[This essay first appeared at Eternity Road, on January 23, 2009. It strikes me as extremely pertinent to the machinations of the Left today.]
The list of well known writers on liberty includes some names that don’t belong there, such as John Stuart Mill, and omits some names that should appear at its head, such as the late Dr. Clarence Carson. Dr. Carson’s several books are gems, each and every one, glittering with knowledge, insight, and eloquence, but even among libertarians and conservatives, they’re little known and less employed. Yet no one, not even the great Ayn Rand, has contributed more to the elucidation and articulation of Americanism.
In your Curmudgeon’s opinion, Dr. Carson’s strongest statements on freedom and American principles are to be found in his book The American Tradition. Concerning liberals’ thesis that freedom is adequately defined by freedom of speech plus the electoral mechanism, Dr. Carson declaimed as follows:
[W]e are told that there is no need to fear the concentration of power in government so long as that power is checked by the electoral process. We are urged to believe that so long as we can express our disagreement in words, we have our full rights to disagree. Now both freedom of speech and the electoral process are important to liberty, but alone they are only the desiccated remains of liberty. However vigorously we may argue against foreign aid, our substance is still drained away in never-to-be-repaid loans. Quite often, there is not even a candidate to vote for who holds views remotely like my own. To vent one’s spleen against the graduated income tax may be healthy for the psyche, but one must still yield up his freedom of choice as to how his money will be spent when he pays it to the government. The voice of electors in government is not even proportioned to the tax contribution of individuals; thus, those who contribute more lose rather than gain by the “democratic process.” A majority of voters may decide that property cannot be used in such and such ways, but the liberty of the individual is diminished just as much as in that regard as if a dictator had decreed it. Those who believe in the redistribution of wealth should be free to redistribute their own, but they are undoubtedly limiting the freedom of others when they vote to redistribute theirs.
Effective disagreement means not doing what one does not want to do as well as saying what he wants to say. What is from one angle the welfare state is from another the compulsory state. Let me submit a bill of particulars. Children are forced to go to school. Americans are forced to pay taxes to support foreign aid, forced to support the Peace Corps, forced to make loans to the United Nations, forced to contribute to the building of hospitals, forced to serve in the armed forces. Employers are forced to submit to arbitration with labor leaders. Laborers are forced to accept the majority decision. Employers are forced to pay minimum wages, or go out of business. But it is not even certain that they will be permitted by the courts to go out of business. Railroads are forced to charge established rates and to continue services which may have become uneconomical. Many Americans are forced to pay Social Security. Farmers are forced to operate according to the restrictions voted by a majority of those involved. The list could be extended, but surely the point has been made.
(The above comes from an essay titled “To Agree To Disagree,” which your Curmudgeon regards as the capstone of Dr. Carson’s book.)
Now, a regular reader of Eternity Road will already be familiar with the long train of abuses and usurpations Dr. Carson enumerates above. And of course, liberals still stoutly maintain that the object is a more perfect Union, and not a design to reduce us under absolute Despotism. But the most trustworthy indicators of evil intent are the suppression of dissent and the invalidation of mechanisms for redress: the “desiccated remains” of which Dr. Carson wrote. And so your Curmudgeon must ask: Just how are freedom of expression and the electoral process faring in the Land of the Formerly Free?
First, freedom of expression:
- The McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act has partly abrogated the right to free expression around election time.
- Given the new Administration and the enlarged Democrat majorities on Capitol Hill, we stand in immediate danger of the revival of the Fairness Doctrine, which is aimed at quenching conservative talk radio.
- The use of tax law to silence conservative and libertarian opinion is growing, especially as regards voluntary associations such as churches and charitable groups.
- Several liberal luminaries, among them both Cass Sunstein and Hillary Clinton, have argued for the censorship of the World Wide Web.
- Lawsuits attempting to silence a commentator who has merely stated established facts or accurately quoted an adversarial opponent are rife, and are usually allowed to go forward by the courts.
- Conservative public officials are continuously derided, assailed, and slandered, both by the Mainstream Media and by activist groups.
- Lectures and presentations by libertarian and conservative figures are heckled, massively protested, and often terminally disrupted by liberal activists. The speakers who dare to appear at such events are at continuous risk of physical assault.
The legal impediments to free expression are bad enough. When one adds the “chilling effect” of the extra-legal mechanisms used to silence pro-freedom views, the pile reaches an alarming height.
Now for the electoral process:
- Laws which explicitly regulate ballot access are ignored by the courts when they conduce to the disadvantage of the Democrats, but are wielded rigorously, and often on specious grounds, against Republicans and pro-freedom minor parties.
- Democrat candidates and their media allies have been allowed extraordinary latitude at opening the sealed records of their opponents’ divorces, child-custody disputes, and commercial actions.
- The media treat all allegations of impropriety against Republicans and conservatives as front page news, but hesitate to report on much worse, and much better substantiated, allegations against Democrats and liberals.
- Boards of Election routinely operate to the advantage of the Democrat in a contested race. Election fraud is rampant, but only allegations of fraud by Republicans are treated seriously. The investigation of even flagrant abuses by Democrats is perfunctory at best.
- Democrat Administrations have facilitated the acquisition of voting power by un-naturalized immigrants, including illegal immigrants.
- Lawsuits challenging the validity of a vote tally are used as an entering wedge by which to enable further vote fraud.
- When a closely disputed election turns out, after a recount, to have been won by the Republican, if the Democrat has already been seated, no action is taken in redress.
To borrow Dr. Carson’s phrasing, these lists could be extended, but surely the point has been made.
None of this is news to any honest observer of our political scene. Nor would your Curmudgeon have bothered to recapitulate it but for one vital aspect of our predicament.
Left-wing figures, these past few years, have repeated ad nauseam that “dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” It’s been observed in practice that they reserve that evaluation for dissent from the Left, but deny it to dissent from the Right, but that, too, is only to be expected. What we must address here is the practical significance of the progressive suppression of conservatives’ mechanisms for dissenting — freedom of expression and the ballot box — and how these things coordinate with other aspects of the liberal hegemony.
In Thomas Sowell’s two landmark books A Conflict of Visions and The Vision of the Anointed, he notes that liberal defenders of liberal policies, including even the most abject of liberal policy failures, are prone to defending them as “here to stay” — basically a conservative’s argument. Rhetorically, the tactic has some force, but far more significant is what it tells us about the liberal moral-emotional gestalt.
To say that some public policy must not be changed is to say that it is right and necessary: right meaning “not a violation of the rights of the unconsenting,” and necessary meaning “the costs, however measured, of dismantling it would be unacceptable.” But to shout down those who disagree, or to manipulate elections to deny conservatives their fairly earned victories, is by liberals’ own standards a denial of others’ rights. Not only is this hypocrisy — “we’ll respect your right to disagree as long as you refrain from using it” — it’s a revelation of liberals’ deep convictions about both rightness and practicality:
Liberal Conviction #1: Only liberals have rights.
Liberal Conviction #2: What advances the liberal vision is good regardless of its practical effects.
As Dr. Sowell notes early in The Vision of the Anointed, liberals operate under the assumption that they are morally superior to non-liberals, entirely because of their liberalism: a “vision of differential rectitude.” Moral mandates are always absolute; therefore, he who is morally enlightened beyond his opponent cannot allow the opponent to win. Thus, any mechanism for dissent from liberal nostrums must be perverted and distorted until it cannot be used effectively against the liberal cadre and its programs. That’s right and necessary — as right and necessary as liberalism itself.
Dr. Carson’s perception of the “compulsory state” has been fastened upon us for some time. It’s produced loss after loss: in freedom, in prosperity, in human dignity, and in national and international harmony. But it is emotionally vital to the liberal psyche that no critical examination of its failings be allowed, especially in those areas where the objective evidence has become conclusive and irrefutable. Setbacks to liberal policies must be attributed to conservatives’ perverse opposition; defeats of liberal candidates must be railed against as thefts. The vision of liberals’ differential rectitude must be defended.
Over the next four years, the “desiccated remains” of Americans’ traditional freedom will come under ever more intense assault. This is guaranteed by liberals’ assumption of their moral superiority and the steadily accumulating evidence against the beneficence and benevolence of liberal policies. Conservatives and libertarians must expect harsher and harsher attempts, both within and without the law, to silence them and to defraud them of victories at the polls. Violence will be involved more and more often as liberals’ failures mount.
There’s no Last Graf. Short of a pro-freedom revolution, your Curmudgeon has no solutions to offer; besides, most historical revolutions have produced worse tyrannies than the regimes they toppled. To be on the Right is to prefer freedom and privacy to power, public engagement, and the clamors thereof. We stand at a natural disadvantage against those whose lives are completely wound around making others live and behave as liberals think they should.
Hard times are upon us. Remain vigilant, and keep your powder dry.