Darkness at Dawn

In politics, things don't have to get worse before they can get better.


As a matter of astronomical fact, it is not actually darkest just before the dawn.

The brightness of the night sky is largely determined by the phase of the moon, a famously fickle celestial body. In the middle of the lunar month, for instance, it's darkest right after sunset.

It is not darkest before the dawn in politics either.

There is a temptation among certain types of ideologues—I count myself among them—to assume that once things get bad enough, the political classes or the general public will have a collective eureka moment, at which point everyone adopts the ideologue's worldview, policy prescriptions, and cultural preferences.

The appeal of this notion is obvious. Perhaps the suffering imposed by our messy politics will be worth it, we think, if it means triumph in the end.

I recently spent a deeply frustrating hour on the phone with the U.S. Postal Service looking for a box of '80s-era Baby-Sitters Club books that had been lovingly packed and shipped to my daughter by a family friend—and promptly lost in a warehouse of undelivered parcels. Surely, I thought, everyone who does business with the post office must naturally end up as a libertarian.

That moment is the genesis of this month's cover story by Christian Britschgi, an investigation into why the U.S. Postal Service suddenly became such a controversial mess in the face of spectacular slowdowns and an election conducted in large part via mail-in ballots. As Britschgi notes, "Libertarians and other critics who have long warned about the inefficiencies of a government-run postal monopoly could at least feel some vindication when they found their mailboxes empty."

Similarly, I remain incredulous that just gazing at a W-2 the evening before Tax Day doesn't make every salaried worker a few degrees more libertarian. Or that local zoning boards aren't converting homeowners into libertarians on a daily basis.

And the spectacle that the two major parties put on during the last election cycle, with credible accusations of profligacy, authoritarianism, and deceit flying in both directions, should surely be enough to put voters off the status quo and lead them to call for better choices.

But a person who hasn't imbibed decades of articles and white papers about the desperate need to privatize the U.S. Postal Service or rein in the IRS or repeal zoning laws or revamp ballot access might well come to opposite conclusions after experiencing the same dysfunction. The most likely outcome of all is a frustrated resignation and apathy in the face of the state's persistent failure and dysfunction. Repeated defeat isn't energizing for most people. It's deflating.

But still the search for hope continues. When things are bad, we look for silver linings.

And American politics right now are very bad indeed. As Jonathan Rauch explains in "Who Gets To Decide the Truth?" there is a powerful Enlightenment idea that "epistemic rights, like political rights, belong to all of us; empiricism is the duty of all of us. No exceptions for priests, princes, or partisans." In his new Brookings Press book The Constitution of Knowledge, Rauch outlines the current epistemological crisis: We struggle to answer the question of what is right, because we have lost our grasp on the tools to determine what is true. Our lack of agreement about a shared reality makes the prospect of a civil and productive politics that much less likely each day. It is midnight and the storm clouds are rolling in, at least in my read of Rauch's narrative.

In this month's interview, newly anointed New York Times podcaster Jane Coaston approaches the same problem from another angle, describing "the urge to identify and exist as a political entity alone," a choice many people seem to be willingly making. "We are doing the politicization of our lives," she tells Nick Gillespie. "Joe Biden is not doing that to us. The federal government is largely not doing that to us. We are doing this. When we are having conversations, especially on social media, where we become flattened into just chimeras of our political opinions, we are doing this to ourselves."

When it comes to actual policy making, Jacob Sullum examines our near-miss with a full-fledged constitutional crisis over COVID-19 lockdowns and other pandemic restrictions on individual liberty. "COVID-19 did not kill the Constitution," he writes. "But the crisis made it vividly clear that we cannot count on politicians or bureaucrats to worry about limits on their authority, especially when they believe they are doing what is necessary to protect the public from a deadly danger."

Sullum's story is largely one of heroic behavior on the part of a few judges who were willing to stick their necks out to stop the slide of government overreach. But in "Why Is It So Hard To Sue a Bad Cop?" Damon Root describes a countervailing trend in the courts—an inability to address the shameful state of the law around holding federal officers accountable for misconduct, despite clear signs that we are indeed in dark times for trust between civilians and law enforcement. He quotes a frustrated Judge Don Willett's protest against judicial inaction on this matter: "Redress for a federal officer's unconstitutional acts is either extremely limited or wholly nonexistent, allowing federal officials to operate in something resembling a Constitution-free zone."

All of these are stories of darkness and danger, and they do not signal a new morning. This has been a year of heightened contradictions, but things are not going as Marx predicted and Lenin urged. Pushing a broken system to its limits doesn't fix the problems; it exacerbates them and entrenches them.

A variant of the "darkest before the dawn" theory is the idea that when a party is voted out, its leaders will go into the wilderness and emerge enlightened. Again, the person floating this theory typically believes that enlightenment will take the form of agreeing with his own views.

This does not seem to happen very often, if ever, in real life. When things are worse, or perceived as worse, people grow less tolerant, less empathetic, less open to compromise, and they offer each other less leeway. A sense of scarcity or impending scarcity fosters a zero-sum mindset.

This is one reason to work for incremental change, even when radical change is ultimately what is needed.

This is why Reason has been doggedly editorializing about alternatives to a monopolistic federal post office for decades, but also proposing ways to rebalance the agency's pension obligations. It's why we have praised gestures toward free minds and free markets in both parties, even as they fail time and time again to meet those standards. It is why we have argued for modest reforms to qualified immunity and other police accountability measures that seem achievable, even though we know the problems inherent in our criminal justice system are numerous and endemic.

It does not have to get worse before it can get better. It is our duty to do what we can to prevent things from getting bad in the first place and fix what is broken using the tools we have.

In the longest and darkest night, we must do what we can to make it to the morning.

NEXT: Brickbat: Stormy Weather

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  3. “When things are bad, we look for silver linings.”

    Democrats look for pointing MORE Gov-Guns at ‘those’ people.
    Republicans look for the *freedom* to create/earn silver linings.

    …And thus is why; “we’ll come to opposite conclusions after experiencing the same dysfunction”

    It really is a battle between the criminal-mind and honorable-mind.
    Pointing Guns = Wealth
    Creating Value for others = Wealth

    As perfectly said here https://reason.com/2021/06/12/the-conversion-of-thomas-sowell/#comment-8951155
    Remove merit/productivity-based compensation and see how quickly people turn to group-judged, virtue-based compensation and become “unreasonable criminals”. And the answer is “all the quickly”.

    1. Rephrased —
      Democrats see Gov-Gods and Gov-Guns as the path to their own wealth.
      Republicans see Creating and Producing for others as the path to their own wealth while having Gov-Guns to prevent criminals from *stealing* them blind.

      The party divide is an ideological divide between criminals and honorable citizens/patriots.

    2. The “conquer and consume” mentality will never *create* wealth.
      Because It doesn’t *create* anything but crime.

  4. I thought maybe I haven’t had enough coffee this morning and the point of this article slid right past me, but I kept waiting to get to the meat of it and it was all mush. Then I realized this is just the intro for the print publication and it really doesn’t have a point but they had to throw something up here to fill up space.

    1. Quotas must be filled.

  5. “once things get bad enough, the political classes or the general public will have a collective eureka moment,”

    I disagree.
    When it gets to that moment (even if there is a eureka among some) its will likely be too late

    1. Tell that to the mockingbird that has built a nest ~ 10 feet from my bedroom window. He starts up with his car alarm impersonations at about 5am.

  6. “Libertarians and other critics who have long warned about the inefficiencies of a government-run postal monopoly could at least feel some vindication when they found their mailboxes empty.”

    What an absolute load of horseshit. The USPS was doing fine before Rs and their obviously corrupt henchman DeJoy broke it. If your argument is “well we broke it and now we want to pick up its scraps” then your argument sucks.

    Even then, the “pension issue” is only an issue because once again, Rs demanded it prefund its pension for years and years, something no other govt agency is forced to do.

    Simply put- people like you just hate that the post office did what it did quite well (you know, like giving EVERYONE in the country mail at a fair rate), did it while making money even before it was intentionally broke, and was safe from money grubbing greedy assholes who want to privatize and take everything to shit just so they can get a couple more bucks.

    1. Even then, the “pension issue” is only an issue because once again, Rs demanded it prefund its pension for years and years, something no other govt agency is forced to do.

      “Everyone else gets to pretend they’re not bankrupt, why can’t we?”

    2. Their revenue kept dropping due to other means to ship packages cheaper and the rise of email (and other means of instant digital communication). If they are going to have a pension it should be fully funded now and not rely on a declining future revenue that ultimately would require taxpayers to puck up the tab.

    3. Triggered much?

    4. “The USPS was doing fine before Rs and their obviously corrupt henchman DeJoy broke it.”

      I’m guessing you must be in your early 20s, and thus never used the USPS much before 2020, otherwise you would know they were very far from “doing fine”

    5. Thank you so much for this. Whining about how the post office sucks when you WANT and NEED it to suck to prove your dumb ideology was ridiculous, even for Reason

  7. “There is a temptation among certain types of ideologues—I count myself among them—to assume that once things get bad enough, the political classes or the general public will have a collective eureka moment, at which point everyone adopts the ideologue’s worldview, policy prescriptions, and cultural preferences.”

    So why didn’t Reason writers and editors realize this during the past five years as their TDS and Trump bashing helped create the currently disastrous political climate in DC, left wing cities and states, and on left wing news and social media outlets?

    1. Well said, Bill, but the folks at Reason already know these things. They sold their souls to Koch and the oligarchy, now they publish this mendacious horseshit–with complete awareness that it’s wrong–so that they can keep a grasp on those pieces of silver.

    2. Very good point. Reason should have abandoned all libertarian principles and gone all-in for Trump. The fact that they didn’t means they’re all progressive Democrats who hate America and eat babies for lunch.

      1. I don’t think they eat babies for lunch. They serve babies (or parts thereof) only at exclusive Georgetown dinner parties on the weekends.

  8. I think most folks’ reaction to government screw ups (like at DMV or USPS or unemployment office) is to think “We need better Top. Men. in charge and my Party has just the Top. Men. to make government work.”

    1. Relying on Gov-Gods with Gov-Guns; Whether “they” who think that way realize it or not the only thing that makes government different from run-of-the-mill business or people is ?legal? *guns* that force.

      Only items requiring gun-force should ever enter the realm of government (prevent theft, defensive of aggression). Thus is why the USA was founded on freedom by LIMITED government.

      Aggressive government is by it’s very being *guns* criminal.

      1. NOT everyone is diluted into thinking their “Top. Men.” with guns will fix everything. Some (granted few) “Top. Men.” generally act in a defense of peoples liberty and justice. Cutting the criminal out of Nazi (def; National Socialist) governing habits.

    2. Exactly. If a private business isn’t providing good service you stop giving them your money. If the government isn’t providing good service you give them even more money!

  9. We should be grateful for the USPS. It demonstrates what level of mediocrity can be achieved when partisan politicians manage a huge enterprise, and pursue goals that have little to do with performance and economics.

    For some, the USPS is a warning. To quote one of my favorite Demotivator posters, “the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others”. But I fear that others see the USPS as a worthy if slightly imperfect model.

    1. They’re the same people who see government-run healthcare as a worthy model.

  10. Government is not the enemy, the other tribe is the enemy. As long as there is tribalism there are tribes to blame for all the ills of the world. An ideology of smaller and less intrusive government continues to be ridiculed because the answer is obviously to seize power from the other tribe and drain the swamp.

    US Postal Service. Obviously we need to clean ship, fire some fat asses, and issue some patriotic stamps! Or rainbow stamps! Depending on your tribe. W-2 forms? We need your money to fight for social justice! Or the terrorists in the Middle East! Depending on your tribe. And of course, the fiasco of the 2020 elections was due to that tribe over.

    People will turn libertarian only when they can recognize the problem for what it is. Until then there’s always the other tribe to blame.

    1. One side of the isle definitely carries the ‘tribe’ [WE] mob “conquer” mentality. Sadly; they’re so wrapped up in their [WE] mob tribe they can’t see/respect any individual as a person — just self-indoctrinated delusions of [WE] mob tribes.

      The other side; not so much and some who downright see that this nation was founded on principles of Individual Liberty and Justice.

      Point: How one “sees” politics could very well could be their own brainwashed delusions instead of their own actual ability to “see”.

  11. This is one reason to work for incremental change, even when radical change is ultimately what is needed.

    No – its the reason to work for structural/process change. This modern libertarian notion that ‘classical’ liberals and anarchist/ancaps can agree to work together in one tent is why it fails and why it gets corrupted.

    For sake of argument use the post office as an example. Assume the post office is one of the existing functions of govt that some liberals/minarchists/nightwatchmen/wtflabels agree is a legitimate function of government. That crowd may or may not all agree on the goal. But they can all agree that if there is some perceived problem re PO management/accountability/organization – that that is what needs to be fixed. They become googoo’s (good government) types when faced with a management problem.

    Ancaps/radicals will ALWAYS undermine ‘minarchists’/pragmatists at that point. They cannot agree to disagree on the goal. It’s part of their dna. They will instead seek to ally with the corrupt who just happen to oppose the po. Not just that – they will serve to justify the corruption because it is ‘private sector’ and therefore bad things/players will disappear and therefore can be ignored. eg Diane Feinstein’s husband who makes money selling off post offices so that the po has to pay rent to private landlords. This has in fact become the reason the word ‘libertarian’ is used to describe what is also called ‘neoliberal’ and that has in fact been quite dominant in the corporatist/establishment of both political parties at times. Where ‘libertarian’ is painted as the establishment and the staus quo. So that anyone who opposes the establishment also has to first oppose ‘libertarianism’.

    1. I think the difference is seeing PO problems as illnesses or merely syl

  12. People who seek power are the last people who can be trusted with it, and those who can be trusted with power don’t seek it out.

    That’s why government will always be run by the scum of the earth, and why libertarians will always lose.

    1. ^^^This; Very well said! +100000

    2. So what path do you prefer to head down – cynical anarchism or skeptical liberalism?

      The purpose of checks and balances and separation of powers and a ton of other structural measures of governance is to provide ways of limiting that power – but none of that works if no one gives a shit because they are just fatalists about it all.

      If Men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and the next place, oblige it to control itself. – James Madison

      It’s a good perspective. But it is not a perpetual motion auto-limiter.

      1. We’re seeing right now that separation of powers doesn’t work. The judicial branch defers to the other branches rather than checking them. The Senate, thanks to the 17A, is no longer a check on the House. The legislature has delegated most of its power to unchecked executive agencies that make rules, judge them, and administer them with virtually no limitations. The executive can wage war without a declaration from Congress. Cops do whatever they want and, except in very rare high-profile instances, the courts protect them.

        It’s because scumbags are attracted to power, while good people are content to just live their lives.

        What do I do? I sit back and watch. There’s nothing I can do to change anything. Vote for Giant Douche or Turd Sandwich? Hitler or Stalin? Mao or Pol Pot? The entire system is fucked. I just hope that if I keep my head down it won’t fuck me.

  13. Or that local zoning boards aren’t converting homeowners into libertarians on a daily basis.

    Not everyone fetishizes about living amongst violent drug-addicts, as if they’re the 21st-century version of “noble savages”.

  14. I have to point out that Im pretty sure that dawn isnt a technical astronomical term. They use sun rise and as far as I follow, define it 3 different ways.
    If we assume that dawn is colloquially defined as something along the lines of “the sun coming up”, I believe definitionally it would begin immediately after the moment when the sun is no longer going “down”. Which, if we dont consider the phase of the moon, would be the darkest point of the night.
    Now obviously this isnt what they mean with that trite saying, but using “science” to correct it is fucking retarded.

  15. I think that many people dislike the government almost as much as libertarians, but they have enough apathy not to take action (latent libertarians if you will). People and society are NOT the government or politics. Ultimately, I believe, the free market and technology will have the greatest effect in making government obsolete. We just need to survive to see that day. Otherwise we descend into a pit of darkness as Orwell described in 1984. I will take the glass half full approach – it keeps me sane.

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