Every once in a while I’m inspired to write a column by looking through my feeds and stumbling across two items that dovetail together so well the column almost writes itself. This is one of those times.
There are several hard realities that most liberals — as opposed to those of us on the genuine Left — are constitutionally unable to admit into their “Why Mommy is a Democrat” view of the world. Among them are the following: First, any legislation they reflexively pass pursuant to a moral panic over people getting hurt will also result in people getting hurt. Second, the kind of society they desire can only be achieved through the large-scale, lawless exercise of power by the state. And third, the state is inevitably run by the kinds of people who enjoy exercising such power.
Blogger thoreau, at Unqualified Offerings (“Finally, some political blogging,” May 26, 2013), addresses the first of these points in relation to the War on Drugs:
“There are few things that piss me off more than discussing drugs with over-educated white suburban liberals …. [T]hey want to keep locking people up in the name of ‘But what if somebody gets hurt?’ Um, what do you call the world’s largest prison population? What do you call the war in northern Mexico? What do you call the actions of Afghan opium lords? What do you call daily gang violence? I’d call that ‘somebody gets hurt’, wouldn’t you? …. I can talk all day about the violence and injustice of the drug war but they find one study on the effects of pot on short-term memory and my whole point is considered invalid. Because if we end this war Somebody Might Get Hurt.”
Liberals — the kinds of people who say “the government is just all of us working together” — instinctively draw back from acknowledging the realities of power. But Chris Dillow of Stumbling and Mumbling blog — the kind of Leftist we need more of — is quite happy to rub their noses in it (“What Eton Knows,” May 26, 2013).
It seems New Labourites in the UK are in shock over a question about the Macchiavellian utility of shooting protestors in the entrance exam at Eton. “What Eton Knows,” Dillow writes, is that
“Political power rests, ultimately, upon force and violence. Plan A for the ruling class is to govern by consent. But there is a plan B …. Who, whom? Lenin got it right. Power is about who does what to whom? Eton’s examiners know that their charges will be the ‘who’ and the rest of us the ‘whom.'”
Naive, well-meaning liberals — as opposed to those who simply desire to amass managerial power over society in their own hands — fail to understand that coercive power in its essence is a mechanism by which those who exercise it benefit at the expense of those over whom it is exercised. It is a weapon by which some people do things to other people. And the idea that this mechanism, this weapon, is amenable to democratic control is utterly ludicrous. As Robert Michels noted a century ago, centralized, hierarchical institutions cannot be instruments of direct rule by the many. Whatever formally democratic rules of representation they are subject to in legal theory, in practice the delegates will gain power at the expense of the delegators; the agent will exercise de facto power over the principal.
The coercive state, by its nature, is the instrument of a ruling class. Sometimes the state functionaries themselves will supplant the old ruling class and constitute a new one, as in the case of the bureaucratic oligarchy that ruled the Soviet Union. More frequently, the regulatory and welfare state will align itself with the preexisting corporate capitalist ruling class, and incorporate itself as a junior member, as in European social democracy and American New Deal liberalism.
In either case, the vast majority of society will be the ruled. And the rulers will exercise their power over us in all sorts of unpleasant ways. Once you set up an enforcement bureaucracy of cops and administrative law courts capable of shooting or imprisoning people, or seizing their assets without proving them guilty of a criminal offense, they will happily exercise this power. Dillow writes:
“In creating so many new criminal offences and bolstering the power and self-importance of the police, [New Labour] thought it was acting out of good intentions but was … merely giving them licence to bully old ladies. Good intentions are not enough.”
So if your automatic response to every moral panic is to pass another law to stop people from getting hurt, stop and think it over some more. You’re just giving the state — and the interests that control it — power to hurt people.