A recent exchange with a couple of YouTube trolls, and a pithy (if slightly snarky) quotation surfaced on Eleanor Arnason’s blog, has me wondering why the grown ups have been so silent about the nuttier anti-government statements coming out of the Tea Party fringe these days.
First, the quote (attributed to John Rogers at Kung Fu Monkey):
Two novels can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other involves orcs.
I discovered the orcs first, and I’m very glad of it.
The YouTube exchange came via a 1942 tourism film about Minnesota. (It’s a lovely film, by the way.) A troll by the name of “clvanhove” commented that “this is before many people relied on the government to take care of them. Sad state of this country…. wish I was living back then. People actually knew responsibility and took care of things? themselves.” Despite my policy of not feeding trolls, I answered with a little history lesson about Minnesota’s tradition of good government, which enabled many of the things the film presents (clean lakes, good infrastructure, state parks), and noted that “[i]n a democracy, we ARE the government.”
Another troll responded that “Minnesota is great? due to individual efforts of men eking out a tough fought existence in [sic] less hospitable land” and that “[t]he difference between you and I, is that my beliefs do not ask anything of anybody with the exception that they not deprive me of freedom. Yours demands it. There is nothing more selfish than people who seek? government force to rob their neighbors.”
Goodness! I won’t respond in the comments thread on the film; it’s way off topic, and I feel bad about feeding the first troll. But I do wish that some grown ups would weigh in a little more forcefully about the wave of silly warmed-over Ayn Randianism that has been bubbling up into the mainstream these days.
The fringe Right’s anti-government screeds are a radical departure from almost four centuries of Enlightenment thinking about government and society. By positing an “us” vs. “them” dichotomy, with “them” being The Government, they abandon the democratic experiment and the principles of government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” And while there are a few on the Right who, I think, use this sentiment in a wholly rhetorical and deeply cynical way, I worry that there are far too many people who actually take this philosophy seriously.
The mainstream of political philosophy since Hobbes and Locke has been largely about how to strike a balance between liberty and the common good. The responsible libertarian side of the argument makes the case that increased liberty can do more for the common good than direct government intervention; the responsible socialist side of the argument makes the case that liberty for some distorts the liberty for all, and that true liberty is best achieved through policies that tend toward equality; and the responsible middle, where the United States has tended since the Progressive Era, tinkers around with the equation with a focus on pragmatic outcomes.
But none of the responsible participants in the debate have ever denied that there’s such a thing as the common good. They quibble about the definitions of both “common” and “good,” but never deny that both the collective and the private have a significant role to play in establishing a just society.
People of good will can disagree about a lot of things, so long as they do agree on a few foundational positions. Though I’m pretty far to the Left in the American political spectrum, I can find points of agreement with many on the Right. Indeed, the Right used to generate some useful ideas about how to use market forces for the common good (the current health care reforms, for example, have their origins in the Nixon administration, not in Das Kapital; the earned-income tax credit is a Republican idea proposed by Milton Friendman, and cap-and-trade is about as libertarian an approach to environmental concerns as I can think of). And some Leftist ideas–the five-day work week, OSHA, the EPA, Medicare, Social Security–have been thoroughly integrated into America’s capitalist economy.
But declaring that “[t]here is nothing more selfish than people who seek? government force to rob their neighbors” simply shuts down any rational debate. I can see the attraction in Randianism–it’s a very clean, clockwork view of the world, with room for a lot of dramatic heroics–but it falls apart pretty quickly into selfishness and fear. It represents a wholesale retreat from society, a desire to create a hermetic bubble around the heroic individual who owes nothing to the community out of which they arose. It is, in the end, a prescription for “the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” against which Hobbes posited the first inklings of liberalism.
I’m not interested in “robbing” anyone, nor, I suspect, are most proponents of government (however limited or expansive their notions of government may be). Instead, I’m interested in finding the balance between liberty and equality that makes our society as good as it can be. If that means extending liberty in some areas, so be it; if it means restricting it in others, then that’s a valid prescription as well. And because this is an experiment, and we hold the levers of power through the vote, there’s room for debate and compromise and principled disagreement.
And I’m not interested in “depriving” anyone of freedom. Can government be tyrannical and heavy-handed? It certainly can; history is filled with examples. The United States, thankfully, has never been one of those examples, and so long as we have the vote and share a vision of a common purpose, it never will be. But tyranny can arise not only from the government: unchecked mobs, rapacious classes, and extreme atomization are paths to tyranny as well.
I don’t feel “deprived of freedom” when I use municipal roads to get around town, or state parks to enjoy the resources that Minnesotans have agreed to protect; I feel that my freedom has actually been enhanced by these and many other collective efforts. And I don’t feel “robbed” when I pay my taxes (well, except maybe when I pay sales tax in Hennepin County for a baseball stadium I never got to vote on, but that’s another issue…); I feel that I’m paying my fair share to enjoy a society that’s a little more fair, equal, and just than it would be without government.
I suspect that Elrond, Bilbo, and Gandalf would agree.