Running on Empty

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Conservative, n.: A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.

~ Ambrose Bierce

It is not surprising that, when culture is in collapse, so too is the level of thinking upon which it is based. This is doubtless the social equivalent of the proposition that water can never rise higher than its source. For a civilization to be creative and to thrive, it must have a substructure capable of producing the values that can sustain it. Our present civilization is dying because it no longer has such a base of support.

Western society has become so thoroughly politicized that it is difficult to imagine any area of human activity that can be said to be beyond the reach of the state. People’s diets, weight levels, child-raising practices, treatment of pets, how he can express anger, whether one can make alterations to his/her home — including replacing a lawn with rocks or plants: these are but a handful of private decisions intruded upon by the state. Other than complaints voiced by those directly affected by the state’s intervention, there are few who consistently defend the liberty of individuals to live as they choose.

A free, orderly, and productive society is held together not by the armed might of the police and military, nor by the dictates of rulers or the edicts of judges, but by a shared sense of the conditions that foster rather than inhibit life. At the core of such thinking is a belief in the innate worthiness and inviolability of each person, an attitude that manifests itself in terms of respect for one another’s property boundaries, within which each of us is free to pursue our respective self-interests. Peace and liberty are the inevitable consequences of living in a society so constituted.

Sadly, as our world has become increasingly infected by the virus of institutionalism — and its coercive agent, the state — men and women have intensified their attachments to these organizational forms. As we see in the repeated failures of government schools and the criminal justice system to meet the expectations so many have of them, people continue to invest heavily in the promotion of such governmental interests. The more such agencies fail, in other words, the more most people are willing to support them, an absurdity that provides such programs with an incentive to fail.

As the business world has experienced the consequences of moving from the self-disciplining nature of a free market system to the mercantilist coziness of the modern corporate—state arrangement, we find the same institutionally-serving impulses to use governmental force to benefit failing firms. Under the mantra "too big to fail," the corporate—state establishment has been able to bamboozle most Americans into believing that it is in their individual interests to be forced to support business enterprises that lack the resiliency, creativity, and other capacities to respond to competition; that they should be compelled to do what more and more would not choose to do in the marketplace.

I went to an Internet site and found a listing of now-defunct American auto manufacturers. Their numbers ran to some fifty-one pages. I am certain that, at their demise, the owners of such firms might have wished for the kinds of government-funded bailouts that their successors now enjoy. I can understand — although do not accept — the kind of thinking that would like to be on the receiving end of such state largess. It is not unlike Linus — in an early Peanuts cartoon — contemplating his death. After declaring "I’m too young to die," he finally admits "I’m too me to die!"

What I do not understand, however, is the innocence — the gullibility, if you prefer — of so many men and women who have brought themselves to share in the institutional mindset that the organizational system is to be more highly-valued and defended than the marketplace processes that created such enterprises in the first place. Such thinking is a symptom of just how deeply the virus of institutionalism has infected American society.

For various reasons that go beyond a principled criticism of our centrally-directed, vertically-structured society, the institutional order is in a state of turbulence. Political, corporate, and educational systems are increasingly unable to meet even the most meager of popular expectations. Our world is becoming more and more decentralized, with vertical systems being challenged — and even replaced — by horizontal networks governed by autonomous and spontaneous human activity. In the face of such changes, the establishment has become desperate to reinforce its crumbling walls. Because the state is defined in terms of its monopoly on the use of violence, it is not surprising to see it escalating the use of brute force in an effort to maintain its position.

Because, as Randolph Bourne advised us, "war is the health of the state," governments have sought to reinforce the support they enjoy from Homo Boobus by engaging in what the historian Charles Beard called the "perpetual war for perpetual peace." Whether such wars be undertaken for so-called defensive or preventive purposes is no longer a relevant consideration. The core offense at the Nuremberg Trials was the starting of a war; such aggression now serves, among many Americans, as an occasion for slapping bumper-stickers on their cars with the vulgar message: "support the troops." The war frenzy brings forth such displays of flag-waving as will cause the statists to give serious consideration to using nuclear weapons against Iran, as well as to warble idiotically: "bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" during the 2008 presidential campaign!

The general absence of criticism over "preventive warfare" has led the defenders of statism to extend the practice to "preventive detention," by which men and women can be thrown into prisons and held without trial — or even charges filed against them — and without benefit of the writ of habeas corpus. While being so held, the captives may be subjected to all kinds of torture, a practice the statists wish to distinguish by calling it by a different name!


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In an effort to plumb the shallowness of the minds of most Americans, the statists have reiterated the proposition, first enunciated by George W. Bush and continued under the Obama administration, that American citizens could be targeted for assassination as part of the "global war on terror." Just who the targeted persons might be, or who would have the authority to authorize their murder, was left unsaid. At long last, we have come full-circle from the political wisdom offered by Pogo Possum in the 1950s: "we has met the enemy, and they is us."

What next in the offing? Shall we soon be hearing of concentration camps, complete with gas chambers, to which Americans — or anybody else — might be sent for the "final solution" to the terrorism problem? Of course, the terminology will have to be cleaned up a bit, just as it was for the Japanese-Americans who, during World War II, were sent to "relocation centers" for the offense of having the politically-incorrect ancestors! As a recent bumper-sticker reads: "there will never be concentration camps in America; they’ll be called something else."

Nor would modern death-camps have to be specialized to the elimination of so-called "terrorists." What about other enemies of governmental programs? After all, if former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright can rationalize the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children in furtherance of her more mundane policies, how many millions might be sacrificed to such nobler ends as, well, saving the planet?

At last! A project to which Al Gore could be put in charge; one that would allow him to realize his life’s dream: to be in control of all life on the planet. How better to reduce carbon emissions on the planet than to systematically exterminate their contributors (i.e., human beings)? Of course, enough people would have to be left living in order to provide the energies with which to serve the state. But this is simply a matter of careful calculation to be engaged in by neo-philosopher-kings!

Will there be no end to the efforts of statists to keep upping the ante in their quest for absolute control over their fellow humans? Is there any indecency or atrocity which most Americans would be unwilling to embrace? Is there a moral threshold that most would refuse to cross?

As America continues to unravel, expect even more intensive efforts by the statists to regain and solidify their power. Look, further, to increasing numbers of your neighbors who sense that something is terribly wrong — quite evil — in America that must be resisted. To whom can we look for an assessment of the problem? Do the conservatives have anything to offer? Sadly, they are still too strongly attached to the kinds of thinking that got us where we are (e.g., the war system and police-state authority). As I read or listen to them, I find little more than name-calling, jingoism, and fear-mongering coming forth from those who lost their passion for liberty once the Soviet Union collapsed.

For the time being, at least, most of the liberal community is still in too much of a stupor over the election of a black president to be of much use in confronting the wrongdoing of the current state. The so-called moderates (i.e., the worst of all "extremists," who congenitally insist upon compromises between equally untenable positions) are, as in most matters, of little benefit. Nor will much assistance be found within most of academia, so many of whose members are in a terminal state produced by the institutional virus. The mainstream media will likewise prove to be a dry hole for enlightenment: they are the voices of the establishment; their job is to reinforce your institutional commitments. The Internet, by contrast, continues to be the best source of alternative thinking, what with entry into this medium being so easy. It is, perhaps, the best spur to individualized thinking since Gutenberg upset the established order of his day.

Because of the uncertain and unpredictable nature of complex systems, I don’t know of anyone — including myself — who has a monopoly on "all the answers" to what plagues us, both personally and socially. What we need to focus on, instead, are those who might have a better set of questions to ask as we try to distill a free, peaceful, and orderly society out of the carefully-organized insanity into which we find ourselves twisted and knotted. Perhaps it would do us well to recall the lessons from an etymological dictionary: that the words "peace," "freedom," "love," and "friend," have interconnected histories. Might our ancient ancestors have known what we have long-since forgotten as we traipse about in search of one divisive ideology after another?

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918—1938 and of Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival. His latest book is Boundaries of Order.

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