Assigning blame in democracy

There's some interesting back-n-forth going on between the ex-prolific-libertarian blogger Jim Henley, who's currently sadly reduced to a once-in-a-while blogger, and Diana Moon, with a jolt of Justin Raimondo and Steve Sailer thrown in for spice. At issue: whose fault is the Iraq Attaq?

Well, it is quite obvious that the ultimate mover here was Bush himself. Only he is commander in chief. But what's motivating him? Are the neocons pulling on his puppet strings?

Moon is, I think, correct that ultimately the "American public" in general is to blame, or at least, the 50% of them (or whatever) that were and still are for the war. And she understands some of their motivations, but only the amoral ones:
The real story is that this was a war for oil, supported by a majority of Americans, and ignorant as they are, the gas-guzzling public knows one thing: it needs the slick stuff, and its willing to kill for it. If the people they have to kill are Muslims, so much the better. They don't care about Iraqi deaths and they don't care about Abu Ghraib. And they don't care if some guy with a name like Jorge Lopez dies for it. They want their toys. They know that Presidents have to lie and say nice things about Why We Go To War, and maybe some of them even believe it, but deep down they know what the score is.
Or in her followup:
The American public was salivating for war. They hate Arabs, they want oil. [an example:] A couple of regular guys, hardcore conservative, belligerant, hostile ... they were quizzed on the Iraq/9-11 link, which has been shown to be completely false. They said, "Nothing will convince me that Iraq wasn't behind 9/11." That's it: Nothing. No evidence. Nothing. This is the white, male, prosperous American electorate that will vote for Bush. Arrogant, insufferable, callous and vicious. These are the people who supported the war, and still do.
Let me put aside the overgeneralization here for later. The point here is, the public wanted war. And that's certainly true. But as for the motivations ascribed - no, the public is both better and worse than that. The public doesn't care about oil - the elites do. The public does care about 9-11, and wanted blood. And the public does, at least titularly, care about our own "security", about saving people from dictators, and about helping people by giving great (though abstract) gifts of the American Way to the world. These latter impulses are not strong, but neither are they base. (Neither are they realistic.)

You surely didn't see Bush promising cheap oil as his primary reason for war. You did see him promise security, and a world transformed in a way not good only for Americans (though definitely good for us); but rather, transformed to Good Good Democracy for everyone, starting with Iraqis. They were to be the first beneficiaries.

So the public is certainly somewhat to blame. They bought it. But the masses don't think up complex ideas on their own. They repeat ideas thought up by intellectuals. This is not surprising: someone has to think of an idea first, and a complex idea is unlikely to be thought up in parallel by everyone. Take an idea like "we've got to depose Saddam for the good of the Iraqi people". That's not something the average American will come up with: Americans don't care about Iraqis. We care about them now only insofar as "our boys" are over there; once the US forces leave, we'll care about Iraqis about the same as we now care about the Vietnamese; that is to say, nearly zero. (People, in general, don't care about people they don't know. This is part of human nature, perfectly sensible.) Intellectuals had been agitating for war against Saddam for a variety of reasons, for years. Only after 9-11 did they break through, because the public was finally ready to hear them.

So where did the public get inobvious ideas like "preemptive war for peace", "America can reform any society into a nice happy democracy", "Iraqis will welcome us as liberators", "the hijackers were Iraqis", etc.?

Neocons. As Raimondo writes to Henley:
Ideas rule the world, and it is the neoconservative idea that brought us to where we are today. I don't see how anyone can dispute that and still retain a modicum of intellectual honest.
Well, I can dispute it somewhat, for it was not only neocon ideas, I think, nor only neocons spreading them. Some of these are older ideas. Many are not the exclusive provenance of neocons - for instance the left has been saying for years that "we can rebuild America (via government tax/spend)". Neocons merely adapted that from the inner city to Iraq.

To my mind, being "neocon" isn't a boolean thing. It's fuzzy. You're a neocon to the extent that you believe and/or propound various neocon ideas; and what exactly are neocon ideas is a moving target, the set of ideas held by, well neocons. It's somewhat circular; nonetheless grounded in the a history of various ideas. Included in that set is the idea that America can successfully reform other societies and/or religions by force. That Islam needs a reformation for us to live with it. That "national greatness" is worth seeking via the state.

To me, Bush, Rumsfield, and Cheney are neocons, to the extent they hold or act on neocon positions. So they are semi-neocons. Humans don't fit into boolean pigeonholes - never.

But the larger point is important. Intellectuals do have real influence, even if it is hard to trace. Ideas do come from somewhere, and they do matter. Not just to us (the intellectuals), but to the man on the street. He may not come up with stuff on his own, but he knows a good argument when he sees it. Look at any comments section on a warblog and you'll see this. All of them repeat the "Saddam was evil justifies invasion" meme, the "drain the fever swamp" meme, the "world has changed due to WMD".

All of which is not to say that intellectuals control anything; we don't. In that sense, we can't be blamed, neocons or otherwise. We propose; the public and politicians dispose. But at the same time, in the long run, ideas are practically all that matter. (To take one example: imagine what would happen in our society if everyone woke up tomorrow with the idea that the government had the same level of legitimacy that the Iraqi government has.)

As the Russian said: "A political battle is merely a skirmish fought with muskets; a philosophical battle is a nuclear war."

Given the power of ideas in the long run, it's impossible not to think that they are important, and that therefore there is some blame to be assigned for thinking up and/or propounding bad ideas, and credit for good ones. This is, in fact, common sense.

So who is it? The intellectuals? The public? The politicians? Well, it's all of us, and none. Each group draws support from the others. Each group is self-interested in one way or another. Blame is not easily assigned. It is, instead, the system that we should look at. For it takes two things to implement policy: the ideas implemented, and the system they are implemented within. We've agreed that our system is producing bad policy. So it must be either bad ideas, or a bad system (or both) that is to blame. We've found bad ideas, but found it remarkably difficult to pin down who's to blame. Without blame and effective punishment for bad ideas, they'll keep coming; and that's a perfect description of politics within the state.

As an anarchist, let me through in my 2c. Blame the state. Without the state, America would have no large standing army, and thus, no adventurism abroad regardless of how we felt about a hypothetical 9-11. And that attack would be very hypothetical since, without a standing army nor the ability to support Israel via taxation, we'd have no involvement to speak of in the middle east. There would have been no Gulf War, no sanctions, no American troops in Saudi Arabia, no American relationship to Israel nor the Intifada. Without the state, there would be no push by the military industrial complex to open up new markets. Without the state, the oil industry would have to find a way to get its raw materials without relying on the taxpayer to fund the enforcement mechanism.

Ms Moon will not give up the state, of course. She needs it for her liberal/socialist ideas. So she is reduced to blaming the evil People, and the evil regime. (The neocons are evil too, she says, and should be run out of town, but they cannot be blamed. That's antisemitism!) Since the people cannot be changed (damn!), her vitriol is directed to Mr Bush and co., with a nice side helping directed towards those who are fighting the neocons in the war of ideas.

As for Ms Moon's charges of antisemitism: well, "shrill" is right. You cry wolf often enough, nobody pays attention. Is there a pogrom afoot in the US? I think not. You're just going to have to face a harsh fact: individuals who are Jewish do have some power. They do bear responsibility for what they do, including espousing neocon ideas. This isn't about being Jewish, it's about propounding bad ideas.

Incidentally, I find it quite offensive to see someone crying antisemitism who is so willing to use hateful invective and overgeneralization like that I quoted above: "This is the white, male, prosperous American electorate that will vote for Bush. Arrogant, insufferable, callous and vicious." Please, tell me again what I am?

One more small nit to pick with Ms. Moon: I'm not exactly a paleo but I feel closer to self-identified paleos than about anyone else. Lew Rockwell and the Rothbardians are anarchists of my stripe, and many of them call themselves paleoconservatives. Anyway, I can testify that their/our beef with the neocons has nothing at all to do with Judaism. It has to do with the state and socialism. Neocons are for both. Paleos (and libertarians in general) are against both.

Neocons are little-c conservative, in most domestic policy; they do want some change, but perhaps marginally less than also little-c conservative Democrats. But both groups have basically accepted socialism as good and proper. Bush and the neocons support everything socialist that America already does; social security, daycare prisons, welfare. They've created a new socialist agency (the TSA), want "no child left behind", and want citizens to surrender a few more rights to the central state "for our security". Abroad, the neocons and Bush differ somewhat on how grandious should be the plans to Invade the World: Bush may think we should invade the whole thing, but only the neocons say it. Nonetheless this is a 180 degree reversal from the "humbler" foreign policy we were promised. In all these things, neocons are wrong, and leading America towards socialism and thus, ultimately, collapse.

Update - a reader reminds me that all societies have "standing armies" in a sense, so I cannot claim "no standing army" in anarchy. And that's true enough - anarchy (or a truly limited libertarian state) would have a much smaller army than America has, but not no army at all.

No comments: