There are many things wrong with what James is trying to say in this post. I will try to tackle a few of them. The meat of the post, which is also the part most riddled with odd suppositions and strangely drawn conclusions, is as follows:
The tea partiers, in insisting that economic policy derives from and reflects political principles, and not the other way around, help make this clear. Take taxes. When taxes are too many and too high, the economy suffers. But, as this decade has brutally taught us, taxes do not necessarily enrich the state, but they always aggrandize it. The evil of taxes is not primarily economic but political. When a government learns how to use taxes to coerce, control, and manage the behavior of its citizens, a country is placed on a perilous road — not to serfdom, necessarily, but to tyranny, a tyranny that lords over even the rich and famous, even when they happen to profit from its favor. The GOP is supposed to keep this kind of tyranny at bay, and when it comes near, the GOP is supposed to ward it off.
It’s in this regard that, over the past ten years, the GOP has failed. The trouble with RINOs is that, in their liberalism, they are often either blind to the threat of tyranny or they do not really see it as a problem. This is not because they ‘fail to understand the nature’ of tyranny. Tyrannical regimes can rule over dynamic, exciting societies, over huge numbers of people full of promise and purpose. They can focus resources on big challenges and execute amazing feats of efficiency and publicity. Just ask the growing number of American commentators suffering from China envy.
Three things are mistaken here.
First, that “taxes do not necessarily enrich the state, but they always aggrandize it” strikes me as a very odd thing to assert n the context of the past decade. While taxes may indeed aggrandize the state, how James can reach this conclusion after a period in which tax rates have been at historical lows is beyond me. If anything, the past decade has revealed the state’s capacity to endlessly borrow in order to pay for the spending that Republicans and Democrats alike cannot seem to cut back.
And while taxes can indeed be corrosive to liberty and used to coerce citizens and distort the natural economy and a whole host of other abuses, they can also be used for legitimate purposes – though no two people can agree on what those purposes may be. I assume James approves of our tax dollars going to our national defense, for instance, but perhaps not toward national healthcare. Calling this tyranny without explaining why it is tyranny is mostly unsatisfying, especially coming from someone who can certainly think past such trite assertions.
The notion that RINO’s are blind to said tyranny or do not perceive it as a problem is on similarly weak footing. Since tyranny here has only been vaguely defined to begin with, it is difficult to understand exactly how these Republicans In Name Only – of which I would surely be one if I were registered to vote Republican – can be accused of such blindness or apathy. Until this supposed tyranny can be tangibly defined, I have a hard time taking this seriously at all. Unless we are to fall back on old anti-Soviet tropes, of course. One man’s tyranny is another man’s bulwark against social decline, and vice versa.
And last I checked the “growing number of American commentators suffering China envy” numbers at one Tom Friedman.
James loses me entirely here, however:
Moreover, liberals of any party seeking primarily to foster or facilitate cultural change typically have little desire to focus their attention, much less their careers, on preventing the government from aggrandizing itself. A government that routinely manages economic behavior through its economic policy is well able to routinely manage social and personal behavior that way. In theory, there’s no reason why lots of Republicans can’t be ‘socially liberal but fiscally conservative.’ In practice, social liberals, of any party, have a vested interest in a government that rules not only by law but by economics.
This is a preposterous thing to say. Perhaps I’m biased since I’m “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” myself (I know, the first step toward RINOism!) but I think that statements such as this only function if politics is truly a linear field, if “socially liberal” or “socially conservative” can only be defined in the narrowest of terms. (My own socially liberal positions I have framed in conservative terms, but that is neither here nor there.) After all, social conservatism used to include a belief that black people were inferior to whites. Unless, of course, you were one of those radical religious abolitionists. Or, in other words, such distinctions are useless except as darts to be thrown at the other team, or walls to be erected around your own. Which is what James is doing with this post, of course – picking sides, distancing himself from the RINO’s and the liberal conservatives, heaping praise on the tea parties and so forth.
Furthermore, not only “social liberals” but anyone with a stake in maintaining power has a “vested interest in a government that rules not only by law but by economics.” Does James really believe that conservatives are so benign as to not use economic policy as a means of political control? I have a hard time believing that. Nor can I quite reproduce the lines drawn between social liberalism and economic control that James infers. We are forced to take such claims at face value. I find this about as likely as Sullivan’s assertions over the threat of Christianism – which is to say not very.
Prosperity itself seems to be the primary culprit behind the threat of the Pink Police State which James has written about previously – and which, I assume, is the vision of tyranny he alludes to above (or something like it). With prosperity comes a longer leash on our temptations, the purchasing power to succumb to them, the atomization required to shed our traditional social mores – but temptations defy political cliques. Nor can we ever snuff them out entirely, though many have tried. And thus we must shape society not so much to resist them but to protect against their worst effects. That seems like a worthy goal of social conservatives and liberals alike.
James rallies toward the end, offering up some smart points about the tea parties and the empty promises of the Republican leadership of yesteryear. I am not exactly anti-tea-party myself, though I do find the inconsistencies of the movement distracting and disheartening, and at times I admit to a bit of cynicism and black humor over the whole thing. In that sense, James has some important things to say. The meat of this post, however, leaves an ashy taste.