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The Bachmann contradiction

August 16, 2011

Michelle Bachmann’s ideologically-based presidential campaign may guarantee her a ready stream of mingled enthusiasm, argument and contradiction, but all the attention will almost certainly overlook the glaring logical fallacy at the campaign’s center. Asked to summarize her worldview in a recent New Yorker article, she replied, “Liberty,” in line with her portrayal of herself as an opponent of government intervention in society and daily life. At the same time, Bachmann makes it clear that she regards government as having a duty to impose and maintain moral standards, and has not hesitated to criticize policies which she views as being based on inappropriate standards. She fails to understand that liberty, or freedom, is an absence of rules, rather than the mere replacement of one set of rules by another. And yet she proceeds as if liberty and political conservativism grounded in religious values were one and the same thing.

Bachmann is only the latest example of this tendency to overlook analysis in the rush to establish political positions defined by opposites. Common ideological labels always come in pairs. Conservativism versus liberalism. Capitalism versus socialism. Dogmatism versus secular humanism. In every case, there are opposing forces, classed variously as harmony and counterpoint depending on the perspective of each’s adherents. I have vivid memories of one of my college professors vigorously informing us, “An ‘ism” is a doctrine in opposition to another doctrine!” And so it is. But – and this is the important part – there is always a doctrine. The complete absence of doctrine, or even its lack of applicability as anything more than an individual belief, is never considered as an equal alternative.

I have long been an admirer of William Lind’s work on the changing nature of warfare, but I have the misfortune to disagree completely with him on a number of other viewpoints. Lind, a conservative, defines freedom as involving a certain amount of self-restraint. To me, that is not freedom. It is rather the ideal state of communism proposed by Marx, in which each individual possesses complete freedom to act as he chooses, but moderates his own behavior in the interests of society as a whole. While this may be ethically admirable, it is at the same time almost degrading to humanity in implying that man is not entitled to exercise his abilities to their full extent. There is no independent evidence that man is subject to a supreme authority, or that he has the ability to reduce his natural rights by giving them away or delegating them to an authority of his own creation. Whom, then, in the absence of such an authority, is able to justly impose a limitation on human freedoms? No one. The rights of humans are bounded only by their own abilities and their own scruples.

My dear Madame, I am very much afraid that you do not understand what liberty is, after all.


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