Thursday, April 24, 2008

Unity, Dissent and Patriotism

I am currently reading Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg who is one of my favorite columnists. His articles alone are worth the cost of my National Review subscription.
In the latest issue, Goldberg writes about Barrack Obama and his call for "unity." He relates it to the general liberal failure to understand patriotism. Liberals think patriotic conservatives are fascists, but united liberals are patriotic. Unfortunately, the whole article is only available to subscribers. Some highlights:
When John McCain released an ad calling himself the “American president Americans have been waiting for,” one could hear outraged caterwauling from the Democratic jungle: What’s John McCain trying to say? We’re un-American? Who’s he calling unpatriotic? Fred Barnes, writing in The Weekly Standard, calls this anticipatory offense “patriotism paranoia.” Indeed, there does seem to be psychological insecurity on display. If I say to a male friend, “Those are nice shoes,” and he responds with “How dare you call me gay!” it’s fair to say he’s the guy with the issues. . .
Part of the problem is that many on the left think patriotism is essentially fascist, another name for nationalism and jingoism. And some may use it that way — but some may also call a duck a “cat,” which doesn’t mean we should all be hostage to this usage. The misuse of “patriotism” and “dissent” is worse, because a country without a word to describe its love for what is best within it is a country ill-equipped to defend what is best within it. . .
Barack Obama and other Democrats use the word “unity” as a substitute for something like “patriotism.” They consider “questioning the patriotism” of Democrats — even when it’s not actually being questioned — beyond the pale and “divisive.”
But, unity itself is inherently neither good nor bad.
Unity by itself has no moral worth whatsoever. The only value of unity is strength, strength in numbers — and, again, that is a fascist value. That’s the symbolism of the fasces, the bundle of sticks that in combination are invincible. Rape gangs and lynch mobs? Unified. The mafia? Unified. The SS? They had unity coming out the yinyang. Meanwhile, Socrates, Jesus, Thomas More, and an endless line of nameless souls were dispatched from this earth in the name of unity.
Our government is set up specifically to discourage too much unity. Unfettered unity is really just the tyranny of the majority:
The founding fathers dedicated a great deal of thought to the subject of unity, and they found it was something to view with skepticism at best and, more often than not, with fear. Hence we have a constitution designed to thwart the baser forms of unity. Our government is set up so that the Senate cools the populist passion of the House, the executive thwarts the passions of the legislature and vice versa, and the Supreme Court checks the whole lot, to which its composition is in turn ultimately subject. “Divisiveness” — the setting of faction against faction, one branch of government against another, and the sovereignty of the individual above the group — was for the founders the great guarantor of our liberties and the source of civic virtue.
Liberals also confuse dissent and patriotism. Like unity, dissent is by itself is neither good nor bad.

Or consider this supposedly brilliant bumper-sticker insight: “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” Mark Steyn has had great fun with that line, pointing out that Thomas Jefferson — usually credited as its author — never said anything of the sort. Steyn traces the fakery back to a 1991 quote from Nadine Strossen, the head of the ACLU, an organization with a vested interest in putting the founders’ imprimatur on relentless knee-jerk complaining. . .
It is worth pointing out that if Jefferson had in fact said something like that, he would have been what social scientists call a moron. As John O’Sullivan once noted, tongue firmly in cheek, “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism. Treason is the highest form of dissent. Therefore treason is the highest form of patriotism.” Yet when you listen to the verbal contortions many on the left go through to defend the New York Times’s efforts to reveal national-security secrets, or to journalists who think expressing open sympathy for America in the international arena is a grave sin, or simply to the usual battiness of countless America-haters, you can appreciate the wisdom of the Italian proverb that the truest things are said in jest.
Equating dissent and patriotism is an egregious example of moral equivocation:

Now it must be said that no conservative standing upon the shoulders of Burke, Nock, Buckley, Hayek, Goldwater, and Reagan would for a moment dispute the suggestion that dissent for the right reason can be one high form of patriotism. But it depends on the reason. The dissenter-for-dissent’s-sake is among the most common species of pest in the human ecosystem. The reflexive contrarian who cares not what he is contradicting is quite simply the most useless of citizens.

When confronted with the assertion that the Soviet Union and the United States were moral equivalents, William F. Buckley Jr. famously responded that if one man pushes an old lady into an oncoming bus and another man pushes an old lady out of the way of a bus, we should not denounce them both as men who push old ladies around. Likewise, we should not say that the man who dissents from a church-burning mob and the man who dissents from a fire brigade are morally equivalent “dissenters.”
Liberals try to end debate by calling for unity and labeling principled objection as cynical and divisive:
Rightly ordered unity in a democratic republic is the end result of ceaseless debate and discussion. But today, ceaseless debate and discussion is precisely what many liberals object to. As Al Gore is fond of saying about global warming, “The time for debate is over.” Legions of liberals insist that we must move beyond ideology and partisan differences on this, that, and the other. But have you ever heard anyone say that we need to “move beyond ideology” for the sake of bipartisan unity and then abandon his own position? Of course not. When someone says that we need to get past labels and move beyond ideology, what he means is that you need to drop your principled objections and get with the program.
So, what is patriotism really? I like the description above. It is the word we used to describe our love for what is best within our country.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Do We Get the Government We Deserve?

WARNING: Another long post ahead!
I got a question from a relative that I've also wondered about for a while:
Are the people ultimately responsible for bad government policies? The people elect the government officials or give way to small interest groups by not voting, but the government officials often get elected on false promises and demagoguery. Are the people to blame for being ignorant and believing the demagoguery? What is a better way to obtain the voice of the people if voting doesn't work? Do electoral colleges in theory vote for what the people really want regardless of how they vote?
This is a question I've struggled with for years. On my more cynical days, I tend to think ignorant voters are responsible for bad government, and that all politics is a beauty contest. But, on my more thoughtful days, I think there are several things to consider.
First, I think local and state elected officials better reflect the views of their constituents than federal officials do (usually). You've heard the saying "all politics is local." Well, this used to be literally true. Really until the 20th century, the individual had almost no contact with the federal government. Issues from taxes to schools to roads were all local issues. People are much better able to be educated on local issues than national ones simply because they are better acquainted with the areas and people involved. Demagoguery is less apt to succeed, and false promises are more swiftly punished at the local level. But the modern federal bureaucracy has expanded so much that it intrudes more and more into areas that used to be the province of local government (e.g. No Child Left Behind, Interstate Highways, Medicare and Medicaid, Income Taxes). The federal government has so many more voices clamoring for attention that it will seem unresponsive to almost everyone. The media coverage of issues makes this worse. Federal elections and issues get a disproportionate share of coverage and analysis.
Second, this problem is compounded by the fact that Congress has delegated much policy-making authority to agencies, and exercises little oversight. Courts, too, regularly defer to agency judgments. So policies are set by agencies rather than elected officials. Congress likes it that way because they don't have to take responsibility for controversial policies. They can blame the "current administration" that chooses the agency heads. Agencies take on a life of their own and their inherent inertia and resistance to change means that they far outlast any presidential administration, and almost any national outcry for change. (you could call this the 1st Law of Government Dynamics: an agency once created can never be destroyed, only converted into another agency).
Third, the two-party system restricts the range of possible actions on any issue to basically two: the Republican party line, and the Democrat party line. Any widespread public desire for government action is taken up by a political party and filtered through the lens of their platform. On the other hand, issues that don't agitate a sufficient number of people tend not to be championed by either party, and thus never come up for debate in Federal elections.
Fourth, we are a victim of our freedom. People don't get too worked up about things that don't directly affect them; and despite all our complaints, most of us just aren't that affected by government. We go about our lives without any direct consequences for voting liars and demagogues into office. (see my sixth point about having a "stake" in the outcome). We vote for the one who says all the right things, then don't bother to hold them to it because we don't feel the effects of the lie. Someone wise once said something to the effect of "limitations on freedom are more readily accepted in big things than in little ones." As long as the government doesn't interfere with our little everyday things, we don't get too worked up over it. We get worked up over taxes, for example, because we pay them all the time. Hence the tax code is revised every year, sometimes substantially. This, in part, is why the Soviet Union fell. It tried to control too many little things. This also may be why China's Communists have survived. People can make small decisions with relative freedom, and TVs and Gameboys are available. A little repression of dissidents doesn't bother anyone too much. The Scriptural warning about "flaxen cords" comes to mind.
Fifth, people really don't care. Most people don't understand the hot-button issues, and don't care that they don't know. The only time most people see and hear presidential candidates is in (scripted) televised debates, the nightly news, or MTV's rock the vote. All that sticks is the 4 word sound-bite message. Most people see even less of Senate and House candidates, and nothing at all about state legislative races beyond the (R) or (D) after the name. Being a political wonk takes time and effort. Few of us have the time or interest to become specialists, (and even fewer are touched in the head enough to enjoy it as I am).
Sixth, and this is going to be politically incorrect to say, but the expansion of the vote has made voter apathy worse. Originally the vote was limited to white male land owners. They were seen as the ones who had a stake in the decisions the government made. They stood to lose property, and were thus more motivated to study and debate the issues. By expansion, I don't mean giving the vote to women and blacks, there's nothing wrong with that, I mean giving the vote to those who have no "stake" in the outcome. Now that everyone over 18 can vote, many people simply have nothing at stake. The one who wins won't affect them in any way. Even worse, candidates can now promise to give money out if they are elected, whether you are talking about tax rebates or welfare benefits, it is all just a matter of giving people a stake in the election that they wouldn't otherwise have, and a reason to vote for candidate X. So, for many people, the decision boils down to "None of this will affect me, but candidate X will give me $500, so I might as well vote for him."
In summary, voter apathy is partly to blame, but I think the structure of our system is a big factor, particularly the waning of states' rights and the rise of our current massive federal bureaucracy. People just can't keep track of all issues, and naturally they tend to react to local issues, or national issues that impact them personally such as taxes, marriage, etc.
As to what is a better way? Who knows. As stated in my post on the electoral college, our system originally was attuned to the voice of the people on the state level. Federal bodies were not directly elected, with the exception of the House of Representatives. This allowed people to focus on issues on the state level where government is more responsive. The state then relayed the voice of the the people to the federal Congress and the President who never directly regulated individuals. The state officials then were accountable to the voters of the state. Currently the House and Senate are both directly elected, and the Presidential electors are tied into the two-party system, so the state government really has little to say on the federal level. Your state government can perfectly reflect your views, and be very responsive, but can't influence who holds federal office.