Two Trons, Four Freedoms

After Governor Scott Walker’s June recall victory, blogging compatriot Cosmoscon shared some choice tweets from the Left.  One that really grabbed me was this spurious Abraham Lincoln quote:

“If any man tells you he loves America, yet hates labor, he is a liar.”

The line is simultaneously funny and sad.  The adversarial unions we know today were scarcely extant, let alone popularly identified by the “labor” moniker, in President Lincoln’s lifetime.  It’s ironic that a movement sheltering so many of the work-averse (rubber rooms, anyone?) would brandish a quote that, properly construed, endorses hard work.  True to that irony, those at the bleeding-edge of the quest for expanded labor rights end up calling for a fantastically impossible feat: the abolition of work itself.

“Labor” is not the only word that lends itself to sociopolitical confusion.  People sometimes get caught up in an equivocal use of the word “free.”  On the one hand, it means for some agent the liberty of movement, thought or action.  On the other, it can refer to a null price of acquisition, that is zero cost, gratis.  Occasionally, the vital distinction between these two meanings is blurred in the popular imagination, as with the 2010 blockbuster Tron: Legacy.

Two Trons

The original Tron, released in 1982, came on the heels of serious Soviet Bloc upheaval; just the year before, the Polish Solidarity labor union secured a degree of independence from Communist control.  This dramatic feat of defiance would have been fresh in the minds of moviegoers.  Tron is not merely anti-authoritarian but anti-Communist.  A theistic theme evinces in the eponymous hero’s mantra, “I fight for the users!”  The oppressed programs know they’ve been endowed with purpose greater than the totalizing and centralizing dictates issued by the Master Control Program.  Incredibly for Hollywood, the story ends up affirming property rights: the protagonist Kevin Flynn eventually regains credit for his programming masterpieces, which had been stolen from him.  There’s no mistake that when the characters speak of “freedom,” the classically libertarian ideal is in mind.

Fast forward to the compromised 2010 sequel, Tron: Legacy.  Early in the film, we find that in Flynn’s mysterious absence, his software company has burgeoned into a Microsoft-like leviathan, profiting by frequent commercial releases of an utterly worthless operating system.  Flynn’s son wants to honor his disappeared dad’s ideal of “freedom.”  But the story writers have revised this to mean advocacy of freeware, as in products distributed for zero cost.  On this paradigm, the work of producing software does not arise from the need to make a living, as in labor, but from boredom, altruism, or some other motive conceived in leisure.  In the sequel, the meaning of “freedom” lurches Left.  It’s not just freedom of thought and action, but freedom from the need to even make a living.

How did Hollywood minds pull off this coup?  If you’ve seen the film, you know Flynn’s discovery of the Isomorphs: supreme, benevolent beings that emerge spontaneously from the digital vacuum and portend to cure all the world’s ills.  They are cinematic incarnations of Ray Kurzweil’s singularity prophecy.  Flynn’s cries in the wilderness about freeware and perfection of the human race are of course mere functions of the film’s indulgence of the fantastic.  Yet, among anarchists and cyberpunks, “libertarian Marxists” and singularity disciples, are those who really place faith in the idea that one day nice machines will magically do everything for us.

Four Freedoms

This confusion over freedom didn’t start yesterday.  Looking back in history, even our top policymakers were prone to conflation.  In his 1941 State of the Union address, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt proclaimed to Americans the Four Freedoms:

1. Freedom of speech and expression
2. Freedom of worship
3. Freedom from want
4. Freedom from fear

This progressive vision rallied a nation soon to be at war, but it is also a disastrous marriage between negative rights–government’s promise to do no ill–and positive rights, government’s guarantee to ensure good outcomes.  The sum of human experience and the duration of America’s Constitutional enterprise both attest to this: that it is practical and necessary for government to extend negative rights, but impractical and immoral to extend positive ones.

It may have been attractive to early progressives to follow Bismarck’s example in marshaling the state’s power to slake rising expectations.  But past the mid-century twentieth century high tide of statism, advocates of liberty, from Whitaker Chambers to Ayn Rand, F.A. Hayek to Ronald Reagan, began to rally against the absurdity of positive rights.  That rally is alive and well today in the American conservative movement.

Unfortunately, too many remain beholden to Roosevelt’s proposition that it is government’s job not just to leave us free in our speech and worship, but to save each of us from the vagaries of poverty, hunger, and emotional distress.  These expectations ignore the finitude of government’s ability to help; no single human institution can guarantee positive rights to all.  The pursuit of happiness is necessarily a prerogative of individuals and their free and natural associations.

The best governments respect human nature, extending negative rights while withholding positive ones.  Disgruntled publics that demand otherwise, to be free from austerity and to be free from market forces, are really asking to be free from personal responsibility.  Absurd on its face, this kind of agitation always merits a facepalm.

Rule of Law, Rule of Gut

The BP oil spill has provided a chance to clearly delineate between two worldviews vying for our political discernment: the visions of the liberal Left and the conservative Right.  In responding to Republican House representative Joe Barton’s double-apology gaffe, President Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said as much.  And while Emanuel is correct in observing that two governing philosophies are at stake this November, it would be an error to take his class warfare bait.  The choice is not between wise, compassionate Democrats and corrupt, cozy-with-big-business Republicans.  To the contrary, this November is a chance to dump destructive Democratic impulses to rule from the gut, and empower a new, conservative Republican leadership that values rule based on law.

The rhetoric of emergency is the greatest pitfall of the Democrats’ liberal governing philosophy.  In times of crisis like the BP oil spill, inflammatory rhetorical appeals come naturally to them. At the onset of the oil spill, Democratic strategist James Carville cried out “We’re dying here!” In a recent attempt to capitalize on Barton’s apology blunder, Vice President Joe Biden chided that “people are drowning.”  As a tool of political persuasion, the appeal to emergency is dangerous.  It preys on raw emotions, leading to the loosening of purse strings and  easing the approval of impractical and downright harmful policies.  Recall that appeals to emergency during the Great Depression ushered in the New Deal.  Among the many blunders under the aegis of enlightened activism, the federal government paid farmers to wastefully slaughter their livestock, denying food to the hungry for the sake of stabilizing food prices.

Having lived through Bolshevik brutalism as well as America’s New Deal fiascos, Ayn Rand warned in her brilliant polemic Atlas Shrugged that appeals to emergency inevitably empower either unsavory autocrats or unreasoning incompetents.  The Left’s Rule of Gut is all the more dangerous given their inscrutable devotion to the cult of the political savior.  Whether as youth admiringly looking upon the iconic visage of revolutionary Che Guevara, or as older generations fondly recalling fireside-chatter FDR, Democrats and their Leftist base turn not to reasonable stewards of power, but at the gut level dream of charismatic, decisive deliverers of salvation.  Perhaps it is only slightly more tragic for a banana republic to produce a Castro or Chavez than it is for the United States to beget a starry-eyed bungler like Carter or Obama.

What then stands as an antidote to the twin appeals of emergency and charismatic deliverance?  Many people dismiss today’s conservative movement out-of-hand because they buy the idea that Republicans are beholden to big business and that conservatives are under the undue influence of social “wedge” issues.  But while the political Left relies on emotional appeal to further a hazy end of “progress” shared by the political bedfellows of victimhood, American conservatives look to widely-established and long-standing traditions as the means to preserve national well-being.  Broadly considered, these traditions share the spirit of and are inclusive of the Rule of Law.

The decisive factor in favor of conservatism may be the question of ends and means.  Not only are the ends of the Left mistaken, the means of achieving their ends leave us vulnerable to the imperfections of alliance-wrangling.  As Thomas Sowell effectively notes in Conflict of Visions, the ends are paramount to the Left, but the means are the key focus of conservatives.  With an aim to preserving the integrity of process rather than seeking to guarantee a specific result outright, the conservative vision offers the greatest chance of behavioral accountability from our leaders.  Conservative constituents demand fidelity to function, but liberal politicians, supposing a backdrop of knock-down, drag-out class war, must satisfy their constituents’ identity-based grievances by any means necessary.  And more often then not, the sausage-making that begets vaunted progress for the Left is deleterious to the national interest.

Its a paradox that those on the Left, who seek change by Rule of Gut, will always remain unsatisfied by their side’s inability to effect the immediate gratification they seek.  But we, whether at the election polls or in the course of day-to-day life, can avoid that frustration by choosing to live under the Rule of Law instead of the Rule of Gut.

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