants to be one of those, right?). It's not even about gaining military victories; just ask anyone in the military (OK, ask the honest ones who haven't been brainwashed). Wars in our time are notoriously victory-proof, and intentionally so, I might add. No one ever got rich from a “cakewalk”; what produces fortunes is a long, drawn-out conflict with no end, no exit criteria, no nothing – preferably not even a “war”, because people still have this funny, old-fashioned idea that wars ought to result in victory – in winners and losers. 
    So was this Mr. Scaife's position – i.e. the na├»ve, as opposed to cynical, version? Very possibly. But the inherent contradiction there is that to fight perpetual wars – for any reason – you have to have big government. No... massive government, with oppressive taxes, ever-vigilant intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and a dictatorial regime. Empire building abroad and liberty at home? Doesn't work, can't work, never has, never will. This is the greatest misunderstanding on the part of so many self-styled conservatives and, I suspect, some libertarians as well. Libertarianism is compatible with defense; it requires it, in fact. But it is totally incompatible with empire-building and perpetual war. This is not true, of course, for mainstream conservatism and/or neoconservatism... and maybe Mr. Scaife was just confused about his terminology. 

  3. Libertarianism for us and gentle persuasion for everyone else. This is the least likely alternative, yet the only one with any moral validity. The “shining city on the hill” has lost a lot of its glimmer since the founding, and we are now in the position of being seen as just another bullying empire throwing its weight around. We had ideas once; now all we have are drones. Were those ideas valid? (And if so, why are they now discarded?) Or was it all just a grand illusion? Democracy, as flawed as it is (or as we've made it), is certainly not the worst system ever devised... nor is the Constitution the worst founding document ever written. The mistake we've made as a society is in assuming that ideas were enough – that we could just coast along, decade after decade, propelled by some sort of magical holy writ that would render us not only morally superior but, in some sense, invincible for perpetuity. But it seems that ideas can only survive as long as the kind of society that gave rise to those ideas survives. Otherwise they will wither in the glare of human greed, folly, and downright evil, as happened in the case of Rome and seems to be happening here as well. If ideas are the soil and society the plant, and liberty the fruit, how long will the plant survive once pulled up by the roots, and how much more fruit will the plant produce after the fruit it did produce is consumed (or rots)? 

    Another way of saying this is to ask, do we still have anything to offer the world (assuming we did at one time)... other than (as the Vietnam protesters used to say) “bombs, bullets, and bullshit”? Maybe not! But I'm not totally convinced, and I don't think that libertarianism is a political dead letter, even in our time... but it may take many more catastrophes before people come to see its value. And if that day ever comes, could the Constitution be, once again, established as the basis for a political system – with changes, as needed, to eliminate the inherent contradictions? And could we not then, in a spirit of true humanism (vs. the kind opposed to religion and thus to true morality) and, yes, charity and compassion, at the very least show other societies a better way? And I'm not talking about political systems here – not about “democracy” or purple thumbs, or parliaments, or anything else. Any society will be benign and of benefit to its members if the leaders are thoughtful and moral (think “natural law” at the very least), and any society, regardless of structural details, will become oppressive and evil if its leaders are drunk on power and concerned only with their own glory. This seems like a simple enough lesson... but we can't teach it by force, and we can't teach it unless we are willing to set an example, which in the present day we apparently are not. 

    And another aspect of this renewal, should it ever come, would be as follows: Stop thinking of other societies and systems as, somehow, “undeveloped”, primitive, or retarded, just because they don't care to do things our way. And especially, don't constantly present religion (of any sort) as a barrier to “progress” (as we invariably do in foreign relations, and as we are now busy doing here). “What profiteth a man if he gain the world but lose his soul?” If even this simple question were made fundamental to our government and laws – and our foreign policy – a new day might truly dawn.

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