Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Why the lessons of Colorado Springs won't be learned by the people that need to learn them

I’m proud to be American and strong in my beliefs
And I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again
Because I never need a government to hold my hand.

                                             -Aaron Lewis, "Country Boy"
...until you do.

As essentially everyone in the United States now knows, among a sure majority in the wealthy Western democracies of the world, the state of Colorado was the location of one of the most horrific wildfires in recent memory (not to suggest that there haven't been some rather serious contenders in the past few years, particularly in California), certainly considered to be the worst in Coloradan history. The Waldo Canyon fires, which were caused by a lightning strike in the very dry canyon just northwest of Colorado Springs, consumed more than fifteen thousand acres of forest, displaced more than thirty thousand citizens, destroyed hundreds of homes, killed a handful of people, and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, if not more than a billion. The scope of the tragedy is enormous.

But what does this have to do with Lewis's lyrics?

The connections to the fallacious thinking Lewis's chorus presents, as exposed by the Waldo Canyon fires, are numerous, not least including indictments about the second-tier dangers of global-warming from insufficiently regulated carbon emissions. To see that point, though, we have to realize that Colorado Springs is, perhaps, the most (conservative) Libertarian city in the country at present. As a result, they are profoundly anti-tax, anti-state, pro-individual, and they essentially could use Lewis's song as an anthem. For years, Colorado Springs has attracted, catered to, concentrated, and acted upon Libertarian values, and in this case, it was to their peril. Indeed, the city describes itself, welcoming visitors and new residents, this way.
Conservatives and libertarians, welcome to Colorado Springs. This is your home away from home. The local culture is overwhelmingly pro-military, pro-gun, pro-religion, pro-family, pro-business and pro-life. We elected the most conservative mayor in the country. City and state laws prevent unrestrained government spending and force politicians to ask taxpayers for new taxes. Yes, it is nirvana. Already a conservative mecca, our city hosts some of the brightest freedom advocates from around the globe.
Nirvana may be a bit overreaching, though, as I don't believe being on fire is part of the state defined to be that of perfect non-suffering. It should be noted that between the lines of this idyllic image of the city are the enormous cuts to personnel, not least notably in the police and fire departments.

Amanda Crawford, writing for the Seattle Times reports clearly on the situation under the headline "Colorado's emergency response teams burned by anti-tax attitudes":
Since the start of the 18-month recession in December 2007, U.S. cities have faced shrinking revenue and diminishing state support, leading to budget cuts and reductions in services and workforces. Cities faced a fifth-straight year of revenue declines in 2011, according to the National League of Cities, which estimated that municipalities would have to fill budget gaps of as much as $83 billion from 2010-2012.
Colorado Springs, which depends on sales tax for about half its revenue, was hit harder than most. The city — the birthplace 20 years ago of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which later passed statewide and has been pushed around the country to restrict government spending — became a high-profile example of cost-cutting. The law restricts government spending to the previous year's revenue, adjusted only for population growth and inflation.
"People are going to be looking at the aftermath of this disaster to see what is possible," said Josh Dunn, an associate professor of political science at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. "How far can you go in cutting the size of city government?"
The city, home of the evangelical Christian group Focus on the Family, is known for being conservative and libertarian. It "was the tea party before the tea party was cool," Dunn said.
She goes on to point out that
Dunn notes that the city, where there is strong anti-federal-government sentiment, is now turning to the U.S. for assistance. Before visiting Colorado on Friday, President Obama declared the state a disaster area, which frees aid for communities affected by the wildfires. "Ironically, Colorado Springs is going to rely heavily on federal funds for rebuilding," Dunn said. "But it won't cover everything."
This state of affairs is not acceptable (although receiving federal disaster relief is), and the Seattle Times seems to be covering it rather gently, as compared with overtly progressive sources like the Daily Kos ("Colorado Springs, Rescuing Conservative Paradise") and Alternet ("How Right-Wing Ideology Stoked the Fire in Colorado Spring"), both of which are trending at least on the liberal/progressive venues on social media. There are some keywords here that make the case that the lessons here, despite what Crawford wrote in her Seattle Times piece, will not be learned, at least not by the people who need to learn them. Important for my purposes, these articles expose the degree to which Colorado Springs's extremely conservative-Libertarian government cut costs and government services, including to fire and police personnel and equipment.

To understand this apparent enigma, we need to take a brief diversion about libertarianism. This is a philosophical school of thought with two distinct prongs, one concerned with developing and embracing the core values of liberty (here: called "libertarianism," lower-case) and one that is decidedly anti-statist and quasi-anarcho-capitalist, when not overtly so (here: "Libertarianism," capitalized). Generally, we can call the first, libertarianism, a philosophical framework in which one accepts as axiomatic that human beings (and other sentient beings) possess certain inalienable rights as a result of whatever virtue, and a critical goal of constructing societies is to enable the goal of preserving as much individual liberty as collective living allows. The second, Libertarianism, is more of a politically infused ideology, just as the Alternet article mentions, and is therefore a different animal. Indeed, the two concepts have very little to do with one another beyond an agreement to use the word "liberty" to mean two essentially different things and exalt those ideas as a virtue.

The essential problem is that Libertarianism, the second type, is quasi-religious, if not outright religious, in its very nature. It is built upon a number of fanciful ideal-world conceptions, sometimes referred to as Libertarian Utopias, often bolstered and sold by a certain rugged, self-sufficient and yet adolescent romanticism. In these utopias, described in heavily romantic language by their modern Prophet, Ayn Rand, the bothersome details are imaginary: where freedom to do and not to have done to you are one and the same, where the private-sector will be well-equipped to responsibly handle unforeseeable disasters (or where they don't happen), and where imperfections and corruptions take care of themselves out of a universal ethos--never mind that it doesn't exist or that it is woefully simplistic with a single entity believed to be the supervillain behind every possible wrong.

In Libertarianism, there is a certain belief in a future world in which voluntary action fills every need, rendering coercion unnecessary and nonexistent, in which independence and equality never clash with one another, and in which the only true authorities are internal and thus invisible, to paraphrase Joseph Ellis's in his stunning critique of the mind of Thomas Jefferson (the American Patron Saint of Freedom), American Sphinx. It's a great vision, possibly most useful in creating the fervor that stirred up great acts like the American and French revolutions, and yet it is a wistfully adolescent example of the perfect-world fallacy in action.

The core conception of liberty in Libertarianism seems to be the freedom to do what one pleases without the unwanted influence of coercion of any kind, including the "coercion" of infringing upon other people's rights to well-being. What makes it dangerous is the rather stunning lack of regard for the reality of other human beings and societies that falls out of making this, alone, a central virtue. This is how people who are die-hard pro-"freedom" are perfectly content to allow corporations to extract nearly all of our essential freedoms from us for profit, so long as those corporations' rights to continue doing so are not infringed upon by the evil, tyrannical government. Never mind that this requires all CEOs, quite distinctly from what we observe in reality, to always honor people's rights, like the right to know what they are eating, for instance, or the right to live in a relatively unpolluted environment, and to refrain from using any forms of deception that subtly coerce people into engaging in trade that they don't really want to engage in, say by fear mongering or monopolizing and thus removing choice from the marketplace.

In Libertarianism, taxes are made out, dangerously, to be a form of personal theft by a tyrannical government, and restrictions on people and corporations (including reasonable ones like seat-belt laws and EPA standards) are held up as evidence of that tyranny. Individuals and companies are to be held to a high standard of conduct, but there is no need for enforcing that standard, i.e. there is "rule of law," which they cite endlessly, and a crippled executive branch (seen as tyrannical) that takes the teeth out of every law. Interestingly, apparently, fire-fighting (and other disaster-mitigating) equipment and trained personnel are considered breaches of American freedom, as these self-made folk are fully capable of handling those kinds of problems themselves... until they aren't. Indeed, these people truly believe that they don't need a government, or anyone else, to "hold their hands," in the words of Lewis. Pardon my statist ways, but I absolutely fail to see how clearly necessary public services paid for by the public constitutes any kind of hand-holding or tyranny.

It should be noted that the small-government Republican Party, which is not actually interested in small government at all, has been quick to co-opt these values to their cause, playing upon the Libertarian fears of tyranny and hatred of taxation, all the while marching them and us into the nearest thing to a totalitarian state that the United States has been in its entire history.

Worse, as a quasi-religious phenomenon, it paints all of these ideas in broad, black-and-white strokes, however brilliantly colored and nuanced the rhetoric on top of those strokes happens to be. There is good in the world: freedom. There is also evil: coercion. These two forces create the same sort of cosmic drama we see between God and Satan, righteousness and wickedness, sanctity and degradation.

These abstract forces, though, are meaningless without personification, and thus the individual is cast as the great hero and the government is cast as the perfect anti-hero, the grand villain, the coercive authority that stands atop every slippery slope into tyranny, which can be identified as the hell to be contrasted with the heavenly Libertarian Utopia (see the Daily Kos article title above: Conservative "Paradise"). Every step into belief in an established state is statism, which is the expressed antithesis of the Libertarian movement.

Thus, it is considered incumbent upon every man, woman, and child to create this imaginary world by becoming self-sufficient (the law of comparative advantage be damned) and to go so far as to pretend, against all evidence, that each is a self-made person who rose to his place via his own hard work and personal responsibility, a veritable island unto him- or herself. It is from this adolescent monstrosity that we get movements like the "Sovereign Citizen Movement," which could hardly be more anarchist and anti-society. These are men and women who truly believe they need no one to hold their hands, and frighteningly that their hands couldn't be held because they are too busy holding guns with which they will defend themselves (and maybe others, if they feel like it) from the tyranny of governments (no word on how this will be achieved). For this reason, the FBI considers many strong Libertarians to be high-risk with respect to domestic terrorism (possibly not least because of their liberal use of sedition in which they advocate armed uprisings and "Second Amendment solutions" to a government that they see as treasonous, thieving, and oppressive). Of course, this situation is a deadly spiral that will almost certainly end in sad, pointless violence.

Key to understanding the situation, though, is the fact that the mindset of the Libertarian is a quasi-religious one--to them, there really is a perfect world that is available and will exist when everyone gets with the same program, they really are on the side of right against the tide of oppressive wrong, and there really are undeniable evil forces embodied in the government (and not in organized crime syndicates, corporate robber barons, general thugs, and ordinary everyday citizens who interact with one another regularly). For them, every government which holds authority over them, to some degree really does, with essentially everything it does, attempt to exert control over individuals, threatening to "know better how to take care of people" than the individuals themselves do. Because it is intensely ideological in nature, this mindset and those holding it are desperately open to the usual suspects, confirmation bias, cognitive capture, and rationalizations, used by all quasi-religious movements to square circles and handle cognitive dissonance of a far more complex, less idealistic world.

This worldview clashed violent with reality when Colorado Springs was turned into a fire-scorched crucible to test its mettle.

Predictably, having fewer boots on the ground and insufficient fire-fighting equipment readily available crippled the ability of the city of Colorado Springs to protect itself and its citizens from the Waldo Canyon fires. Support from other parts of Colorado (a state rather generally like Colorado Springs in this weird brand of conservatism and thus already stretched quite thin in this disaster) came to the call of the flaming Libertarian Paradise and may be responsible for saving much of it. It must be noted that many of these firefighters were operating on meager pay, a huge percentage without even basic healthcare among their often-empty list of benefits, compounding both their heroism and the utter idiocy and supreme selfishness exhibited by the refusal of the citizens of Colorado to support their public sector honorably.

Subsequently and equally predictably, looting and other petty crimes followed the disaster (which technically isn't even fully contained yet). Much of this, it has been noted, would have been preventable if Colorado Springs hadn't utterly slashed its police department. Credulity strains to the point of crumbling at Rush Limbaugh's recent piggish statement, then, that firefighters and police take personnel out of the private sector and instead put them in jobs that offer nothing to the economy. Perhaps Mr. Limbaugh should read Benjamin Franklin's famous statement that "a penny saved is a penny earned," noting that in this case we're talking about tens of billions of pennies and at least a few dead people.

Here, then, the reasonable among us will expect that the story of Colorado Springs offers a valuable lesson for these desperately individualistic fools. (Sort of: it could have been prevented and was foreseen by a variety of people, including some that ran for mayor of Colorado Springs, losing to the "most conservative mayor in the country"). That lesson is that in a society, particularly situated in a hazardous world, you do need a government "to hold your hand," at least in the sense where "hold your hand" means to provide the necessary equipment and manpower to serve and protect the collective enterprise called society upon which each of our individual successes actually depends.

Indeed, the lesson is bigger. This isn't "hand holding" of any kind. It is a responsible and collective effort to take some of our resources and place them in a position where they are employed for the collective, not just the present individualist, good. Collecting those resources by mandate is not tyranny, we can see, because in reality, it is a basic requirement for how those resources are to be pooled in the real world where everything, particularly parting with limited personal resources in a strapped economy, is not magically voluntary and human beings naturally fail at perfectly being able to identify their own rational self-interests (to construe it in their language). Indeed, taxes are not theft in any way whatsoever, they are just and due payment for these services and the infrastructure that makes them possible. Learning this lesson within the Libertarian worldview, though, requires each person to drop the belief that taxes are the theft of property by fundamentally evil tyrants. So long as belief in the government-as-villain is held, though, this is impossible.

Also, Libertarians could learn from this that "the government" (not even a proper monolith), though it can get out of control if not managed (as we see now) by the courts and the citizens, is hardly intrinsically evil or bent on tyrannical rule of the people. Evil governments would start fires to control people, not put them out (how long will it be until we hear that charge--already some conservative pundits blame President Obama for the damage caused by the fires due to a lack of sufficiently quick response and, ironically, failure to provide a fleet of expensive fire-fighting aircraft on hand for situations like this). This is one of the core lessons the Libertarians need to learn from this situation, but it is also the one that lies at the very core of their construction of the world. Remember, to believe Libertarianism is to believe that every step away from individual liberty (or sovereignty) is a step toward statism, which is, in all degrees, essentially equivalent to the oppressive regimes of dictators like Lenin, Stalin, and Mao.

Since we are dealing with true believers of a quasi-religious ideology, this failure of their system is more likely to be met by rationalizations, blame displacement, and other defense mechanisms before it is likely to displace believers from their worldviews. Already, Mayor Steve Bach of Colorado Springs has thrown criticism at President Obama for his handling of the response, including his visit to survey the damage, although he didn't hesitate to ask the president, upon whom he has shifted blame, for "cash" for disaster relief. Here, then, is the fundamental hypocrisy of the Libertarian situation, the point at which the vulnerable adolescent is revealed most clearly. One can almost imagine the ever-defiant teenage boy whose world just collapsed who is curled up sullen in bed and, though he'll never admit it and will talk tough trash again tomorrow, takes his mom's hand and holds it while she consoles him as he silently licks his wounds. We're left wondering if tomorrow brings the same kind of me-against-the-world rebellion or a more sober recognition of the safety net that he knows good and well is there to catch him, enabling his bravado in the first place.

I could be wrong, and I hope I am here, but if the lessons the followers of religiously minded doomsday prophets, including Jesus, have taught us anything, the fallout is likely to include a strengthening of the core beliefs of the followers of the Libertarian church.

N.B.: There were widespread and unanswered prayers for rain to help curb these fires, and that has not gone unnoticed, particularly since it resonates with my "God Doesn't" theme, but this particular post need not focus on something so trivially obvious. See The Friendly Atheist's post on Patheos to read more about that.

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