It is virtually impossible to peruse the political blogosphere these days and not be swamped with commentary on Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism. The book sits on my bedside table right now, unread, not because I am not interested, but because I‘ve been too busy this shortly after the holiday season.
However, I have read a lot of commentary on the book, including both the praise of NROniks and the insufferable cries of Kossites and other lefties on Amazon chats and other places (many of whom have not even read the book!).
After having read so much commentary, I have concluded two things: 1) it is a big issue that will not go away, and 2) people are confused.
Let me try to clear up some of the confusion.
First, let me stipulate that we here in the United States, as long as I have been alive, have considered ourselves a free people. Indeed, when I was a child, if we ever had childlike disagreements about what one should do with one’s time or money, it would not be uncommon for someone involved to say “hey, it’s a free country…”
However, different people mean different things when they say “free”.
I believe that, in the context of the debate over Liberal Fascism, there are two very different aspects of “freedom” which are being confused by those involved in the debate over Jonah’s concept of liberal fascism.
First, is freedom as a form of government – in short, democracy. It is concerned with the process of legislating and running the country: the power of the vote; the structure of our government; the balance of power; the independence of the judiciary; the nature and permanence of the constitution. It concerns people’s ability to self-determine though their government. Governments around the world and through history have existed on a continuum, from free all the way to unfree. Let’s call this a measure of FREEDOM A.
Second, is freedom as the practical effect of our government on our lives – in short, individual liberty. It is concerned with the extent to which individuals are free (or not) to do as they please: to keep their own money; to buy their own healthcare; to send their children to the school of their own choosing; to smoke; to wear (or not to wear) a motorcycle helmet; etc., etc., etc. Under various forms of government around the world and through history, individuals have existed in a continuum from free all the way to unfree. Let’s call this a measure of FREEDOM B.
As an aside, let me say that it is perfectly possible for a government, and therefore a people, to be freely collectivist in some measure; that is, a group of people may democratically decide that they want to be collectivist. This is what a social democracy is; practically all of Europe is “freely collectivist.” People have chosen, using FREEDOM A, to have some level of FREEDOM B. In the case of Europe, that is not much freedom at all.
Now that we have these definitions, it is quite easy to understand the controversy over Jonah’s liberal fascism.
When a modern liberal in the United States refers to George Bush or Dick Cheney as being a “fascist”, they are really referring to a supposed desire on the part of GWB or DC to subvert some portion of FREEDOM A, or the form of our democratic government. In effect, they are simply calling him a wannabe dictator.
However, when Jonah refers to modern day liberals as “fascist” (he doesn’t really do this, he just notes their similar precepts), he is really referring to a desire on liberals’ part to limit FREEDOM B – that is, to make the state stand in for the individual in all sorts of capacities, from child care to health care, to energy usage, to what we do with our own paychecks.
These are different points, and they can both be true at the same time.
That is the end of my argument.
However, as another aside, let me just compare where we are with respect to each of the various claims toward fascism – that by the left vs. that by the right.
Not a single serious person that I know (or have read) thinks that our actual democracy is actually at risk because of the “fascism” of George Bush. The very fact that certain people are calling for his impeachment is itself proof of this fact: long before GWB could turn the United States into a true dictatorship, he’d be thrown out of office. (Note: I said serious people).
However, on the other side, I would contend that we are not really that far from becoming something like “unfree” with respect to FREEDOM B.
Ask yourself this question: how much of your paycheck would the government have to take before you started to consider yourself “unfree”? 30%? 40%? 50%? Add in sales taxes, tolls, state taxes, federal taxes, property taxes, etc. When are we unfree? Are you mad yet?
I would contend that most countries in Scandinavia, where government expenditures approach 60% of GDP, are essentially unfree with respect to FREEDOM B. People can’t do what they want, because the government is already doing it for them.
With Hillary Clinton and her universal healthcare increasingly looking like she might be the next President of the United States, I think it is extremely important that people start to think about these questions.
It is no surprise that Liberal Fascism is a bestseller. There are those of us who would like to be able to continue saying “Hey, it’s a free country…” well into our old age without being a liar.