Saturday, September 24, 2011

What Is Really Wrong With the Freedom Movement?

The other evening I attended a meeting of one of many groups here in Upstate South Carolina that have congregated under the "restore the republic" or freedom label. One of the speakers made the following observation which has stuck in my mind: suppose you have, in the same room together, a pair of lesbian gay-rights activists, a radical feminist from a nearby Department of Women's Studies, an Earth First environmental extremist, a black activist, an Alinsky-trained community organizer and a tenured radical from the same university as the feminist. While they probably wouldn't see eye-to-eye on every point, before the evening was done they'd form a coalition to advance the goals they have in common.

Now suppose you had a group of "restore the republic" types. One of them might be pro-South and outspokenly conservative. Another might be a Christian libertarian promoting Ron Paul. A third might also be a Christian but have doubts about Ron Paul because he has misread Romans 13. A fourth might be a libertarian like the second but would proudly trumpet his atheism; all we need to do, the fourth would insist, is read Ludwig von Mises and Murray N. Rothbard. A fifth would emphasize abortion. A sixth will focus on illegal immigration. A seventh would try to turn attention to the history of the money and banking system in this country, and focus on the role of a power elite in corrupting our economic institutions operating in secret leading to many of the above results, ending with a caution against attacking symptoms instead of identifying underlying problems. An eighth might pooh-pooh his predecessor as a "conspiracy nut." And so on and so on.

What would happen? I can tell you from experience what would happen. The members of this group would focus more on their differences than what they have in common; most would lose sight of the larger picture. No coalition would form. Each would continue running around on his own. Few if any would assist any of the others; any assistance would be temporary and conditional on absolute and total agreement with the assistor's worldview. The point is: no coalition would form.

There is--in my area at least, and therefore probably in most other parts of this country--no lack of groups to join. Some study the Constitution. Some engage specific problems, such as taxes. Some promote Ron Paul. Some work to expose RINOs (Republicans In Name Only). Some study the Bible. All of these are, of course, laudable projects. But none of the groups work together. Some, indeed, barely talk to one another. In my neck of the woods in Upstate South Carolina, there are groups whose monthly meetings are scheduled on the exact same night and at the exact same time as another group's monthly meetings--not out of malice on somebody's part, of course, but of indifference born of the fact that in the freedom movement, almost no one talks to anyone outside their niche.

Specific things can get done in this environment--I know of people who have been helped by the Patriot Network group to win court cases against the IRS, for example; other groups have made life difficult for politicians such as Senator Lindsay Graham (RINO-S.C.)--but I have a sense that while we win occasional specific battles we are losing the larger war, which is to keep this country from turning into a full-fledged techno-feudalist police state.

And not to imply that malice never erupts between different factions within the Freedom Movement. I've already mentioned that the atheists refuse to work with Christians (in fairness, the reverse is often true as well). Many who fancy themselves taking a "rational" (or perhaps it's an "empirical") view of society, based invariable on what is visible and open to immediate documentation, dismiss "conspiracy theories" no less than atheists dismiss Christian theists.

This is just one problem with the Freedom Movement, I can call it as if we were talking about one movement and not many disunited movements.

Other problems are not hard to find. I am not sure there is much discussion, much less agreement, on where the locus of control really is in complex societies such as ours. The answer to this isn't self-evident. Is it with what I call the power of the sword (the power of those in government to make laws and impose their will on society by direct coercion) or with the power of the purse (the power of those in private associations, such as foundations, think tanks, and a lot of large corporations to set the direction of policy and ideas by bankrolling certain ventures while withholding support from others)? Both the conservative wings and the libertarian wings trust corporations more than they should, as I have argued elsewhere. Pointing this out, though, that many corporations and cartels of corporations are as drawn to power as governments annoys free market absolutists. All one has to do to see this is investigate Big Pharma's war against the dietary supplement industry.

Not entirely unrelated is a third problem, as it see it: it is easy to fall into the trap of interpreting freedom as an every-man-woman-and-child-for-himself extreme individualism, which sees itself as having no social obligations at all, even though F.A. Hayek refuted this interpretation in one of his most important essays, "Individualism: True and False."<1> Many infer from the claim that "the government should not be doing x" that "no one should do x" even if x is a matter of someone's survival--maybe of many people's survival. Let me ask the question this way: were all government programs assisting the elderly, the infirm, the unemployed, etc., to cease, would it follow that these people should be left to die in the streets? Normal human beings, most of whom have social consciences, recoil against that and it hurts the Freedom Movement.

Consider a concrete illustration: the preventable death back in 2008 of Ron Paul's campaign manager, Kent Snyder, 49, from complications from pneumonia. He was penniless despite having handled millions of dollars four years ago. He could have been saved, but had no health insurance. His medical and hospitalization bills totaled over $400,000. Snyder had singlehandedly raised over $19.5 million. The money that could have saved his life and paid his bills existed, had someone chosen to allocate it in that direction.

The mindset amongst at least some Ron Paul supporters boils down to: tough! Even Dr. Paul himself was quoted as saying, "That's what freedom is all about: taking your own risks. This whole idea that you have to take care of everybody—" Wolf Blitzer, who had been questioning Paul that night, followed up by asking if "society should just let him die." Paul needn't have answered; the crowd cheered at the idea!

To be honest about it, that moment made my blood run cold! I even wondered, just for that moment, if I had been defending the right people all these years! A number of things had come into focus, including things that have happened to me these past few years, some of them minor such as Libertarian online publications that will no longer publish me because I am not a "pure" enough Libertarian--but others less minor and bound to hurt the cause of liberty such as the general sense communicated to the public that if a Ron Paul were to be elected president we could kiss every safety net in this country goodbye. The reason such events as the preventable death of Kent Snyder will hurt the cause is that most people are bound to recoil instinctively against such things. I am sure that there were onlookers that night who decided after that display of coldness that they could not support Ron Paul. Dr. Paul's followers ought to be more cautious of the message they often send out, and how that message will be received by others, including some who probably sincerely have not made up their minds about him.

The bottom line is: there are a lot of people suffering right now because of this economy. Some of their suffering might be traceable to their own bad decisions, such as buying houses they couldn't afford; but not all of it. And where did any of us get the idea that we have the right to make that judgment? For all the presumption, evident in a lot of Libertarian writings, of an absolute dichotomy between free, voluntary choice and state coercion, I for one see a large gray area where ordinary people are influenced by a wide range of factors in an environment filled with their own peers, incomplete information, and outright propaganda which after continuous exposure they easily come to see as the truth. Western rationalism is rife with dichotomies. This is perhaps Western rationalism's biggest drawback as a philosophy of life since life is full of continua and shades of gray.

The view is tempting that what we Freedom Movement people need to do is revisit our first premises as a group and decide, ahead of recommending or taking specific actions or even supporting specific candidates for office, what we are going to do when we find ourselves disagreeing over fundamentals? Are we going to talk to each other and try to get past our differences and work together, as the Left has always managed to do? Or are going to ignore others, or perhaps, attack them because their, e.g., religious beliefs are different than ours? We also need to revisit some of our ethical premises, the ones lying behind our political and economic philosophies respectively of Constitutionally limited government and free enterprise. The business enterprise operates under the assumption that we serve others in order to advance our own ends; we produce a good or a service others want, or we go out of business? But does service to others end with monetary compensation? Do our ethical premises preclude helping one another unless an immediate material profit comes our way? Do our premises preclude helping others, including strangers we don't know? Do they preclude recognizing that if we take seriously the value of individual liberty, then we ought to think about ensuring that those liberated from government aren't then left to starve in the dark--both through our own actions both individually and in coordination with others? I fear that if the various freedom, Libertarian, and restore-the-republic movements out there--and how interesting that there are so many of these names and phrases to choose from--do not begin thinking these things through it will continue to do what it is doing now, which is whither on the vine. It will die not from having been smashed by leftists and mainstream media hostility, but from those located somewhere in the middle who looked at the Freedom Movement and saw only the coldness and indifference of something vaguely inhumane--something they wanted nothing to do with.

With much of the mainstream clearly floundering, largely defenseless both intellectually and politically against the global superelite which has almost destroyed this country, a Freedom Movement that is disunited and more apt to shoot itself in the foot than produce constructive policy ideas is not what we need right now.

<1> Friedrich A. Hayek, "Individualism: True and False" in F.A. Hayek, Individualism and Economic Order (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948), pp. 1 - 32.

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