At the twilight of one president’s term and with the ascent of the next we see our neighbors’ attitudes toward the nation’s politics dramatically shift. Conservatives now claim that dissent is patriotic. Liberals now see the presidency as the best proxy for American progress.
It is a fine time to contemplate how, no matter how much the people seem to hate the government as it is, that energy all too often ends up to the state’s benefit.
Both Bush and Obama have used the word "liberty" on multiple occasions. They are tapping into the libertarian spirit of the country, for the purpose of promoting its opposite. Nearly all Americans have an anti-state strain to their political thinking. The most exciting and inspiring tenets of both left and right are anti-government.
The conservatives had some great moments in the 1990s. At least some of them did. There was at least a considerable faction with moderately libertarian attitudes toward taxes, the IRS, gun control, Waco, federal meddling, and even the warfare state. Some conservatives could be heard questioning the drug war, as well. With the Cold War over, and a dread "liberal" in the White House, some conservatives indeed sounded radically anti-state a good 80% of the time. The right even protested when Clinton’s government killed, often louder than the center left did.
It is true, of course, that conservatism is not libertarianism. It is furthermore one of liberty’s greatest enemies at times. But many who identify more with the right than left can be, overall, opponents of the regime.
Some of the good conservatives survived 9/11. Indeed, some have taken civil liberties and empire seriously. But most of them have been nothing if not supporters of the Bush state, which has eroded American liberty enough to put it in the pantheon of the five or six worst presidencies in U.S. history.
The left, in contrast, has sounded much more libertarian since 9/11. For the last few years, perhaps on most issues of the utmost importance — war, torture, indefinite detention, surveillance, the police state, corporate welfare, even deficit spending — the left has been much less in support of the current state and its most conspicuous areas of growth.
Yet now we see the left warming back up to the federal government, but perhaps with a vengeance. They had been rightfully attacking Bush for asserting dictatorial prerogative, but many are now much more fixated on what Obama will do with government power than with what he will do to undo Bush’s legacy of power grabs. They laughably say Bush’s fictitious anti-government philosophy is what has brought America to economic crisis. They see in Obama a chance for another New Deal, more than they see any retrenchment of state power.
Those struggling for liberty and in the name of liberty often end up co-opted by the state. Democracy is particularly good at producing this result. America might be the best example.
The Founding Fathers were co-opted by the temptations of their own power structure. By the late 18th century, the government instituted among revolutionary men was as oppressive toward Americans as the Crown ever was. The Jeffersonians were great out of power, but in power were shameless expansionists and promoters of belligerent American nationalism. The Hamiltonians, too, had their best moments when they were critiquing from the sidelines — such as with their dissent from James Madison’s war in 1812. Altogether, the founding generation’s lasting legacy, in terms of actual government, has been an empire that dwarfs the one from which they seceded. The limited, constitutional state they formed has become the least limited one on earth.
Many abolitionists and those who opposed the aggressive war against Mexico and the expansionism in the name of slavery and Manifest Destiny went along with those two great state projects of the 19th century: Civil War and Reconstruction. Meanwhile, many rebellious, anti-state Southerners ended up creating or supporting a homegrown nationalist regime much like Lincoln’s. Since then, many in Dixie have tragically become totally Lincolnized — dedicated to the Republican Party and expansionary U.S. nationalism as ends in themselves.
Many radicals who hated World War I supported FDR. FDR’s political victims went on to oppress the left when they got power. The first Americans to hate Communism for its collectivism ended up being the most collectivist themselves, because of the Cold War. Many who opposed the Cold War at first later supported it. Those who later opposed it went on to support Clinton’s imperialism.
As for civil rights, what began as a radical anti-state movement of free association and equality before the law over years morphed into something much more reliant and supportive of the central state.
The modern democratic state has developed the ability to perversely convince people to become involved and support the state’s expansion when at first it was the state’s harassment that led them to political interest. Power corrupts, and by giving just enough power to the people, democracy tends to corrupt the populace and convince them all that they have a stake in the burgeoning of government activity. Since people think they each have much more power over their democracy than they would over an autarchy, they end up blaming assaults on their liberty on their own inaction. They get involved. And they take over. The state co-opts the demos.
The public schools are failing and socially engineering in despicable ways — "we need subsidies for private schools and mandates for public schools to socially engineer in a different way." Social Security and tax levels are oppressive — “we need a new forced-savings program and a new tax system that will raise maximum revenue with minimum hassle.” The war is immoral — "send more troops and internationalize the conflict." DC is irredeemably corrupt — "we should become more involved and take the reins of power." Government-connected financial institutions are insolvent and the government has ripped us off — "we need more bailouts and more regulation!"
Meanwhile, people come to oppose a subset of the population more than the state that divides them and causes unnecessary social conflict. When they get power, they punish those who used power against them. We all lose in the long term. But the state thrives.
Some gay activists and Mormons, major victims of the state in this country not that long ago, have recently turned to fighting over state power in California because of the gay marriage issue. Neither side seems to want a truce based on the idea that the state should get out of marriage entirely, leave people to their own consciences and religious and secular arrangements, a position most Americans would probably agree to if it were presented to them. Instead, the two sides of the polarized debate all fight over control of the state.
In all types of systems, the state wishes to co-opt other potential competitors for social authority, but this is perhaps easiest under democracy. The artistic, scientific, journalistic, academic, legal, and religious communities — each at points in history the most reliable opponents and critics of tyranny — become bought off, intimidated or tricked into rallying for more state power. Churches begin lobbying for tax exemptions — a separation of church and state — and sometimes end up pushing for subsidies. Artists go from being against the establishment to being propagandists for it (witness how Obamania has co-opted the counterculture; those who used to wear anti-U.S. Che Guevara shirts now sport the likeness of the next head of the U.S. empire).
Journalists, whose job is to monitor the regime and be the people’s great check on the state and to make good on the First Amendment, become corrupted by political access and positively enamored of the government.
Scientists, who have historically struggled for the freedom of inquiry, get research grants and public status for how well they play ball. Economists whose science was born as a discovery of the mechanics behind spontaneous social order become paid shills for central planning. Academics and intellectuals of all types become friends of the state, which claims to appreciate them more than the market ever will.
Law, once the great constraint on state power, has now been monopolized by the state and has unleashed state power. The lawyers were licensed and as a trade turned into state supporters, although some retain their radical sense of justice.
The working class, who would benefit greatly from overthrowing the corporate state, becomes despotic when it takes over. When the underdog becomes the ruling class, they are no longer the underdog, after all.
Socialism is the promise of freedom cloaking the advancement of tyranny. So is conservatism. The conservative movement has largely been a perfect example of the state co-opting the opposition. Reagan probably set the freedom movement back more than almost any other president, by expanding the state in the name of shrinking the state, inspiring free marketers to cheer on the president rather than oppose his works, muddling the debate over free enterprise vs. crony corporatism, and convincing opponents of big government that they could woo power for the sake of freedom.
Consider how little conservatives actually complained about taxes and spending when Bush was in power, compared to now. Just by saying he felt their pain and offering some token cuts, Bush co-opted fiscal conservatives, who soon became sycophants for the largest government ever. And now everyone blames the supposed free market for the financial crisis.
The liberals are now talking about Afghanistan, defending the war there as the Democrats have been since 9/11. The antiwar center has become co-opted by the regime. Of course, appeals to protecting individual rights and liberating foreigners are part of the rhetoric of the war. They always are.
The party in power, by adopting the rhetoric of freedom, gets the best of both worlds. Those who tend to oppose what the government is doing at least appreciate the government agreeing with them in the abstract. Opponents of the welfare system support the profligate Republicans; sincere peaceniks support the bloodthirsty Democrats. Those who want bigger government can always use the disingenuous libertarian rhetoric of politicians to blame the state’s stewards for not being active enough, not regulating enough, not waging enough war.
The pressure was on Bush not to be too laissez-faire. The pressure will be on Obama not to wave the white flag of surrender. The liberals who would oppose a Bush war will split over Obama’s.
So as we see Bush’s term end and Obama’s just around the corner, we can anticipate a new rhetorical dynamic emerging. The failures of the Bush administration will all be misinterpreted as examples of not enough government. Those who have supported Obama as an alternative to excess neocon imperialism and unbridled police statism will become temporarily placated. The election cycle means throwing out the bums, but it is often actually quite good for the state itself. It gives a new image to the same old racket.
Until the true partisans of liberty understand how the enemy co-opts our message, our struggle will seem futile and our gains will be illusory. The key to championing freedom is in staying dedicated to true free-market principles, property rights, individual liberty, free association, and peace — and eschewing all forms of warmongering, socialism and statism, no matter what rhetorical games are being played or whether the conditional friends of liberty have become duped into accepting the state’s aggrandizement in the name of anything, especially freedom.
It is a good sign that politicians feel they must use our rhetoric, for it means the message of freedom is popular and resonates widely and deeply. But this is all the more reason to be on guard. One good rule of thumb: If the state itself is claiming the banner of freedom, which is the opposite of all it represents, it is almost surely lying and should be watched more closely than ever.
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.