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(This essay originated as a response to a Libertarian commenting on another Libertarian’s Facebook page, making the familiar argument about why Jeffersonian democracy, emphasizing minimal government, was both the intention of our Founding Fathers, and is the best form of government possible.)

As you might have gathered, I like the dialectic, so here’s both the antithesis to your thesis, and the synthesis of the two:

Adams, Franklin, and Hamilton wanted stronger central government than Jefferson did (thus, the first incarnation of our perennial, unintended and undesired,l two-party system was Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans v. Hamilton/Adams’ Federalists, the latter pretty much meaning the opposite of what it does today: a strong federal government). The country was a product of these competing views, and has continued to be carved on the lathe of a similar dichotomy throughout its history, to excellent effect. The Constitution itself was the first victory for the “stronger federal government” side, requiring convincing a population that considered each state a sovereign…, well, “state,” in the original and still used sense of a sovereign political unit.

These arguments to a reluctant public were made, most cogently and famously, in The Federalist Papers, a collection of essays by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay arguing for the need to create a sufficiently strong central government. This was in response to the failed Articles of Confederation, which did not provide a sufficiently strong central government.

The history of the country ever since has been one of a punctuated growth in power of the central government. I know that I just stated your major contention, but I don’t see it as a necessarily bad thing, or a betrayal of our founding philosophy: It is, rather, the articulation of lived history with founding principles, since the latter guided the process and form of the former. We retained strong protections for individual rights within the context of that strong federal government: Free speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to organize, freedom of press, freedom of religion, protections from police (i.e., state) overreach into our private lives.

In fact, the stronger federal government has been primarily responsible for, and grew in response to the demand for, the extension of those protections of individual liberty; extending them to categories of people to whom they had been denied, and extending them to protect people from the overreaches of individual states as well as the federal government.

The genealogy of Libertarianism, and the argument on which it depends, while exalted by its association with Jefferson, is in fact characterized more by its defense of inequality and injustice (see also The History of American Libertarianism). From the ratification of the Constitution to the Civil War, it was the argument of slave owners resisting the abolition of slavery, the southern statesman John C. Calhoun famously arguing in Union and Liberty that a commitment to “liberty” and to the protection of “minorities” required the protection of the “liberty” of the “minority” southerners to own slaves! This argument was the argument of the “states’ rights,” small federal government ideological camp. That camp lost by losing the Civil War and by the abolition of slavery.

From the Civil War to the Civil Rights Era, the states’ rights, small federal government ideology was invoked to preserve Jim Crow and resist the enforcement of Constitutional guarantees to protect the rights of minorities (in the modern sense of the word), especially African Americans. That camp lost by a series of Supreme Court holdings (most notably Brown v. Board of Education) and the passage of The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (by which President Lyndon B. Johnson knowingly and willingly lost southern whites, who had until then formed a major branch of the Democratic Party, to the Republican Party, where they have since resided, and continue to comprise a large portion of the adherents to this perennial ideology).

Contemporary Libertarianism is the logical next step in this progression, after having resisted the abolition of slavery in the name of “liberty,” and the passage of Civil Rights legislation and Court holdings in the name of “liberty,” it now opposes the further confrontation of the legacy of that racist and discriminatory history by insisting, falsely, that “we’re all equal now, so any attempt to address, as a nation, the injustices still embedded in our political economy and culture is a deprivation of the liberty of those against whose interests it is to do so.” In other words, just as in those previous incarnations throughout our history, this particular concept of “liberty” still means “my liberty to screw you.”

Libertarians, conveniently, don’t see it this way, because it is a passive “screwing,” one that involves leaving in place institutionalized, but not legally reproduced, inequities and injustices. It is, as it has been before, the insistence that “we’ve done enough, and need do no more,” just as the defenders of slavery considered acquiescing to a national constitution was enough, and the defenders of racism considered acquiescing to abolition was enough, modern Libertarians think that acquiescing to a formal, legal end to racial discrimination is enough,and that it is an affront to their “liberty” to attempt to address as a nation, as a polity, the non-legally reproduced but deeply entrenched inequality of opportunity that persists in our country (see, e.g., The Paradox of Property).

This national commitment to ever-deepening and ever-broadening Liberty, including equality of opportunity without which liberty is, to varying degrees and in varying ways, granted to some and denied to others, involves more than just the African American experience: It involves women, Native Americans, gays, practitioners of disfavored religions (such as Islam), members of ethnic groups who are most highly represented in the current wave of undocumented immigration (such as Hispanics), basically, “out-groups” in general. It’s no coincidence that Libertarianism is so closely linked to Christian Fundamentalism and militant nationalism: It is an ideology that focuses on a notion of individual liberty that is, in effect and implementation, highly exclusive and highly discriminatory. (There are, it should be noted, branches of Libertarianism which are more internally consistent, and, at least, reject these overt hypocrisies, while still retaining the implicit, passive, retention of historically determined inequality of opportunity described above.)

History has demanded increasing centralization of powers for other reasons as well: an increasingly complex market economy with increasingly difficult-to-manage opportunities for centralized market actors to game markets in highly pernicious ways (due to information asymmetries); increasingly pernicious economic externalities increasingly robustly generated by our wonderful wealth-producing market dynamo (see Collective Action (and Time Horizon) Problems and Political Market Instruments); in general, a complex dynamical system that is highly organic and self-regulating, but not perfectly so, and without some pretty sophisticated centralized management is doomed to frequent and devastating collapse.

(This is why, by the way, every single modern developed nation, without exception, has a large administrative infrastructure, and had in place a large administrative infrastructure prior to participating in the post-WII explosion in the production of wealth. The characteristic that Libertarians insist is antithetical to the production of wealth is one of the characteristics universally present in all nations that have been most successful in producing wealth.)

The tension between our demand for individual liberty and minimal government, on the one hand, and a government adequately large and empowered to confront the real challenges posed by our increasingly complex social institutional landscape on the other, is a healthy tension, just as the tension among the branches of government is a healthy tension. We don’t want one side of any of these forces in tension to predominate absolutely: We want the tension itself to remain intact, largely as it has throughout our history. Through it, we took the genius of the Constitution, and extended it to constraints imposed on state and local as well as federal government, recognizing through our experience with the institution of slavery that tyranny doesn’t have to be vested in the more remote locus of government, and the resistance to it doesn’t always come from the more local locus of government. And through it, we took the genius of the Constitution, and extended it through the lessons of history and the pragmatic demands placed on our national self-governance by the evolution of our technological and social institutional context.

The pragmatic, moderate, flexible, analytical implementation of our ideals that has resulted, protecting the true liberties that we treasure, extending them to those who were excluded, deepening them in many ways for all of us, and allowing, at the same time, for us to act, as a polity, through our agent of collective action (government), in ways that serve our collective interests, is what serves us best, and what we should remain committed to, with ever greater resolve.

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We humans are naturally inclined to believe that things are as they appear to be. “If it walks like a duck…,” and all that. We all knew, even before we really could, that O.J. did it (unless we were among the many African Americans who alternatively knew that the system was unfailingly biased against African Americans, even very wealthy and famous ones, and that O.J. was therefore being railroaded).  And lots of people similarly knew that Tim Masters did it, until some dedicated lawyers swimming upstream and for no pay proved that he didn’t, getting him released from prison after 18 years languishing there. Once we know, we filter our perceptions to reinforce our certainty. That’s the nature of prejudice, and it is far more ubiquitous, far more an inherent aspect of our lives, than most of us recognize.

In criminal matters, the first line of defense against error is the police, who, rather than being less inclined to prejudice than lay people, are more inclined. Professional experience breeds cynicism; a system which provides in some ways extravagant protections for the innocent provides too many ways out for the guilty; and the desire to compensate for that system of institutionalized doubt creates little room for doubt among those who know who committed the crime. Certainties are quickly arrived at, and evidence is sought to confirm rather than refute them. The police “put together a case” rather than test their assumptions, and a narrative is constructed that proves guilt, whether or not such guilt corresponds to reality (the fact that it usually does is not at issue, nor in opposition to this thesis, since injustices are not made more just by virtue of being in the minority).

So the police, the first line of defense, are more rather than less inclined than lay people to rely on prejudice, and to reinforce rather than question their own hasty assumptions.

Once a person is identified as guilty by the police, the presumption is really against them, though institutionally in their favor. Jurors see someone who the police arrested and who is on trial for a crime. And if that person is not terribly sympathetic, all the worse for them.

But jurors, I’m told, take their duties very seriously, and don’t convict too precipitously. And the system as a whole really does try to protect the innocent, counterbalancing some of these prejudices. Despite the many ways in which our judicial system is far less inclined to justice than we imagine, it is far more inclined to justice than almost any other sphere of our lives.

We do not enjoy the same degree of due process protections for non-judicial decisions that may dramatically affect our welfare. In many spheres, the process given involves an investigation, determination, and recommendation all done by a single office, often with a very highly pronounced predisposition of its own. If our judicial system allows more prejudice and injustice into it than we commonly imagine, then all other similar activities beyond it, that place the roles of investigation, prosecution, and judgement all in the hands of a single, predisposed agency, are doomed to be outright mockeries of justice, railroading people almost as often as they get it right.

And we enjoy no due process protections whatsoever in the court of public opinion, where the failures of other spheres become embedded in permanent reality, and a far wider universe of informal failures of its own are added to them. Some are quasi-official, such as the person who ends up on a sex offenders registry for urinating in public (something I believe that most men, at least, have done on at least one occasion, usually with as much discretion as possible). Some are simply part of our nature, such as the eccentric being ostracized.

We remain throughout our lives, to a degree we are loathe to recognize, the same essential creatures as the children we once were, mocking the little girl with the hearing aid, or the boy with a bit too much saliva production. There is a cruelty, an intolerance, that permeates what we are, in ways that we disregard or dismiss as trivial, but that have a far greater cumulative effect than we often realize.

But injustice is more deeply rooted still. We are born into different conditions in life, different opportunity structures, different lots. A person born into an abusive and neglectful family, surrounded, perhaps, by violence, poverty, drug use, and gangs that are the only source of mutual support available, does not face the same prospects as one born into an affluent and nurturing home (not to suggest that all impoverished homes are not nurturing, or that all affluent ones are).

One measure of civilization should be the degree to which we mitigate these myriad and prevalent injustices, the degree to which we level the playing field and ensure that all face equality of opportunity, and at least informal and self-imposed protection from prejudices and cruelties in all their forms. Public education is one, insufficient, vehicle for doing so. Cultivating a more widespread attitude of tolerance, mutual support, a belief that we are all members of a society, a desire to assist rather than condemn, would also go a long way to moving us further in the direction of a more just and compassionate society. Such notions have rarely been more embattled in this country, which is why they have rarely been in greater need of more voices more loudly advocating them, and more wills more diligently embracing them.