Saturday, March 22, 2014

The great contradiction of American conservatism

I was reading Radley Balko's excelent book Rise Of The Warrior Cop, while waiting on an Amish guy and came across this excellent quote that summarizes the deeply contradictory position of American conservatism on its love/hate relationship with the state:

Conservatives had always held the somewhat contradictory position that government can't be trusted in any area of society except when it comes to the power to arrest, detain, imprison, and execute people.

- Radley Balko, Rise of the Warrior Cop, Pg. 144

In other words, conservatives hate the government when it is handing out food stamps and welfare checks but love it when it is wearing a uniform and carrying a gun. This has increasingly made little sense to me and helps explain in part why I have been moving rapidly away from a dogmatic political posture associated with "conservatism".

I used to try to explain this contradiction away by pointing out that national defense is a legitimate function of the Federal government but very little, if any, of the billions of dollars in military spending have the slightest linkage to national defense. Even worse the Federalization of law enforcement at the state and local level along with a far too cozy relationship between the military and civilian law enforcement is very troubling to me and I am quite certain would cause outrage among the men who drafted the Constitution, a document that is if anything designed to limit the power of the Federal government and especially military abuses.

I think much of this stems from two main sources. One is a serious ignorance of the Constitution, what it says and what it doesn't and the context under which it was drafted. This is especially odd since a lot of conservatives base their appeal on the Constitution. The Constitution was written in light of and in response to the abuses of a centralized government with a standing military and contains a number of specific articles in the Bill of Rights designed to counter the abuses of an armed force wielded by the state.  As many conservatives like to point out, the Second Amendment wasn't written into law to protect the rights of hunters or competitive target shooters, it was a counterbalance to abuses by the state by having an armed and free populace. Without the 2nd Amendment the rest of the rights recognized by the Bill of Rights exist in practice only at the pleasure of the government. In spite of this few conservatives see the armed agents of the state as the most pressing potential source for enabling tyranny.

The second source is the very effective way that reverence for military and law enforcement has been ingrained into the American psyche and national character coupled with a long running fear campaign designed to convince people living in perceived safety and affluence that there is an "other" that seeks to take it away from them, an "other" that can only be vanquished by bloodshed. As long as we think there is someone out there seeking to destroy our way of life, whether commies or pot smoking hippies or Islamic terrorists or , we will need an enormous standing army that dwarfs any other military in the world, an equally pervasive intelligence apparatus that seems mostly adept at spying on American citizens and an increasingly militarized police force. Combined they provide a false sense of security

Now don't get me wrong, the opposite end of the political spectrum known as liberalism or more ironically "progressiveness" is wrong on just about every issue and even when it is right on the problem it is invariably wrong on the solution. The direction we need to move, and given the recent outrage over the NSA spying fiasco the political climate seems to be moving, is toward more individual liberty coupled with individual responsibility. But until conservatives resolve the great contradiction there will always be a major disconnect with the electorate.


dle said...

I'm not sure how the end result can ever be avoided. If the criminal element ramps up its criminality and the tools of the same, how can those who are tasked with stopping the criminal element not work to remain one step ahead?

Do I like knowing that my county may have a SWAT team armed with automatic weapons and bulletproof vests? Not really. But then I know that there are probably people in my county who are not good people who ARE armed and defended by such items.

I know cops and have some who are friends. I want them to come home to their wives and kids every night. I want them to have the advantage when dealing with what's out there. But then, what does that advantage look like? And how might that advantage be used against me some day when the cops are not my personal friends?

In theory, none of this should be the way it is. But if Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin were alive today, what would be their solution? I'd like to know, because it seems we have a Pandora's Box that even our Founders may not have imagined.

Arthur Sido said...

I am dead serious in saying that the average Joe has far more to fear from an governmental force among us armed better than the military of many nations than we do from a criminal element. I have heard the "escalation" argument but find it false. Many people point back to an event in LA decades ago where a couple of guys were exchanging fire with cops and those guys had automatic weapons and bulletproof vests but that is the very rare exception. Most people killed by guns are criminals being killed by other criminals and the weapons of choice are very common handguns. As a society we have bought into a vision of Robocop where the police regularly get into gun battles with criminal hands. Playing on this fear has led to a dangerous militarization of the police force. You should check out Radley Balko's book Rise of the Warrior Cop.

I would actually say that the Founders imagined something like this situation, although they could never imagine the extent of the problem.

dle said...


My area is riddle with meth labs and dog fighting. When local and county cops move on these criminal elements, the labs and fighting rings are often manned by folks with assault weapons and access to body armor. A drug lab bust in a county over from me came across grenades and some kind of rocket launcher.

The escalation isn't a myth. It's real and it's now. If it's around me, then it's out there everywhere.

I have cop friends. Do you? If so, talk to them about what is really going on out there.

Is the whole situation a brouhaha waiting to happen? Yes. Will innocents get hurt some day? Yes. But what is the answer? I don't want to attend funerals of my cop friends who died because they got ambushed by guys with sniper rifles and armor-piercing bullets.

Arthur Sido said...

I do have friends in law enforcement including a very dear brother and we have these conversations all the time. He is pretty conflicted over it and anyone who is a Christian but also in a position to kill others ought to be as well.

I am not talking about legitimate situations where cops can reasonably expect to run into real resistance. I am talking about using body armor, military weapons and wearing balaclavas to look into a massage parlor or people suspected of credit card fraud (both actual examples from recent events). I am talking about law enforcement entering the home of a farm family with guns pointed in the direction of children over the sale of "raw milk". I am talking about tasing people who are sassy, sexually assaulting women arrested for drunk driving, shooting unarmed people, etc. The police force at large has taken on more of the mindset of a military occupational force than a civilian law enforcement agency.

I was really concerned about this:

Is the whole situation a brouhaha waiting to happen? Yes. Will innocents get hurt some day? Yes.

It is already happening. It happens all the time. It is going on in Nevada right now. As I said I am far more concerned about an armed military style force among us than I am about most criminals. I am all in favor of giving law enforcement the tools they need to enforce the law, I am not in favor of a complete lack of proportionality in the use of lethal force by the police.