Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Timorous Tyrants

The Gitche Gummee Gamut is shutting down. I had sent in one additional column to my editor, so I'll post it here. It's unfortunate that the website didn't last very long. Selfishly, I appreciated the wider audience; and as an exceptionally lazy writer, a weekly deadline proved useful to my productivity.

But there's another reason the event is unfortunate. All politics is and ought to be local. We like to obsess over whichever bozo will take over the executive branch, but aside from ruining everything, a president is mostly useless. On the other hand the local school board can influence the education of the children who reside in the district--at least in theory. Anyone can write editorials about national politics--I know, because I do it. But to cover the minutiae requires diligence and a drive I can only vaguely fathom.

To a large extent, newspapers have abdicated their responsibility to the local communities; their inevitable destruction is well merited. Still, we'll miss something when the newspapers have gone away; it remains far from clear whether or not the Internet can and will fill this void--though my pessimistic prognostication is that it will fail to do so.

Anyway, here's a rosy column to warm your hearts:

"There are three basic ways to win obedience: by force, by buying consent with wealth, and by persuasion. Each of these three leads us to another level (military, economic, or intellectual) outside the political level." - Carroll Quigley, Tragedy and Hope

It should always be remembered, both by the rulers as well as the ruled, that all government depends on the consent of the governed. As our philosophers tell it, this does not require the threat of force, but in the real world, the implicit danger of violence is ever lurking, cajoling the citizenry into handing over consent. If this be doubted, try avoiding paying one's taxes. Unless one is politically well-connected, the government will force the taxpayer to consent to pay every last penny.

Good government tries to rule by persuasion. In the long-run, any other foundation is unstable. This is especially so when it comes to government by force. Maintaining a semblance of order requires drastic action without regard to ethical sensibilities. Thus Robespierre guillotined his fellow countrymen with impunity, and Stalin imprisoned millions of unfortunate "wreckers". Buying consent with wealth may seem a better option, but this too has its drawbacks. The main problem with this approach is that the government has no wealth of its own; anything it attains must be appropriated from the citizenry. Therefore, only a small portion thereof—what Angelo Codevilla dubbed the ruling class—can benefit from the pilfering. Consent bought can only come at the expense of content stolen from someone else. A witty saying of Frederic Bastiat's is relevant here: "The state is that great fiction by which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else."

For a good, which is to say, limited, government, persuasion is not terribly difficult. But if government intends to grow, it must depend on the people remaining ignorant of the harm being done to them. Thus trusting souls may have believed that the bailout of the bankers was for the good of the republic. But while the executives of Goldman-Sachs will no doubt consent to legislation from which they benefit so handsomely, it takes only a little bit of skepticism for the commoner to see that he is no better off than he was before--rather the opposite, probably. From the prospective of those in power, it would have made more sense to have paid off everyone's mortgage. It would also have been cheaper. But the complexities of our fraudulent banking system prevented those who wished to maintain the charade from taking this step. In return for the postponement of a greater recession, the elites gave up an opportunity to reinforce the always shaky consent of the governed.

While we should not discount the prospect of a demagogue rising to give hope to the masses—or, I should say, an effective one, since Obama lacks the gravitas to be a competent demagogue—I want to examine a less obvious route. So long as the people remain insensible to the harm caused to them by their own government, the elites may continue to rule, however tenuously. Hence the need for propaganda, to ensure that the truth must compete against the noble lies of the government. Previously in this space we've examined how the metrics used by the government to gauge the health of the economy have been willfully distorted over time to understate inflation and unemployment and to boost GDP. This is an excellent example of the sort of propaganda which benefits the government.

This approach works well, but for one thing. The Internet has leveled the playing field, reducing the influence of propaganda. These distortions of which I speak have been thoroughly documented on the web. Not for nothing, then, was there talk of an Internet kill switch, recently put into practice, with some success, by the Egyptian authorities during their recent revolution. Hence legislation is again being introduced into the U.S. Senate to inhibit the free exchange of ideas over the web. The supporters of the legislation will no doubt insist that they would only shut down the Internet for reasons of national security. At this point, terrorism is invoked to justify the fondling of children, the torturing of prisoners, the invasion of foreign countries, the indefinite detainment of suspects, as well as other violations of our Constitution, so I'd suggest taking the reasoning with a sizable grain of salt.

As Gary North has pointed out, shutting off the Internet will severely cripple economic productivity. This will cause even more unrest in the masses, so if the Internet is shut off, it will only happen temporarily. Moreover, once the Internet is restored, the threat, such that it is, will reemerge. From the perspective of the rulers, it would be more helpful if the government could simply whisk away a few of the leaders of any potential revolts—PATRIOT ACT them, so to speak, indefinitely. But, as we saw when the government went after Julian Assange of Wikileaks, even this does nothing to obstruct the dissemination of information; that of his organization become readily available on mirror sites all across the world.

I remain very much the pessimist about the future of our country. Conventional wisdom insists that, since the truth is more readily available on the Internet, it will help restore the lost liberty of the people. Yet there is no evidence that people care much for liberty—or truth. There is more than enough information available now to demonstrate the wretchedness of our government. Still, the people remain insensible.

However, in a sense, the revival of the legislation to shut down the Internet is a good sign for libertarians. This is true, not simply because, cut off from a steady supply of pornography and celebrity gossip, the rabble may become roused from its stupor. It is also because the leaders are revealing the extent of their fear of the people. While this may not restrain them from acting against us, it may cause them to overreach. The prospect of a third American revolution is not altogether dim.

No comments: