Tag: anti-government

Michael Gerson Just Can’t Get Enough of Libertarianism

Poor Michael Gerson. The former speechwriter for George W. Bush writes about libertarianism more than any other major columnist. And yet, after at least six years of attacks, he still can’t grasp the concept. Take today’s column defending Rick Santorum against “anti-government activists.” I pointed out his error in calling libertarians “anti-government” in 2010:

Libertarians are not against all government. We are precisely “advocates of limited government.” Perhaps to the man who wrote the speeches in which a Republican president advocated a trillion dollars of new spending, the largest expansion of entitlements in 40 years, federal takeovers of education and marriage, presidential power to arrest and incarcerate American citizens without access to a lawyer or a judge, and two endless “nation-building” enterprises, the distinction between “limited government” and “anti-government” is hard to see. But it is real and important.

This time he includes me as his example of an “anti-government activist” and purports to quote my objection to Santorum:

David Boaz of the Cato Institute cites evidence implicating him in shocking ideological crimes, such as “promotion of prison ministries” and wanting to “expand colon cancer screenings for Medicare beneficiaries.”

The first quotation there is from Jonathan Rauch’s review of Santorum’s book, It Takes a Family, and the second is from a New York Times article on Santorum’s campaign brochure listing all the pork he’d brought home to Pennsylvanians. As for Rauch’s list of Santorum’s ideas for an activist federal government, here’s what I quoted:

In his book he comments, seemingly with a shrug, “Some will reject what I have to say as a kind of ‘Big Government’ conservatism.”

They sure will. A list of the government interventions that Santorum endorses includes national service, promotion of prison ministries, “individual development accounts,” publicly financed trust funds for children, community-investment incentives, strengthened obscenity enforcement, covenant marriage, assorted tax breaks, economic literacy programs in “every school in America” (his italics), and more. Lots more.

Out of that list Gerson picks “promotion of prison ministries” as a dismissal of my concerns. Some readers might well think that government sponsorship of Christianity in prisons is problematic enough. But others might think that you don’t have to be “anti-government” to oppose the three new government transfer programs that immediately follow the reference to prison ministries.

More importantly, though, Gerson ignores my main criticism of Santorum. In 749 words rebutting the libertarian criticism of Santorum, Gerson never actually names it. Here’s the core point that Gerson didn’t deign to address:

Santorum had already dismissed limited government in theory. Promoting his book, he told NPR in 2006:

One of the criticisms I make is to what I refer to as more of a libertarianish right. You know, the left has gone so far left and the right in some respects has gone so far right that they touch each other. They come around in the circle. This whole idea of personal autonomy, well I don’t think most conservatives hold that point of view. Some do. They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulations low, that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom, we shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues. You know, people should do whatever they want. Well, that is not how traditional conservatives view the world and I think most conservatives understand that individuals can’t go it alone. That there is no such society that I am aware of, where we’ve had radical individualism and that it succeeds as a culture.

He declared himself against individualism, against libertarianism, against “this whole idea of personal autonomy, … this idea that people should be left alone.” And in this 2005 TV interview, you can hear these classic hits: “This is the mantra of the left: I have a right to do what I want to do” and “We have a whole culture that is focused on immediate gratification and the pursuit of happiness … and it is harming America.”

Does Gerson think that that is a good statement of American conservatism? Is that what he thinks the Republican party should stand for? If so, I invite him to say so — as Santorum does — instead of using a column in one of the nation’s most important newspapers to attack straw men.

At least he does understand that libertarianism is not conservatism but rather “is actually a species of classical liberalism, not conservatism — more directly traceable to John Stuart Mill than Edmund Burke or Alexis de Tocqueville. ” Also traceable to the American Founders and the Declaration of Independence. And he’ll find three selections from Tocqueville in The Libertarian Reader.

Gerson writes, “Oppressive, overreaching government undermines these value-shaping institutions.” And then he goes on to endorse social engineering in the tax code, the war on drugs, bans on “obscenity,” government transfers to charities and businesses, and by implication all the programs that Rauch noted in Santorum’s book.

So maybe the most important line in Gerson’s essay is the headline:

Rick Santorum and the return of compassionate conservatism

He’s saying that if you liked the Bush administration, you’ll like Santorum. But those of us who didn’t like, as I noted above, a trillion dollars of new spending, the largest expansion of entitlements in 40 years, federal takeovers of education and marriage, presidential power to arrest and incarcerate American citizens without access to a lawyer or a judge, and two endless “nation-building” enterprises will not want to repeat the experience.

Rick Santorum has declared himself against  “this whole idea of personal autonomy, … this idea that people should be left alone,” this fundamental American idea of the pursuit of happiness. What do conservatives not get about that?

Government and Violence

Radley Balko writes:

[I]t’s worth remembering that the government initiates violence against its own citizens every day in this country, citizens who pose no threat or harm to anyone else. The particular policy that leads to the sort of violence… is supported by nearly all of the politicians and pundits decrying anti-government rhetoric on the news channels this morning. (It’s also supported by Sarah Palin, many Tea Party leaders, and other figures on the right that politicians and pundits are shaming this weekend.)

I hope Rep. Giffords—and everyone wounded yesterday—makes a full recovery. It’s particularly tragic that she was shot while doing exactly what we want elected officials to do—she was making herself available to the people she serves. And of course we should mourn the people senselessly murdered yesterday, government employees and otherwise: U.S. District Judge John Roll, Dorothy Murray, Dorwin Stoddard, nine-year-old Christina Green, Phyllis Scheck, and Gabe Zimmerman.

That said, I long for the day that our political and media figures get as indignant about innocent Americans killed by their own government—killed in fact, as a direct and foreseeable consequence of official government policy that nearly all of those leaders support—as they are about a government official who was targeted by a clearly sick and deranged young man. What happened this weekend is not, by any means, a reason to shunt anti-government protest, even angry anti-government protest, out of the sphere of acceptable debate. The government still engages in plenty of acts and policies—including one-sided violence against its own citizens—that are well worth our anger, protest, and condemnation.

The worst outcome would be for all dissent to become suspect. “Anti-government” is a concept used, essentially, to stifle debate, by conflating reasonable criticisms with the actions of lunatics. Both — of course! — are “anti-government,” and both are therefore guilty. It should be obvious what sort of agenda this furthers: Everything “government” is good.

A Bum Rap for Limited Government

Every so often an editorial comes along that is so obtuse that you wonder if it came from human hand. I allude, not surprisingly, to the item in this morning’s New York Times, “Limits of Libertarianism,” which arises from the kerfuffle over Rand Paul’s critique of the 1964 Civil Rights Act for its undermining the private right to freedom of association. 

The editorial’s main target, however, lies beyond the Paul senatorial campaign. It’s the tea party movement and its libertarian, limited government themes. But from the start the Times conflates limited government with anti government. They’re not the same. More broadly, the editorial shows beyond doubt that the Times, ever the friend of “enlightened government,” finds danger lurking mostly in the private sector. (One wonders just how it is that those not-to-be-trusted private actors become so quickly enlightened once they get their hands on monopoly government power.) 

Thus, we’re told that the libertarian theory of private liberty has “roots in America’s creation, but the succeeding centuries have shown how ineffective it was in promoting a civil society.” Really? What history have the scribes at the Times been reading? Their next line, presumably supporting that claim, only compounds the mystery: “The freedom of a few people to discriminate meant generations of less freedom for large groups of others.” Is that what slavery was, private discrimination, to be corrected by government?

Apparently, because following immediately is the editorialists’ main point: “It was only government power that ended slavery and abolished Jim Crow, neither of which would have been eliminated by a purely free market. It was government that rescued the economy from the Depression.”

Where to begin. Skip the Depression point; it’s been so often refuted that one does so again only with embarrassment for its authors. The first claim, however, warrants more than passing attention. Contending that only government power saved us from slavery and Jim Crow, it ignores the role of private power – the abolitionists, and the civil rights movement – that brought about that government power. More important, it invites us to believe that government had little or nothing to do with slavery and Jim Crow in the first place when in truth we would have had neither without government’s creation of those legal institutions, with legal sanctions that kept them in place. Indeed, it is limited government, government limited to securing our rights, that is the surest guarantee against those twin evils.

‘Anti-Government’ Libertarians

Michael Gerson writes in the Washington Post, “[Rand] Paul and other libertarians are not merely advocates of limited government; they are anti-government.”

I can’t speak for Rand Paul, but for the libertarians I know, this is just wrong. Libertarians are not against all government. We are precisely “advocates of limited government.” Perhaps to the man who wrote the speeches in which a Republican president advocated a trillion dollars of new spending, the largest expansion of entitlements in 40 years, federal takeovers of education and marriage, presidential power to arrest and incarcerate American citizens without access to a lawyer or a judge, and two endless “nation-building” enterprises, the distinction between “limited government” and “anti-government” is hard to see. But it is real and important.

As I wrote in these columns last month (and in 1998):

A government is a set of institutions through which we adjudicate our disputes, defend our rights, and provide for certain common needs. It derives its authority, at some level and in some way, from the consent of the governed… What we want is a limited government that attends to its necessary and proper functions… Thus libertarians are not “anti-government.” Libertarians support limited, constitutional government — limited not just in size but, of far greater importance, in the scope of its powers.

What does “anti-government” mean? We’re hearing about “anti-government” protests in Greece. But as George Will says, “Athens’ ‘anti-government mobs’ have been composed mostly of government employees going berserk about threats to their entitlements.” The anti-government protesters in Bangkok appear to be opposed to the current prime minister, protesting to bring back the former prime minister. And then there are the “anarchists” who protest government budget cuts. But none of those have anything to do with American libertarians.

Michael Gerson should withdraw his false charge and debate the role of government honestly with libertarians who believe in limited government and oppose the vast expansions of government that he provided the arguments for.