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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The fear factor: Political philosophy based on what you're most afraid of

Maybe I'm suffering from confirmation bias, but I can't help but feel as though fear-mongering is the best way to grow the size and scope of government. I'm also completely convinced that both conservatives and liberals engage in the same thing, without sufficient self-awareness. See if this story doesn't fit:

If you think the world is coming to an end because of the super dangerous threat of ice glaciers melting, the sun blowing up, hurricanes, tidal waves and all the assorted outcomes of climate change in general, you might be a liberal. You might think that all of these disastrous outcomes are likely. And you might think that there is just one solution -- (much) bigger government.

I was listening to Rush Limbaugh the other day (as I do on many, many days), and he poked fun at this sort of fear-mongering. He said that liberals want you to be very scared, because they want to grow the government. Rush was on to something. If you're really terrified of climate change, you might be willing to either ignore or downgrade the importance of individual liberty. In the face of such a calamity, where our survival as a species hangs in the balance, how can you not ratchet up the state apparatus, and ratchet down our liberties?

Driving along, I thought it was wonderful to listen to someone put a pin to the fear balloon. There is all sorts of exaggeration going on. And people are feeding off of our fears, building them up with scary tales of a disastrous future, all the while pushing for greater encroachments on liberty by the government. Even if the fears turn out to be a pile of rubbish, the departments, ministries, and other government agencies will continue anyways. As Milton Friedman said, nothing is as permanent as a temporary government program.

A few days later, I was listening to the same Rush Limbaugh. With his baritone voice, he was beginning to make me feel a little nervous. He was telling me about the Islamist threat facing western civilization. These folks, he assured me, don't want to reason with us, they want to destroy us. They don't want accommodation, they are aiming for complete annihilation. Given this super-dangerous and super-urgent threat, he said, it is unconscionable that U.S. president Barack Obama doesn't want to spend more on the military, warfare apparatus of the state.

If you think modern civilization is going to come to an end because of Sharia law, women in burqas, suicide bombers, and radicals who really, really hate cartoon depictions of their holy people, you might be a conservative. You might think that this disastrous outcome is likely. And you might think that there is just one solution -- (much) bigger government.

Are there really Muslims with bombs waiting at all of our airports? Is the danger from terrorism really so pressing? I got online and found some pins to poke at this fear balloon. Is civilization coming to an end? Hardly. Should we be busy torturing people, spying on our neighbours, and ignoring protections against the encroachment of the state into our private lives? I don't think so. I'm more worried about a car crash than I am terrorism. Some good folks in New Zealand got my back on this issue.

If I were less charitable, I would think that conservatives are just doing what the liberals do -- using fear as an excuse to ratchet up their preferred part of government, and to either ignore or downgrade the importance of individual liberty.

For a while, I felt pleased with myself. I am, after all, a libertarian. I think economic liberties are important, and don't feel inclined to give up my liberties for the sake of a Kyoto Accord that probably isn't going to work anyways. I think civil liberties are important, and don't feel inclined to give up my liberties for the sake of security measures that probably aren't going to work anyways. And I'm just as unafraid of the possible climate change calamity as I am of the possible terrorist threat treachery.

So I thought, "libertarians are the most level-headed sorts of people. They don't go in for fear-mongering. They don't go in for the exaggerations of the left or the right. There are scary things out there, to be sure, but you can always count on the optimism, the rationality, and coolness of calculation from the liberty-lovers in Canada and the U.S." Then I looked up Ron Paul, and the TEA parties...

If you think we are on the brink of enslavement, are subject to a conspiracy of the wealthy elites (especially the bankers!), think there's a government camera on every corner, and think bureaucrats are monitoring your emails and digging through your garbage, you might be a libertarian. You might think that this is a disastrous calamity and the worst form of treachery. And you might think that there is just one solution -- (much) smaller government.

And there you have it. A psychological explanation of your political philosophy through seeing what you are most afraid of. Fear environmental havoc? You're probably a liberal. Fear a looming terrorist onslaught? You're probably a conservative. Fear the state itself? You're probably a libertarian.

Call this awareness-raising. No political philosophy is immune from fear mongering, and all of them have their Chicken Littles with placards declaring that we're witness to the end times. And the sky still hasn't fallen.

Posted by P.M. Jaworski on April 28, 2009 in Libertarianism | Permalink


Fear environmental havoc, a terrorist onslaught, and blindly trust the state? You're probably a 'typical' Canadian.

Posted by: K Stricker | 2009-04-28 11:15:36 AM

Whatever the label I find that history confirms that most governments/regimes throughout the world have used fear-mongering in order to gain and to maintain power and control over its citizens. The statement that those who trade freedom for security end up with neither remains true to-day.

I have to disagree however that the Islamic threat is not real. The evidence of this is all around us, so denial is not reasonable. Still it is possible to deal effectively with it without citizens losing their freedom and the country becoming a police state. A wiser policy would be to deal effectively with Muslims or others supporting and promoting the Islamic agenda and to protect and to assist Muslims who want no part of the Islamic agenda. As long as we continue to reward the Islamists, and we do this constantly, we encourage and embolden them and we endanger the lives of moderate Muslims.

While the Islamic threat is real it is certain that had it not been some other threat would have been created. There is no shortage of examples of fear mongering - global warming, climate change, avian flu, swine flu, mad cow disease, gun crime, gang wars et cetera. The fact remains that none of these justify bigger government and loss of freedom, but scared citizens remain much easier to control.

Posted by: Alain | 2009-04-28 11:17:44 AM

Most afraid of, or simply most disgusted by? Who says fear is the prime motivator?

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2009-04-28 11:27:19 AM

Being a libertarian myself I find this a very fascinating line of thought. I think you are on to something here. Originally I was for the war because those Muslims do want to convert or kill everyone... It's part of their society.. been that way since before they caused christians to crusade them back to where they came from... But then Ron Paul entered the scene in the primaries and I realized that without the constitution we have lost anyway.... Come down to the constitution is more important and whamie, I jumped the fence from the conservative camp and squarely into the R3volution!!

Posted by: Dan | 2009-04-28 12:55:50 PM

I'm with Alain on this. Islam is not just another religion as some would have you believe. There is no separation of Mosque and State in Islam. Shariah is the goal of Jihad, whether peaceably through democracy, intimidation and appeasement, or through violence. Tolerance of Islam means surrendering the liberties of Western liberal society. Multi-culi left libs are their greatest allies. Libertarians holding on to their doctrinaire isolationism and uncontrolled immigration, despite a real world of nasty nation states and state-collectives (UN) is naive and results in a form of moral relativism. I doubt libertarians are sufficiently numerous or emotionally prepared to defend Ron Paul's campaign bus let alone Western civilization. I'm afraid all those unenlightened red necks listening to Rush will have to do the heavy lifting. I'm not sure that the backslide into serfdom is even reversible. I think its a distinct possibility that the age of liberty is past. If so, rear guard action is the most one can hope for. Pass the Scotch please.

Posted by: John Chittick | 2009-04-28 1:17:49 PM

Peter, my first reaction was to make the case for why my fear of big government is more justified than the liberal fear of ecological disaster and the conservative fear of radical Islam, but perhaps I’ll say only that my fears, if addressed, would create ancillary benefits for everyone – more liberty and more prosperity. Perhaps liberty and prosperity are things for which it is worth fear-mongering, as crude as that method of persuasion may be.

Posted by: Matthew Johnston | 2009-04-28 1:36:47 PM

There's a take-away here too:

If you ARE a fearful person, afraid of ANY of the things above - enviro, terror, or the state - more freedom and less government is still the answer. There is nothing more fearful than the environment under the care of government. Or security under the care of gov't. Being afraid of those issues need not make one desire MORE government. If they use their noggin, they'll see that even if those are really pressing and scary issues, the last thing we can afford is a government solution.

Second, if you are NOT a person who is ruled by fear, less government is the only solution.

Basically, less government is the true solution for a person of any motivation, so long as they're willing to reason.

Posted by: IMM | 2009-04-28 2:22:23 PM


Uncontrolled immigration is not a libertarian platform; quite the opposite. I also think you'll find the Ron Paul camp quite prepared to defend not only this country but the principles it was founded on. The charter of the federal government is not to defend "Western Civilization", only to defend the states who have delegated that power to the federal government. Currently and because of the cold war (which is over) people have grown used to the idea that our federal income tax needs to pay for the defense of "Western Civilization". No thanks, let them stand on their own two feet, pay for their own defense, and keep their hands out of my pocket and the pockets of my children. The world managed it's own affairs for a very long time before World War 2 and our country managed it's own affairs well before WW2 and now all the sudden everyone thinks our govt needs to manage the rest of the world and be our nanny... No thanks again, and keep your hand out my wallet!

Posted by: Dan | 2009-04-28 2:42:59 PM


Posted by: Zebulon Pike | 2009-04-28 3:06:05 PM

Interesting post, PW.

If you get past Michael Moore's fabrications in Bowling For Columbine (eg. walking out of a bank with a gun for opening an account, the K-Mart scene, the segments on Canada, etc. etc.) and his mockery of gun owners and, well, Moore himself... if you get past all of that, he actually makes the same salient point only writ larger. That much in US society is based upon fear mongering - not just the politicians (from all sides) but commerce as well (especially consumer products).

It's unfortunate that Michael Moore's films are so, um, Michael Moore-ish, because there is often a lot of very salient points to be made.

In a democracy (political and economic), emotion will resonate and motivate more strongly than logic and reason. Fear germs - buy anti-bacterial soap (even though you weaken your immune systems). Fear foreigners, shop American/Canadian (even though this will cost you more and skewer the market). Fear foreigners, keep them out (even though study after study show immigrants work harder, commit fewer crimes, especially if there is language and cultural transition support). Fear corporations, tax them to death (even though the first ones to suffer are the cheap labour rungs of the ladder and even though the tax just gets passed along in the sale price).

Trudeau spoke about reason over passion but he tapped into emotional desire of people to "help" and to feelings of nationalism. Limbaugh is not one shred different.

Which is not to say that there are not those who will argue from logic from any philosophical corner. Or that we are any different than any other era: it is just that with mass media and whole industries of people who study the stuff to make it more effective (pollsters, advertisers, market researchers, telemarketers), the emotional manipulation for political or commercial gain is that much more pervasive and effective.

Posted by: Ted | 2009-04-28 3:28:53 PM


Do you think the US should have engaged Germany in WW2? Surely the Utopian isolationism of "pre WW 2" could have gone on without having to use the Japanese invasion to justify another foreign entanglement to help out Churchill and his Canadian and other commonwealth puppets to defend the empire? The Germans only wanted living space and the imperial Brits wouldn't let them take it. Sarcasm - off.

As for Western civilization, it won't be military action or lack thereof that will determine its future. The hollowing-out is almost complete.

Posted by: John Chittick | 2009-04-28 4:54:50 PM

Its all been done before...

“Naturally the common people don't want war; neither in Russia, nor in England, nor in America, nor in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.” ~ Hermann Goering

Nowadays its - Terrorists, pandemics, global warming, oil peak, water, the economy...and on and on and on...

It will never end as long as we have "politicians" to guide us.

Posted by: JC | 2009-04-28 5:53:50 PM


In conclusion to your last post, it sounds like you agree the biggest threat to our country is from within. Therefore, restore the republic! Restore the constitution! Join the Campaign for liberty my friend. www.campaignforliberty.com

The Roman empire was only a republic for 450 years before the Ceasar took power. We have only made is half that time so far....

Posted by: Dan | 2009-04-29 4:03:53 PM

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