Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty — power is ever stealing from the many to the few. . . . The hand entrusted with power becomes . . . the necessary enemy of the people. ~Wendell Phillips
Imagine for a moment a state where your home can be seized and sold to another private entity, and the central government has the power to decide who you as a community will do business with — a place where your movements are tracked and recorded and your conversations recorded. Imagine one man with the power to order mass surveillance, start wars, and execute citizens without trial anywhere in the world, including on American soil. The state that I am describing is the United States of America in 2013.
Individuals across the ideological spectrum have recognized this crisis for US freedom and have described it with a variety of terms: soft-totalitarianism, fascism, and anarchotyranny, to name a few. Needless to say, this is a far cry from what the founders of the United States had in mind when the Constitution was drafted and ratified in 1787.
The steady erosion of freedoms in the United States did not begin with the election of Obama in 2008, or with Bush in 2000, or even the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The latter did, however, accelerate the process with the war on terror and the cover of permanent interventionism abroad.
This is the first in a series of reflections that seek to understand what happened that led us to this lamentable state of affairs. In learning how we arrived here, the goal shall be to figure out how to carve a path back to a free society.
Let’s go back a generation and consider the role of the judiciary.
At one time, US Americans in their local communities and at the state level had the power to decide whether or not they wanted to do business with repressive regimes. In the 1970s and 1980s, the anti-apartheid movement sought to obtain boycotts from local and state governments doing business with South Africa. This was at a time when the White House was advancing a policy of constructive engagement with the apartheid regime in South Africa. Over the long-run, successes at the local and state level translated into a policy change at the federal level. It was a classic bottom-up approach to governance.
Today, however, an anti-apartheid campaign like the one designed a generation ago would be impossible. In 2000 the Supreme Court in the Crosby versus National Foreign Trade Council decision stripped that power from states and localities and left it in the hands of the executive branch. Soon after, the Supreme Court forced Massachusetts to do business with companies that had done business with the military junta in Burma.
According to constitutional scholar Sanford Levinson in the Fordham Law Review, the Crosby decision compels state and local governments to cooperate with evil. It also concentrates power in Washington, D.C.
Then in 2005 the Supreme Court, in the Kelo v. City of New London case, stripped private property rights away from individuals and families. A majority of justices on the court claimed that cities and municipalities have the right to seize properties from private individuals in order to promote private development that could be put to “better” use to generate more tax revenue for their respective community.
In practice these local governments, often corrupt, declare good properties blighted and then seize them at bargain basement prices in order to sell them on to politically-connected parties. To make it a win for the local government, at the expense of the legitimate owner, these parties then redevelop the properties to provide a larger tax base.
Former Congressman Ron Paul (R-Texas) described the importance of the decision at the time:
The City of New London, Connecticut essentially acted as a strongman by seizing private property from one group of people for the benefit of a more powerful private interest. For its services, the city will be paid a tribute in the form of greater taxes from the new development. In any other context, what’s happening in Connecticut properly would be described as criminal. . . . The individuals losing their homes understand that stealing is stealing, even if the people responsible are government officials. The silver lining in the Kelo case may be that the veneer of government benevolence is being challenged.
In 2009, after the local government had the backing of the Supreme Court, they seized the property of private home owners and destroyed the homes — leaving empty acres where there was once a neighborhood. However, the company that was supposed to develop the property, Pfizer, then decided to walk away from the whole deal.
The misguided belief of government officials, that they could get more revenue, destroyed people’s homes and lives. They wound up destroying not just the community but losing even the prior tax revenue.
These Supreme Court decisions have two features in common. They (1) take power from a lower level and concentrate it the hands of fewer decision makers, who often impose unjust and immoral decisions, and (2) they allow a small group to profit from their contacts in government, to advance their economic self-interest.
Of course, these decisions were not shaped by national security issues but narrowly defined interests, seeking to use the state to take from others to enrich themselves. This is crony capitalism — or simply cronyism — and in other parts of the world it has led to rising poverty and less economic freedom. Not surprisingly, the United States is no longer the economically freest country in the world, and the severe plummet has followed these cases. According to the Fraser Institute, the United States has now fallen to 17th in the world.
The weakening of private property rights in the United States and the centralizing of the right to decide who to do business with in the federal government strikes at the heart of the US American tradition of liberty. The late conservative polemicist Joseph Sobran, who passed away in 2010, called the present system “Post–Constitutional America,” and went on to say that “the U.S. Constitution poses no serious threat to our form of government.”
Last week Opinómetro published an opinion poll regarding the presidential election in Colombia. It suggested that the second round of the 2014 elections will pit the incumbent, Juan Manuel Santos, against Clara López, leader of the radical Left Party (the Polo Democrático Alternativo). In spite of the irresponsible joy this poll seems to bring to some academic and intellectual sectors, it does not mean that the Marxists will make it to the second round, let alone win the election. What it does mean, however, is that statism is garnering more support in Colombia. Why? There could be many reasons: the context of social protest or the indifference shown by traditional elites towards the problems of some demographics, among others. To draw on Frédéric Bastiat, however, I believe that these reasons are only what we can easily observe. What is not seen are two more powerful reasons. First, the parties on the left in Latin America receive accolades they do not deserve, and Colombia is no exception. Second, their failures are blamed on specific people, not on the ideology. Regarding my first assertion, even those of us who criticize Marxism have allowed for it to be seen as a well-intentioned or moral ideology, concerned with the poor, the left-behind, and the weak. At least publicly, all other ideologies worry about the poor as well: is there any ideology that promotes an expansion of poverty? Not to my knowledge. However, some minorities, such as the homosexuals, are rejected by some ideologies, but embraced by the left. Even though current Marxists show support for these minorities, said support can only be interpreted as electoral opportunism, seeing as every communist society to date has persecuted homosexuals. We have also failed to stress the fact that the alleged Marxist concern for marginal sectors manifests itself as an elimination of their individuality, dignity, and capacity to choose, and it makes them state-dependent. The Marxist vision turns human beings into objects to be pitied and talked about in politically-correct discussions — objects whose only role in the world is making the elites, we know only too well, feel better about themselves, more humane, more just. The second reason is the most harmful one. Since the days of the ex-USSR, it has become a tradition for Marxists to explain their models’ failures and excesses as deviations of their respective leaders. These explanations have been tacitly accepted by all. Nowadays, for instance, people criticize Hugo Chávez’s authoritarianism, Nicolás Maduro’s or Evo Morales’s ignorance, the corrupted ways of the Castro brothers or even Cristina Fernández’s obsession with fashion. Is there anything less relevant to say about her? However, the problem lies not in them or in their behavior. The problem is their ideas, since it is true that said ideas require leaders who are authoritarian, ignorant, corrupt, arrogant, and yes, frivolous. How can one accept the idea of a few imposing their will on the many, without being authoritarian? How can one think he or she knows the ultimate way to create wealth, without being arrogant? How can one repeat the mistakes of the past, without being ignorant? How can one continue to follow the model adopted by sinister characters like Lenin, Stalin, or Mao Zedong, without being frivolous? However, as I was saying, our discussion must not focus on the people, but on the ideas they want to implement. A similar failure has taken place regarding the alleged cases of leftist governments that have been successful. An often and correctly quoted example is Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s administration in Brazil. More efforts should have been made to show that this person ruled, at least domestically, in a fashion quite distant from radical Marxism. In that sense, it is necessary for voters to understand that Marxist representatives can only be successful by ruling as if they were not Marxists — that is, when their leading political inclination, so common in Marxism, is treason. As Colombia’s case shows, Latin America has been lacking in demonstrations of this type. How is it possible for Bogotá, Colombia’s capital city, to continue to choose candidates from the Marxist left, in spite of all the chaos and setbacks? National preferences may shift in the next few months. However, the results of the aforementioned poll should raise a red flag regarding the huge task ahead for those who want to keep Colombia safe from the ideology of underdevelopment that has gripped its Andean neighbors.