The month of August 2014 came near to producing the libertarian ideal — next-to-no government. Some might argue that August favored the anarchist ideal — no government at all; nothing going on at the highest levels, what with Congress out of town and the President on the golf course.
Ah, good, somnolent days reminiscent of Augusts in the Taft era: fireflies, lemonade, front porches, the distant scritch-scratch of a Victor phonograph emitting “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” There being just one problem: During August 2014, much of the world appeared to be falling apart — Ukraine, Israel, Gaza, Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Christians getting run out of their historic homelands, Americans getting their heads cut off; the country’s borders conspicuously unsecured; stuff like that. And no one was doing much about it. Certainly not the President, who clearly had other things on his mind, such as raising money for fellow Democrats and, naturally, turning up for his tee time.
The virtual disappearance of the Obama administration during the awful weeks just past is a summons to deeper thinking, in the political science mode, than most of us have gone in for in a very, very long while.
The question of what we want from government, and what government should logically do for us, could use the intelligent airing it likely won’t get in the age of talk radio, Twitter, and tossed-off slogans.
Government is a thing we too often praise or denounce without reflecting on what we’re saying when we praise or denounce it. The habit into which we have fallen — that of excoriating or ridiculing our political adversaries — rarely invites reflection on what kind of government we want and what kind we shouldn’t want at all.
“Progressives,” as liberals nowadays call themselves, see government as a device for enforcing their cultural and economic preferences: redistribution of income, same-sex marriage, a spirit of laissez faire toward all other countries, including enemies. Libertarians agree on letting just about everybody alone, here as well as abroad. Conservatives find it hard to communicate exactly what they’re trying to conserve, apart from a spirit of reverence for the deeds of the Reagan administration.
Politicians of all persuasions, once elected, discover supreme importance lies in their own reelection. They need to continue doing what they’re doing. Whatever it is.
August 2014 suggests the need for talking loudly and forcefully about the ancient role of government as protector of its citizens’ lives and well-being. Americans who find nothing alarming in Barack Obama’s foreign policy defaults have their heads in the sand. What happens abroad isn’t likely to stay abroad; this includes the self-shaming of a White House too weak or confused or unconcerned about events to do much besides make speeches. A country perceived as internally feeble, despite its external strength, is going to get repeatedly clobbered: with sorrowful effects on the daily calm and order to which citizens of a free country are entitled.
A cardinal — and wholly legitimate — purpose of government is the maintenance of a climate in which justice, fairness, and honest human endeavor can flourish. Libertarians sometimes seem to think such matters will take care of themselves, absent government interference. What historical precedents there might be for such a belief we never quite hear over the rhetorical hum. What historical precedents there might be for the opposite view — that presidents and politicians in general will give us all we really need (whether or not we know it!) — is a matter similarly vague.
It might have been nice in August 2014, with mid-term elections looming and presidential campaigns gearing up, to address considerations of this sort. But you don’t lay out such meditations in a Twitter post or in a call to your favorite talk show host.
Never mind. Americans may have learned one lacerating lesson during their government’s holiday month; to wit, If you get elected to govern, then in the name of all that’s holy, you’d better govern. The safety of the country demands it. Liberty demands it.
Even the voters — sometimes coyly called The People — understand keenly that no other theory works.
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