It is obvious that many critics of the horrifying Bush administration are more anti-Bush than anti-war. Only very few who are anti-war are consistently anti-government.
The hysterical reaction of so many liberals, loyally following the partisan Democratic party line, to the Bush administration’s approval of Dubai Ports World’s takeover of the ports thus far operated by Britain’s Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company, is just the latest misdirected waste of political dissidence to which leftists have dedicated themselves.
Hearing conservatives complain of this alleged threat to national security was predictable by now. The nationalism, protectionism, and anti-Arab fear-mongering were no surprise on the right. We likewise could have expected the establishment Democrats to exploit this paranoia and bigotry to score points against the administration, all in the name of opposing terrorism. It takes a little more explanation to see why so much of the grassroots left has jumped on the bandwagon.
Aversion to capitalism, whether of the free-market or mercantilist variety, might underlie some of it. Bush’s cronies seem to profit off anything significant that he approves. No libertarian, for that matter, can be happy with the governmental nature of the Dubai port company, or, moreover, with most dealings in transportation industry and infrastructure worldwide, which are everywhere tainted by state management, ownership and regulation. It is unfortunate that America’s ports are not securely managed in the framework of private property, with both profits and risk internalized in the hands of private firms and owners responsible for the efficacy and safety of their investments. The left, however, has not been known to oppose government ownership and hail the free market in principle. Neither has the right. So why the fury?
Among the more fringe voices of outrage, we hear cries of conspiracy among a multinational headquartered in an Arab nation, the Bush regime, the financial power elite, and maybe even the terrorists. Putting aside the dubious likelihood of such an arrangement, focusing heavily on this concern is utterly nonsensical. If the establishment is concocting a scam for profits to the detriment of national security, it surely has had control over the ports this whole time. Adjusting the home address of the operation’s managers would be an illusory change. Something else is inspiring the cries of protest.
The hysteria we see on the left, and the right, cannot be totally understood in economic terms, or by looking at any rational concerns for national security. On the right, the primary factor is a belligerent anti-Arab nationalism. On the left, it appears that the principal consideration is that it was the Bush administration that approved the deal.
For those who love liberty, it is crucial to be anti-Bush. He is, after all, the head of the state, the parasite on our production, the enemy of our freedom. Even if he were a relatively benign ruler who had scaled back government in comparison to his predecessor, he would still deserve our mistrust and contempt so long as he continued to loot us and threaten our rights. We should reserve any praise of a man with such power, and never cease in demanding that our full freedom be released from his grasp. The great libertarian journalist H.L. Mencken did not waver in his mocking criticisms of Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, although the burden of living under their rule must have felt like a trifle after enduring Woodrow Wilson’s wartime totalitarianism.
But George W. Bush is no Warren G. Harding. On the contrary, he has far surpassed Clintonian governance in devastation and abusiveness. Yet many libertarians continue to believe that one can be anti-state without being thoroughly anti-Bush. For many, the confused orientation comes from attempting to be anti-state without being emphatically anti-war. These poor creatures have lowered their sights and extinguished their lanterns of liberty, have traded their principles for the real or imagined personal security that accompanies shameless loyalty to Republican power.
The left, for its part, still fails to understand the other side of the coin. On the front is the image of the president, on the back is the institution of the state. If Bush is ever immortalized on coin, his denomination will almost surely follow the pattern of all presidential tyrants numismatically eternalized before him. Turning over his image will reveal that of a government building or memorial, made permanent in the metallic disc and representing the state’s impersonal, cold inhumanity whose obfuscation is the role of the chief executive engraved on the flipside.
It is significant to the cult of the state, and to those who oppose it, that the president is only a man, but the presidency and all the oppressive mechanisms beneath it are what allow him to cause such harm. Surrounding and encasing both sides of the coin is the civic religion of statist public opinion, which allows the institutions to continue even as the head of state changes.
The right, too, only saw one side when Clinton was brandishing the iron fist. As conservatives’ protest cascaded in volume throughout the 90s, it became apparent that they wanted a better fit for the coin of statecraft, that they wished merely to exchange one officeholder for another who would, as perverse as it may sound, restore confidence in the very institutions that allowed such grand criminal dishonesty and tyranny to infect those eight years under Clinton.
They got their man in the personage of George W. Bush, a figurehead who could match the glory of the institutions represented beneath him. The left, unsurprisingly, sees things differently, even believes its perception is opposite in that it is calling tails on the whole game: it now wants a president to bring back the honor of the White House, the military, the federal government and all civic institutions, whose images have been tarnished worldwide by the presence of Bush’s smirking visage.
Such tarnishing is the only silver lining to the Bush presidency. Even some on the left have learned that government cannot be trusted, regardless of who holds its reins.
But too many — far too many — have continued to be more anti-Bush than anti-government or anti-war. They think that John Kerry could have better handled the authoritarian and centrally planned federal response to Katrina. They think Al Gore would have included more allies in the war on terror, would have more diplomatically consulted Congress on unconstitutional police-state and surveillance activities. They believe a Democrat could bring back faith in the government, revitalize the mismanaged public sector, and finally clean up the environment and provide health care to all Americans.
If being anti-government logically implies being anti-Bush, when his legacy has been empirically and dispassionately considered, it is not so deducible that being anti-Bush requires one to be anti-government. The conservatives have illustrated this unfortunate truth with respect to Clinton, and the left just might wash away any doubt of it in the next several years.
Listen to the criticisms from the bulk of the American left, and you’ll see the point clearly. It might be true that some are genuinely more resistant than the right to torture, the executive’s unilateral suspension of habeas corpus, the cruel and continuous war. This is certainly the reality among the radical left and the dedicated ACLU-type activists who lambasted Clinton appropriately when he moved to nationalize law enforcement after the Oklahoma City bombing.
For every principled anti-war, anti-police state leftist, however, there are hundreds of mainstream liberals who seem to care less about timeless freedoms and more about Democratic victory, or, at their most non-partisan, truckloads of new tax dollars to fund their infinite wish list of new government programs. Economically illiterate and more concerned with the therapeutic symbolism of coercive domestic collectivism than with individual liberty, still more enamored with the humanitarian potential of foreign intervention than with genuine peace and commerce with the world, steadfast in their disdain for capitalism and unreliably resistant to federal encroachments on freedom, the mainstream left offers little hope of reversing the qualitative horrors of Republican domination.
The reaction to Katrina was one of the biggest clues. The left saw it as an opportunity to lament the supposed demise of public sector "services" under Republican custodianship. Most liberals were more outraged that the government couldn’t bring food, safety, comfort and new housing to the victims — as if such a feat would be possible under a more socialistically inclined central manager — than they were about the fascist tactics the federal government employed to restore "order" — actually, its own dominance — in the devastated region: its curfews, its forcing people into auditoriums, its frightening confiscations of firearms from peaceful Americans. The conservatives said little other than to congratulate their partisan sovereign for a job well done. The liberals complained, as usual, that the government was not doing enough.
On foreign policy, the hawkish, jackboot Democrats get the most attention. Al Gore’s precious anti-government speech on Martin Luther King Day, however implausible considering the source, has resonated poorly among liberal circles. It should be the left’s treatise, its battle cry, against Bush’s reign. Unfortunately, most liberals still seem to prefer the Al Gore of 2000, who promised ever more government spending and had just played second fiddle to Clinton is his war on the Bill of Rights, which, however cooler and quieter than Bush’s turned out to be, was damaging and terrifying and tolerated by most liberals in the 1990s.
How will it all pan out in the next election cycles? Consider the Republican moderate John McCain, a politician who, outside the one issue, albeit the significant one, of torture, appears to be just as statist on every question as the president, and more so on some. And how many liberals see in this senator a vast improvement over the status quo? How many have cited him as an example of a decent Republican? How many might even vote for him in a general election? It appears that all he has to do is promise to restrict campaign donations, and his hawkish bona fides become a secondary concern.
More to the point, consider the likely Democratic contenders for 2008. Naturally, it’s impossible to predict with certainty who the nominee will be. But the ones who seem to have their eye on the prize, most evidently Senator Hillary Clinton, have moved rightward in all the wrong ways, even outflanking Bush on issues ranging from Iran to national border controls, all while maintaining the worst redistributionist inclinations of the modern, anti-market left. It takes a village to properly pacify and conquer those troublesome Muslim countries, after all.
I expect more examples of this over the next few years. Especially as controversies become increasingly partisan, as has been the case with liberals’ hysterical response to the federal approval of the Dubai port deal, the anti-state rhetoric of the left, where it is nothing but a façade, will steadily become obviously so.
The Democrats, of course, have projected America into one horrible war after another, only taking breaks to increase the ranks of their constituents through the legalized bribery of the welfare state. How much of the left will fall for this classic ruse?
Those who considered themselves on the left have been dragged along, unwittingly or enthusiastically, on one imperial project after another. They elected Franklin Roosevelt, who promised a combination of prudent and imprudent policies to remedy the economic depression under Herbert Hoover. After he reversed himself on every good promise and delivered a stampede of new regulations and corporatist programs, they reelected him three times, and to this day, despite his destructive economic policy, or even his legacy of interning a hundred thousand innocent Americans because of their ethnic origin and his strategic bombing of civilian targets, today’s liberals still revere the man and fail to see his monstrousness currently emulated in smaller doses by the very president that they despise so much. If another Democrat makes Bush look like Herbert Hoover, we can expect much of the organized left to breathe a sigh of relief as the welfare state finally catches up again with the warfare state.
It is important for libertarians to oppose the state and its destructive rulers regardless of party affiliation or rhetoric, both of which are democratic illusions conjured up to conceal the violence of state power. Far too many libertarians have gone the way of conservatives in their loyalty to George W. Bush. Most of them were probably never libertarians in the first place.
We must not for a moment take our eyes off the Republican tyranny. It is vast and it is menacing. It consumes our liberty and property today, and we must not rest in saying so, in spite of the conservatives who cravenly champion the slaughter and pillaging. It certainly deserves to be uprooted.
But it is time to start thinking in the long term, about what will happen when the Republicans finally overstretch themselves and the Democrats, most likely the worst of the bunch, return to power.
We must prepare to do battle with the rhetorical tendencies and political aspirations of the left. Whether due to its intrinsic failure to confront economic and political reality, or to our failure as libertarians to engage liberals and disabuse them of their socialist instincts, or some combination of the above, the left is not inclined to mount an effective anti-government campaign, any more than it was in 2004. We should always try our best to reach the less statist elements on both sides, but also to understand the grave problems that both present.
If the left takes over and our freedom’s health continues to decline, we must remember not to blame the officeholder alone. We must remember that the system itself is rotten and inhumane, and distinguish our program and ideology from those of opportunist critics on the right, just as we should today be wary of those on the left.
To love liberty is to oppose the state’s timeless assault on it, whether wearing the cloak of tradition and cheered on by bloodthirsty generals, corporate suits and social conservatives, or donning the mask of humanitarianism and equality and trailed by a parade of social workers, bureaucrats, unionists, humanities professors and multilateral warmongers. The right has been a total nightmare for half a decade. But the ugly thing about politics is, no matter how unsavory one side gets as it is exercising and vying for power, the power itself can always corrupt the other side. Left and right can turn on a dime, but the potential of the state itself to grow and worsen is ultimately constrained only by the laws of economics, by human nature, and by a public opinion inclined to resist the state’s advances, regardless of the garb it wears.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.