Sunday, April 18, 2004

The Inevitability of the Communitarian State, or, What's a Libertarian to Do?

What kind of state? Bear with me. To get there (inevitably) we have to reject some useless terminology.

It's obvious that "left" and "right" inadequately capture the subtleties in political ideology. (Calling Stalin and Mao leftists while putting Hitler and Pinochet on the right is as descriptive as parsing shades of white.) "Liberal" and "conservative" are somewhat more meaningful labels, but libertarians always object (rightly) to being lumped with conservatives, who object (rightly) to being lumped with neo-fascists.

The left-right, liberal-conservative taxonomies of the political spectrum fail because they are linear and lacking in subtlety. My alternative is a somewhat more subtle taxonomy with these four major points arrayed on a circular continuum:
• Anarchy -- "might makes right" without an effective state to referee the fight

• Libertarianism -- the minimal state for the protection of life, property, and liberty

• Communitiarianism -- the regulation of private institutions to produce "desirable" outcomes in such realms as income distribution, health, safety, education, and the environment

• Statism -- outright state control of most institutions, reached either as an extension of communitarianism or via post-statist anarchy or near-anarchy, as in Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, and Mao's China.
Think of anarchy, libertarianism, communitarianism, and statism as the North, East, South, and West of a compass. The needle swings mostly from anarchy to statism to communitarianism, and occasionally from communitarianism toward libertarianism, but never very far in that direction.

The tide of communitarianism rose inexorably to engulf the federal government in the aftermath of the Great Depression and World War II. The tide continues to rise, threatening to engulf us in statism. Libertarians, like the sorcerer's apprentice, have been trying futilely to turn the tide with a broom.

Consider the ambitious Free State Project,
a plan in which 20,000 or more liberty-oriented people will move to New Hampshire, where they may work within the political system to reduce the size and scope of government. The success of the Free State Project would likely entail reductions in burdensome taxation and regulation, reforms in state and local law, an end to federal mandates, and a restoration of constitutional federalism, demonstrating the benefits of liberty to the rest of the nation and the world.
The movement has attracted fewer than 6,000 adherents since it began almost three years ago.

The communitarian state is simply too seductive. It co-opts its citizens through progressive corruption: higher spending to curry favor with voting blocs, higher taxes to fund higher spending and to perpetuate the mechanisms of the state, still higher spending, and so on. Each voting bloc insists on sustaining its benefits -- and increasing them at every opportunity -- for one of two reasons. Many voters actually believe that largesse of the communitarian state is free to them, and some of them are right. Other voters know better, but they grab what they can get because others will grab it if they don't.

Communitarianism leads inevitably to statism because the appetite for largesse is insatiable. The resultant statism may be relatively benign, like the statism of pre-Thatcher Britain or today's France and Germany, but it is statism nevertheless.

The good news is that statism is an easier target for reform than communitarianism. The high price of statism becomes obvious to more voters as more facets of economic and personal behavior are controlled by the state. In other words, statism's inherent weakness is that it creates more enemies than communitarianism.

That weakness becomes libertarians' opportunity. Persistent, reasoned eloquence in the cause of liberty may, at last, slow the rise of statism and hasten its rollback. And who knows, perhaps libertarianism will gain adherents as the rollback gains momentum.

If we reach for the stars we may at least rise above the Earth.