Political Theory 101, or Little Known Facts About the Social Contract

I was reading TPMCafe yesterday when I stumbled across this short little post from Greg Anrig, Jr. I was moved to write about it largely because I found it so very surprising. Anrig, over the space of just a few paragraphs, makes two political theory-ish claims that I’d never heard before. I was so shocked to realize how badly I’d misunderstood some of the basic principles of government and of foreign policy that I just had to bring it to everyone else’s attention, too. Anrig’s post, initially bearing the provocative title “Actually, It Is Terrorism,” takes conservatives to task for refusing to provide funding to shore up the nation’s aging infrastructure. I guess that the implication is supposed to be that opposing highway funds constitutes an act of terrorism. I had no idea, really. I mean, at first I was looking around for some DHS people to send after Ron Paul. But then when I checked Anrig’s post later, I saw that he’d changed the title to, “Actually, It’s A Lot Like Terrorism.” So I'm guessing that Rep. Paul will probably be spared a trip to Gitmo.

Still, I thought that maybe I should look into this whole terrorism business a bit more. I mean, I didn’t realize that opposing the Department of Highways might make one a terrorist (or even a lot like a terrorist), so I figured that I should maybe find out what other things might make me almost a terrorist. So I started by looking for a definition of terrorism. Turns out, the U.S. State Department uses the term “terrorism” to mean

premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.

Now to be fair, I found several people who didn’t much like this definition, but most of that disagreement seemed to center around the issue of whether or not to restrict terrorism to “subnational groups or clandestive agents.” Pretty much everyone, however, seemed in agreement that terrorism has to be premeditated and politically motivated. That left me puzzled, since it’s not at all clear to me that any of the evil conservatives out there actually plotted to blow up a bridge.

My instinct is to ask Anrig to maybe lay off the old everything-bad-is-really-like-terrorism line. And possibly to suggest that such comparisons (a) provide far more heat than light, while (b) rendering the previously useful term “terrorism” meaningless by turning it into a synonym for “bad.” Plus, it's just confusing; apparently he didn't get the memo that that's a Republican strategy.

But, as if the whole terrorism thing confusing enough, Anrig goes on to offer an opinion on basic political theory:

Making us less vulnerable to sudden, out-of-the-blue preventable disasters is the job of government.

Really? Now I’ll admit that I’m no Century Foundation scholar, and it has been a while since I engaged with the political theory thing, but I honestly couldn’t recall ever reading anything about the function of government being to prevent sudden, out-of-the-blue disasters. I remember a lot of stuff about tyranny and liberty and individual freedom, but really not so much about preventable disaster. Still, I figured that maybe I’d just forgotten. I mean, Locke says a lot of stuff; maybe it was all just buried somewhere.

The responsible thing to do, obviously, would be to re-read all the core texts in political theory. Leviathan, The Second Treatise, and On Liberty for starters, with maybe some Jefferson and Madison thrown in for good measure. That plan, I quickly surmised, had a rather serious flaw: it’s an assload of reading, and I’m fairly lazy. So I cheated. Using a nifty little online copy of Locke’s Second Treatise, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution, I searched for “preventable disasters.”

Alas, much to my surprise, I found no such thing. Which is really puzzling, what with Anrig being a scholar and all. Nothing at all about preventing disasters. Just a lot of stuff about protecting individuals from the tyranny of the state. Very strange. I guess I’ll have to keep searching. Anybody know where there's a searchable copy of A Theory of Justice?

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