Freedom is Still the Preeminent Issue

The Foundation for Economic Education posted online my piece from the current issue of their Freeman magazine responding to David Brooks’s call to devalue freedom in American poiltics.

Freedom Is Not the Issue? It Just Ain’t So! The Freeman September 2008

By James Bovard

The Friends of Leviathan are once again encouraging people to forget about freedom. In a May op-ed piece in the New York Times, columnist David Brooks announced, “The central political debate of the 20th century was over the role of government. The right stood for individual freedom while the left stood for extending the role of the state. But the central debate of the 21st century is over quality of life. In this new debate, it is necessary but insufficient to talk about individualfreedom. Political leaders have to also talk about . . . ‘the whole way we live our lives.’ ”

Brooks, the “liberal” media’s favorite “conservative,” has long sought to place a halo over Big Government. In 1996 he urged Americans to forget their fears of politicians and embrace “national greatness.” He proclaimed that “energetic government is good for its own sake. It raises the sights of the individual. It strengthens common bonds. It boosts national pride. It continues the great national project.” Brooks’s paean to government was almost indistinguishable from a 1932 tribute by Benito Mussolini, who declared, “It is the State which educates its citizens in civic virtue, gives them a consciousness of their mission and welds them into unity; harmonizing their various interests through justice, and transmitting to future generations the mental conquests of science, of art, of law, of human solidarity.”

But fascist ideas are not tolerated in the United States—if they are labeled fascistic.

In last May’s article Brooks gushed over how British conservatives are placing “more emphasis on environmental issues, civility, assimilation and the moral climate.” When Brooks talks about “moral climate,” he presumably means politicians lecturing citizens about the need to act responsibly. Brooks ignores the fact that the greatest irresponsibility comes from politicians. Consider his reaction to one of the worst abuses of the Bush presidency.

Brooks was a gung-ho advocate of invading Iraq. In the days after the Abu Ghraib torture photos appeared in May 2004, he bewailed; “We were so sure we were using our might for noble purposes. . . . Far from being blinded by greed, we were blinded by idealism.” Brooks and other pundits congratulated themselves for having swallowed politicians’ hokum and leading their readers and the nation over a cliff.

His response to the torture scandal epitomizes how he wants Americans to view government. People are supposed to believe wonderful things about it. Then, when government commits atrocities, people are supposed to “move along because there is nothing to see here.” Instead, it is on to the next opportunity to put government on a pedestal and urge everyone to bow down to it.

The great political issue of our times is not liberalism versus conservatism, or capitalism versus socialism, but statism—the belief that government is inherently superior to the citizenry, that progress consists of extending the realm of compulsion, that vesting arbitrary power in government officials will make the people happy eventually. What type of entity is the state? Is it a highly efficient, purring engine, like a hovercraft sailing deftly above the lives of ordinary citizens? Or is it a lumbering giant bulldozer that rips open the soil and ends up clear-cutting the lives of people it was created to help?

The issue of government coercion has been taken off the radar screen of politically correct thought. The more government power has grown, the more unfashionable it becomes to discuss or recognize the abuses, as though it were bad form to count the dead from government interventions. There seems to be a gentleman’s agreement among many pundits and political scientists to pretend that government is something loftier than it actually is and to wear white gloves when discussing the nature of the state.

Government Without Romance

Unfortunately, individuals often are unaware of government’s true record because the media are working hand in glove with the ruling class.

Statists rely on political arithmetic that begins by erasing all of government’s abuses from the ledger. Instead, people should begin by pretending that Leviathan doesn’t exist—and then ask what politicians can do to make the masses happy.

Modern political thinking largely consists of glorifying poorly functioning political machinery—the threats, bribes, and legislative cattle prods by which some people are made to submit to other people. It is a delusion to think of the state as something loftier than all the edicts, penalties, prison sentences, and taxes it imposes.

Like Tom Sawyer persuading his friends to pay him for the privilege of painting his aunt’s fence, modern politicians expect people to be grateful for the chance to pay for the fetters that government attaches to them. Even though the average family now pays more in taxes than it spends for housing, clothing, and food combined, tax burdens are not an issue for most American political commentators.

To call for government intervention is to demand that some people be given the power to compel others to submit. But coercion is a blunt instrument that produces many ill effects aside from the purported government goal. To rely on coercion to achieve progress is like relying on bulldozers and steamrollers for routine transit. The question is not whether a person can eventually reach a goal driving a steamroller, but how much damage is left in his wake and how much faster the destination could be reached without crushing everything along the way.
Americans and Washington

Many people in Washington believe that Americans are so helpless that they cannot be fulfilled unless their rulers give them a reason to live. Brooks proclaimed in 1996 that “ultimately, American purpose can find its voice only in Washington.” He did not explain where exactly in the memos, meetings, and machinations which engross the capital that “American purpose” arises. Brooks warned that Americans’ mental health depends on the feds proclaiming a purpose for the people: “Without vigorous national vision, we are plagued by anxiety and disquiet.”

Recent opinion polls show that much of the anxiety in this nation is the result of the follies and deceits of the federal government. It was government and politicians, not freedom, that failed Americans in the new century. It was not freedom that wrecked the U.S. dollar. It was not freedom that made federal spending explode. It was not freedom that spurred a foreign war that has already left tens of thousands of Americans dead and maimed, and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead. It was not freedom which announced that the Constitution and the statute book no longer bind the president.

Brooks became a media darling in part because of his vehement warnings about the danger of cynicism. But it is not cynical to have more faith in freedom than in subjugation. It is not cynical to have more faith in individuals vested with rights than in bureaucrats armed with power. It is not cynical to suspect that governments which have cheated so often in the past may not be dealing straight today.

Trust no intellectual who tells you not to worry about Leviathan.

tagline: James Bovard is the author of Attention Deficit Democracy, Terrorism and Tyranny, Lost Rights, and other books.


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13 Responses to Freedom is Still the Preeminent Issue

  1. Tom Blanton October 4, 2008 at 2:18 am #

    Great article, Jim. I saw it yesterday at FEE and for some reason this line made an impression on my few remaining brain cells:

    “To rely on coercion to achieve progress is like relying on bulldozers and steamrollers for routine transit.”

    This put a picture in my mind of a big fifties-style car with giant steamroller wheels. Like a 50s convertible car ad, it is being driven by a white guy wearing a suit, tie, hat and confident smile. June Cleaver is in the passenger seat and her hairdo is immune from the wind. Both of them are oblivious to the destruction taking place under their rollers.

    They are probably heading to the polls to vote for McBama in an orgasmic state of patriotism.

  2. Jim October 4, 2008 at 2:08 pm #

    Tom – thanks! Glad you liked the article.

    That 1950s convertible ad is a great image…. Unfortunately, much of the nation thinks that the US government can roll over practically the entire world to reach whatever destination politicians proclaim.

  3. Adam S. October 4, 2008 at 3:11 pm #

    The article reminds us once again that the fourth and fifth branches of government are the most dangerous: the media, and the intelligentsia. I don’t know that the government could get away with half the things it does, or get even dumber ideas except for what that great echo chamber of academia and media perpetuate. Our efforts will probably get nowhere until the media finally collapses under its own weight or people just stop paying attention.
    This mortgage bailout bill might be just the catalyst needed to puncture their veil.
    If we could draw the average American right now, it would be a bald, fat man with an iPod in one hand and a hot dog in the other, wearing a beer hat. He would be skipping and dancing to Jessica Simpson and the Texas Ti**ytwisters right over a precipice. Right now, they are starting to awaken, but the media will work their darnedest to lull them asleep.

  4. Jean October 5, 2008 at 5:42 pm #

    Jim, after reading this fine article, and I have no reason to believe that you are lying, (although I think you had to get his statements thru FOIA requests) Mr. Brooks proves my idea that indeed, most of the Lame Stream Media have become de facto government agents. As we have seen thru this phony War on Terror that most, if not all the civil liberties have been lost, but indeed, the freedom of the press is dead.
    I’m glad to see you and other brave souls still trying to give this fundemental principle some well deserved CPR!!!

  5. Jim October 5, 2008 at 8:35 pm #

    Adam – what exactly is a “beer hat”?

  6. Jim October 5, 2008 at 8:37 pm #

    Jean – thanks for the kind words & encouragement.

    Brooks is an interesting case. He did not balk at articles exposing Waco and Ruby Ridge when he was the editorial features editor at the Wall Street Journal in 1995. But after he moved to DC, … well…. it didn’t seem to help the clarity of his moral perceptions.

    He had an article last week about the rejection of the bailout bill in the House…. it was Washington thinking at its best…

  7. Tom Blanton October 5, 2008 at 10:02 pm #

    This might be the guy Adam is talking about:

  8. Jim October 5, 2008 at 10:23 pm #

    Dang, they didn’t have those hats back on the farm.

    Not to quibble with Adam’s fine riff – but do dudes who wear beer hats also use iPods?

  9. Dirk W. Sabin October 6, 2008 at 9:09 am #

    Herr Bovard,
    A fine one this but I must admit, the sophist Brooks is an abiding pet peeve of mine, particularly when i hear liberals spout his vapid socio-speak doggerel as representative of the conservative side….a thing that has not existed since Taft. …well…maybe Ike still had a little of it left.

    The Times likely has a file 6″ thick of letters to the editor I sent about the abject moron …I call it the “News Unfit To Print”.

    The Media is like a pack of camp harlots following the Grand Army of the Potomac, pre Grant. This makes Ms. Palin’s Freudian slip about “General McClellan” in Afghanistan so sweet.

    It will all sort out because as the overweight American is placed on a sub-maintenance diet as a result of the funhouse the Establishment has careened us all into, a little healthy skepticism might just break out and …at least in a metaphorical vein, the chastened citizen might start following the Keseberg Diet on Brooks and his pre-meditated cluelessness.

    The Financial Crisis is a fitting end to this 60 year political and economic fairy tale we’ve been on. Debt was hammered into a commodity and that tool of rationality and reason… mathematics…. was used to pump it up into greater degrees of artificiality….just as our social construct and politics were becoming ever more artificial.

    Well reality is now back with a vengeance and still, we’re watching these so called “mature adults” do their utmost to keep us clinging to artifice to the bitter end.

    Does anyone else see the Great Public Service Announcement represented by media swell Andrea Mitchell, wife of the Oracular Somnambulator Greenspan commenting upon the “Economic Crisis”? It is one of those subtle messages about who is to blame for this clusterboink. Sure, they did not do it or contribute maliciously , they have only the best regard for the system and the country because they rode the crest of this period of Byzantine Bunko. So what.

    Now, the challenge will be staving off that Mussolini -like populism that generally,in the fullness of time, feeds upon the host with relish and abandon. The nation, trained on bread and circuses is uniquely suited to an episode like this as depicted by the schoolgirl gushing over Governor Palin. Dominatrix Democracy coming to the Plunderbund near you. ( I can’t claim the term myself, found it on that Austrian school site Lew Rockwell but it’s perfect)

    Cynical? Hell yes, just like any spurned lover.

  10. D. Saul Weiner October 6, 2008 at 4:50 pm #

    Bravo, Jim.

  11. Will Blalock October 7, 2008 at 3:26 pm #

    Time to dismiss men like Brooks and
    his ilk. Time to dismiss their thoughts,
    ideas, dreams, hopes and fears.

    “What does conservatism today stand for? It stands for war. It stands for power. It stands for spying, jailing without trial, torture, counterfeiting without limit, and lying from morning to night.

    There comes a time in the life of every believer in freedom when he must declare, without any hesitation, to have no attachment to the idea of conservatism.”

    –Lew Rockwell

    Mr.Bovard, thanks for the article.

  12. Marc October 7, 2008 at 11:44 pm #

    The glaring halo hung around Leviathan by the MSM and legions of intellectuals blinds most people to the beast’s wicked looking horns and fangs, broken chains and hopelessly rapacious nature.

  13. Jean October 8, 2008 at 8:08 am #

    Jim, as they used to say on Monty Python, “and now for something completely different”.
    Here’s the website of a journalist and financial analyst who, like Ron Paul and Peter Schiff, has gotten it right on the financial mess. And like you, is quite entertaining. I’ve heard him call Henry Paulson the Col Kuritz and that he’s gone “native”.
    His name is Max Kaiser, and writes for the Huffington Blog, and is a financial contributor to Al Jazeera English. Here’s his website.