Sunday, November 11, 2012

Government furnishes our freedoms

Ironically, anarchy is the state of least freedom, since our freedoms come from politics & organization.

I was reading a book all about how terrible our federal deficits / debt are, by the eminent economist Simon Johnson, (which may come up in a future blog), when he made a trenchant, if tangential, point worth repeating: that much, or even most, of what we value government for is how it increases our freedoms.

We have been taken over in the last few decades by the paranoid psychosis of the right- that the government is always bad- is sending in the black helicopters to take away our guns, and is stealing our money for its nefarious socialist plots and trilateral commissions to make the whole world a Stalinist gulag.

And obviously some governments are indeed bad. Vigilence against overreach is a constant duty. Our bill of rights and whole constitutional process was a bit obsessed by this ideology, making a great show of granting various rights and constraining the capacity and institutions of the government lest they impinge on our "natural freedoms".

But how are our freedoms natural? With all due respect to the French revolution and its animating characters & philosophies, the state of nature is anarchic chaos where the strong may have some freedom, but only until they meet someone stronger. It is a non-state of no rights where predation is the law of the land. Rights only appear when the sufferers of predation band together to demand freedoms they desire, as the nobles under King John demanded in the Magna Carta. No state, no rights.

So the conflict at work in our contemporary right-left divide is perhaps more accurately seen as a contest not about freedom in some abstract sense, but about who is to be free- the predator or the prey? Are corporations to be free to despoil our common bequests? Are corporations to be free to abuse their workers? Are corporations to be free to gain monopolies and abuse their customers? The whole notion of a business plan typically revolves around some way to corner a market with some predatory intent, whether that is through patented innovation, through defacto monopolies like the cable industry, through the closed ecosystems our smart phone makers create, through legal intimidation or under-paying labor, or the like. The financial industry is a study in predation brought to high art, especially in the sub-prime debacle, which appears to have sucked wealth from the bottom of the economic ladder with startling effectiveness:

There are many kinds of freedom- freedom to have a voice, a vote, a job with income, the freedom to change jobs, to health care at reasonable cost, from unwarranted surveillance and intrusion, to practice religion or not, from theft and fraud, to breathe decent air, from fear of foreign invasion, to get an education, and many, many others. In our society, corporations are some of the primary destroyers of many of these forms of freedom, and government (i.e. our society by virtue of conscious moral decisions and communal organization) their originator and prime protector. Even while they are themselves creations of the state and dependent on its legal system, corporations bring enormous fire-power to bear in their predatory fights against each other and against the rest of us, battering down regulations and personal freedoms (think of, say, Facebook) for profit.

That is one reason the election went the way it did. The Republican convention was surreal in its relentless vaunting of freedom for the business and especially the business owner. All hail Mr. Potter! They did not seem to grasp that this might not paint the warm and cuddly image they imagined, but one of class war, where they were aligned, with their exemplary candidate, on the losing side.

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