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Friday, October 1, 2010

Extremism in Defense of Liberty

At the end of my last post, I referenced Barry Goldwater's statement that "Extremism in Defense of Liberty is no Vice", indicated that I agreed , but conditioned that agreement on how one defines both "extremism" and "liberty".

Initial caveat-these definitions depend on one's political environment.  "Liberty" to someone living in China or Myanmar today may mean something different than what I consider "liberty" for me as a citizen of modern America.  Similarly, the level of "extremism" justifiable to obtain that liberty may depend on the time and place, and, particularly on the presence or absence of other, less "extreme" vehicles for change (think America in 1776).

I'm actually going to start with "liberty" because I think that what I mean by "liberty" affects what I view as "extremism".  Okay, my general rule (and there are certainly exceptions) is that "liberty" is the right to be left alone to run my own life.  More specifically, it involves the right to be different: to worship a different God (or none at all), to read different books, to have a weird haircut, to choose my job, my TV program, my sex life, to decide (with my wife) whether to seek children, to raise my children (within certain limits, and no, the kids do not have the same rights), whatever.  Of course there are limits-essentially "my freedom to swing my arm ends at the tip of your nose".  In this context, I would note that your "nose" may be economic (both armed robbery and securities fraud are no-no's), or relate to your reputation or property.  It may also, in limited cases, involve government protection of my children's noses or the general public's noses (immunization requirements, food plant inspections).  It may require me to do things to protect our collective noses (taxes, formerly the draft).   The next part of "liberty" is that the government will protect me and my liberty, through the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment(and my nose and my children's noses) from others, even if they are in a majority. who want to make me do something I don't want to do (school prayer, anyone?). 

My Libertarian friends wil no doubt point out that I have just created an exception or exceptions that can (and they believe already have) swallow my "left alone" rule.  Maybe. But it starts with the presumption that my government will let me live my own life, and keep others from controlling me.

This "leave me alone" approach  does lead to some tricky philosphical issues.  One of them was raised by Rand Paul - about the public accommodations rules of the 1964 Civil Rights Act ,and the fact that it compelled people to use or not use their private property in specific ways.  Another is zoning laws in general, and the tendency of upscale neigbors and local governments to tell you that you had damn well better keep your lawn mowed and your Winnebago out of your driveway.  I'm actually pretty comfortable with the current tension/balance that seems to exist between a government wanting to "protect" other people from me or somehow promote the general welfare, and my fellow citizens who really don't like things like zoning and eminent domain laws in principle. [I'm not a Libertarian, but I'm glad they are around]  We do elect our governments, however, and, usually, they don't seem inclined to step into my life without some reason. Some (I suspect most) of my fellow citizens disagree;  some want the Government to do more; others want the Government to butt out.  However, I believe that the starting point has to be that the individual adult citizen is in charge of his or her own life.

Is this "license"?  Yeah, kind of.  But let me hasten to add that the right to live my own life does not automatically carry with it the right to have my fellow citizens pay for my choices.  They (or we) may choose to pay, whether it be in the form of student loans or drug treatment programs or medicaid.  [Here is one place where I break with some of my liberal brethern.] However, I don't think anyone has a "right" to publically funded medical care or a place to live or an abortion.  As a liberal, I strongly believe that we should, as both a civic and moral choice, use our hard earned dollars to pay, via our taxes and Government, for our fellow citizens' needs in some cases.  [the fact that I would pay lots of money in lots of cases and that I think taxes and the Government are the appropriate vehicle to do so is , in my opinion, one of the things that makes me a "liberal"] But it's our collective political choice; not anyone's "right" to a free lunch.

Another thing that makes me a liberal is that I think "leave me alone" logically leads to two other critical principles of "Liberty":  the free marketplace of ideas, and the acceptance of a pluralistic society with all sorts of different people, who may or may not form themselves into groups we don't like.  Of course this leads to the problem of dealing with a person or group that does not believe either in the free marketplace of ideas or pluralism. [Islamic fundamentalists, anyone?]  For a longer discussion of this question, I refer the reader  to my Sept. 30, 2010 Post, titled "To What Extent Should a Tolerant Society Tolerate Intolerance"?

Finally, I think "Liberty" includes the right of we, the people, as a group, to decide our fate. Yes I know there is a potential contradiction between this and my other points.  My brother (who I seem to be quoting a lot- he is both (probably) crazy and certainly very smart) made this point  about 20 years ago.  We were discussing the fall of the Communist dictatorship in Rumania.  I said something about this being a triumph of freedom.  Joe said, "Jeffrey, don't forget that while you think of "freedom" as including the Bill of Rights, a lot of Rumanians think 'freedom" means the freedom to kill the Hungarians living in Rumania.".  We all continue to learn that democracy and self-determination sometimes comes up withthings like, for example, Hamas in Gaza.  Still, "Liberty" to me includes self determination as well as pluralism and my initial points.

Anyway, that's my definition of "Liberty":  controlling my own life, "us" controlling our own governments, the free marketplace of ideas, and the acceptance of a pluralistic society.

So, given "Liberty", how "extreme" can/should we get.  Remember, this is for us, in the United States, now. Because we have lots of "legitimate" and non-violent ways of trying to convince others to join us, and because we elect our executives, legislators and judges or those who appoint them, we are morally limited. The "Government" is not some strange entity, imposed on us by an alien race.  We made the Damn rules, we have to live with them or change them (within the rules).  I think that every single citizen can find at least a few laws or rules (or entire branches of government) he or she thinks are incredibly stupid, or even actively evil.  I know I can. 

As I said in a previous Post, advocating almost anything in the sense of political action that does not involve illegal acts is OK, because my view of "Liberty" includes both the free marketplace of ideas and pluralism. You want to vote against a candidate based up a single issue?  OK.  (I, for one, plan to vote against anyone who attacks the proposed Islamic Cultural Center in New York because I view such a position as being a direct attack on my view of Liberty, and also on what I perceive to be central American values). You want to call for repeal of part of (or all!) of the 14th Amendment? OK.  Vote for raising taxes?  OK.  Vote for lowering taxes?  OK. You want to call for a fence between us and Mexico?  OK. But, you want to publish the home addresses and pictures of cartoonists who draw pictures of Mohammed or of Doctors who perform abortions?  Not OK.  Non-violent civil disobedience (yes, breaking the law) is also legitimate, even if extreme (of course, you may have to be willing to go to jail).  Buying guns?  OK.  Using them (at least right now)?  Not OK. Not paying taxes?  Not OK. For me, perhaps the ultimate extreme act would be to emigrate, which the government should always allow. 


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