A few days ago, I was chatting with a friend of liberal persuasion about the cult-classic TV series "Firefly" - which, particularly in its concluding theatrical film, is one of pop culture's strongest parables about libertarianism and rebellion against authority. If you're unfamiliar with the show, it was a science-fiction program about a space-faring band of lovable rogues, some of whom fought in a losing rebellion against their totalitarian government. The rebels were known as "Browncoats," which also became a nickname for fans of the show.
My liberal friend, noting that the creator of "Firefly," Joss Whedon, is outspokenly of the Left himself, suggested that perhaps liberal and conservative anti-authoritarians might have more common ground than they realize. It's an interesting common ground upon which to begin a dialogue. If we agree on reducing the level of authority over our lives, surely we could set aside some of our differences over why we "aim to misbehave," to borrow a memorable "Firefly" quote. Or, at the very least, we could agree that we don't want any more authoritarian control, regardless of whether the prospective tyrants claim they would use their new power for causes of the Left or Right.
I'll be more than happy to join in that dialogue, just as soon as someone points me at the liberal Browncoats. I'm not going to hold my breath waiting. Because in the current American political environment, liberalism and authoritarianism are synonymous. Nothing about the Left's agenda is a suggestion. Obedience is mandatory, and escape is impossible. When a person of liberal inclination loses interest in using compulsive force, he stops being liberal, under the current definitions of the term.
Which is not to say there aren't people of the Right who would like a chance to plant their maker hooks in the gigantic sandworm of the centralized State and drive it around for a while (if I might mix sci-fi metaphors and tip my cap to the "Dune" fans out there.) There's plenty of theoretical room for people of liberal and conservative inclinations to band together in a mighty brotherhood of surly individualism and tell all the busybodies with clipboards to leave us the hell alone. Many of the people who identify themselves as "socially liberal, fiscally conservative" are essentially saying that they believe social issues should be topics of discussion, rather than matters of compulsive obedience. "Keep the Democrats out of our wallets, and the Republicans out of our bedrooms," as another friend of mine is wont to put it.
But in case you haven't noticed, the Democrats are in our bedrooms now, too. They've got a past-due bill for other peoples' contraceptives they expect you to pay, and they don't want to hear about your religious conscience. The fashionable new argument that refusing to subsidize something equals "denying access" is inherently compulsive. You're not allowed to refuse, no matter what, because the elites have decided what its good for us, and everyone is required to accept their decision. If that's not "authoritarianism," I don't know what is.
We have an unfortunate tendency to avoid characterizing the exercise of power as "authoritarian" if the ends are ostensibly benevolent. That's a huge mistake, because those with a lust for power have no problem presenting all of their plans as benevolent. The heroes of "Firefly" discover just how far that line of reasoning can be taken, in their final adventure. Want to see a world designed from the ground up by absolute rulers convinced they know what's best for everyone? Drop by the planet Miranda. Don't plan on staying long.
Science fiction is not necessary to extrapolate the abuse of power by people who claim to have the very best intentions. History offers many examples, and not just the horrid bloodbaths of the big Twentieth Century wars. Authoritarian rule doesn't become wrong when it grows unbearable. It doesn't start being wrong when it opens its first concentration camp, or executes its first political prisoners. Power is not exercised solely by armed thugs wearing jackboots. That's the endgame. Why play the game at all?
People who consider themselves "liberal" and "conservative" share many of the same goals. They both care about the poor, for example. But if you believe only the exercise of compulsive political power on a massive scale can "do something" about poverty, you're not going to show much respect for the moral standing of people who think private charity is the answer. That's how politicians who take tax deductions for their used underwear presume to sit in moral judgment over people who donate millions to charity, and pronounce themselves more "compassionate," because the coercive State is the sole source of real compassion.
It's also interesting to note that modern liberalism viscerally hates the Tea Party movement, even though the Tea Party is primarily concerned with pure anti-authoritarian devolution of the State. They want the government to spend less, behave more responsibly with the money it takes, stop looting future generations with deranged deficits, and cut back on its regulatory burden. They are not, as a rule, interested in building up government power to impose religious or social visions on others, which is a common criticism the anti-authoritarian of liberal inclination levels against conservatives and Republicans. But the Left loathes the Tea Party, even though anti-authority liberals should see considerable common ground with them as a movement (if not invariably applauding their chosen political candidates.) A lot of that loathing is because the Tea Party is politically inconvenient to authoritarian Democrats, one in particular. There's a lot of top-down control on the Left these days, too many marching orders issued from central command.
Our definitions of liberal and conservative change over time, to say nothing of political party agendas. At the moment, what we refer to as "liberalism" is dedicated to the expansion of government power, which inevitably means the attenuation of liberty. You can't have that both ways - a bigger government means less freedom. That's easy to understand when considering a huge pile of new regulations, or higher taxes that confiscate the money we need to carry out our individual decisions. But freedom also shrivels when money - even imaginary money fresh from the unicorn pens beneath the Treasury building - is spent to cancel out market forces, prop up companies that consumers chose not to do business with, insulate people from the effect of their life choices, provide competitive advantages to politically favored industries, and of course satisfy the bottomless appetite of the Ruling Class for corrupt payoffs and purchased votes. The exercise of power is the absence of choice.
Surely we must have some power, some authority, some laws that the residence of all fifty states must obey. But it has become increasingly common to treat dissent from national agendas as a crime, using the power of government to encourage or punish behavior that is not an offense against universal and inalienable rights. It's actually very difficult to accept that everyone shares common rights that cannot be violated for any reason... because it's so easy to think of reasons to violate them, in the service of great plans that highly credentialed people assure us will benefit society as a whole. And some people are doing so well that they really shouldn't object to a little chipping away at their common rights, aren't they? The siren song of benevolent authority is very difficult to resist.
The shadowy menace of socially conservative theocracy has supposedly been looming over us for my entire life, but it's hard to get a straight answer about what these enigmatic theocrats would force us to do. Granted that in theory the anti-authoritarian doesn't want to be ruled by either secular or religious dictators, in practice the coercive plans of the social conservatives seem an awful lot lighter than the yoke liberal social engineers expect us to wear. Okay, the dreaded Religious Right opposes abortion, but the current regime involves the deployment of more coercive force than overturning Roe vs. Wade and sending the issue to the states would. You can't ask the targets of abortion how they feel about the force used against them, of course, but you might take a look at how much "public money" is forced into the hands of the abortion industry. And once we get past the abortion question, what's left on the sinister agenda of the theocrats? Would someone please total up the bill and let me know how it stacks up against the annual tithe demanded by the Church of Global Warming? Can anyone print up a bullet-point list of what the heavy-handed social cons plan to force everyone in the United States to do?
Without turning a blind eye to the possibility that anyone who gains control of the Leviathan State can misuse it - often in ways they don't envision, when they're out of power - it seems silly to talk about the authoritarian threat from anyone else while the Left is busy hyper-regulating everything in our homes, automobiles, offices, and pockets. The State has grown so large that it has a bureaucratic inertia that can't be properly described as "Left" or "Right" - the machine feeds itself, with no hard feelings to the people it consumes, and little concern for whether they style themselves liberal or conservative.
Everyone who thinks he or she has a Browncoat in the closet should be able to agree that the most urgent task before us is to reduce the size and reach of the State so that nobody can abuse it, no matter what letter is printed after their name on the ballot, or the nature of the utopia they want to transform America into. I don't have much problem with anyone who wants to tell me what I should do, provided they respect my right to disagree. I'm very concerned about the people who intend to make me do it, and their tendency to describe disagreement as treason, something we've heard from ObamaCare defenders more than once in recent months. The equation of dissent with treason is scary as hell, even when it's just a rhetorical flourish. It doesn't usually stay rhetorical for long.
There's far too much obedience in the Land of the Free these days. We should all aim to misbehave more.