Fear Itself, Con't:

In a recent post, Eric Posner asks a very interesting question:

No one who believes that the government exploited fears after 9/11 to strengthen its security powers is now saying that the government is exploiting financial crisis fears in order to justify taking control of credit markets. No one who thinks that government would use fear to curtail civil liberties seems to think that government would use fear to curtail economic liberties. Why not?

Putting aside the question of whether it's strictly correct to say "no one" (see Ilya's response, here), I think Eric is on to something important, and I think I have the "answer" (sort of). The answer is: the vast majority of people place economic liberties on a decidedly lower plane than they place "civil" liberties.

Examples of this are everywhere. It's one of the reasons why people who believe strongly in economic liberties get so angry in law school -- it's not just the way the Supreme Court has basically stripped away any constitutional protection for economic liberties while waxing poetic about civil liberties, it's the way pretty much all of the professors and students seem to think this is perfectly sensible. [And please note that I'm not saying that I endorse this state of affairs -- I was one of those angry law students, actually. Just that it is what it is]

I realize this doesn't really answer Eric's question (hence the quotation marks above); it simply restates it: So why do so many people think that economic liberties are of lesser significance than civil liberties?. But it does so in a useful way, because I think there's a reasonably clear answer to the question when it's posed that way. The answer is: 1933.

I was thinking about this a few days ago when I read Ilya's recent posting about why he is worried about an Obama victory, in the course of which he quoted (approvingly) from UCSD law prof Michael Rappaport:

"Before the financial crisis, there was a realistic chance that electing Obama and a Democratic Congress would be Jimmy Carter in 1976 or Bill Clinton in 1992 — presidencies that soon led to Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich. But with the financial crisis, there is a much greater chance that electing Obama and the congressional Democrats will be like electing FDR in 1932. Obama could use the emergency to transform the country in a very bad way. And, given the crisis and Obama's political skills, it is quite possible that the country would reelect him, even if he does badly — which, after all, is what happened when FDR was reelected during the New Deal in 1936." (my emphasis)

What struck me about this was that, surely, most people would view the Obama = FDR analogy as a favorable one - Obama would like nothing more, obviously, than having people think he is the second coming of FDR. I am fairly certain that the vast majority of people in this country think FDR and the New Deal saved the U.S. from ruin, transformed the country in a fundamentally good way, and laid the groundwork for 75+ (we should be so lucky to get that +) years of unprecedented prosperity. Did it interfere with our economic liberties? Absolutely. Was it worth the cost? Most people -- unhesitatingly, I think -- would say it was.

Obviously, that doesn't make Ilya's view "wrong" -- but it is what it is, the view of the vast majority of people in this country.

[I'm not sure, to be candid, which camp I'm in, myself; I find Ilya's position very powerful, conceptually - but I also think FDR saved the country from ruin. Notice that it's not "inconsistent" to place economic liberties on a lower plane than civil liberties, any more than it is inconsistent to say French food is good and English food (even though they're both "food"). It just requires construction of a meaningful distinction between the two types of liberty - way beyond the scope of this conversation.]

But regardless of my own position on the matter, I think it's responsive to Eric's original question. It's not that people think the government might not "use fear to curtail economic liberties," it's that they don't care as much about economic liberties; they're more willing to tolerate error in the assessment of the crisis when the cost is a curtailment of economic, rather than civil, liberties.

And a final thought: Eric's put his finger on the very thing that made FDR's famous "we have nothing to fear but fear itself" line so fabulous: It's hard to argue that the government is fomenting fear to enhance it's own power when the president is not only asking everyone to be fear-less, but suggesting that fear-lessness is the key to solving the crisis.