Good Feds, Bad States

I think most libertarians would agree that the gradual erosion of individual liberties in America has been linked to the expansion of the Federal government beyond its Constitutional bounds.  The growth of the central government, the story goes, has come at the expense of liberty, and to reclaim our liberties, we must resist this growth, restrain the Feds, and even consider seceding.

One of my intellectual projects of late has been to challenge this idea.  It began when I realized that many of the abuses that critics of government decry — police brutality, asset forfeiture, use of eminent domainoppressive occupational licensingresisting disruptive new business models*, bullying schoolchildren, and so on — are carried out by local and state governments, not the Feds.

My point is not that libertarians are wrong to be wary of an expanding Federal government.  The centralization is real, and a decentralized system has many advantages.  For one, if local governments are oppressive, it’s easier to move across county and state lines than across national borders.  Plus, there’s always the possibility, even if it’s an uphill battle, that the federal government will serve as a check on local tyranny, as illustrated by this recent case.

Which brings me to an important point: part of the problem with simplistic opposition to the Federal government is that, while it may recognize the first point I just mentioned in favor of decentralized government, it ignores the second.  More broadly, it ignores the fact the we *need* a check on local government, because local government is tyrannical.

What concerns me about all this is that people who take simplistic anti-central-government rhetoric too literally develop a theory of the relative roles central and local government play in oppressing us that is to some extent the inverse of the true ratio.  One potential consequence of this mistake is that it makes us complacent to a concrete danger while oversensitizing us to a hypothetical one.  But, more generally, and more detrimentally over the long run, it is simply an incorrect understanding of the world.

Many aren’t opposed to the expansion of the Federal government because they understand the value of a decentralized system of checks and balances, but because they believe that the Federal government is evil in a way that their state or local government is not.  Hence, for many, the appeal of secession.

I think the facts support the proposition that the majority of the oppression we experience in America continues to be perpetrated by local and state government, even as the Federal government grows into a greater threat.  To flesh out this view, I plan to contribute data points to this blog over time.  Consider the links I’ve included above my initial contribution.

*I could have gone with Uber in NYC, but that case doesn’t challenge anyone’s preconceptions.

Vice on the Oath Keepers

Vice has an interesting piece on the Oath Keepers, a militant group whose stated mission is to defend the Constitution (their focus being primarily domestic enemies).  The author, James Pogue, a self-described environmentalist who supports welfare programs, finds the Oath Keepers more open to rational dialogue than perhaps he expected.  They are hospitable to him as he visits one of their camps in the backwoods of Oregon, and he finds that he can even relate to some of their concerns, especially regarding the erosion of civil liberties since 9/11 and the bureaucratization of modern life.  At the same time, Pogue portrays the BLM officials with whom the Oath Keepers are in a standoff as mild, hapless middlemen stuck in an absurd position, not quite the fascist thugs the Oath Keepers make them out to be.

Towards the end, Pogue makes a couple of unreasonable assertions.  He says the Oath Keepers’ “frustrations have been co-opted by a corporatist ideology that has done as much as any government action to bureaucratize and regulate our lives.”  This comes across as a progressive talking point injected awkwardly into an otherwise thoughtful piece.  As for the Oath Keepers’ being “co-opted,” Pogue does mention elsewhere in the article a historical link between the Sagebrush Rebellion (explained in the article) and legislation backed by people like the Koch brothers.  It’s pretty tenuous, but there’s a kernel of truth in it in that the concerns and ideologies of conservatives and libertarians of all stripes overlap.  I don’t see that as any basis for saying that a group of men and women in an Oregon forest have been “co-opted.”  As for the idea that corporations “bureaucratize and regulate our lives,” I would certainly agree that life within corporations tends to be stifling and bureaucratic, but the difference between corporations and the government is that you don’t have to follow a corporation’s HR policies if you live in the wilderness.

In Response to “Thoughts on Immigration”

I second Tom’s thoughts.  Having said that, I’ll quibble with some minor points and hope I’m not misrepresenting his ideas.

Tom asserts that those alarmed by the current wave of refugees into Europe, though they cite the risk of terrorism, are really only “refusing refugees for the sake of refusing refugees.”  I believe most are specifically refusing Muslim refugees.

I’m not here to demonize these folks.  The news out of the Middle East is bad, and an Islamophobe who has made a career of portraying Muslims as bloodthirsty savages could reasonably claim that the Islamic State is stealing his job (let him file a complaint with the Trumpocrats).

It’s too much to ask that any mind process the stories of hundreds of thousands.  In order to hold the idea that “Muslims” are regular folks and that “we” are no different, you have to subscribe to a theory that says so.  This theory holds up very well, but I can understand how someone not starting with that theory, and seeking in good faith information about the wider world, wouldn’t necessarily form it.  Not to disparage reporters (I respect them collectively more than I do any other group of people engaged in a common enterprise), but, “if it bleeds, it leads.”  We hear about the bomb that blew up a packed marketplace in Baghdad; we rarely think — unless we are predisposed to do so — about everything that must be true for a marketplace to be packed.

Thus, in a way, the task of convincing a skeptic that her chances of being blown up by a Syrian refugee are small is similar to that of convincing a person afraid of flying that it’s safer than traveling by car.  Often, those in the latter group concede that you’re probably right, but it doesn’t change their position because their fear isn’t rational in the first place.

We who support an open policy should not be afraid to recognize that there are risks and downsides.  To exaggerate for dramatic effect, a town of 100,000 can’t accept twice as many strangers at once without some friction.  Let’s admit that among the desperate, unwashed masses, many species of criminal must be present (not just terrorists).  This is a cost.  I don’t believe that a deeply liberal society, having earnestly weighed the risks, would choose to turn away a crowd among which are many families, doctors, artists etc, etc, and etc.

I’ll quibble with another point.  Tom echos the common assertion that the US and its allies are ultimately responsible for what drove the refugees from their homes (so, we are obligated to accommodating them).  I also said in my first piece on this subject that “we do bear a share of the responsibility for the present turmoil in the Middle East.”  When writing that, I lingered over “a share”:  Should I emphasize it more?  I couldn’t find the words to strike the right balance, so I decided to err towards downplaying our role.

Yes, our influence in the region has been massively counterproductive, but the forces making life impossible for decent people there are not simply our puppets.  The relationship between our inept politicians and the passion with which Syrians are fighting their compatriots from street to street is as diluted as a homeopathic remedy.  I don’t deny that our bombs harm and kill civilians, but the threat of an Arab being bombed by America is as exaggerated as that of an American being bombed by an Arab.  Americans are many times more likely to shoot up other Americans, just as Arabs are much more likely to kill Arabs.

Let us welcome those who flee the madness.  The violence they flee is simultaneously incarnate in our own society, because it is human.  We need only look into ourselves to realize that it is not alien.  Yes, they are criminals and terrorists.  We are, too.  We have a marvelous legal and economic system, which we buy into.  In my experience and that of many others, they buy into it, too.  You don’t have to look too far into the past to find times when this marvelous framework broke down for us and those closely related to us.  Right now, many from the Middle East are going through such a dark time.  Their vehicle has broken down on the highway; let’s pull over and give them a ride.  We’ll be in their position soon enough.

Should the US accept more Syrian refugees?

Obama is reportedly set to propose allowing 5,000 more refugees into the US than the current annual limit of 70,000.  To put those numbers in perspective, Germany, whose population is a quarter of ours, is projected to accept 800,000 this year.

I think we should accept several hundred thousand, too.  We do bear a share of the responsibility for the present turmoil in the Middle East, and welcoming more refugees would be great PR, which is the best way to fight terrorism.  I still have a romantic notion of the US as a place that welcomes the world’s downtrodden, even if the numbers cited above and many other facts contradict that idea.  I also like to think of the US as a place where you’re guaranteed nothing but that you’ll be left alone, although that is certainly no longer the case.  So, maybe much of my appeal is based on a version of America that no longer exists, but it’s one that I’d like to see recreated, and welcoming refugees (and immigrants) is an important part of that America.

Besides, even The Donald would open the gates of his wall for them.