David Brooks doesn't often occur to me, but he occured to Radley Balko, who has either ruined or brightened this rainy Sunday morning by telling me that Brooks has gazed Westward 'cross the continent to find, at last, a battle-cry for the coming decades:
SECURITY LEADS TO FREEDOMAnd I think that but for the absence of a burly, mustachioed leader-icon to gaze out from the poster above the bold text of that slogan, he's really onto something.
If you, like me, first discovered libertarianism through your adolescent reading of Ayn Rand, the Lucia di Lammermoor of anti-collectivism, then you'll surely also remember how the bright shine of genius on her novels began to tarnish when you realized the basic hokum of the setup. Here was a gal who claimed artistic lineage from Victor Hugo, but Hugo gave us Javert, while Rand could only manage Ellsworth Toohey. Rand did, in other words, what most mediocre writers do: she rigged the deck in favor of her heros, but she did it clumsily, without even trying to distract you from the mechanics of the cheat.
And yet I'm slowly coming to re-revise my estimation of that writing, if only because the current cast of characters tracks so closely in type to the goofy collectivists haunting the smart salons of The Fountainhead and the tony boardrooms of Atlas Shrugged. This doesn't diminish the operatic goofiness of her works taken as whole and organic, but damned if it doesn't diminish my willingness to sneer at her as a mere caricaturist. "Security leads to freedom," you see.
Now this is why we hopeless Utopians of Libertaria are always ragging on the New Deal and "the Welfare State": because there, too, lies an ideology that security is a precondition to liberty. Instead of security from being fwightened on an aiwpwane, it's "economic security," the idea being that a man who has trouble putting food on the table is unable to truly call himself free, with the choice that freedom implies so curtailed by the strictures of necessity. (How dependence on state services for the acquisition of basic necessities is a positive increase in freedom is another question.) I should say, in fact, that I am not particularly dogmatic on this point, and I see no reason why a society that achieves a reasonably high level of wealth can't pinch off a few pennies to "Remember the Neediest," as goes that strange tagline appearing mysteriously in the print version of the Times. It certainly beats spending it on killing Arabs and giving tanks to riot police.
But let's be plain: the political affiliations currently called "liberal" in the United States are predicated on a much more robust state sector than the mere provision of basic shelter, basic medical care, and basic nutrition. They object to the idea that life should be at all precarious in this, the greatest nation in the country, and are willing to oblige the government with all sorts of coercive powers in order to achieve those ends. The political affiliations currently called "conservative" in the United States are, it turns out, predicated on precisely the same assumptions: it's just that their programatic emphases are different, especially when it comes to the value of pure physical versus economic security. Either way, both affirm a positively Napoleonic centrality of the state as the guarantor of "liberty through security." And the public advocates of these ideas, liberal or conservative, Paul Krugman or David Brooks, share equally another false premise, which is that their selfsame ideologies, when practiced, hold some sort of charm against abuse by the sorts of people who acquire power, because their people aren't like the sorts of people who acquire power, even when they do.
Of course that's not the case, and not only because of the old Actonian warnings about the corruptions of power, but also because the exercise of increased state power also requires an increase in the size of the state, and it's easy to see how institutional imperatives in large bureaucracies quickly and inexorably transform into institutional efforts at self-preservation and self-justification. To get more money for your department, it has to do more. And so on.
Even libertarians admit that some very basic security is necessary for personal liberty--protection of the person from violence and of property from expropriation. I admit that I am increasingly skeptical even of this hedged bet, and increasingly sympathetic to fellows like Crispin Sartwell who argue against the state in its entirety. There's a certain consolation in that belief--knowing that it can never happen in your lifetime allows the avoidance of certain questions about what exactly it would mean to live without security. Because "security" is conceptually tied up with the state alone--what families, clans, kinship networks provide each other is something else altogether. Perhaps liberty loses meaning without the state as well. Perhaps it, too, is the wrong ideal to emphasize.