Cass Sunstein quotes Sean Wilentz, who reinvents Richard Hofstadter’s “paranoid style of American politics” into the small-minded, counter-intellectual smear of “paranoid libertarian.” Wilentz’s article in the New Republic is long and vaguely academic, but there’s more to it than that.
Entitled “Would You Feel Differently About Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange If You Knew What They Really Thought?” Professor Wilentz has written a hit piece on these three famous “transparencists.” He paints them (even the Australian!) as associated with the Ron Paul anti-state, pro-peace, libertarian political phenom, and even includes several paragraphs on Ron Paul himself! As far as I can see, Wilentz is the parent of a well-written whine about why these whistleblowers are so popular among so many average people in this country, and why that is so terribly, awfully, fundamentally wrong.
I can’t resist sharing Wilentz’ conclusion, because it’s just that good!
Snowden, Greenwald, and Assange have largely set the terms in the debate over transparency and privacy in America. But the value of some of their revelations does not mean that they deserve the prestige and influence that has been accorded to them. The leakers and their supporters would never hand the state modern surveillance powers, even if they came wrapped in all sorts of rules and regulations that would constrain their abuse. They are right to worry, but wrong—even paranoid—to distrust democratic governments in this way. Surveillance and secrecy will never be attractive features of a democratic government, but they are not inimical to it, either. This the leakers will never understand. [bold-face added]
For a professor of American history to claim that democratic government can be trusted, or to suggest that the U.S., with 330 million people and over four time zones are somehow governed democratically is a bit over the top. Perhaps he believes it. However, the mention of what one group “deserves” reminded me of The Anti Capitalistic Mentality, where Mises writes of American intellectuals being often left out of the larger society, and resentful of both the monetary rewards, and more importantly, the overall popularity of other sectors, be they businessmen, football players, entertainers, and truthtellers empowered by cheap technology.
Mises also points out that “If a group of people secludes itself from the rest of the nation, especially from its intellectual leaders….they unavoidably become targets of rather hostile criticisms on the part of those whom they keep out of their circles.” Certainly, Wilentz is feeling – dare I say – a bit paranoid because he hasn’t been included either in the truthtelling adventures of Snowden, Greenwald and Assange, or in the mass accolades these bold leaders are earning among the hoi polloi.
While Wilentz wales away at his targets and wails for the democracy he imagines has been harmed, the far sharper Cass Sunstein has simultaneously fine-tuned and broadened the attack. His “How to Spot A Paranoid Libertarian” is a boiling oil dump on the serfs storming the statist’s castle. Sunstein is careful to distinguish paranoid libertarians from the acceptable minarchist, the pro-warfare state, small-government hypocrite, and smart regulatory, nudge-friendly libertarians, who are happy to remain fringe players in the establishment, while ignoring both facts and history. I’m not criticizing these various liberty-advocating units. As Sunstein and most of us understand, armies are always divided by function and ability.
Within this framework, Sunstein seeks to define his enemy, which is to say the enemy of centralism and totalitarianism. He is also firing back at those who have found Sunstein’s academic and political work to be an anathema to fundamental liberty at all levels, and arrogant to boot. His five characteristics of the paranoid libertarian may be summarized as follows: 1) a sense that government authority will tend to grow and be misused; 2) a related “bad faith” presumption about the motivations and truthfulness of elected officials; 3) a sense of victimization relating to items 1 and 2; 4) an indifference or lack of interest in policy tradeoffs regarding fundamental liberties and rights, and; 5) an enthusiasm for slippery slope arguments (presumably, he refers to slippery slope arguments lacking logical fact-based implications).
If one overlooks the nastiness of tone, the open defense of the state socialism of both Bush and Obama administrations, and the sarcastic “reasonableness” of Sunstein’s essay, I find little with which to disagree. In every way, Sunstein has described the attitude of the average American in the year 2014, five years into an economic “recovery” that has left the government claiming that state and federal agencies and central banks really aren’t the only beneficiaries of Bernankite monetary easement, and that it isn’t really true that that only 47% of adult Americans are working full time.
The Sunstein essay, the lament of Wilentz, and the many expositions of others associated with and supportive of the status quo fascism in America serve as a delightful sign that things are changing. Clearly, the modern state and its apologists are in defense mode, and possibly even frantic defense mode.
Elsewhere, Sunstein has worried that too many of us listen only to our like-minded friends, and he misses the point that this tendency applies precisely and originally to the intelligentsia. Wilentz writes that as far as he can tell, government whistleblowers really just hate the modern liberal state, and wish to see it destroyed. These observations are a bit over the top, and again more suited to someone on the verge of hiring a private investigator to follow their spouse than a well-balanced student of American culture, government and technology.
It occurs to me Wilentz, Sunstein and company have provided for us set of indicators for identifying the petrified statist. I am referring to petrified as in frightened, rather than petrified as in old wood, although both characterizations may serve. In fact, the latter may be the more accurate prediction, given what we know of historical tendencies of authoritarian overreach. In any case, consider this:
1) Statists come in all flavors. But the petrified statist is obsessed with trying to identify, and marginalize, the successful anti-state spokesperson or activities. Beyond government whistleblowers, the petrified statist is somewhat obsessed with peace, free market and limited government advocates from the so-called “right” like the Mises Institute and Ron Paul Institute. They are also alarmed by popular trends and activities that rest on a somewhat “left” leaning rejection of the state. This includes faith-based movements, liberty movements, and pro-Constitution groups as well as the anti-GMO, localism, tiny house, debt-free, and natural health care movements. Because many of these ideas are community-centered, network-driven, and results-oriented, they are spreading rapidly. Most importantly, these ideas, movements and activities seem to give hope and fulminate real change. For the petrified statist, hope and change are the responsibility of government, and any evidence to the contrary will be “wildly exaggerated” and fear-inducing.
2) The petrified statist is nearly always a defender of politicians and whatever they do, so long as those politicians advocate government authority, government spending, and government grants and favors that provide for a wide array of academic and media jobs. Accolades for Bloomberg’s silliness regarding the size of New Yorker’s sippy cups, and Chris Christie’s statism under the guise a strong conservative leadership are common and unquestioned among statists in general. These kinds of politicians are particularly honored and admired by the petrified statist in a way that is almost iconic, and worshipful.
3) The petrified statist is a secret military fetishist, adoring the military for what it can do for the state at home and abroad, and envying the top-down authoritarianism of a military organization. However, the military also frightens the petrified statist. Veterans specifically are not, and cannot be, trusted to support the blooming fascism that is modern America. The economics (poor), demographics (young), geographics (southern and western), and ideology (pro-constitution, pro-second amendment, and patriotic) create a large body of citizens who don’t like government much. In a way, the petrified statist feels not only victimized, but also strangely betrayed, by the kinds of people who serve and have served in the government’s standing armies.
4) The average statist is not reflective or pensive, and he or she rarely seeks conflict or to explain themselves. The lethargic momentum of can-kicking bureaucracy and status quo is quite enough for them. But the petrified statist is cursed with a need to explain themselves, and to have all of “us” whomever “we” are understand why we shouldn’t be, and to admit our error of, bowling alone, when in fact, we are not bowling alone at all. The petrified statist cannot admit and refuses to recognize that they fundamentally don’t matter to the rest of us. What do we think of them? Not to paraphrase Ayn Rand, but there is a reason she is viscerally despised by the petrified statist. The bulk of the country, and the entire liberty consortium, do not think of the petrified statists at all.
5) A fifth characteristic of the petrified statist, beyond his generalized and well-deserved anxiety about the collapse of the American empire, is an over-active imagination regarding the “enemies” of the state. A petrified statist has personalized the state, and sees “government” as an entity with its own rights, its own rules, a benevolent and uber-necessary conglomeration that has a mission unto itself. Sovereign immunity is necessary, because the godhead is always good. But when the state is personalized, then it can have personal enemies, and a battle of sorts may be waged. This is a false construct, but it drives the petrified statist of the modern era into a defensive mode. In fact, the state, and government, is as powerful as we the people allow it to be, and when we stop the obedience, the state begins to shift. If we desire, we can collapse the state much as a balloon shrinks inevitably in the face of pressure, temperature, disaster or time. Humans live, communities live, but government per se is not a living, breathing entity. Sadly, the petrified statist holds to the fallacy of the living and right-holding state, and naturally and constantly fear for its survival.
In summary, for every “paranoid libertarian,” that crazy canary or a doom-warning albatross, stoically suffering their curses, yet blessed with flight and an ability to see and know the environment below the surface and far above it, we have a petrified statist wandering in a medieval forest, unappreciated, underpaid, ignored, lost and scared silly. And whining about it.