Liberty’s Last Dance
OK, so this Baby Boomer has grown less libertarian, and more conservative in his old age. But I could still change. Three things in particular are giving me pause.
First, there’s the sudden decline and fall of Eliot Spitzer, the former governor of New York. I am enough of a libertarian to think that prostitution should be legal in a few places—and enough of a conservative to think it should be illegal in most places, including Washington D.C. So no sympathy for Spitzer from me.
Yet unfortunately, a government powerful enough to supervise virtue is also powerful enough to indulge its own particular vices. Consider: If the federal government can catch Spitzer because he moved around $80,000 in cash—not much, in a $14-trillion-a-year economy—then the netting of Uncle Sam’s financial dragnet has become, indeed, a tight mesh.
And as a further wrinkle, search engines are now enabling everybody to look up anybody and thereby link, in cybernetic eternity, Spitzer and, say, his temporary girlfriend, Ashley Alexandra Dupre. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that E.M. Forster felt it necessary to tell us to get connected; that’s all we are now—connected.
None of us are islands anymore. There’s no need to send to know because we already know—or at least the Feds know.
A second spur to neo-libertarianism is the growing power of the homeland securitizers, post-9/11. The Patriot Act never bothered me, and I support building a wall on the southern border. And if we have a national ID card, that’s good; it will cut down on vote fraud. Besides, what with surveillance cams and credit cards, I have no doubt They know where I am all the time anyway. But let’s remember, things can get worse because power in the name of security soon metastasizes into power as a threat to liberty.
Thus a recent incident in Washington D.C. is a disturbing indicator. On April 12, the eve of Thomas Jefferson’s 265th birthday, a group of 20 or so libertarians gathered for an iPod-based silent “dance in” at the Jefferson Memorial. There’s no curfew in the area; plenty of other tourists were there, too. Yet one of the “flash-mobbers,” a 20-something female, was arrested by the National Park Service police for disorderly conduct, and the other dancing liberty-lovers were shooed away.
One needn’t pity this young woman too much; she will have lots of publicity and plenty of lawyers. Her nonviolent conduct that night, and seemingly unreasonable arrest, are all visible on YouTube, and she will no doubt get the smartest constitutional lawyer that the Cato Institute can cough up. Still, it’s no fun to be arrested, and if the cops can confuse a high-spirited young woman out for a lark,with, say, al-Qaeda, then maybe they need to learn profiling after all.
A third reason for re-reading Ayn Rand is a new report on the costs of global warming, issued by the Congressional Budget Office. The study finds that S. 2191, the Lieberman-Warner “cap and trade” global-warming bill, will cost $1.2 trillion over 10 years.
Of course, few observers think this legislation will actually do much of anything to reduce greenhouse gases around the world. The green argument is more long term and complicated than that—as wishful political thinking always is. Yet the greens say that if the U.S. goes first in reductions, then other countries will be inspired by our example and go second. That is, the Chinese, for instance, will take time out from importing our factories, and beating up Tibetan monks, to follow our lead.
Now where have we seen this sort of thinking before? The idea is to propitiate some abstract deity with a costly offering, burnt or otherwise, and then, miraculously, we are rewarded with better weather. Peter Berger’s 1974 book, Pyramids of Sacrifice, identified a continuity between the self-abnegation of ancient barbaric rituals and the pathetic confessions characterizing Darkness at Noon-style dictatorships. And the same mumbo-jumbo propitiatory thinking animates our politics today. We sacrifice our wealth and economic freedom on the altar of an abstraction—Presto! The righteous are rewarded.
So will conservatives join libertarians in opposition to such foolishness? One would hope so, but it’s worth remembering that the Lieberman-Warner bill was once the McCain-Lieberman bill. Senator McCain de-emphasized his green-ness to win the Republican nomination, but what would President McCain do? Might he feel the need to make nice with the Left so he can continue to make war in the Middle East? In reality, there’s no need to ask the question, since he has already said he would do just that.
If conservatives put loyalty to their conservative president ahead of their defense of the U.S. economy and American sovereignty, then 200-proof libertarianism will start to look good. Although one should always keep, of course, the conservative’s sober and instinctive pessimism.