Monday, February 20, 2006

Where Should Power Reside?

The “Two Kingdoms” book I mentioned earlier made me think a little differently about political power in relation to liberalism and conservatism, which is quite impressive, given how calcified my thoughts have been in that area over the last few years.

Liberalism and conservatism has often been portrayed as a conflict between federal power and “state’s rights” over the last few decades. I’ve been supportive of federal power over the years, mostly in support of civil rights, a security net for those in need, and as a check to the unbridled greed that capitalism seems to encourage. Government can be a force for good in these areas, even if it overreaches at times. The “states rights” version of conservatism (popular until 5 years ago) always struck me as a reaction against these ideals, and seemed to reduce it to “freedom from responsibility to others”.

What caught my attention in the “Two Kingdoms” book is how state power has changed warfare in the last century from one of simply two armies engaging each other, to one of the Modern Total Warfare State, where every aspect of the economy and society is used to engage in and pursue war.

The trajectory of Mennonite conservatism is related to all this, as it started out as a “leave us alone so we can worship God without being tortured” kind of reaction against state power, and later became a reaction against the kind of federal power required to engage in the modern total warfare state. Mennonites today are an interesting mix of conservative and liberal – loyally committed to service to others and officially supportive of peacemaking (although sometimes that wavers in local congregations). They can vary widely in their political views, and sometimes they just mirror the arguing that happens in national politics and the “culture wars”.

In any case, freedom of religious expression and opposition of the total warfare state are good reasons to be wary of federal power, and it made me realize that the issue isn’t where power is located, but how that power is used. Distributing power to states only works if those states don’t abuse their own citizens (say by fire-hosing them when they demand equal treatment under the law). Federal power can be an antidote to this, but concentrating power at the top allows things like unnecessary wars on countries that are not threats to us. In the end, I don’t think liberals and conservatives really care where the power resides, as long as their social policies are the ones being enacted.

So, there’s no good answer. Power is just inherently corrupting, as anyone who has read Lord of the Rings knows (especially when it comes in ring form). The paradox is that you need great power to affect great change for the better, and in doing so, you inevitable become corrupt.

1 comment:

voice said...

Have you ever read about Christian anarcho-capitalism?