Thursday, September 08, 2011

Pseudo Libertarians and Essential Core Functions

Of all Lofgren’s many comments about Republicans, none hit home for me more, or caused me more skepticism than his complaint that, for all their hostility to government:


[M]ost Republican officeholders seem strangely uninterested in the effective repeal of Fourth Amendment protections by the Patriot Act, the weakening of habeas corpus and self-incrimination protections in the public hysteria following 9/11 or the unpalatable fact that the United States has the largest incarcerated population of any country on earth. . . . Instead, they prefer to rail against those government programs that actually help people.
Well, sure, hasn't he ever heard Ronald Reagan's famous quote, that the scariest words in the English language are "I'm from the government and I'm here to help." But Ronald Reagan's hostility to government never stopped him from favoring a huge expansion in privacy invasions and incarceration in his so-called War on Drugs.

The whole distinction is key to the entire Republican world view. Did Lofgren seriously work with Republicans for 28 years and never learn the concept of Essential Core Function? Or, as someone else put it, the difference between the Mommy Party and the Daddy Party? *

Lofgren will never read my blog, but for anyone who does and shares his confusion, let me explain the difference between real libertarians and what I would call pseudo-libertarians. Real libertarians distrust the government in all its aspects, both “mommy” aspects and “daddy” aspects. They differ on which “mommy” functions (if any) are legitimate. As for “daddy” functions (armies, police and prisons), they regard these as more necessary and legitimate than mommy functions, but also more dangerous. Hence real libertarians try to limits daddy functions as well as mommy functions to the minimum necessary. Wars in genuine self defense are acknowledged as necessary, but wars of choice should be avoided. Police are obviously necessary for traditional crimes like murder, rape, theft and so forth, but victimless crimes like gambling, drug trafficking or prostitution should be allowed. That's why real libertarians are big advocates of drug legalization.

Pseudo-libertarians, by contrast, essentially divide government into its Essential Core Functions, i.e., daddy functions, and everything else, i.e., mommy functions. Opposition to government and protection of freedom are therefore seen as confining government to its essential core functions. Daddy functions are, by definition, not seen as threats to liberty because they are Essential Core Functions. It is only when government spreads into mommy functions that liberty is in danger because mommy functions mean that government is metastasizing beyond its proper role, and who knows how far it will spread. The same rule applies, by the way, to opposition to government spending. Any spending whatever on mommy functions is an outrageous extravagance that we cannot afford and must be ruthlessly cut. Armies, policy and prisons, by contrast, don’t count as “spending” because they are Essential Core Functions and therefore you don’t have to worry about how to pay for them.

Once you understand this distinction, it explains a lot. It explains why wiretapping, indefinite detention, endless war and torture under George Bush were not threatening, and remain unthreatening even when now under the much-feared Obama, but universal health care is the end of all liberty. It explains why the Republican base is completely unconcerned about the possibility that Governor Perry might have executed an innocent man. Executions, far from seeming like the ultimate government intrusion on liberty and therefore to be carefully controlled, are an Essential Core Function and therefore not threatening, even if they get the wrong person sometimes. It explains why pseudo-libertarians seem so unconcerned about the War on Drugs. Focusing on the shocking searches and seizures, police kicking in doors, the SWAT teams, the long prison sentences for minor offenses and so forth doesn’t conjure up loss of liberty to a pseudo libertarian; it merely shows that the Drug War is within the government’s Essential Core Functions and therefore not threatening to liberty. And it explains why a business lobby that sponsored Arizona's anti-immigration law as a business opportunity to increase prisoners for the private prison industry could unironically call itself the conservative, free-market orientated, limited-government group.**

The most extreme form I have seen of this was a letter to the editor explaining that government is really just a monopoly on violence and clearly a monopoly on violence has no business providing services. Wrap your head around this if you can. Government is not threatening liberty so long as it is being violent. Only when it does anything that is not violent do we have to start worrying.

Back to Lofgren, he discusses Republicans' extreme acts of obstructionism and sabotage in ominous terms, "[L]egislating has now become war minus the shooting, something one could have observed 80 years ago in the Reichstag of the Weimar Republic. " But, he says, Republicans are not just doing this to undermine Democratic adminstations, they are seeking to undermine people's confidence in government itself, because the more people's confidence in government is undermined, the more they will vote for Republicans, the anti-government party. But, once again, their attempt to undermine people's faith in government applies only to government in its mommy functions. Daddy functions are a different matter altogether. And, indeed, polls show that while people's confidence in government in general and Congress in particular falls ever lower, confidence in the military and the police remain high. Certainly, it is important for the public to have confidence in the military and the police. The 60's and '70's were an alarming example of what happens to society when the public does not have confidence in the military and the police.

But the military and the police are not just the most essential core functions of the government (although they are that). They are also deeply (and properly) authoritarian organizations that are supposed to be kept under civilian control. But the more the public reveres the military and police and holds civilian authorities in contempt, the harder such civilian control will be to maintain.*** It has long been clear to me that the Republicans aspire to a de facto one party state, somewhat along the lines of Mexico or Japan. What Lofgren seems to be implying is that Republicans are seeking to hollow out our democratic institutions altogether until only the authoritarian ones actually function.

That is why the Weimar analogy seems so ominous. The reasons German democracy fell are many and complex. But one of them was that the German people became so disgusted watching the petty bickering and incompetence of their democratic leaders (salted with a hefty dose of obstructionism and sabotage by anti-democratic parties, who were by no means limited to the Nazis) that they longed for a dictatorship to cut through the squabbles and just get things done. It is starting to look familiar.

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*If you follow the link, by the way, you will see pseudo-libertarian assumptions within it. Mommy nurtures; daddy protects. Daddy can be cold and distant, but mommy can be suffocating. The assumption is that infringements on libety come only from the mommy side and that the only libety problem one might have with daddy is that he allows too much of it. But this is nonesense, of course. Daddy doesn't just protect, he disciplines and punishes. It isn't just that he can be cold and aloof; he can be overly strict, punitive, and even abusive. When daddy infringes on your liberty, it is usually a lot more direct and severe than when mommy does.

**This was another story I regarded with some skepticism. It sounded too much like some classic left wing conspiracy theory. Still, the story originate with NPR, which is certainly a respectable organization. Reading the story with a cautious eye, what one comes away with is not that the Arizona anti-immigration law was a conspiracy by the private prison industry to increase the number of inmates, but that anti-immigration legislators saw a powerful potential ally in the private prison industry and sought to enlist their help. Such things are normal in the legislative process, though smellier than usual in this case.

***Just to be clear, I am not afraid of an outright military dictatorship. I am afraid of a military and police that hold themselves aloof from the wider society and feel superior to it, and civilian authorities too timid to stand up to them.

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