It seems to be a near-universal trait among statists, that they cannot conceive the possibility of the state powers they endorse being wielded by rivals. They eagerly call for government interference in this or that, and then recoil in shock and horror when their political rivals win an election and start using the powerful state that has been built for their ends. It happens again and again, and most statists never seem to notice the pattern.
This has been forcefully demonstrated in recent times. Consider, for instance, all the calls from conservatives for massive expansion of the power of the state for the supposed purpose of security from terrorism. I was an ardent conservative in the 1990’s before evolving into a libertarian, and I vividly remember conservative anger over law enforcement outrages like Waco and Ruby Ridge. I shared that anger. More importantly, I learned from it, which is something most people calling themselves conservatives today can’t claim.
Whenever I hear or read about Republicans calling for the government to have the power to spy on Americans, detain people without trial, or engage in torture, I want to ask them, “Would you want a President Kerry or President Gore to have that power? Would it have been a good thing if Bill Clinton had possessed those powers?” Their answer would almost certainly be “no,” but that possibility doesn’t seem to phase them, or else simply does not occur to them.
Republicans won’t be in power forever, and it probably won’t be long before some liberal administration takes advantage of the powers thoughtfully provided to them by conservatives to serve their own ends. We’ll see the government spying on, harassing, and abusing pro-life groups, gun owners, home schoolers, and anyone who falls under liberalism’s rather loose definition of “racism,” and the laws and precedents created by conservatives will have made it possible. Likewise, there’s no reason to expect a Democratic President to be shy about using “signing statements” to usurp power from the legislature, now that Bush has set that precedent. (It’s not as if liberals are any more concerned than conservatives about constitutional niceties, after all.) Conservatives will be rightly outraged, but they’ll never think to blame themselves.
It’s not just conservatives who are guilty of this. One of the great government achievements that liberals like to point to is the public school system, which they have long used to indoctrinate a captive audience with statist propaganda, which they dress up as “creating common values” and “good citizenship.” They have never had a problem with a school system that pushes environmentalism, liberal statism, and the conventional “progressive” view of American history. Now the shoe is on the other foot, with various conservatives calling for the schools to teach creationism and abstinence-only sex education, and liberals scream bloody murder about it. Using the government to push your opinions on other people’s kids is all good fun until someone else tries to do the same thing. They seem totally oblivious to the fact that conservatives are now in a position to push their own values on children only because of the educational establishment that liberals helped to build, and which liberals have vehemently defended from all challenges and criticisms.
Or consider medicine. Many on the left have been angered by the fact that certain forms of contraception were until recently prescription-only, which means that women who wanted them could be blocked by doctors or pharmacists who oppose their use for religious or philosophical reasons. Liberals were generally quite outraged by this.
And yet, that state of affairs was the foreseeable result of institutions that virtually all liberals eagerly support. The problem of women being unable to get emergency contraceptives was the product of government licensing (that is, barriers to entry to reduce competition) of these professions, combined with the fact that the government decides which medications can and cannot be bought without the permission of a licensed doctor and pharmacist. In other words, it was only able to happen because of the state’s power over medicine a power liberals have eagerly supported and consider necessary to protect us from ourselves. Sadly, the causal link between the liberal-supported regulatory state and an outcome that liberals abhorred never seemed to occur to anyone who would have benefited from the realization.
It is my hope that their years out of power have taught liberals this lesson, and that their loss of total control of the government will force conservatives to begin learning it. I am not confident, however; conservatives seem to have learned nothing from the Clinton years, and the fixation of most liberals on George Bush as the uniquely wicked fountainhead of all political evil will probably stop them from realizing that the problem with state power goes deeper than one man or small group of men. Until both groups realize that these powers do not belong in anyone’s hands, they will have learned nothing.
December 8, 2006