Monday, April 2, 2007

Monday with McKenna: The NeoCon Threat to Good Government

It's been a couple of weeks since we last heard from Mr. Terry McKenna, and I'm sure you've had more than your fill of my New Age nonsense. Therefore, without further prologue, Monday with McKenna:

This week my topic is the Bush Administration’s attack on America’s history of open and honest government. But first, and by way of introduction, a couple of brief comments.

  • George Bush continues to trumpet alternative fuel vehicles as an answer to our over-consumption of oil.

    Comment: NO, asshole, we need to mandate fuel economy, not a switch to a different carbon based fuel source.*

  • George Bush, John McCain, Joe Lieberman and the rest of the war mongers believe that setting a date for withdrawal is announcing the date of our defeat.

    Comment: We have already lost this one. Neither are we surrendering to Iraq – they didn’t conquer us: if we leave, we are just LEAVING.

  • BushCo and the Assault on Good Government

    America at its heart has been a very successful experiment in self-government. There are lots of reasons for this, one being the entry of millions of energetic Europeans and Asians to a vast and under populated** land full of rich soil and mineral wealth. Another is the absence of a ruling class of petty nobles and landlords who in other societies have been empowered to exact rents and other restrictions upon commerce. Thus, citizens have been able to engage in commercial activity with much less interference than almost anywhere else. We expect our public officials to behave fairly, and for the most part - except when it involves contracts to provide goods or services to the government itself – they do. Building permits, licenses and all manner of government activities are carried out for the genuine public interest. Town engineers practice engineering in a professional manner; geological surveys are genuine; and our national weather service provides solid and sound weather information. By and large, American civil servants have no agenda but to provide service. (To Chomsky-ites, followers of Howard Zinn and old leftists who dote on America’s failures, you are right as far as it goes, but so what—in the scheme of things, America is as good as many and better than most. Fairer as a whole than nations like Russia, China or Zimbabwe, and not quite as fair as places like Sweden and Norway.)

    Oh yes, to those who say we are a nation of laws and not men – hogwash! Just think of Iraq and its constitution. Or of the UN and its numerous covenants and protocols. Suffice it to say that it takes a lot more than a signed document to generate a civil society or to inspire good behavior.

    Starting with the New Deal, Congress created agencies that took on various roles that conservatives claimed were properly left to the states or to the people. The Supreme Court also took on a more activist role to re-make America into the free land implied by our founding documents. When a conservative president was finally elected after a space of five decades (with the election of Ronald Reagan), conservatives decided to use the executive branch to destroy programs that they were unable to attack directly.

    Thus, Reagan appointed James G Watt – an avowed opponent of federal conservation programs, to manage the Department of the Interior. Reaganites especially hated environmental laws, housing programs, the Department of Education and the enforcement of civil rights laws. But Reagan operated before the flowering of modern Right Wing think tanks, so his efforts were not as focused as those today.

    Enter Bush II (Really Ronald Reagan II) and cadres of trained right wing professionals, each ready to speak the newspeak of corporate evasion and to hide their mission, which was to bend federal programs into supporting the right wing policy arm - actually, anti-policy arm, since the right wing has no real policy, just newspeak meant to build a consensus against policy. Gail Norton at the Department of the Interior was one example. She was a protégé of James G. Watt and built her career setting up what are known as astro turf groups*** with a fake environmental agenda. And think of the FDA. This formerly proud servant of public health was shaped into an instrument of conservative Christianity when it stalled the approval of the morning after pill.

    In almost all spheres of activity, officials have switched from serving the American people to serving the president. Thus Treasury lied to the nation about the cost of the Bush tax cuts; and the Defense Department lied about the cost of the Iraq folly. And when they are not lying to us, the feds are simple nincompoops like Brownie.

    So Alberto Gonzalez’s lies are not surprising. The entire executive is bathed in deceit.

    But are we ready to conclude that the future is lost too? I don’t think so. At the local level, our civil servants still serve us honestly. And Democrats by and large believe in the government that they serve, but we won’t know how they will act until they win back the White House, which they surely will do in 2008.

    And before I go, an expression of thanks to the hospitality of San Francisco and the surrounding towns within northern California. I just returned from a seven day trip to California, my first ever. Now I understand what led many of my generation to extend their stays in this strange but attractive land.


    *If you think ethanol is a solution, then please read up about the cost of raising the corn necessary to produce it. The net energy yield is close to zero. And for those interested in sugar instead (especially as produced in Brazil) the yield and costs are better, but the bad news is, the Brazilians use slave indigenous labor to clear the Amazon jungle in order to get open land for sugar can.

    **Yes, I know that North America was populated by millions of what used to be called Indians, but after the European settlements had been established, disease and warfare (especially disease) so shrunk the existing population that the later immigrants felt they were entering a virgin land.

    ***Astro Turf groups are funded by industry, or sometimes by wealthy right wing zealots (for example, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Move America Forward, and Focus on the Family). They are named to sound friendly, but beware, they have a mission and are to be feared.

    —T. McKenna

    1 comment:

    dpt said...

    on the subject of government, and it's role, he's a good one I found in a site called "gather"

    Libertarianism in a Nutshell
    March 29, 2007 06:06 PM EDT
    © 2007 by Stephen Frug
    Andrew Sullivan "fisks" David Brooks today. And in the course of so doing, he writes:

    But bigger government always means less personal liberty. This is simply a fact, not an opinion. The trade-off is always there. It may be worth it in some instances - which is why I'm not a libertarian. But it is simply true that every dollar taken by the government is one dollar less for you and me to spend on what we decide is best; every freedom removed or infringed by the government is one less for you and me to enjoy. You can defend the trade-off, and should at times, but please don't pretend it isn't there.
    Now of course Sullivan says he isn't a libertarian, because he thinks that the trade-off is sometimes worth it. This is based on a fundamentally false premise, however, because libertarians also 'think the trade-off is sometimes worth it'. Those who don't think the (supposed) "trade-off" is worth it -- that is, who think both that "bigger government always means less personal liberty" and that one should always decide on the side of smaller government/more personal liberty -- aren't libertarians at all: they're anarchists. This is the logical outcome: any given choice is between government and liberty; always choose liberty; no government is the obvious result.

    Of course, libertarians like to posture as people who always make the trade-off between government and liberty in favor of liberty. But it's a fundamentally dishonest posture: it's one that allows them to debate the question on their (imaginary) grounds, 'should we choose government or freedom', while avoiding the difficult question that everyone who is not an anarchist actually faces: what precisely should government do and not do? This is one of the (many) reasons why I don't agree with libertarian views; it is a rhetorical posture that hides the true issues. Thus, for example, for a generation Republicans have campaigned against taxes in a broad and general way. But only anarchists think there should be no taxes (since governments, like any other institution, require funding); but "what should we have government for, and how should we tax to pay for it?" is less rhetorically powerful.

    But beneath this dishonesty -- one that Sullivan buys into, presumably because it is so common in libertarian rhetoric (I am not accusing him of deliberate dishonesty here) -- is another fundamental error: namely, the premise behind the libertarian posture, that "bigger government always means less personal liberty". Sullivan calls this "simply a fact"; but (in fact) it's not: it's a myth, and a pernicious one.

    This is easiest to see when looking at the reductio ad absurdum of the claim -- which, as I already said, is anarchy. Anarchy does not produce more personal liberty: it produces (as we see to far too great an extent in the hell that is contemporary Iraq) far less of it. In an anarchy, people don't even have the freedom to walk down the street: because they will far-too-likely be kidnapped or killed. Anarchy produces only the freedoms to shiver in fear in a basement -- or to become a thug and gangster and try to out-kill and out-kidnap your rivals.

    But if that's the easy case, the others are fairly easy too. Let's take Sullivan's economic generalization: "it is simply true that every dollar taken by the government is one dollar less for you and me to spend on what we decide is best." This would be true of the number of dollars were a fixed sum; but of course it isn't. It is often the case that the government will take a sum in taxes -- and use it to produce things that create far more economic growth than what was taken. (Roads are an obvious example here.) Thus people actually end up with a lot more money to spend on what they decide is best.

    Or take Sullivan's second generalization: "every freedom removed or infringed by the government is one less for you and me to enjoy". This, too, is simply wrong. Here my favorite example (one due to Elizabeth Anderson (specifically here)) is traffic laws. Traffic laws restrict our liberty in specific circumstances in all sorts of ways -- we can't drive when sitting at a red light. But without them, all one gets is gridlock: as Anderson says, a situation in which we have "the formal freedom to choose any movement in one's opportunity set--which amounts to being able to rock forward and back a couple of inches from bumper to bumper, getting nowhere." Go read her post for a more extended version of the metaphor. The point is that government regulation can increase freedom as well as diminish it.

    This isn't true of all government, of course. But that's why the fundamentally silly question of "more or less government" (or "bigger or smaller" government) should be set aside, and we should ask what policies produce the best outcomes: the freest, safest, richest society one can manage. And of course in that calculation there are trade-offs and mistakes. There are even some specific cases where a trade-off can be usefully analyzed as one between bigger government and more liberty (and far more cases which can be shoe-horned into that mold). But the idea that eliminating a government function always increases freedom is just silly.

    To produce a just, safe, rich -- and, yes, free -- society, we need to get away from the silly abstract question of "how much government", and start thinking about the ways in which government can create a society which allows for the maximum possible freedom (and justice, safety and wealth -- since I don't think that freedom is the only virtue.) An less clownish version of libertarianism is one that argues that freedom is the only virtue that we should take seriously -- but which recognizes that government is sometimes essential to that freedom, and that lack of freedom can come from sources besides government. This would to my mind produce nightmarish results -- since, again, I don't think freedom is the only virtue worth pursuing; I think that justice and security and wealth have some value too.* But at least that sort of argument doesn't have a silly analysis of cause and effect at its base.

    When speaking on specific issues libertarians often make extremely valuable contributions, reminding us of the importance of freedom and liberty as values to take into account. But their analysis of how to get there -- which is all to often 'less government', full stop -- is ridiculous as a general principle (even if, in some specific cases it will be right on the merits: some government programs reduce liberty and should as a consequence be scrapped. But that's as a result of specific, contingent factors and specific choices to be weighed and balanced -- not a general rule).

    Sullivan's simple fact is not merely opinion: it's simply wrong. But it's too common a belief -- or at least rhetorical move -- in our political discourse. We need to get rid of it in order to think in a useful way about what sort of society we want, and how best to get there.