The Big Picture

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President Bush
is pretty much universally abhorred by libertarians, and his popularity
among the general public has fallen greatly. This is as it should
be. With all the focus on Bush, though, I think the more important
lesson he teaches is being neglected.

Libertarians
are quite rightly hostile to the idea that massive state power is
fine as long as it’s in the “right” hands. The widespread acceptance
of that idea by the general public serves to make statism largely
invulnerable to attack; all of the state’s numerous evils can be
blamed on specific malign individuals, without ever considering
the possibility that state power itself is the root of the problem.

For this reason,
I think that the widespread focus on George Bush is counterproductive.
It’s not that he doesn’t deserve the anger directed his way; he
certainly does, but Bush and his warmonger buddies are only branches
of the tree, not the trunk or roots. My concern is that focusing
on Bush will lead people into the assumption that he is somehow
uniquely wicked, thus making it easier for them to go on comfortably
believing that massive government power in general is not objectionable.

This, I think,
makes it easier to understand why Bush drives so many people on
the statist left, especially pundits and commentators, into a frothing
rage: Bush-hatred is “safe,” in that it allows one to rail against
those in authority without ever questioning the general statist
consensus. It’s a comfortable way to feel and seem like a rebellious
"truth to power" sort of person without challenging the
real pillars of control and oppression – a handy thing if, like so
many liberals, you aspire to someday do the controlling and oppressing
yourself. As long as Bush is there to be held up as Evil Incarnate,
liberals don’t have to consider the possibility that Bush is the
result of past expansions of state power, expansions people on the
left have often themselves supported in the past and will themselves
exploit in the future.

Something similar
happened under the Clinton administration. The election of 1994
was the first one I took an interest in, and I can still remember
my excitement when the Republicans swept into Congress – now, I thought,
the growth of the state will be reversed! It didn’t happen, of course.
There were several reasons for that, but part of the problem was
that conservatives became so focused on Clinton personally that
the statism that made Clinton’s evils possible was ignored. Clinton’s
major offenses as a political actor – his police state crimes, his
abuse of executive orders, his use of military force abroad without
declarations of war – were often disregarded by conservatives in
order to focus on the personal offenses of Clinton the man. Even
when Clinton’s political misdeeds were attacked, the criticisms
only scratched the surface. Consider the Waco massacre: Clinton
was rightly condemned for that outrage, but the militarization of
law enforcement that made it possible was commented on much less,
especially on the "respectable" right.

The result
of that focus on Clinton was that most conservatives learned nothing
about statism from the Clinton era. Once Bush came along, far too
many quickly fell into line in support of Bush’s expansions of state
power, however outrageous they may be. As a conservative in the
1990’s, my attention was drawn to the way statism made Clinton’s
evils possible, and so I became a libertarian. Others focused on
a personality, and so were happy to trade one oppressor for another.
Now liberals are at the same crossroads, and seem likely to make
the same mistake.

When using
the negative example of Bush to argue for libertarianism, our primary
method of argument should not be, “Bush did this, which is bad because…,”
but rather “Our existing system of government made it possible for
Bush to do this, which is bad because….” This is already being done
to some extent, of course, but I think it needs to be hammered on
more than it is. Otherwise, people who recognize that what Bush
has been doing is wrong will respond by simply favoring some slightly
different flavor of statist, while doing nothing to address the
underlying problem. There is an opportunity here to create and inspire
new libertarians, especially among young left-leaning people where
anti-Bush sentiment runs high, if we can seize it.

The evils of
statism are being dramatically illustrated thanks to Bush, but if
Bush and company are focused on as the fount of all evil, people
aren’t going to learn the right lesson from the past few years.
This is, of course, precisely the result that statists of both left
and right would prefer.

April
21, 2007

John
Markley [send him mail]
is a freelance newspaper reporter from Illinois. He maintains a
blog at The Superfluous
Man
.

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