Monday, 19 July 2010

The Next American Civil War (Lee Harris)

The Next American Civil War
-Lee Harris

Now is the winter of our discontent…

The last couple of years have seen major shifts and undercurrents running through the Western body politic. The UK had the Parliamentary Expenses Scandal, which still rears its ugly head from time to time. Greece, Spain, Iceland (and probably quite a few other countries) were badly betrayed by their governments, causing a major financial crisis in the EU. And, in the United States, the Tea Party movement has arisen to challenge the established order.

If you’re looking for a book about the Tea Parties, this isn’t the one for you.

Lee Harris is one of the more interesting conservative writers out there. He has written several interesting and insightful articles on the Tea Party Movement and what it means (on his blog), but this book has a different focus. (I rather expected to focus on the current situation and I was a little disappointed when it didn’t.) Harris looks at the development of Liberalism and Populism throughout history, with a central premise of constant revolts against the elite. The elites are not always the liberal elite that Harris talks about today, but they do always have one thing in common. They think they know what is best for everyone else.

This is a constant theme of the book. Harris believes that the Tea Parties – and events like Scott Brown’s surprising win in Massachusetts – are a reaction to increased dominance by Washington. He does have a very important point. Washington under the last three Presidents has been making greater and greater inroads into American life, although this has peaked during the early years of the Obama presidency. The growing disconnect between Washington and the average American was reflected in Brown’s victory, which may have happened because Brown was simply closer to the average voter than his opponent. He contrasts this with Andrew Jackson’s presidency and claims that Jackson won because he was populist – and his opponent was elitist. This may or may not be true (I am no expert in that period) but it is interesting. He attributes Sarah Palin’s surprising popularity to a similar process.

The core of the populist movement – insofar as such a term can be used – is in its resistance to being told what is best for it by someone else. The ‘elites’ disconnect from society is so great that they will, with the best of intentions, seek to interfere with society. Everything from smoking bans to assisting people to bring up their children serves the purpose of increasing the government’s power and dependence upon the government. It is so disconnected from reality that some of the government’s measures are actively harmful.

This is contributing to the steady erosion of trust and faith in the country. The existence of death panels as part of UHC was always a myth, Harris says, but it demonstrated the real problem – the fear that one day decisions would be made, not by the people, but for the people. The government would have power without accountability. And power without accountability breeds arrogance. This is no idle fear. Human history shows that if the lower classes had waited for their superiors to grant them liberty, they would still be waiting today. Once power is assembled, it is not easy to dispel.

In general terms, a Natural Libertarian wants to be left alone and reacts harshly against any attempt to curb his freedom, for whatever reason.

The book does have its problems. The elites’ do try to push forward social reform through legislation, something I find just as despicable as Lee Harris. Yet…social conservatives often do the same thing. Part of the problem is that extremists on both sides have difficulty seeing what is really important and what isn’t worth scrabbling over. The whole concept of gay marriage is essentially unimportant. It doesn’t harm society if two gay men want to call themselves husband and husband, yet social conservatives howl at the very thought of accepting gay marriage. Homosexuals in the boy scouts or the priesthood aren’t a major problem; paedophiles in either are a menace to society. Social conservatives are horrified at the concept of teenage pregnancies, yet many of them object to teaching kids about contraception or dispelling the sheer mass of nonsense surrounding sex. Government by elite is no less irritating – or harmful – if it is done by Left or Right.

One problem that is worth noting is that humans do not live alone. We are social creatures and we operate within a teeming mass of other humans. This requires us to adhere to at least some rules. A Libertarian must accept that while he has rights, he also has to admit that others have the same rights, at least until they start to infringe upon him. (In other words, my right to swing my fist ends at your nose.) Libertarian beliefs cannot lead, logically, to bans on homosexuality. Even if the Libertarian in question is repelled by the very notion of homosexuality, what right does he have to deprive someone else of his right to have homosexual sex? If we are to have rights, we must admit that others have rights and we must be very careful to specify just when those rights end and when they can be lawfully deprived of those rights. At base, we must respect individual rights and not seek to deprive individuals of those rights for the sake of the group.

In conclusion, this is an interesting and often thought-provoking read, but it is not the book I wanted to read.

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