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Jan 23, 2014

Modern Liberalism and the Paternalism of Things

In America, Big Brother watches because he cares. And caring—at all costs—is the very stuff of modern liberalism.

Will Wilkinson - a former Cato colleague who now calls himself simply a liberal - recently offered a rich, complex post protesting that the surveillance state and liberalism are philosophically incompatible.

If you’re a liberal, he writes, you should oppose the surveillance state, because it’s illiberal. Sadly, though, there’s a teensy little problem: That kind of opposition looks suspiciously libertarian. Which makes it poisonous:

[T]he actually-existing, so-called liberal state is impossible to justify on the mundane liberal terms most intellectuals claim to accept. But this is generally overlooked, and I blame libertarianism. Not really. I blame confused liberals. Libertarianism has only antagonized them into confusion.

Libertarianism, as it’s generally taught and understood, isn’t a philosophy of government so much as an argument against the possibility of legitimate government. Libertarians tend to reject standard justifications of political authority. Liberals, who wish to defend the possibility of a legitimate state, have become accustomed to rebutting such libertarian arguments. Of course, it’s crazily illogical to reason that the actually existing state is justified on liberal terms just because the libertarian critique of the state is false, and a legitimate liberal state is possible. That’s really silly. Yet I feel like I’m running into this sort of reasoning all the time. There’s something about the libertarian-liberal dialectic that leads liberals to confuse the identification of the illegitimate, illiberal practices of the actually-existing state with the libertarian argument against the very possibility of legitimate state.

Let’s simplify just a bit.

Modern liberals have trouble thinking logically about politics. That’s not necessarily to their shame; indeed, we all have that problem. But as a result of one particular failure in modern-liberal logic, libertarians make it hard for modern liberals to be true to themselves.

A world without libertarians, Will seems to suggest, would be one in which liberals would feel blessedly free to oppose the surveillance state. Given the left’s vastly greater institutional power, it might even be a world in which the surveillance state was definitively reformed.

My fellow libertarians, perhaps it’s our fault that this hasn’t happened yet. Because we weren’t nicer to liberals. (But not really, because he’s just kidding, of course!) 

Kidding or not, this seems off to me. Sure, some modern liberals – like Sean Wilentz – have argued that libertarianism is a Very Bad Thing, and that the enemy of my enemy must be my friend, even if my newfound friend is the shadowy guy in the heart of the panopticon

But I think that for many modern liberals the reality is much simpler. They like the surveillance state because modern liberalism sooner or later requires it.

If it wants to succeed, or if it even wants to be taken seriously in many of the claims that it makes, modern, paternalistic liberalism requires watching people. A lot. The state must watch so that we the people don’t violate any the tens of thousands of rules in the Federal Register. The state must watch so that we exercise and eat properly. The state must watch so that no one makes a racist joke or fails to serve a wedding cake to a same-sex couple. The state must watch so that we don’t seek alternate medical care or put any otherwise wrong substances in our bodies. The state must watch so that we all comply minutely with every one of the state’s vast array of commands.

Terrorism is an excuse for the surveillance state, but it’s only one of many such excuses. What we’re ultimately headed for might well be called the paternalism of things. Consider this article from the front page of today’s Washington Post:

They will look like two giant white blimps floating high above I-95 in Maryland, perhaps en route to a football game somewhere along the bustling Eastern Seaboard. But their mission will have nothing to do with sports and everything to do with war….

Aerostats deployed by the military at U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan typically carried powerful surveillance cameras as well, to track the movements of suspected insurgents and even U.S. soldiers. When Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales murdered 16 civilians in Kandahar in March 2012, an aerostat above his base captured video of him returning from the slaughter in the early-morning darkness with a rifle in his hand and a shawl over his shoulders.

Defense contractor Raytheon last year touted an exercise in which it outfitted the aerostats planned for deployment in suburban Baltimore with one of the company’s most powerful high-altitude surveillance systems, capable of spotting individual people and vehicles from a distance of many miles.

In America, Big Brother watches because he cares. And caring – at all costs – is the very stuff of modern liberalism. One day a system a lot like the above may care tenderly for all of us, and not only will modern liberals be okay with it, they’ll probably be at the controls.

If Will thinks that liberalism is in tension with the surveillance state, it’s because his liberalism, at least, is still quite classical. I mean that as praise. My own liberalism is classical too, and I know perfectly well that we agree with one another on far more subjects than a reader of this piece might suspect.

In particular we would agree about the government officiously watching over competent adults in all facets of their everyday lives. We would agree that it degrades the watcher and the watched alike. We need to figure out how to govern without it, because we don’t want to live in that panopticon.

But, as libertarians know all too well, the Big Two ideologies of the United States, conservatism and modern liberalism, are both in the short term quite flexible on the question of state power. Many people on both those teams will happily cheer for the expansion of that power – but only when their own side holds the scepter.

Then, when they’re out of power, a miraculous change occurs. Conservatives turn into libertarian deficit hawks. And modern liberals become civil liberties zealots. Meanwhile, those who have power almost always expand it, and someone, at least, always has power. Lather, rinse, repeat.

We libertarians oppose all that. Without apology, exception, or fear. To the extent that it makes the friends of the panopticon mad, I should say they deserve it, whatever ideological label they wear.