Thursday, April 03, 2008

On a certain strand of conservative thinking about "expanded government power"

There are a number of interesting things about this New Criterion comment, not the least of which is the fantasy it gives rise to of seeing Lenin's reaction were he able to read of Eliot Spitzer being described as a "born-again Leninist." (Chief among Spitzer's upper-class social advantages is his father's net worth of half a billion dollars.)

But what this (no-doubt hastily written) piece of reactionary bellybutton lint really drives home for me is the utter bankruptcy of traditional conservative talk about the "expanded government power" of American liberalism. The author in question (probably Roger Kimball) makes all the usual connections between liberalism and Communism, totalitarianism, and collectivism, despite the fact that his main areas of concern are health care, taxes, food and drink, and tobacco, as if these constituted the thrust of Communist policy. (I can see the pamphlet now, circa 1930: "Toward a Dialectical Understanding of Cheeto Rationing in Elementary Schools.")

But this argument's "lack of purchase," to use the financial metaphor, has less to do with the inaptitude of its target than with the actual results of Republican policy over the last several years. Only the most disingenuous special pleading will allow taxation to fall within the boundary of "areas where [government] has no business intruding," while exempting spying, data mining, and civil rights curtailment, to make no extensive mention of acts which forcefully intrude upon our very bodies -- torture, detention, etc.

Such special pleading is typically justified by appeal to state security and the "unique powers" of the commander-in-chief during wartime. This supposedly "libertarian" theory of conservatism then has a fun time carving out pockets of exceptional circumstances from its purportedly "universal" championing of absolute individual liberty. My problem is not so much that some rights could be conceived of as subordinate or "lexically prior" to others (this is a staple of much Rawlsian argument, for example), or that Republicans per se are more prone to torture and death (this is a difference of degree rather than of kind from Democrats). What infuriates me is that the Republican position as outlined here is so blatantly a form of class warfare. Its drive to subordinate powers of life and liberty to a central executive authority is matched by a denial of that power of the state to alter positively the conditions of social life. It has broached the supposed "absolute standard" of individual liberties while maintaining a free market dogmatism completely at odds with its acknowledgment of the randomness and fragility of "free choice." Freedom is so obviously in the hands of the government, in an unchecked and quite terrifying way: yet we are told to conduct our business as though nothing were more important than the "free actor" being "responsible for himself." This is to say nothing of the positive extraction and transfer of wealth from lower to upper income brackets that tends to proceed under Republican administrations.

I'm quite open to the idea of free and autonomous transactions among individuals. But the blind approbation of such a concept -- in the face of a massive state apparatus regulating not only individual choices but the foibles of big capital itself -- is ridiculous without a more nuanced, party-transcending theory of society. (Surely some conservative thinkers realize this...?) The tendencies of climate change and the meltdown of the financial sector, where the socialization of risk is butting up against the unaccountability of private ownership more than ever before, can hopefully helpt to reverse and discredit this pernicious mindset. The New Criterion bit is low-hanging fruit but it's symptomatic of a larger discourse which, even if it's not making ludicrous claims about Spitzer being a Leninist, rules so much of our "common sense" talk about the welfare state.


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