It’s now the ‘Information Age.’ As always in human history, every new technology turns out to be value-neutral. We hail it upon arrival for its ability to solve past problems, and like the idiots we are we’re always stunned when they create new ones.
Humans are fundamentally optimistic creatures, if we weren’t we’d have all long since committed suicide. As in all great transitions, we perceived the good in the age of computers and the internet well before we perceived the bad. We were told the world wide web would supposed to usher a new Golden Age in which we could learn everything we liked about any subject in the world. Indeed, it could be used for precisely that purpose; but it isn’t, human beings simply aren’t very curious. Far more often than the used to find information to increase our knowledge and wisdom, we use it to find information about each other (don’t lie, you do it, so do I). All you have to do is to open your eyes and ears and you can now hear whatever you like about other people. Is this a terrible thing? Probably, but who cares? We should all learn to stop worrying and love the Internet. Who wants to live their whole lives in fear? If you’d like to read damaging information about me, go to section II of Part 1. If I ever became particularly successful in any field of endeavor, people would find out anyway.
And because information is so much easier to broadcast in our era than any other in the history of mankind, it’s all too easy to think that human debasement and misery is particularly endemic to our time over every other. Every day we hear new reports of assault, child abuse and murder. American prisons house 2.3 million incarcerants (that's 1% of the adult population), another five million Americans are on parole and probation. Yet only 10% of reported crime results in conviction. Schools are the sites of more violent acts than most street corners, most perpetrated by one student against another. There are constant reports of mass murder and genocide in the news and media outlets, both right and left, encourage us to see fascism lurking in every corner of our communities. Before long, one might be convinced to believe your own family and friends to exhibit all the same traits held by Stalin and Hitler.
It’s all too possible for a more innocent cast of mind to believe our era particularly wretched, evil and monstrous. When else in history were there so many reports of such brutality on so massive a scale? But that’s precisely the problem: so much information yields findings of a terribleness to which no previous generation had access. Furthermore, anyone who counters with the assertion that the Twentieth Century was the bloodiest in human history is undeniably correct. Of course more people were killed, tortured, raped and maimed in the twentieth century than any other. There were more people to kill, torture, rape and maim.
It was all too easy to believe in the redemption of mankind in an age when every individual did not have to stare into the null void of his own brutality. Savagery was only something for infidels, believers used violence to cleanse. To hear of Muslims who impaled their victims on spikes were unspeakable horror, but to watch the infidels fry in Christendom was a Sunday’s entertainment. Perhaps our newfound realization that brutality is something universal to which every person must answer for his own beastliness can finally begin the hard work of cooling the molten core of our animal nature.
VI. A Digression on Liberalism
It’s impossible to be a liberal without a sense of irony. All one has to do is remember that old Robert Frost quote, “A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel,” - incidentally, Frost was a political conservative, as many progressives were who were born in the years after the Civil War.
But the ultimate irony of fancying yourself a liberal is something which none of us want to admit, myself as much as anyone. In order to pursue the most liberal results, we have to spend every day of our lives giving tacit acquiescence to some of the world’s most illiberal means.
We liberals dream of a utopia like any other utopia. One day, there will be an era in which everybody’s differences are tolerated, respected and celebrated. But if everyone’s individuality is celebrated, what does it mean to be an individual? We tell ourselves that each person is utterly unique, just like everybody else.
But there are two differences between liberalism and nearly every other political movement.
1. Liberals realize that every such attempt at establishing a perfect kingdom is folly. Nearly every form of conservatism has just such a perfect kingdom as its goal. Nearly every form of progressivism, socialism and communism has the exact same goal of a perfect union. Liberalism is almost unique in the regard that it resigns itself to the folly of trying to perfect the world. The only other movement which realizes this is the authoritarian paleo-conservatism of institutions like the Catholic Church, Absolute Monarchy and totalitarian dictatorship. Which brings us to difference #2.
2. Liberalism is an ideology of improvement, not perfection. The US Constitution realizes this, and in the very first sentence is the sentiment “in order to form a more perfect union.” Not perfect, more perfect. Liberals have resigned themselves to the tragedy that life’s agonies can never be eliminated. The difference between this sentiment and paleo-conservatism is that paleo-conservatism denies the very existence of these agonies; the world is already perfect. In Catholicism, the agonies of our world are merely a test for admittance into the perfect world to come. In absolute monarchy and dictatorship, the agonies of life are utterly preventable - submitting to the will of the leader will eliminate all of them, whereas defying the leader’s will will result in greater agony than can be borne.
Liberalism is the one such ideology for which no ‘out’ exists. A true liberal will believe that any set of principles will do in the struggle to establish a place that is just a little bit closer to a utopian ideal, including a plethora of authoritarian means. A conservative (a modern, libertarian one at least) will declare categorically that there is no justification for the government regulations of private enterprise, to allow it would be authoritarian. A socialist will declare just as categorically that there is no justification for government not regulating private enterprise, to disallow it would be authoritarian. A liberal will simply fold his arms, acknowledge that both are right, and agree to ‘Whatever works best.’ If either libertarians or socialists can produce categorically irrefutable proof that one side works better than the other, liberals would willingly accede to either. Unfortunately, no such proof yet exists to simplify our lives so greatly.
It’s our banner issue. Equality in rights, equality in marriage, equality in employment, equality in entitlements, equality in ability. So long as the standard stays high, equality will always be a crucial thing for which to strive. But equality is the single hardest thing to define in American life. Anyone who wants to understand why the hard right in America has had such an easier time of it than the hard left need only look at the difference between defining liberty and equality.
Liberty is all too easily definable: don’t tread on me. Don’t tread on my earnings, don’t tread on my ownership, don’t tread on my speech, don’t tread on my community. When libertarians accuse the government of authoritarianism for demanding a tax, they’re absolutely right to do so. Incredibly stupid, but absolutely right. A certain amount of authoritarianism is necessary for the world to keep running, and occasionally the necessary authoritarian practices will become much more serious than a government co-opting a percentage of your money. And even if libertarians have allied with a religious right who hates the very idea of certain liberties - the bedroom and body particularly - it is a blatant hypocrisy that smacks of a convenience partnership to anyone with half a brain.
Equality is far, far more nebulous. The term ‘Equal pay for equal work’ is a perfect example: Equal Pay should be all-too-easily definable. But it isn’t. If one worker has a single child and another worker has three children and four nephews to feed, is the same wage still equal pay?
But equal work is a hundred times more fluid. Yes, the hours put in are equal, but how does one measure effort? Should a person receive the same hourly wage if they do less work? Surely, many on the left would argue that such an argument is a red herring. Most of the hardest workers in America are paid less than those who work less hard. And in most cases they would be right to make that argument. But even if it were true in every case, how could a social democrat explain this problem to a greater public which has no idea how hard the lowest rung of American society works and no desire to learn? Furthermore, anyone who believes that no work for large wages is never a problem should read about the public sector in Western Europe - particularly France, where there are multiple cases of civil servants who cannot be fired, in spite of not working a day in twenty years.
Equality is all too easy a concept to understand in a place like the USSR of Stalin or Mao’s China. Officially, the government would administer equal rations regardless of how people behaved. If people needed or wanted more, they would have to obtain their rations through illegal methods. If citizens broke the law, they might be punished brutally for it. If citizens did not break the law, there would be a roughly equal chance of their being brutally punished for it. But in a place where liberty is as important as equality, life becomes far more complicated.
And from this concept of equality flows all of our desires to endow every American citizen with the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But what if your rights come into direct interference with the rights of someone else? Whose rights are more important?
In today’s America, most of us (at least in the Blue States) believe that the government has a moral obligation to provide for its inhabitants’ welfare. And this means health care, social security, regulations for the workplace, consumer protection and protection from fraud. It also means funding for science, the arts, medical research, environmental protection, and education far beyond primary school. Furthermore, since there is an endless stream of people trying to get around government regulations, and a roughly equal number of people trying to point out others who are getting around government regulations, there must be a seemingly infinite number of courts to administer judgement for litigation.
Every one of these matters costs an enormous amount of money. And in today’s lexicon, the ultimate dividing line between a conservative and liberal is whether one believes, regardless of the reason, that all this government supervision is worth the near-incalculable financial cost it takes to ensure it. Especially when the traditional roles of government - military, police, road maintenance, mail, and law-making - cost more in themselves than ever in human history.
And so the battle rages on. In order to pay for all these matters, America used to tax its highest income bracket a marginal rate of ninety-four percent. That bracket now pays 35% of their total earnings with no marginal rate. Rather than tax America’s millionaires so heavily, the government decided to borrow that money from other countries like China so that the apparatus of government can stay functional.
In two years, America will have borrowed over $16 trillion in an effort to keep the world’s largest government running properly. At some point, America will have no choice but to pay off that debt while still trying administer the world’s largest government. If they do not, America will have to pay that debt while the world’s largest government is dismantled.