Party Pooper

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Michael Gerson, formerly George W. Bush's chief speech-writer and, according to Time magazine, one of the nation's "25 Most Influential Evangelicals," declares war on the Tea Party movement (permalink) in his column at the Washington Post.

Predictably for an evangelical, he attacks the movement for not being altruistic and, predictably for an altruist, his attacks are dishonest. Here's an example of both in the two successive paragraphs that essentialize his point and his method of "argument":

First, do you believe that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional? This seems to be the unguarded view of Colorado Republican U.S. Senate candidate Ken Buck and other Tea Party advocates of "constitutionalism." It reflects a conviction that the federal government has only those powers specifically enumerated in the Constitution -- which doesn't mention retirement insurance or health care.

This view is logically consistent -- as well as historically uninformed, morally irresponsible and politically disastrous. The Constitution, in contrast to the Articles of Confederation, granted broad power to the federal government to impose taxes and spend funds to "provide for . . . the general welfare" -- at least if Alexander Hamilton and a number of Supreme Court rulings are to be believed. In practice, Social Security abolition would push perhaps 13 million elderly Americans into destitution, blurring the line between conservative idealism and Social Darwinism. [bold added]
Along the way to accusing advocates of capitalism of throwing old ladies into the streets, Gerson conveniently ignores the fact that if we don't find a way to phase out the massive welfare entitlements we already have (let alone ObamaCare, which his argument supports), we'll all be impoverished (at best) from massive government theft, be it in the form of astronomical taxes or inflation.

Along the way to pretending that the Constitution justifies the welfare state, Gerson fails to mention that "general welfare" is a vague-enough term that "not looting ordinary citizens" could just as well be included, and that, in any event, the institution of slavery was more arguably enshrined in the law of the land at one point. Should we have kept slavery? Or might taxation be yet another mistake we could stand to correct? Clearly, since we can not only interpret the Constitution, but change it as well, neither Buck nor Gerson has made much of an argument here -- although Gerson has made an interesting admission regarding what he feels to be the proper purpose of government.

And finally, along the way to condemning one particular "tea party" candidate, Gerson pretends that this spontaneous revolt against Obama's unambiguous moves towards tyranny is a "political movement" in the same sense that others began "as intellectual arguments." Considering how inconsistent the views of any one such candidate are, this is patently untrue -- but it does allow Gerson to treat the idea of the government protecting individual rights as if it were on a moronic par with, "the collected tweets of Sarah Palin." It also allows him to later pretend that such an idea is as nutty -- and wrong -- as the xenophobia espoused by some "tea party favorites," not to mention the talk by others of rebellion. Oh, and it also allows Gerson to pretend that such thinkers as John Locke never existed.

On some level, Gerson plainly realizes the nature of the tea party as a vaguely pro-individual rights revolt against Obama's undiluted welfare state, but as he makes clear, he wants to keep the welfare state. Game on!

Gerson has now, thanks to Barack Obama, seen the power the federal government can seize, and is prepared to do whatever he can to preserve that opportunity, even if it means grinding out with his heel the last embers of support for the ideals of limited government among the American people. He does this at a time when, instead, he should be helping to properly explain these ideas, and, in doing so, providing the tea partiers some much-needed intellectual ammunition.

-- CAV


Mike said...

Oklahoma congressional candidate R.J. Harris, who was defeated in his primary by a better-funded neocon in July, had an interesting take on "the general welfare." Harris noted that people get so hung up on the term "welfare" and its modern-day connotation that they forget the qualifier "general" means something.

Harris suggests that redistributive government programs are not, in fact, to the general welfare, but are "individual welfare," for which the Constitution does not provide. By contrast, the "general welfare" are those government benefits enjoyed in full by all citizens no matter what their particular activities or livelihoods: military protection, police protection, a functioning court system.

Because of this fundamental misunderstanding, any attempt to roll back the "welfare state" is met, as you noted, with accusations that the right wing is "throwing old ladies into the streets" and that the U.S. is a whisper away from descending into Somalian anarchy. (Somalia is one of the left's favorite memes right now, and stands as their icon of what happens if the benevolent state provides anything less than cradle-to-grave nanny care for all citizens.)

Word verification: "mines" -- self-contained explosive devices that detonate on contact or proximity with another entity. So, yeah.

Gus Van Horn said...

Funny how the left will equate individual rights with anarchy, and point to Somalia, but then ignore a much more apt metaphor for the government plunder they're so enamored of: Zimbabwe.

Harris's interpretation of "general welfare" is quite interesting, but I'd go further and say that welfare benefits don't even benefit individuals in the long run, insofar as they often encourage people to malinvest their time or otherwise fail to develop skills they need, in terms of what a free market will support.

mo said...

yeah the somalia one is very common. if you want absolute freedom go to somalia they say. there is this false dichotomy: either we accept tyranny or its anarchy.

Gus Van Horn said...

On top of that, full-blown tyranny and anarchy are functionally indistinguishable to the individual.

madmax said...

Regarding Somalia, it doesn't help that libertarians themselves push the idea the Somalia represents the ideal of a free society.

With "friends" like these who needs enemies?

mtnrunner2 said...

I have to chuckle when people point out the "inconsistencies" in the Tea Party movement. It's not like they have a test you must score 90% on to be admitted. Who said it was consistent to begin with? It's a loose collection of people claiming to advocate limited government.

Gerson may be better than Republicans at pointing out inconsistencies between the Tea Party and the GOP platform. He's right; freedom DOES contradict faith-based altruism.

And therein lies one of our main problems.

As for "the general welfare", what 20th-century dictator, e.g. Hitler, didn't advocate the same goal? To say the least it is a poor choice of words for a government that held individual rights as a high value. It is the most useless phrase in American government. It says nothing and permits any travesty.

P.S. - I am aware that altruists have to lie, because their ideas do not in fact further human progress, but I'm curious why accusing an altruist of dishonesty seems to be nearly a "gut" reaction for you? Any thoughts on what's behind that statement?

Gus Van Horn said...


I never imagined I'd be saying this, but you just caused me to think even less of Lew Rockwell than I already did!

Congratulations, I guess!


Interesting question, that. It's plainly not always true -- e.g., in the case of genuinely benevolent people who are merely confused. Perhaps it's because I've known of many insincere scoundrels who preached altruism for obviously "self"-"serving" reasons that my hackles go up quickly when "I hear the leper's bell" of an altruist.


Jim May said...

This is interesting; here we have a religious conservative who feels threatened by the tea Party, for exactly the same reason as the Left fears them.

Gus Van Horn said...

That is an astute observation. Thanks for pointing to the relevant that post.