Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Village Idiot

The Wall Street Journal's editorial page keeps columnist Thomas Frank on board to serve as a sort of court jester: he's the liberal whose arguments are so stupid they make conservative arguments look brilliant. He's there as the village idiot, who makes every one else on the page look good in comparison.

Yesterday he delivered on both counts.

His piece bemoans the fact that the left has meekly surrendered the mantle of the freedom fighter to the right, even though, according to Frank, liberals, statists and collectivists are the true freedom fighters in this society. The founding fathers were wrong, he says; it's just not true that expansive government is a threat to freedom. For support, he cites no less an authority than the painter Norman Rockwell. His other authority is of course Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose "Four Freedoms" established the predicate for the nanny state we live under today.

You'll want to read the whole piece, for the same reason you gawk at car wrecks. But here are the key passages:

"Any increase in the size or duties of government, the right tells us, necessarily subtracts from our freedom. Government is, by its very nature, a destroyer of liberties; the Obama administration, specifically, is promising to interfere with the economy and the health-care system so profoundly that Washington will soon have us all in chains.

"What we're going to end up with is higher taxes, bigger government and less freedom for the American people," House Republican Leader John Boehner said on Fox News in July. "We're going to have a real fight for how much freedom we're going to have left in America." . . .

. . . That our ancestors could ever have understood freedom as something greater than the absence of the state would probably strike protesters as inconceivable. But they did. You can see it in that famous Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving painting from 1943: "Freedom from Want," an illustration of one of Franklin Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms." Strange though it might sound, this is a form of freedom that pretty much requires government to get involved in the economy in order to "secure to every nation," as Roosevelt put it, "a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants." The idea is still enshrined today in the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights" . . .

. . . Conservatives of the 1930s, led by an upper-crust outfit called the American Liberty League, certainly felt that way. "That Roosevelt was a dictator there was no doubt; but Liberty Leaguers were not quite sure what kind," wrote the historian George Wolfskill in "The Revolt of the Conservatives," a 1962 study of that organization. "Some thought he was a fascist, others believed him a socialist or Communist, while others, to be absolutely sure, said he was both."

Today, of course, we know that the right's tyranny-fears were nonsense. Most of Roosevelt's innovations have been the law of the land for 70 years now, and yet we are still a free society free enough, that is, to allow tens of thousands of protesters to gather on the National Mall and to broadcast their slogans and speeches to the world via C-SPAN.

Even such pits of statism as Britain and Canada remain free societies, generally speaking, despite having gone skipping blithely down the universal-health-care road to serfdom decades ago. For the sort of people who gathered on the Mall last weekend, however, I doubt that such observations would matter in the least. Their conception of freedom soars on by a force all its own, carried aloft on the wings of pure abstract reasoning: Government intervention equals tyranny. Liberalism is forever a form of despotism-in-waiting."

Most American "ancestors" who predate the 1930s did in fact define freedom, in part, as the "absence of the state," which is why American government was designed to be strictly limited in power. And I could fill this post with quotes, citations and evidence to back that up. But for leftists, like Frank, American history begins not at the founding, but in the Roosevelt era. That's as far back in American history as they dare delve, in search of rationales for the superstate.

I happen to believe Americans have become less free since the New Deal, if one defines freedom not just as having the right to march on Washington to protest ObamaCare (Frank's emasculated definition of "freedom"), but the freedom from dependency on government programs and largess, which tends over time to make one an indentured servant (if not a slave) of the state. It's our independence -- meaning independence from state interference and state coercion and co-option -- that's been eroded as the size, power, appetite and mission of the mega-state grows. There's no denying it's grown significantly since the 1930.

Construction of the mega-state has gone on under both Democrat and Republican regimes. What Obama is doing is the logical extension of the trajectory the country had been traveling for decades. But the changes until now were too incremental to stir more than minor rebellion. The accelerated pace of Barack Obama's Great Leap Forward -- his fevered rush to finish the edifice Roosevelt laid the foundations for -- has jarred many American awake to the trap into which they've sleepily wandered. And that, not racism or embittered partisanship, is at the root of the ObamaCare backlash and tea party movement.

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