Friday, February 13, 2015

Your Neighbor, Big Brother

How can conservatives complain about government intrusiveness when so many of them choose to live in places with neighborhood associations? Seriously, conservatives - especially religious ones - are always in other people's business. Their claim that they "just want to be left alone" would make a cat laugh.

By definition, reactionaries do not love individual liberty or individuality - quite the opposite. The right's libertarian rhetoric is all about ignoring or promoting the tyranny of your neighbors. That is why they want "small government," "states rights," and "local control " - because local governments are more likely to oppress, seek uniformity, and police morality. And when the federal government intervenes by, say, ending Jim Crow laws or legalizing abortion,  they call it "tyranny." How dare these big government bullies not let us bully whomever we like!

Local government's oppressive tendency was acknowledged in our country's founding documents. In Federalist #10, James Madison - who is often called "the Father of the Constitution" - argued that having lots of different political factions and interests often cancel each other out, thereby preventing any one of them from becoming too dominant. Therefore, a bigger country would be freer because it would have more groups. In sum, diversity preserves liberty:

The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression. Extend the sphere, and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.*

As I wrote in my book, it is very difficult to read that Madison quote today and not immediately think of the Civil Rights struggle. Change came once we saw ending Jim Crow as a national responsibility, not a local problem.

Conservatives often forget that there is no right to deny or violate others their rights. Your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose. But the school yard bully cries foul when the teacher pulls him off another kid. And if the bully has a favorite target, it is the kids who are different. To the adult bully, might makes right and "big government" is a meddlesome schoolmarm. Their resentful  "nanny state" rhetoric is not just about being forced to share their toys, but about being punished for hitting. It is about being told, "Be nice to your sister." Whereas "small government" - meaning their government - believes that "boys will be boys." And such boys don't leave others alone. They mess with you. Which is to say they are pretty intrusive.

So when authoritarian conformists who live in gated communities that dictate how tall your grass is wax indignant about government threats to individual liberty, we should probably take it with a grain of salt.

* Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, The Federalist Papers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 54.

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