Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Book Review: By the People

The terms ultraright and ultraleft are not symmetric concepts.

Ultraright typically denotes neo-fascist groups, such as Golden Dawn, or France's National Front. The closest American analog might be whatever it is that surrounds David Duke. I have no kinship with these groups. I believe in individual liberty and small government--ultrarights instead assert the fascist meme: We're poor because the foreigners stole all the money. A synonym for ultraright might be far right.

Ultraleft is a more technical term of art, described by Lenin in his famous book "Left-Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder. Ultraleftism, far from being a different ideology than mainstream Marxism, instead differs primarily on tactics. Ultraleftists favor terrorism or direct action instead of basic political work. People whose idea of political action is to trash Seattle during trade agreement meetings are ultraleftists. Insofar as it had any political content, the Occupy movement was ultraleftist.

The ur-ultraleftist was Lenin's brother, who was executed for an assassination attempt against the czar. In response to that searing event, Lenin rejected terrorism as a tactic, and indeed, for most of his life opposed political violence altogether. Not because he was a pacifist, but because he thought it was ineffective. In this he agreed with Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

The key point is that, unlike my principled disagreement with ultrarightists, the mainstream far Left is distinguished from the ultraleft only by tactics. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) of my day agreed with groups like the Weathermen and SDS in terms of outcome--a socialist revolution is necessary to overthrow capitalism and to create a better world. But we radically rejected their tactics, which we viewed as not merely ineffective, but downright counterproductive.

More tendentiously, the SWP expanded the definition of ultraleft to include the silly sectarian groups, e.g., the Spartacist League. While they didn't advocate violence or terrorism, they also wanted to short circuit the hard political work of building a revolutionary Party. They'd come to antiwar demonstrations carrying banners proclaiming Socialist Revolution Now, as though that were realistic. (Not that the SWP was any more realistic, but back in the day we thought we were.)

So now comes Charles Murray with his marvelous little book entitled By the People. It is addressed to those of us in the Conservative/Libertarian movement who Murray dubs Madisonians, and presents a tactical way forward for our movement. Mr. Murray's book is one of several that have appeared recently, including Kurt Schlichter's Conservative Insurgency (which I reviewed here), and Charles C.W. Cooke's The Conservatarian Manifesto.

To compare these books, I'd like to redefine the term ultraright in a Leninist sense, to be symmetric with ultraleft. That is, an ultrarightist is a person who subscribes to Madisonian ideals, but who advocates radical, uncompromising (stupid) tactics in the pursuit of those ideals. By this definition the neo-fascist groups are excluded because they are not Madisonians. We don't include by the term wackos like Timothy McVeigh, or the racist militias that supposedly occupy northern Idaho.

A synonym for ultraright (in our Leninist sense) might be Breitbartism, after the late Andrew Breitbart.

The first obvious point is that nobody on the ultraright subscribes to terrorism as a tactic. There is no Madisonian analog to the Weather Underground or SDS. Even the Tea Party fringe, represented by Glenn Beck's Taxpayer March on Washington that drew as many as half a million people, was extraordinarily orderly, to the point of cleaning up after themselves after the march was over. Try as they might, the Leftist media couldn't pin terrorism on the Tea Party, apart from a few ill-chosen signs in defense of the Second Amendment.

So that leaves only the sectarians--i.e., people who demand an instantaneous return to a Constitutional order. This is the Madisonian analog to the Spartacist League. These people are preaching to the choir. They inspire us Madisonians--who among us cannot warm to Sarah Palin's oratory or Andrew Breitbart's courage? But at the end of the day we're only 20% of the electorate. We can't win without finding allies outside of our movement.

And that is the message of Mr. Murray's book. His is a polemic against the ultraright (again, in our Leninist definition). He argues persuasively that Constitutional Governance Now is not a practical or reasonable demand. Too much has changed, both in our society and in the world.

For example, Social Security is manifestly unconstitutional. The enumerated powers of Congress does not permit the establishment of a Social Security system. And yet in a country where life expectancy is now 80 years, and human beings who are not capable of planning that far into the future, something like Social Security is inevitable. Mr. Murray suggests that FDR could have asked for a constitutional amendment, similar to what was done for the income tax or prohibition. That would have been a good idea. But today it is simply impossible to roll back Social Security, along with all the unconstitutional precedents it established.

Similarly, the abolition of the regulatory state is impossible. There are too many institutional barriers to dismantling the EPA, OSHA, and the EEOC, ranging from corporate stakeholders, corrupt politicians (in both parties), a sclerotic court system, and an army of lobbyists. The Constitution as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson envisioned it is gone and buried, never to come back in its original form.

While I think Mr. Murray is too pessimistic, he is certainly correct in saying that electing, say, Ted Cruz as president is not going to make any difference. The problem is both more difficult and more complicated than that. What is required, instead, is something more...Leninist...for lack of a better word. Mr. Murray's strategy has three legs.

  • Compromise. We will have to come to terms with those aspects of the nanny/regulatory state that make sense. This includes Social Security, and some bits of the EPA, etc.
  • Alliances. We will have to find points of agreement with non-Madisonians. We can, for example, unite with Liberals on certain states rights issues, e.g., drug legalization.
  • Discipline. We will need to pick our battles very carefully. Mr. Murray proposes a form of lawfare, but one where the targets are very carefully chosen. For example, he excludes a battle against the tax regime, first because the income tax is constitutional, and second because it reduces our cause to pecuniary issues.
The ultraright approach is represented by Kurt Schlichter's book, Conservative Insurgency. Mr. Schlichter proposes a take-no-prisoners approach that would work wonderfully if we Madisonians were in fact a majority of the population. But since we're not and likely never will be, this is just wishful thinking.

In my review of Mr. Schlichter's book I argued why I believe the welfare state has to grow. I am not in favor of a growing welfare state, but I predict that it will happen. I mention this because Mr. Murray shares my analysis--modern technology will render large numbers of people unemployable. Madisonians have to come to terms with this reality, as unpleasant as it may be.

Oddly, Mr. Murray barely mentions immigration issues. I support relatively free immigration. Mr. Schlichter opposes it, as does Mr. Cooke. I am sympathetic to their arguments, nor do I doubt their Madisonian bonafides. But I will point out that fascist groups (we're poor because the foreigners stole all the money) all oppose immigration, mostly for racist reasons. Unfortunately, arguing against immigration allies us with people I don't want to be allied with, which is one of the many reasons I am pro-immigrant. I surmise that Mr. Murray shares my concern.

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