The State or the People

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What use is the political left? This is a serious question, not a rant. The same question can be asked about the political right. The question does not imply derogatory implications about individuals on the political left or the political right. Rather, the question concerns the basket of emotions, issues, and knee-jerk responses associated with the political left and the political right.

Traditionally, the political left has had a Benthamite view of government, seeing government power as the tool for improving society whether through revolution or reform. Paradoxically, the political left has believed in Big Government despite the political left’s emphasis on civil liberty. The political left sees government power not as a threat to civil liberty but as a tool for enforcing civil liberty; for example, through Brown vs. Board of Education and coerced integration in the southern states.

Traditionally, the political right has had a Blackstonian view of government, distrusting government power as a threat to individual liberty. Paradoxically, conservatives value individual liberty while tending to view civil liberties as protective devices for criminals and, currently, terrorists.

The political left tends to blame problems on existing societal institutions, especially on capitalism, which is believed to foster greed and private power that is not accountable to the people. The political right blames problems on human fallibility and on laws and regulations that create the wrong incentives and that replace private action with government action.

The Founding Fathers, being mild revolutionaries, set up a Blackstonian Constitution in which law is a shield of the people and not a weapon in the hands of government. The Founders balanced this restraint on government with reformist democracy that works against status quo hierarchies.

Another essential difference between the left and the right is "compassion." The left tends to regard criminals, the poor, misfits and failures as victims of society and reacts with excuses and social safety nets. The political right emphasizes individual accountability. In a world of pragmatists, differences in emphasis would be compromised. But ideologies are different. Ideologies run to extremes. They are fighting creeds that demonize opponents.

Whether one stands with the left or the right, it is apparent that both political factions are failing the country. The right responded to 9/11 by asserting American hegemony over international law and by permitting the executive branch to waive civil liberties. The political left went along with these developments, perhaps thinking to use the enhanced power of government for its own purposes later. Hoping to restrain the executive’s assaults on the Middle East and civil liberties, the electorate gave control over Congress to the Democrats last November. However, the Democrats have not ended the war or overturned the encroachments upon civil liberties.

There can be little doubt that the Republicans have brought discredit upon themselves. The question is: now that the political right has damaged the Blackstonian civil liberties that restrain the Benthamite impulse, what will the political left do with executive power when it regains it?

The "war on terror" has further eroded the Blackstonian check on Benthamite impulses just as Lincoln’s Civil War, the Great Depression and the New Deal did earlier. Our political system has become unbalanced. The Civil War effectively erased the Tenth Amendment, ended states rights and concentrated political power in the central government, thus undermining the Republic. The New Deal undermined the legislative power of Congress by giving the executive agencies the right to make law by writing the regulations that interpret statutes. The Bush administration has used the war on terror to assert executive branch hegemony over international law and the Constitution.

The foundation is in place for rule by the executive. Normally this is called dictatorship. The tendency is always strong to look to the executive for leadership. With elite power now concentrated in a few material interests and the demise of an independent news media (except for the Internet), we face a future with a more powerful and less accountable executive.

Those with agendas will welcome this development, but the fight to gain executive power will become more vicious than ever. The people are diminished as government accountability declines. An important buttress to the power of the citizenry is the Second Amendment with its implication that the people have the right to overthrow a government that abandons the Constitution and oppresses the people.

The gun control movement reifies guns and attributes to inanimate objects the behavioral failings of humans. Events such as the Blacksburg shootings by a deranged student provide powerful propaganda for gun control. Those who would overturn the Second Amendment should not proceed blind to the fact that stripped of the right to bear arms, the people would be stripped of the right and the means to resist government oppression.

The demise of the Second Amendment would result in a critical change in psychology. The creed that government is answerable to the people would fade away as the American people are transformed from citizens empowered to hold government accountable to mere subjects of executive power.

Paul Craig Roberts [send him mail] wrote the Kemp-Roth bill and was Assistant Secretary of the Treasury in the Reagan administration. He was Associate Editor of the Wall Street Journal editorial page and Contributing Editor of National Review. He is author or coauthor of eight books, including The Supply-Side Revolution (Harvard University Press). He has held numerous academic appointments, including the William E. Simon Chair in Political Economy, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Georgetown University and Senior Research Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He has contributed to numerous scholar journals and testified before Congress on 30 occasions. He has been awarded the U.S. Treasury’s Meritorious Service Award and the French Legion of Honor. He was a reviewer for the Journal of Political Economy under editor Robert Mundell. He is the co-author of The Tyranny of Good Intentions. He is also coauthor with Karen Araujo of Chile: Dos Visiones — La Era Allende-Pinochet (Santiago: Universidad Andres Bello, 2000).

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