Tuesday, January 4, 2022

The Absence of Government Is Not Freedom

I have considerable sympathy for Libertarians. Maybe it's my New Hampshire roots, but I don't have limitless faith in government's ability to do stuff well. But Libertarians and the Free Market crowd are, I think, critically wrong in one respect.

The argument is that removing government and its ability to impose its will by force would bring about greater freedom, that the playing field would be level if not for the heavy hand of government regulation.

But the absence of one source of power simply advantages other sources of power. With government, but even more so without, your access to "freedom" and "choice" is directly related to how much money and power you have. If you are poor and powerless, the blessings of freedom are somehow not so available to you--your choices about where to live, what to eat, how to get around, are all limited.

I've had conversations with local Libertarians (nice guys, pleasant people, good neighbors) who explained that, for instance, that courts and government would be necessary for simple protections. So, for instance, if a big company was dumping toxic waste in your back yard, you could take them to court for violating the law and be protected that way. But that's a fantasy-- it would be you and the lawyer you could afford against the high-powered gazillion dollar law firm. We know how this kind of suit works out, because the two sides do not have equal power. 

For some (I'm thinking Betsy DeVos style conservatives) the justification for this is simple--the belief that it is natural and normal for people to arrive at different stations, different levels of power and money, and that such sorting is a direct result of their own efforts and virtue (effort itself being one such virtue). In other words, rich or poor, you are where you deserve to be. In this view, government efforts to lift up the poor literally fly in the face of nature. Sometimes this is tied to American exceptionalism and the idea that the US is the one place where anyone can achieve anything (with an asterisk indicating that, yes, there were a few bugs in that system but we fixed those in the Civil War and the civil rights movement of the 1960s and it's all okay now). 

So for some, it's a matter of "Yes, there is inequality, and that's a feature, not a bug."

For others, it's not that inequality is good or okay, but it can be fixed with more freedom from government mucking about. And maybe--maybe--if there were a magic reset button that put everyone back to an even start, such a thing could be sort of true kind of maybe. Okay, I'm skeptical, but let's move on because it doesn't matter because there is no reset button. If the government were shrunken and drowned in a bathtub tomorrow, massive inequality would still be in place, and vast amounts of power and wealth would be employed to maintain vast amounts of power and wealth. Not freedom.

Somebody always has power. Always. Regardless of the system, the time, the rules. The field is always tilted, and somebody always has the advantage. There is no system that negates this reality.

Part of the genius of the American experiment it is structured largely around the counter-balance against power rather than the assignment and use of it. The Declaration talks about the human rights that are to be protected against whatever threatens them. The Constitution seeks to use checks and balances to keep power from accumulating on one corner of the playing field.

The government's earliest stated job was to protect those without power from those that have it. The mistake of modern hard-right thought is to say, "This fence is keeping all you sheep penned up; we need to get rid of it so that you are free," imagining that the freedom to become a buffet for various predators is somehow a step forward.

Some hard right folks have never quite worked out how this should work. I always believed that Betsy DeVos really did believe that students with special needs, among others, should not be let down. I even believe that she doesn't think education should harbor racism. But she also firmly believed that government should never step in to enforce any such rules, and so she's left stuck in some world where people with power should willingly give up some of their power even though nobody is going to say boo if they don't.

Similarly, free marketeers talk as if they believe that if we take away rules and regulations, the free market will bloom and every parent will have a multitude of choices for their child. There is no reason to believe this is true. People with power and money will have the choices they want. People without power and money will not. People will, as is usually the case, have as much choice and freedom as they can afford to pay for. The market, to the extent that it is unregulated, will be filled with charlatans and fraudsters, and parents, lacking the power that comes with information or the oversight of someone with more power than one parent with a tiny voucher--those parents will be at the mercy of the people who have the power in the marketplace--the vendors. They will have the freedom of leaves on a heaving ocean.

Can government step too far, exert too much overreach, exert too much power in its attempt to counter power? Absolutely, and we can talk about that another day. But it does not follow that the only restriction on a person's freedom is the government. Freedom can be, is, and always has been, restricted by people with more power than you have. Setting government oversight aside is simply abandoning the people without power to the mercies of those who have it.

If there's anything I keep coming back to in education (and most all other issues) it's that balance and tension are everything. It is never a matter of finding the right setting for the machinery of the world and welding it in place; it is always a matter of balancing different opposing forces, straining against each other on a field that is balanced on a pin in the midst of a raging, changing wind. To imagine that banishing government from that field will somehow yield stability and a greater good is a fantasy.

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