Freedom Absolutism and Weaponizing Government

National conservatives believe that the progressive left is attacking America’s traditions and institutions.  Defending American freedom requires, controversially, weaponizing the federal government to do to liberals and liberal organizations what is being done to conservatives.  For instance, Rachel Bovard argues, “Wokeism is not a fever that will pass, but a cancer that must be eradicated. … In this new reality, the only institution with the power to contend with and conquer the Woke Industrial Complex is the government of the United States.”  Nathaniel Blake urges Republicans to “Get Comfortable Using Power.”  He compares conservatives to “the dog who caught the car – unsure what to do with it.  Of course, this is a feature, not a bug, for many on the right.  This more libertarian vision of conservatism insists that we don’t want the vehicle of government to take us where we want to go; we just want it to be smaller, quieter, and less involved in our lives.”  Ms. Bovard proposes treating Dr. Anthony Fauci “like a conservative.”  (Hard to argue with that sentiment!)

Many proposals involve violating businesses’ freedoms of speech and association – particularly big tech and woke corporations.  I think libertarians and national conservatives both value these freedoms.  Libertarians, however, object to all government violations on principle.  For example, Stephanie Slade contends, “Republicans, for their part, have taken up legislation to prohibit social media companies from view-point-based moderation of content. … the GOP would violate these same companies’ right to control the material that appears on their platforms, forcing them to amplify speech with which they do not wish to be associated.”  Furthermore, as Fintan O’Toole reminds, we must be wary of extremists on both sides trying to escalate conflict: “The demagogues warn that the other side is mobilizing. They are coming for us.  Not only do we have to defend ourselves, but we have to deny them the advantage of making the first move.”  Politicians on the left and right declare each election the most significant in history; 2016 was, of course, the “Flight 93″ election.

Is absolutism the only justifiable position for those who value freedom? I find the principled case against weaponized government weak for three reasons. First, a claim of self-defense is being raised, which, if sustained, justifies otherwise indefensible acts. Second, absolutism may commit the fallacy of the second best. And finally, we may be in an arms race, and conservatives may simply be responding in kind in a prisoner’s dilemma.

I will not discuss the utility of using coercive state power to advance conservative goals.  New government powers may well be used against conservatives in the future.  Restraint may be the wisest approach for conservatives and libertarians, but if so, the argument is prudential, not principled.  And libertarians should engage in dialogue about countering the progressive onslaught, a conversation including options beyond turning the other cheek.

National conservatives argue that the progressive left is employing government coercion against their political opponents.  This self-defense argument, if valid, changes the use of coercive power dramatically.  Libertarians believe in the non-initiation of force principle, not the non-use of force principle.  The Second Amendment allows citizens to arm to defend themselves.  Even libertarian anarchists accept the legitimacy of self-defense and simply wish to organize self-defense differently.

I will not adjudicate the self-defense claim, but the evidence of progressives weaponizing government grows daily.  Libertarians were long skeptical of social media bias against conservatives.  But the Twitter Files and litigation by the attorneys general of Louisiana and Missouri demonstrate censorship by proxy, as even libertarians recognize.  The National Endowment for Democracy has funded an index labeling conservative and libertarian publications as purveyors of misinformation.  The House of Representatives has convened a panel to investigate the weaponization of government.  And corporations accommodate progressives; the partisan Southern Poverty Law Center is allowed to label conservative organizations as hate groups to shut down their fund raising.

Some libertarians view organized force as so inherently dangerous to liberty as to argue for passive resistance or noncooperation with an invading power instead of national defense.  Exploring the viability of passive resistance is not my purpose; rather, as a policy option, it is a total nonstarter.  Is freedom absolutism similar?

The fallacy of the second best offers another argument against absolutism.  The fallacy requires a little explanation.  Suppose one economic distortion (or bad economic policy) exists, like a government-created a monopoly.  With one distortion, the optimal policy is straight-forward: eliminate it.  Political feasibility is, of course, a different question.  But when two (or more) inefficient distortions exist, at least one of which cannot be eliminated, the analysis changes.  Eliminating the government-created monopoly is no longer guaranteed to improve things now.  The economic reasoning demonstrating the desirability of eliminating one and only one distortion no longer applies.  Consider a monopolist whose product generates a negative externality, like pollution.  Monopoly produces too little of a good (relative to the efficient quantity), while a negative externality results in overproduction.  Monopoly’s contrived scarcity may offset the overproduction due to pollution.  Eliminating the monopoly may move the economy further from efficiency.

Are free speech and free association absolutists essentially committing the fallacy of the second best? The world with no violations of business freedom is optimal. Yet, national conservatives would not be committing the only violations of these freedoms.  National conservatives could face criticism for committing the first violation or failing to eliminate all violations if possible. But progressives have already committed dozens of these violations.  The argument against the first violation does not necessarily apply against the 13th violation.

An arms race analogy further undermines the principled case for absolutism. If two nations engaged in an arms race both stopped building armaments, they would both be better off.  A principled case can be made against starting an arms race, but is it wrong on principle to arm for self-defense?  Imposing free speech and association absolutism on only Republicans is perhaps like demanding unilateral disarmament during an arms race.

Arms races are prisoner’s dilemmas.  This analogy suggests that the prisoner’s dilemma may apply here.  Is playing tit-for-tat in a prisoner’s dilemma unprincipled?

One final take on freedom absolutism comes from Vivek Ramaswamy.  America rejected freedom of association absolutism with the Civil Rights Act.  (And arguably well before this, as Jim Crow laws enforced segregation on private companies.)  Libertarians continue to argue for free association absolutism, but this ship has already sailed; repeal of the Civil Rights Act is on nobody’s political agenda.  Insisting on absolutism simply means offering no relevant advice for America today.

None of my observations mean that weaponizing the federal government against liberals would benefit conservatives, halt wokeism, or stop socialism.  Such efforts would almost certainly ramp up the culture war, and wars produce lots of collateral damage.  Perhaps the Twitter Files will convince moderate Democrats to join in depoliticizing government operations.  Assessing the utility of any proposed actions is again not my purpose here.

The principled case for free speech and free association absolutism, however, does not seem strong. Stephanie Slade’s article quoted above appeared under the title “The Authoritarian Convergence.” Britain began rearming in 1938, following Hitler’s seizure of Czechoslovakia.  Germany had begun arming in violation of the Treaty of Versailles in 1935. Did Britain’s arming represent an authoritarian convergence with Nazi Germany?

Dialogue between classical liberals, libertarians, and national conservatives might uncover modest options for proceeding, or discern which actions are proper to take in self-defense. Consider Texas’ social media law, which has been upheld by the Fifth Circuit Court.  This law makes social media companies choose between serving as platforms with legal indemnification for users’ posts, or as publishers liable for their content.  This does not, in my opinion, strip social media companies of Section 230 coverage, but rather seek to commit them to serving as true platforms.

Here’s one final reason for libertarians to engage in dialogue.  If we do not, any plan will end up being far less liberal.

PHOTO: freedom protest. Photo by Marco Verch. Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).