Saturday, July 17, 2010

Liberty and Tyranny

There's been a lot of fear and loathing from the tea party crowd about the growing Obama-lead tyrannical government whose sole objective is to rob our freedoms based on sinister, power-hungry motivations. The problem is these elements of the Republican party refuse to believe that the world has changed from Reagan's 1980's. They don't realize that largely George Orwell's 1984 was wrong - there is no big brother. In fact the opposite has been true, technology and globalization has actually reduced the power of government and other large institutions.

Our biggest threats to our freedom is not too much governmental power. Our biggest threat is that our government is on the verge of losing its grip. Some of its most egregious forms of overreach consistently include futile attempts to reclaim control over areas where it really has none. Whether it be North Korea's attempt to stay afloat as its people starve or Iran's crackdown after an obvious fraudulent election. Or our own attempt to "control" our border in the face of an increasing violent civil war in Mexico.

I hope its obvious that sources of tyranny does not only come from above. There are plenty examples of bondage coming at us from below - tyranny can be a grass roots phenomenon.

Obvious examples of this is the food industry, marketing addictive food loaded with high sugar, fat and salt. Video games or facebook (yes, I'm guilty) can take over our lives. And the illicit but still legal (albeit regulated) pornography, gambling, tobacco or alcohol industries cab be addictive and destructive. Not mention the massive drug cartel industries and all of the havoc it is causing. A million little ways to bind us down to bad habits restricting our liberty. Addiction is a brilliant marketing strategy. These industries are really difficult to regulate or control because the products are so appealing to so many people and this demand brings plenty of supply with very high profits.

Well, what about China, an emerging economic force still clinging to communism. But our biggest security threats are not coming from China - a country that has shifted toward a more open, free market political and economic environment. Instead our threats come from terrorists living in caves, in pathetically poor countries with weak (or nonexistent) governments plotting very low tech attacks against the US behemoth. Or shadowy drug cartels in Mexico and Latin America whose profits from the drugs are marked in the billions and who continue to persist despite escalations from both the Mexican and the US government.

Being a Mormon, I find the Book of Mormon's warnings are particularly relevant in this climate. The Book of Mormon details the downfall of two civilizations not through some cold war style big government controlling its people, but by the weakening of government over time because of the wickedness of its people collectively. The most serious dangers were criminal ones - secrete mafia societies - Gadiantons, etc. who prospered and gained power compromising the strength of the government ruling those societies. What destroyed those civilizations wasn't oppressive government from above. It was chaos and civil war. People lost their trust in one another. Industry collapsed and their governments did too.

In my view, there are real dangers on both sides of the extremes. Government that is too strong allocates its resources too inefficiently. It can divert resources to the politically connected, people lose incentives to work or to get educated. Society suffers. Government that is too weak is also dangerous. It fails to provide basic infrastructure - transportation, schools, health care, emergency utilities and security. These basic institutions fail to provide a climate of security that an economy vitally needs to grow. Individuals and communities lose their ability to trust in complete strangers and begin to divide up into tribes of trust.

Let me repeat that last point because it means something to me - people lose their ability to trust in complete strangers. I work at PayPal owned by eBay whose business model completely rests on the idea that complete strangers are trustworthy. Of course eBay builds into its model some enhancers to that trust - but its core business ethic from the beginning is that "People are basically good". But I think without a strong and effective government, I'm not so sure eBay is possible. Or PayPal.

And more prescient to me individually, access to good education and health care is vital for personal and collective liberty. The more education a person has, the more freedom they acquire. Government cannot force a person to educate themselves, but they can build up a community where more people are more likely to do just that. Access to health care is also vitally important to liberty. Having a daughter with diabetes brings this home to me. She can live a completely normal (although more inconvenient) life because of advances in medicine - and the fact that insulin is partially subsidized to make it affordable. That's freedom.

The ability to trust in institutions for clean water, food and clean air is vital for personal and collective liberty.

We can get hung up with questions on whether government is in the best position to provide everything that enhances liberty and regulate those areas that don't. But at the very least, I want politicians who understand this concept. That tyranny is not just a problem of too much government, its a problem with too little. I want politicians who understand that government's primary role is to ensure and enhance individual liberty and that sins of omission destroy liberty every bit s much as sins of commision.

Its easy to take the extreme view that government should be as small as possible. Cut taxes and spending and enhance freedom. This is wrong and simplistic.

Getting government right is hard. There are no easy solutions. We need a well informed electorate who are willing to discuss the big ideas. We need politicians who are truly accountable. We should be quick to distrust dogma or pure ideology.

I want politicians who take the long view.

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