Wednesday, January 17, 2007

COLUMN -- Liberty is at risk: Blame the right — and the left

Posted by Craig Westover | 5:31 AM |  

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

I make no bones about writing from a libertarian-conservative point of view. My conservative side bristles and finds an awful lot to disagree with in Stillwater author Anthony Signorelli's book, 'Call to Liberty: Bridging the Divide Between Liberals and Conservatives.' But the libertarian in me finds much to agree with. In a bridging-the-divide spirit, agreement is the place to begin discussing what is an interesting if ultimately unsatisfactory read for the left, right and moderate middle.

A citizen-pundit, Signorelli is a consultant and an entrepreneur who has marched to his own drummer and achieved success. He does not shun the notion of an American dream or that America was founded on enduring principles. Unlike so many authors on the left, Signorelli starts from principles political conservatives heartily endorse (or should).

His argument is straightforward: Private property, the rule of law and individual sovereignty are principles that hold us together as Americans. Considered in historical context, they are "liberal" principles, and the United States is a "liberal democracy."

Principles differ from values; principles are enduring, while values are individualized, changing and the basis of differences. Within the context of "liberalism," progressives, moderates and ("true") conservatives place emphasis on different values, which might lead to different policy choices, but their legitimate efforts are guided by the shared American narrative, the principles that bind us together.

The parenthetical "true" is there because Signorelli extends his argument to define a radical right wing composed of the Christian right, neoconservatives and the corrupt right-wing corporate elites and personified by a Bush administration that has co-opted the label "conservative" and demonized the label "liberal." The right wing covertly espouses a philosophy and policies that are anathema to American tradition.

"The alternatives to liberal democracy are not legitimate to an America committed to emancipation, freedom and liberty," Signorelli writes. "True conservatism cannot be such an alternative because it is itself a creation of liberal democracy. Radical right-wing extremism ultimately becomes fascism or totalitarianism." There is a corresponding radical left (communism and anarchy), but it is the radical right wing that is in power and that we ought to worry about.

America is not yet a fascist country, Signorelli says, but he cites the work of Friedrich Hayek, "a darling of the modern American right-wing movement," to illustrate that the conditions for fascism are present in America today, and their source is the right wing.

Signorelli's book has three main purposes:

• Identify America's liberal heritage and principles.

• Clarify challenges to those principles and identify their source.

• Make suggestions for reclaiming American liberal democracy.

To a large degree, he succeeds, but the success is tempered by the very partisanship that Signorelli seeks to avoid.

The promise of his premise goes unfulfilled. In what might have been an insightful book — a progressive's understanding of how progressive values mesh with a liberalism based on the principles of private property, the rule of law, and individual sovereignty — we get another dose of Bush bashing. Granted, Signorelli bashes more responsibly than most, and some of his observations will sting an honest conservative, but it's not the insight one would hope for, nor insight that Signorelli is in the best position to provide.

A major difference between the left and the right today is that the right of the political spectrum is influenced by limited-government libertarians, who reflect and are actually more aligned with Signorelli's "American Liberalism" than are post-New Deal "liberals."

Libertarians stood against invading Iraq, in opposition to neoconservative principle, not on the basis of whether there were weapons of mass destruction. They argue against wiretaps and infringement of civil rights. They also oppose massive federal interventions in education, health care and crime-fighting legislation — signature legislation in the Clinton and both Bush administrations.

The point is, the right is open to and does engage in internal debate, and the issues raised by Signorelli are not new to the right. There is no equivalent to the libertarian influence on the left. No group on the left questions the legitimacy of the progressive notion of social reform, which John Stuart Mill, part of the liberal heritage Signorelli cites, described as "liberticide."

"Call to Liberty" will no doubt throw many conservatives into denial about the extent to which liberty has been eroded in their name. Unfortunately, many on the political left will seize on the same points to camouflage their own tendencies to elevate progressive values above the principles of private property, rule of law and individual sovereignty.

Neither side deserves a pass on confronting its own reflection in the corruption of power — not the party that is struggling to hold power, nor the party that sees itself with an electoral mandate. "Liberty" means more than the freedom to choose one's master.

Update: Here is the link to a Google Video of Tony Signorelli's appearance at the Stillwater Critical Thinking Club.

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