free citizens -vs- state subjects

  1. 4,788 Posts.

    2 October 2004

    Private enterprise

    Conservatism thrives in America, says Mark Steyn, because citizens Ñ not subjects Ñ are suspicious of government and want to be left to their own devices


    Conservatism is a going concern hardly anywhere these days, alas and alack. And, even if you find a chap willing to be labelled as such, heÕs not always reliably so in practice.

    Stephen Harper, the leader of the new Conservative party of Canada, is a pleasant fellow, but nobody who used approvingly the phrase Ôa womanÕs right to chooseÕ, as he did in an election debate earlier this year, could get the Republican nomination south of the border: I understand the soft-pedalling on abortion, but I do object to him adopting the horrible slippery euphemism of the Left.

    Likewise, John Howard, the Australian Prime Minister, is AmericaÕs doughtiest ally in the war on terror, but I wouldnÕt want to live under his governmentÕs gun-control laws.

    As for Jacques Chirac, the fact that heÕs what passes for a conservative in France is all most of us crazy right-wingers need to know about his country.

    But in America large swaths of the nation are still robustly conservative. Not all of them, of course, and, because Fleet Street correspondents are disproportionately concentrated in New York, Washington and Los Angeles, itÕs easy for them to get the impression that thereÕs not all that many conservatives Ñ just a few isolated communities in the Bible Belt and a couple of survivalist militias up in the Rockies. This leads to the careless assumptions of so many in the European media about John KerryÕs election prospects and the inevitable tears on the morning of 3 November.

    But the way KerryÕs campaigning on cultural issues gives you the real clue to the dominant forces in American life: he talks up his Catholicism; on abortion, he says he Ôpersonally believesÕ life begins at conception, itÕs just that as a Democrat he canÕt find it in him to legislate according to his principles; everywhere he goes he gets photographed brandishing guns, even guns that he, as an effete Massachusetts panty-waist, has voted to ban; he boasts to hunting magazines about his favourite assault rifle Ñ at least until the legality of his ownership of such a weapon is called into question. This is how a big-government, anti-globalisation, socialised-healthcare, Francophiliac Democrat has to campaign in America: pro-guns, pro-God, deeply evasive on abortion. In almost any other Western nation, none of these things would matter.

    Before September 11, most observers assumed that the LeftÕs coalition was the coherent one and it was the RightÕs that was unwieldy Ñ what did the Wall Street crowd have in common with the gun nuts, or the national-security types with the religious Right?

    But 9/11 exposed the internal contradictions of modish multiculturalism: true, many gays and feminists are so invested in their loathing of George W. Bush that on Afghanistan and Iraq theyÕre happy to make common cause with IslamÕs women-oppressing, sodomite-beheading theocrats. But eventually the penny will drop, as it did for Pim Fortuyn in Holland.

    The American Right, on the other hand, is supposed to be split from top to toe between ÔneoconsÕ and ÔpaleoconsÕ, the latter being the isolationist Right and the former being sinister Jewish intellectuals whoÕve turned the Bush administration into an arm of Israeli foreign policy. One problem for those who see conservatism in terms of this epic struggle is that one side doesnÕt exist. The ÔpaleoconsÕ boil down to a handful of anti-war conservatives, the most prominent being Pat Buchanan, who in the 2000 presidential election got 0.42 per cent of the vote. HeÕs no BNP, never mind Ukip. The real divide is between the neocons (for want of a better term) and the Ôassertive nationalistsÕ Ñ thatÕs to say, those who think we ought to bomb rogue states, smash their regimes and rebuild them as democratic societies, and those who think we ought to bomb rogue states, smash their regimes, and then leave them to stew in their own juices, with a reminder that if the next thug is foolish enough to catch WashingtonÕs eye, then (as Arnie says) ÔAhÕll be back!Õ This difference can seem like a big deal Ñ those who think we need to win their hearts and minds vs those who think theyÕre mostly heartless and mindless, so who cares? But in truth itÕs only a difference of degree.

    To British conservatives, for whom there are no constituencies equivalent to the evangelical Christians and the Second Amendment types, the American Right can look a little freaky. But one of the consequences of September 11 is that it revealed the conservative coalition to be much more cohesive than superficial appearances might suggest. For starters, take small government. Every true conservative ought to be sceptical about government, because thereÕs hardly anything the government does that wouldnÕt be better done by somebody else. Imagine if the GPO still ran BritainÕs telephone network. Imagine the kind of Internet service youÕd have. Because of a compromise deal to avoid redundancies with the Amalgamated Union of Fax Machine Installers, youÕd be paying different rates according to which domain you sent an email to: .uk? ThatÕd be 30p. .fr? ThatÕd be one pound. . nz? ThatÕd be 15 quid. And it would take a week. And youÕd have to apply a month in advance for an online session. And take a postal order round to the nearest application-processing office.

    Conservatives embrace big government at their peril. The silliest thing Dick Cheney has ever said was a couple of weeks after 9/11: ÔOne of the things thatÕs changed so much since September 11 is the extent to which people do trust the government Ñ big shift Ñ and value it, and have high expectations for what we can do.Õ

    Really? IÕd say 9/11 vindicated perfectly a decentralised, federalist, conservative view of the state: what worked that day was municipal government, small government, core government Ñ the firemen, the NYPD cops, rescue workers. What flopped Ñ big-time, as the Vice-President would say Ñ was federal government, the FBI, CIA, INS, FAA and all the other hotshot, money-no-object, fancypants acronyms. Under the system operating on that day, if one of the many Algerian terrorists living on welfare in Montreal attempted to cross the US border at Derby Line, Vermont, and got refused entry by an alert official, he would be able to drive a few miles east, attempt to cross at Beecher Falls, Vermont, and they had no way of knowing that heÕd been refused entry just half an hour earlier. No compatible computers.

    On the other hand, if that same Algerian terrorist went to order a book online, amazon.com would know that heÕd bought The DummyÕs Guide to Martyrdom Operations two years ago and their ÔWe have some suggestions for you!Õ box would be proffering a 30 per cent discount on The A-Z of Infidel Slaying and 72 Hot Love Tips That Will Have Your Virgins Panting For More. Amazon is a more efficient miner of information than US Immigration.

    Is it to do with their respective budgets? No. AmazonÕs system is very cheap, but itÕs in the nature of government to do things worse, and slower. To take another example from September 11, on three planes the crew and passengers followed Federal Aviation Administration procedures largely unchanged from the Seventies and they all died, along with thousands of other people; on the fourth plane, Flight 93, they used their cellphones, discovered that FAA regulations werenÕt going to save them, and then acted as free-born citizens, rising up against the terrorists and, at the cost of their own lives, preventing that flight carrying on to its target in Washington. On a morning when big government failed, the only good news came from private citizens. The Cult of Regulation failed, but the great American virtues of self-reliance and innovation saved the lives of thousands: ÔLetÕs roll!Õ as Todd Beamer told his fellow passengers. Within 90 minutes of the first flight hitting the tower, the heroes of Flight 93 had figured out what was going on and came up with a way to stop it. By contrast, on 11 March 2002, six months to the day after Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi died flying their respective planes into the twin towers, their flight school in Florida received a letter from the Immigration and Naturalisation Service informing it that Mr AttaÕs and Mr al-ShehhiÕs student visas had been approved. Even killing thousands of people wasnÕt enough to impede Mr AttaÕs smooth progress through a lethargic bureaucracy. And the bureaucratsÕ defence Ñ which boiled down to: donÕt worry, weÕre only issuing visas to famous dead terrorists, not obscure living ones Ñ is one that Americans largely have to take on trust.

    So one of the lessons of 9/11 is that in the end citizen initiative is more reliable than nanny-state regulation. ThatÕs one reason no Democrat in a competitive district wants to run on an anti-gun platform. In the weeks after 9/11, gun sales in some states were up over 20 per cent, especially sales to women. ÔLetÕs roll!Õ beats gun control any day. The supposedly opposite ends on the conservative continuum Ñ the foreign-policy think-tanks fussing over geopolitical trends in post-Soviet Central Asia and the stump- toothed guys in plaid with full gun-racks in their pick-ups Ñ turn out to have an identical world view: the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Three years ago, I got a flurry of emails from Yorkshire, Oslo, Marseilles and elsewhere recounting incidents of gangs of Muslim youths enthusiastically celebrating the glorious victory of 9/11 by swarming around cars, banging on the windows, intimidating the drivers, yelling OsamaÕs name. If you tried that in Texas, the guy would reach in his glove box and blow your head off. Second Amendment conservatism is more secure and better integrated with the bespoke mainstream than itÕs been in years. The government canÕt tell you youÕve got to be on full alert and at the same time announce new restrictions on the right to defend yourself and your home.

    Social conservatism is also more secure. Fainthearted Canadian Tories may have signed on to Ôa womanÕs right to chooseÕ, but the refusal of American conservatives to accept, as the rest of the West has, that the abortion issue is settled looks sounder every day. Whether or not individual women should have the right to choose, the state has no interest in encouraging them to do so. What Western societies need is more babies. Without them, the Dar al-Islam will win by default, slowly annexing shrivelled, barren, secular Europe. Unlovely though they may be to worldly British Tories, AmericaÕs religious Right has in fact a more rational view of the world than European hyper-rationalists.

    At dinner parties in London in recent years, IÕve noticed a question recurring from time to time about whether Britons see themselves as ÔcitizensÕ or ÔsubjectsÕ. ItÕs a loaded question usually thrown out by some Guardian-reading republican who thinks the country would benefit from a president of the Mary Robinson school. But I must say I never feel more like a ÔsubjectÕ than when I go to some grimly egalitarian government agency. Some years ago, I was obliged to visit an SAAQ office (SociŽtŽ de lÕAssurance Automobile du Quebec) in Montreal Ñ thatÕs where you go to register a car or apply for a test or renew a driverÕs licence. When you go in you have to stand in a long line to get a number telling you which of the other long lines to go and stand in Ñ B173 or E289 or whatever. I knew they didnÕt take payment by credit card, but they had said they took debit cards, so I had mine with me. When I got to the front, the clerk said the only card machine had broken so IÕd have to go off and get the cash and then stand in the first line all over again to get the number for the second line Ñ B497 or E923. My objection in those days was mainly on grounds of inconvenience and aesthetics. But since 9/11 IÕve come to believe that whatÕs worst about it is the way it enfeebles those who submit to it. At a certain stage Ñ socialised healthcare certainly comes into it Ñ states reach a tipping point where the citizens are getting so much from the state that you can no longer have truly conservative government ever again. Or, more accurately, they think theyÕre getting a lot. For what Britons and Canadians pay in taxes for their miserable government health service, they ought to be entitled to three terminal diseases a year.

    If I wasnÕt a conservative before 9/11, IÕd certainly be one now. On one side I see decayed, self-absorbed passivity: citizens reduced to junkies with government as the pusher. On the other stand the gun-crazies, the religious Right, the home-schoolers, the flat-taxers and all the rest: you donÕt have to agree with them on everything to appreciate that, in a new war which not all of the West will survive, they have an advantage over the Swedes and Belgians. A self-reliant conservative citizenry is a better bet than the subjects of an overbearing state.


    © 2004 The Spectator.co.uk


 
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