"What does it mean to be a liberal?"

Over at Inactivist, they're talking about something I've spent way too much time contemplating. Basically, the (unasked) root question is, what's up with liberals? Don't they understand that this whole government-intervention thing is bound to cause more problems than it solves? (Especially if you believe that people should be free to live their lives -- more or less -- however they see fit, as most people on the left seem to argue often.)

The conclusion I finally came to on this is rooted in that infamous Eisenhower speech, calling out the potential threat posed by the "militaryindustrial complex" -- and I know how easy it is to tune out when somebody pops up with those words, but the passage that culminates in his use of that phrase is, I think, the cornerstone of what modern liberalism strives for . . . not to say achieves.

Old Crazy Dwight explains that things have changed in America; that we will henceforth be required to sustain "a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions" -- and he warns that this industry, like any other, will seek to expand its influence. The words he uses could not be much graver.

A common complaint I hear is that liberals spend an inordinate amount of time foaming over "corporations" and insisting they need to be restrained. But the problem I see, the most market-distorting element of our economy, is this vast permanent war industry, with its immense tax-funded piles of capital, giving a certain set of industrialists and their allies an inordinate amount of clout at every level of government and in every economic circle. And by taxing all Americans to sustain this very profitable industry, we are practicing a de facto redistribution of wealth. And, of course, defense contractors simply do not stay defense contractors. They diversify. They expand. They look for new markets, and use the benefit of a gushing stream of tax dollars to help them along.

This is not spontaneous or natural, it is a direct result of government intervention, and if we are to deem it necessary . . . don't we also need to attempt somehow to provide counterbalance? Doesn't failing to do so effectively abandon the whole concept of a free marketplace, leaving only a cruel hoax?

And then, of course, left unchecked the whole monster continues to grow. Lunches for the schools, printers for the benefit checks, contractors to build the prisons, on and on and on. And the corruption! Oh, Lord, the temptation is so great, the piles of money so enticing, it's a guarantee that theft and graft will run rampant. "Forget this," the conservative/libertarian impulse says, "let the people take care of themselves."

Except we can't just kill the beast, because if we abolish our war machine, someone else's might come along and take its place. Just about everybody seems to agree on that point. So, what is to be done? Do we throw up our hands and let the defense contractors take over our "economic, political, even spiritual" lives? Or do we try, albeit imperfectly, to keep the beast in check . . . to administer things in such a way as to preserve security and opportunity? Idealistic? Sure. Naive? Maybe, but so is the notion that we can just have this one ginormous perpetual spending program tilting the playing field, and leave everything else to the free market.

Now, why can't we seem to get that right? My personal opinion is that we're too big and centralized, too distant from the real power. Abolishing the federal income tax and giving the pursestrings back to the states is certainly one major prerequisite to fixing anything else. But, anyway, I don't think that was the question.

That's what keeps me personally on the fence about liberalism versus libertarianism: I tend to fear that which libertarians don't take into account every bit as much as that which liberals f@ck up. If I thought of government intervention as something we could actually do away with, it'd be a no-brainer. But playing the cards we've been dealt, I guess I'm what you'd call a liberal.

1 comment:

Dan Trabue said...

I'm guessing ol' Ike is not the "conservatives" favorite wartime general (he and General Smedly Butler).

Great post. Good questions.

"Now, why can't we seem to get that right? My personal opinion is that we're too big and centralized"

I think that one crafty, diabolical twist (not necessarily intentional) of the "military-industrial" complex getting SOO damned large is that a good number of people/voters have financial and personal stakes involved. To vote to reduce the massive military is to vote against the financial interests of many, thereby helping to ensure its continued growth.

Small gov't be damned.