Jane's Law and the Progressives
or The Care and Feeding of Scapegoats
Peter A. Taylor
This essay started out as an attempt to explain to a hard-core Progressive friend of mine why his anti-Bush arguments failed to persuade me. Since Progressives are quick to recognize the faults of hard-core Libertarians, I put considerable emphasis on similarities between the two groups. At the same time, I wanted to explain to my own satisfaction why modern US politics have become so acrimonious, why there no longer seems to be a "loyal opposition" as there clearly was in Franklin Roosevelt's time. A common thread in all these points is a view of modern politics in terms of conflict among religions and pseudo-religions, and my central point is that modern radical Progressivism functions as a pseudo-religion. This has implications both for modern Western politics and for liberal religious movements, with which pseudo-religions such as Progressivism directly compete.
Frankly, my exchanges with Joe on foreign policy remind me of exchanges that my wife, Carol, and I have had with a local Libertarian (whom I will call Fred) on environmentalism. Fred is a large-L Libertarian who I think prides himself on his moral purity (or perhaps his superior wisdom and insight), which in practice means refusing to think outside of a certain narrow "Libertarian" box. Unfortunately, this box does not contain a solution to certain kinds of problems, such as global warming. So people like Fred will refuse to accept that such problems could exist, even as a hypothetical possibility. In order to defend his moral purity, his refusal to think outside this box, he ends up making statements that are intellectually dishonest to the point of being irrational. As a spokesman for libertarianism, he is extremely counterproductive.
I have done some of this myself. I dabbled in radical libertarianism for a while, but I got tired of losing arguments about environmentalism to my first wife, Karen. I continue to interact with Joe (ie. by writing the original version of this essay) partly in hope that he will react more like the way I reacted to Karen than the way Fred reacted to Carol and me. Another motive for writing this is that I am trying to explain why the quality of political debate has been so poor for the last decade or so, and I am thinking out loud. Here goes:
A. Islamism (a gross oversimplification)
Theory: Allah is on our side. We can't lose.
Practice: The Islamic world's economic, scientific, cultural, and conventional military performance has been dismal for the last century or longer. All they have is oil revenue, which is not a source of pride.
Scapegoats: Jews, foreigners, and infidels.
B. Christian fundamentalism (another gross oversimplification)
Theory: We know how to run your life because God told us how.
Practice: Their cosmology is based on a scientific worldview that has been proven over the last several centuries to be complete nonsense.
Scapegoats: Atheists, homosexuals, feminists, and Pagans.
C. Radical Libertarianism
Theory: Laissez faire automatically solves everything.
Practice: Military defense, the environment, distributional justice, monopolies, etc., do not have inside-the-box solutions.
Scapegoats: Coercion in general and the US government in particular.
D. Radical Progressivism (socialism in Europe, "liberalism" in the US)
Theory: The only genuine evils in the world are the dying anachronisms of Christianity and capitalism. (See secularization theory.)
Practice: Traditional religion (Christianity) has been declining in Europe, but religion is thriving in the US and running rampant throughout much of the world. Statistically, religion in the US tends to reduce violence. Poor people as well as the wealthy are materially better off in the more capitalist countries than in the more socialist ones, and the principal socialist power, the USSR, has dissolved.
Scapegoats: Christians, rich people (capitalists), corporations, and libertarians. The US is a pre-eminent symbol of both Christianity and capitalism. Dubya's campaign speech at Bob Jones University was largely a kickoff speech for religion-based Bush hatred.
[10-20-2008: The US is also still "the arsenal of democracy," which offends people with pacifist affectations. I also should clarify that Progressivism comes in different flavors, and depending on the flavor, only certain versions of Christianity (ie. "patriarchal" ones) are evil.]
Additional Notes (11-3-2004):
Another problem with this discussion is that the difference between mainstream and fundamentalist Christians (statistical variance) seems large in comparison to the difference between "radical" Progressives and the moderate left. Jerry Falwell's blinders regarding homosexuality are serious enough to impact his foreign policy positions, but the level of homophobia among mainstream Christians is low enough to be irrelevant to foreign policy. Mainstream Christians do not sympathize with Muslims who murder homosexuals. On the other hand, as John Leo of US News and World Report put it,
Indeed, that blame-America attitude, once confined to the hard left, has been leaching into the soft left and the Democratic Party. A Pew survey last August reported that 51 percent of Democrats and 67 percent of liberal Democrats believe that America might have motivated the 9/11 attacks by doing something wrong or unfair in dealings with other nations.
Either the "radical" fringe of the Progressives is much larger than the religious right, or there is much less distinction between the moderate left and the hard left than there is between the Falwellites and the mainstream Christians. All of the "intellectual boxes" I describe here are caricatures to some degree, but my caricature of Progressives seems more generally representative of them than my caricature of Christians does of Christians.
A run of bad luck or misguided electoral tactics also tends to cause intense frustration, and frustration tends to make people mean and bitter. The Christian fundamentalists under Clinton were intensely frustrated (largely because of their own bad tactics). Hence the panic, impotant rage, and the theories about black helicopters and the Vince Foster "murder."
Progressives also have reason to feel frustrated lately. Religion refuses to go away. Capitalism has decisively beaten hard-core socialism, and mild socialism looks like a deer frozen in History's headlights. The electoral college misfired to their detriment in 2000. The Progressives' bad tactics hurt them further in the 2002 elections, and the same foreign policy issues that hurt them in 2002 have an excellent chance of doing the same in 2004. Finally, there are adverse demographic trends, as the generation that lived through the Great Depression and generally bought the Left's propaganda about it are dying off and being replaced by people who regard Social Security as a Ponzi game.
But the immediate reason for Progressives to panic in 2004 is Islamism. As I see it, the Islamist problem can't be solved by thinking inside the Progressive box any more than global warming can be solved by thinking inside the Libertarian box. What is missing from the Libertarian playbook is a way to assign meaningful property rights to the Earth's atmosphere. Without a meaningful way to assign these rights, laissez faire won't work except by dumb luck, and the radical Libertarians refuse to consider anything but laissez faire. What is missing from the Progressive playbook is a non-Christian dominated, non-capitalist government that is able and willing to stop nuclear weapons from falling into the hands of Islamists and their likely allies. (India, Pakistan, and North Korea are hardly success stories.) Without a suitable foreign or world government, the Progressives are forced to choose between ineffective action or cooperating with whomever is currently in power in the US, and the Progressives refuse to cooperate with people who symbolize conservative Christianity and private property.
The Libertarian and Progressive responses to these problems are even stylistically similar. For example, Joe's response to my comment that "there are nuclear weapons on the horizon" reminds me of the two common Libertarian responses to environmentalists' criticisms. Plan A is to deny that there is a problem. Libertarians will say something like, "The scientists are obviously lying in order to get more research funding." Plan B is to blame a scapegoat and milk the problem for everything it's worth. Thus we have Libertarian "environmentalists" demanding that the EPA be abolished because it is hurting our precious environment that we care about so deeply. So I have a strong sense of deja vu when I read in an email from Joe
"Nuclear weapons have been on the horizon since 1950."
and when I rejected that as "cavalier,"
"I am not cavalier. I detest the incompetent, lying, unethical, Machavelian's S.O.B.'s who are the one's cavalierly dismissing threats for their political and economic ambitions."
Plan B is especially bad for Libertarians because the scapegoat they are trying to drive away, the US government, is the only organization that has a realistic chance of dealing with many of the relevant environmental problems. Here again, in my opinion, the Progressives have the same problem. Progressives show their commitment to scapegoating the US by (1) arguing that the US doesn't have the moral standing to fight a war, but that the breathtakingly sleazy Chirac administration and UN do, and (2) that the US is to blame for having created the Islamofascist problem (which is much older that they acknowledge). Yet, in my opinion, there was never a realistic possibility of stopping Islamism without multiple regime changes, and the US is the only country that can pull this off. If we blow it, in my judgment, the overwhelmingly likely result is a nuclear war in no more than 20 years.
Pakistan is another example of where thinking inside the Progressive box (the only genuine evils are symbols of Christianity and capitalism) makes it impossible to argue convincingly about foreign policy. One of Joe's accusations about the Bush 43 administration was:
'b.. They overlook Pakistan sending nuclear technology to the most dangerous countries on their list apparently in exchange for Pakistan announcing the capture of a "high value" terrorist during the Dem convention, as disclosed by TNR in advance.'
Dealing with Pakistan is an interesting problem to me because it is so difficult. They already have nuclear weapons, the population seems to have a high proportion of Islamists, Islamists have enormous influence over the ISI, and the current government, which can at least be worked with, seems to be quite shaky and vulnerable to assassination. Joe accuses Bush of misconduct in handling Musharraf gently in exchange for a rather trivial bit of favorable press.
Joe's accusation fails to make sense to me for several reasons. My first reaction is that, if the accusation is true, it reminds me of Joe Bob Briggs' reaction to the Jimmy Swaggart prostitution scandal: he paid way too much money, so much so that Joe Bob was moved to publish a pricing guide in Iron Joe Bob for how much money ministers of various denominations should pay for prostitutes, maximum. Joe's accusation isn't plausible in terms of the price allegedly paid for services rendered. My second reaction is that the timing doesn't seem particularly critical for Bush. There is a saying that one should never murder an opponent while he is in the process of hanging himself. Would Karl Rove even want to draw people's attention away from the Democratic convention? It is even possible that the timing of the announcement was disinformation designed to disrupt a potential attack on the convention. Who knows? My third reaction is that the New Republic prediction (disclosure? speculation?) sounds like a rainmaking scam: Pakistan catches terrorists all the time, and what counts as "high value" is flexible. At worst, if nothing happened, TNR can claim that their expose prevented it.
But the real reason Joe's accusation fails is because, if I were Bush, I would be handling Pakistan exactly the same way he is. The relationship between Bush and Musharraf is analogous to that between Franklin Roosevelt and Josef Stalin in 1942-1944. Should FDR have thrown a big public hissy fit at Stalin and threatened him or refused to work with him because of the Molotov-von Ribbentrop pact and having cooperated in training the Luftwaffe? What purpose would this have served? There is a war on. Musharraf is on our side (for now), and he has enough problems already. If there is still a reason to give Musharraf hell later, the time to do it is after Iran and Saudi Arabia have been tackled (and Saudi Arabia is another hard problem).
Condemning Bush for deciding not to pick a fight with an ally during wartime strikes me as a case of politician A saying, "The sky is blue," and politician B jumping up and yelling "No it isn't!" The decision to condemn Bush, the symbol of bad Christianity and bad capitalism, appears to come first. The logic offered as a reason for concluding that he deserves such thorough condemnation appears to me to be an ill-considered afterthought. This is not as counterproductive an argument as (Libertarian) Michael Badnarik advocating an immediate unilateral withdrawal from Iraq, but it's still counterproductive.
"Each side is guilty of this - in the 90s a substantial contingent of the right was convinced that Gov. Bill Clinton ran coke out of Mena. It's almost as if you have two options:
- I disagree with my opponent's position on taxation, and therefore I shall oppose it.
- I disagree with my opponent's position on taxation, and therefore I believe he has sex with goats."
"Which brings me to a political theory I have been developing for a while now:
Jane's Law: The devotees of the party in power are smug and arrogant. The devotees of the party out of power are insane.
I used to think it was just the Republicans...."
--Megan McArdle (aka "Jane Galt")
Steven Den Beste has a different take on the left's problems. He describes this in terms of philosophical idealism (I would call this romanticism) and "escalation of failure" here.
My version of failure escalation is different: My dogma gives me ego justification, and when I get egg on my face (get proved wrong, get voted down, or otherwise get made a fool of), I seek additional emotional comfort from my dogma. If my dogma is what got me in trouble in the first place (ie. because some major aspect of it has been proven wildly wrong), then I have an unstable feedback loop.
Some closing thoughts:
"Movements born in hatred very quickly take on the characteristics of the thing they oppose."
-- J.S. Habgood, Archbishop of York
"Strong and bitter words indicate a weak cause."
-- fortune cookie
-- Buddhist Precepts of the Order of Interbeing (2 of 14)
Sins of Omission
"Every man is guilty of all of the good he didn't do."
One of the problems I have with stereotypical Libertarianism is that it doesn't recognize sins of ommission. It only recognizes "negative" rights, which boil down to the right to be left alone if one chooses, not "positive" rights that would compel others to come to one's aid. Stereotypical Libertarianism defines my actions as immoral only if I violate someone else's rights. This is not the same thing as requiring me to minimize the total amount of rights violations that take place throughout society. Libertarianism permits me to come to someone else's aid, but does not require me to do so, and if I do come to other people's aid, no matter how desperate their needs, I am still held at fault if my actions result in injury to any innocent bystanders.
Suppose I am in the following dilemma: If I act, I expect one innocent person to be killed as a direct result of my actions. If I don't act, I expect two (or ten, or n) people to be killed because of someone else's actions. Libertarianism effectively puts a weighting factor of 1 on sins of commission, and 0 on sins of ommission. A person who is influenced by Libertarianism will be biased towards doing nothing. This may be acceptable as a guide for individuals under ordinary circumstances, at least where there is a high level of uncertainty, where the number of likely injuries is small, and where the severity of injuries is low enough that one may either provide compensation for one's sins or society can reasonably put up with a minor moral error.
However, this is not a useful doctrine for a nation facing a war. In war, there will always be at least one innocent casualty, so this strict form of Libertarianism would not be useful to anyone but a strict pacifist. I have little respect for pacifism. As George Orwell put it in Notes on Nationalism, 'Those who "abjure" violence can only do so because others are committing violence on their behalf.' This is one reason why Libertarianism has little to contribute to a serious foreign policy debate.
What is odd about this is that many hard-core Progressives, who enthusiastically recognize "positive" rights, who supported military force wholeheartedly in the past (e.g. WWII), and who often despise Libertarianism, seem to have jumped on board the Libertarian "zero weight on sins of ommission" bandwagon. This point did not directly come up in my exchanges with Joe, but it did come up in the context of a previous minister's sermons at my church regarding the 2001 military campaign in Afghanistan, and the reactions of some members of the congregation. Specifically, the hard-core Progressive position (as illustrated by our former minister) seems to have been that no matter how careful the US military was, any innocent casualties resulting from US military operations are an unforgivable moral crime, but under no circumstances does the US ever get credit for saving lives. It doesn't matter how severe a humanitarian disaster Afghanistan was facing in the winter of 2001-2002, and how many thousands of lives were expected to be lost due to the perverse actions of the Taliban. The US military's sins of commission get a weighting factor of 1 (no consideration for mitigating circumstances), and its sins of ommission get a weighting factor of 0. Similar considerations apply regarding political murders, the effects of sanctions, and other human rights abuses in Saddam's Iraq (as illustrated, for example, by the apparent majority opinion of the church men's group that I have lunch with on Thursdays).
I can understand why Libertarianism has this problem, but it seems to me that the hard-core Progressives are being internally inconsistent.
Peter A. Taylor