Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Grounds of Political Action

Government is force. Politics is power. So every political initiative is a program of force. Ever government program is an exercise of power.

But humans are social animals; we understand that only in exceptional circumstances is there a warrant for force. Thus political actors feel the need to justify their campaigns of force and power.

Every justification of force, it seems to me, comes down to two scenarios. Either the community is threatened by an invader--the Russians are coming--or the community is ruled by a tyrant--off with his head! These two springs of government action are so obvious as to be truisms, yet we often forget first principles. The two principles are also intimate. It is the need to repel the invader that invests the executive with the mandate of force, and it is the continuance of this power after the victory over the invader that creates the occasion for the abuse of power and the occasion of injustice.

But let us look at this from the position of the political activist. If someone wants power he has two roads to power. He can energize the community against the frightful danger--of Russians, Germans, Islamists. Or he must rile up the people against the monstrous injustices perpetrated by the current ruling clique. Again, this is almost a truism. If the nation isn't threatened by an invader, then why should the nation submit to the extraordinary subventions required in a national emergency? If there isn't a gross injustice then where is the justification for mounting a head of rebellion with all the risks of failure?

Our liberal friends have developed a curious version of all this. In the first place, they want to believe that there really isn't a threat from the invader. That is all just nationalism, and patriotism, we all know, is the last refuge of a scoundrel. But our liberal friends don't want to throw away the opportunity to wage war, so they came up with the moral equivalent of war: wars on want, on poverty, on global warming, on pollution.

But it is the liberal response to injustice that is really ingenious. For liberals argue that it is they, the political elite, that is the agent most appropriate to correct the injustices so keenly felt by working people, women, minorities and the traditionally marginalized. What a coup. The liberals defend their political power by siccing the police on greedy bankers, unjust employers, rogue polluters, and racist, sexist, homophobic bigots.

The question that we non-liberals must ask is whether our liberal friends have overdone all this. You can say that, e.g., it was necessary to use government force to reverse the age-old injustice of slavery and to bring African Americans to full citizenship by force. You could say, perhaps, that the working man needed assistance in the turmoil of the early industrial revolution. But it seems to me that in the early 21st century there is a ton of government compulsion going on that is based on the flimsiest possible demonstration of injustice. The world is, after all, seething with injustice, from the most petty problems in the workplace through the most savage enslavement of a whole people. The question is: where is the dividing line between a minor humiliation and a need for government force?

That is the great task before us.

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