Major events concentrate the mind on major issues.
At this moment, we are all trying to analyze the results of the great American election of 2010. We are also celebrating the beginning of Liberty magazine’s online edition — proof of the continuity of libertarian ideas across all movements and events of history.
Much has happened in American politics since Liberty first went to press, back in the summer of 1987. This is a good time to ask how well liberty itself has fared during the past quarter century.
It's sad to realize that the history of these years can most readily be divided into periods, not by great new inventions or movements, but by presidential personalities — the age of Reagan, the age of Bush the First, the age of Clinton, and so on. Let's start by looking at the major features of the world in which Liberty was born, the age of Reagan (second administration).
The most prominent political feature of that world has passed away — the threat of nuclear annihilation of the West by the empire of communism. That threat had overshadowed a generation of Americans, sometimes manifesting itself as a chronic anxiety, sometimes rising to a pitch of hysteria, but always costing mightily in emotion and in wealth. For anyone who came to conscious life after, say, 1991, the effects of a threat like this are probably impossible to understand. I hope they remain that way. Nevertheless, the danger went away. The grand threat of communism was replaced by the nasty threats of Muslim fanaticism and creeping nuclear proliferation; but while these are worth worrying about, they are not quite comparable.
Perhaps the most powerful cause of the collapse of communism was the burden of its own inefficiency, a flaw that libertarian thinkers had never ceased to emphasize.
Why did the communist empire fall? An event of this kind has many causes, and you are free to emphasize one or another of them, depending on your politics. One was probably President Reagan's determination to out-spend and out-invent the communist military machine. Another was Reagan's use of essentially libertarian arguments about the benefits of individual freedom to inspire the West with a new determination to resist the propaganda of defeatism. (A well-advertised determination to resist is itself a powerful counter-threat, and in this case it seems to have had a major effect on collectivist morale, everywhere.) Perhaps the most powerful cause of the collapse of communism was the burden of its own inefficiency, a flaw that libertarian thinkers had never ceased to emphasize, even as their arguments were laughed to scorn by "progressive" thinkers in the West, and even as conservative American leaders worried that the communists were about to "catch up" with us. They didn't; they fell on the track, victims of the astonishing skill and inventiveness of individual enterprise.
Those of us who were politically conscious (or in my case, semi-conscious) in 1989–1991 recognized the communist collapse as a tremendous victory for libertarian ideas. If this be “triumphalism,” make the most of it; the echoes of our triumph are still heard, most recently in America’s general revulsion against the idea of a “single-payer” (that is, communized) national insurance scheme. Contrast the favorable reception of a single-payer retirement system — Social Security — two generations before.
Though not all libertarians would agree, real progress was also made by Reagan’s forthright defense of what is now called American “exceptionalism.” There is indeed something exceptional about America, and Reagan didn’t say that the exceptional thing was religion, ethnic diversity, immigration, community spirit, or anything else that is considered politically correct on either the Left hand or the Right. He said it was freedom, free enterprise — and he was correct.
Yet by summer 1987 it had become obvious that Reagan’s own legacy was more conservative than libertarian. He simplified the tax brackets, which had been designed to extract the maximum possible out of every nickel added to your income, and in so doing he reduced the tax rates; but this, as anticipated, actually raised total government income. Then his administration proceeded to spend much more than its income. That was not a libertarian thing to do.
One thing that limits state power in America is the individual states, which in the federal system are supposed to check and balance the overweening might of Washington. Reagan believed in federalism — but only when it fitted his own purposes. He was responsible for nationalizing the drinking age at an absurd 21, by using federal highway funds as a bludgeon against states that, very rationally, didn’t want to go along. And while he was a mighty foe of regulation, he was also a friend of the ridiculous war on unregulated recreational drugs. You can say the same thing about every other president, except the current one; but we might expect more from a conservative president who once told Reason magazine that “the very heart and soul of conservatism” was libertarianism.
In the case of both Presidents Bush, “conservative” should be placed in quotes. Ideological labels don’t stick very well to sheer incompetence.
Reagan was also to blame for some serious sins of omission. He intended to abolish the Department of Education, but he paid little attention to the person he appointed as secretary of that department; and when the appointee turned out to be a public foe of abolition, Reagan let the project drop. The result: three decades of enormous and destruction educational spending and meddling by the national government. In addition, Reagan, a man of deep personal loyalty (a good thing), permitted his vice president, George Bush, to be anointed as his successor (a very bad thing).
I don’t have to connect all the dots that outline the political profile of George H.W. Bush, although each of them contributed to the success of Liberty in its attempt to distinguish grassroots libertarians from conservatives in power. But probably, in the case of both Presidents Bush, “conservative” should be placed in quotes. Ideological labels don’t stick very well to sheer incompetence.
The first President Bush nominated Clarence Thomas, a firm and deep libertarian, to the Supreme Court, and stuck by him when he refused to yield to the most violent opposition that any Court nominee has ever endured. That was a good thing — indeed, a great thing — but it didn’t respond to any interest in judicial philosophy on the part of the “conservative” president. It responded, again, to a sense of personal loyalty, which is not to be blamed but can hardly be depended upon as a means of advancing liberty. Bush’s other appointee was David Souter, who was one of the most anti-libertarian, and certainly one of the stupidest and least qualified, people ever to roost on the Supreme Court bench. A political crony vouched for Souter, so Bush nominated him, as Eisenhower had nominated the outrageous judicial activist William Brennan.
Someone, someday, will write a book called “The Mystery of George H.W. Bush.” It will attempt to answer the question, “How can a hero of World War II, and subsequently an observer of every seamy transaction in the wars of American politics, emerge as such a sap?” Bush won office by promising that he would veto any attempted tax increase: “Read my lips: no new taxes!” He then agreed to raise taxes, on the promise of his political opponents to lower government expenditures, something that they had no intention of doing. It’s hard to think of any other president who would have been foolish enough to make such an agreement, and it very appropriately cost Bush his presidency.
Bush showed great ability at persuading foreigners to unite with the United States in asserting Kuwait’s independence after the oil-rich kingdom had been forcibly annexed by Iraq. He also showed great fortitude. I well recall watching news coverage of the buildup to the first Gulf War. I was in the company of other libertarians, all very bright people. Their reaction, as they saw the troops walking onto the ships: “Poor kids! They’ll never come back alive.” And that was a possibility. Yet Bush took the risk and fought a successful war in the Gulf, a war that actually came to a conclusion.
He also fought a successful, though much less honorable, war against Manuel Noriega, dictator of Panama — allegedly for his involvement with drug trafficking, actually for his general antagonism to the United States. Bush had Noriega snatched from Panama and tried in the United States, where he was convicted of crimes against the laws of a country that was not his own. You don’t have to be sympathetic to Noriega to sense that President Bush wasn’t a deep thinker about international law. Nor do you need extraordinary intelligence to perceive, in the wars of the first Bush administration, the seeds of wars in the second.
If ideas count — and they do — a modern liberal Democrat president had admitted that libertarians, the foes of every idea he endorsed, had won the argument.
It is hard to find a libertarian feature of the first Bush regime, and harder still to find one in the early regime of Bill Clinton. The only good thing about it was Hillary Clinton’s elephantine attempt to socialize the nation’s healthcare system, and the failure of her attempt. It failed, not principally because of the Republican Party’s opposition, but because of the people’s response to a well-calculated television ad campaign, supported by some intelligent and interested people on the Right. To the political pros, the campaign seemed to have “come out of nowhere,” yet it re-energized the forces of limited government. A year later, these forces united behind new ones within the Republican Party and ousted the president’s party from its leadership of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. Clinton’s response was to proclaim that “the era of big government is over.”
Of course, that was a lie. As several people commented at the time, all he meant was that the era of lots and lots of little government was continuing. Nevertheless, if ideas count — and they do — a modern liberal Democrat president had admitted that libertarians, the foes of every idea he endorsed, had won the argument.
Unfortunately, his remarks were a warning, for those who would listen, that future government aggressions would be finessed, not announced. In future, modern liberals like Al Gore would pretend that they had a “lock box” in which to put Social Security taxes, and that the box would never be raided for the use of any other government project — a mythological concession to the people’s desire to limit the state’s depredations. And in future, modern socialists like Barack Obama would claim that even their most Ozymandian schemes, such as Obama’s healthcare “reform,” would “pay for themselves” or even “reduce government expenditures.”
La Rochefoucauld said that hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. If so, we can do without any more tributes. The truth of libertarian ideas is admitted, in principle. Still, it’s the false ideas that get put into practice.
Clinton commissioned countless military adventures abroad, in Eastern Europe and in the Near East; they seldom amounted to much, although they asserted the kind of bellicosity that his own party now wants to run away from. But Clinton did two good things for the cause of limited government: he made an alliance with the Republicans for a sweeping, and successful, reform of welfare; and by his scandals he so diminished the prestige of the presidency as to make people significantly less likely to believe and trust elected officials. Bad news for government is usually good news for liberty.
What shall we say about the second President Bush? Unlike Bill Clinton, he wouldn't be a bad person to have as a neighbor — unless, of course, he decided that you might be secreting a weapon of mass destruction. R.W. Bradford, the founder of Liberty, once published an article in which he tried to account for Bush's invasion of Iraq. After a close review of the evidence, he concluded that Bush really believed his own account of the dangers that Saddam Hussein posed to the world. I found Bradford's reasoning persuasive. Bush was not an evil man; he was a gullible man, and he was usually gullible in the ways in which modern liberals are gullible. Until recently, they too believed in solving problems, real or perceived, by projecting military power abroad; indeed, more leading Democrats initially supported the second Gulf War than had supported the first one.
If Bush had happened to be a member of the Democratic Party (which, except for his family identification, he could easily have been, given his general political ideas), no one on that side would have quibbled about his vast government expenditures and vast government indebtedness, or his blithe disregard for any limitations on the power of the federal government. It was Bush who engineered one of the greatest federal takeovers in history, Washington’s massive intervention in local education, under the title of "No Child Left Behind."
In 2008, George Bush the modern liberal was succeeded by Barack Obama, another modern liberal — but a much more self-conscious and socialistic one. People in the eighteenth century used to analyze people by reference to their “ruling passion,” to whatever it is about them that they are willing to sacrifice everything else to. President Obama’s ruling passion is intellectual arrogance, the kind of arrogance that finds its equal, among American presidents, only in the disastrous mentality of President Wilson. Wilson never understood why he was deserted by the people over the issue of the League of Nations; after all, his ideas were correct. For Obama, as for Wilson, “correct” means “progressive,” and “progressive” means “maintaining unquestioned faith in the uninformed notions of the leader.”
No hypocrisy here: Obama believes sincerely in the ideas he enunciates. He believes implicitly in Keynesianism, minus Keynes’s qualifications of his theories; in the most naïve form of dirigisme, minus the glitter of Louis Napoleon and Baron Haussmann; in the managerial economics of Henry Wallace, minus Wallace’s wonderful goofiness (though Obama followed the Reverend Mr. Wright as Wallace followed his “guru”). In short, Obama is not an intellectual, no, not by a mile. He simply makes the mistake of believing that he somehow arrived at his naïve ideas through a long process of thought and experience, and that his inspiring “philosophy” is his ticket to success.
For Obama, as for Woodrow Wilson, “correct” means “progressive,” and “progressive” means “maintaining unquestioned faith in the uninformed notions of the leader.”
Clearly, it’s not. If “success” means “being elected,” right now he couldn’t be nominated as an alderman in Chicago. If it means “moral superiority,” why are you laughing right now? Obama’s administration demonstrates the truth of an important libertarian idea, developed by Friedrich Hayek in the chapter of “The Road to Serfdom” that he called “Why the Worst Get on Top.”
I’ll summarize the argument in this way: socialism attracts people for many reasons. One is a desire for unearned material rewards. Another is a lust for the power that socialized economies automatically convey to an elite. But yet another is the humanitarian idealism that is felt by some of the world’s morally “best” people. They enlist in the socialist cause because they think it will make a better world. These are the “hopey-changey” people. But when a socialist regime comes into power, it inevitably demonstrates, as Obama’s regime has demonstrated, that its promises cannot be fulfilled, especially in the terms originally proposed. At this point, the best of the hopey-changey people hop off the train; the worst stay on, making their way toward the front by means of lies and intimidation.
Consider the leading personnel of the Obama regime — the Nancy Pelosis and Harry Reids, the David Axelrods and Rahm Emanuels — and you will see the principle in action. Because our tradition of limited government has been preserved in many important respects, the “worst” in America are not allowed to be as bad as the “worst” could get in, say, Stalinist Bulgaria; but they are as bad as bad can be, in American terms. They are living demonstrations of the intellectual and moral vacancy of socialism, American style, and so is their boss, Obama.
So where do we stand today?
We stand at the end of a quarter century of confirmations of libertarian ideas. We stand in the midst of an enormous popular rebellion against the state, a rebellion conducted almost entirely in libertarian terms. The Tea Party movement is not the only example. In every state, in virtually every county, ordinary intelligent Americans are calling for retrenchments of government. Sometimes their protests are united with demands that run contrary to libertarian ideas, demands motivated by conservative religious dogmas or opposition to international trade or the “outsourcing” of industry. But these notions are not the rudder on the ship. In most cases, they are scarcely heard.
If nothing else, the elections of 2010 showed that the American people are tremendously dissatisfied with the performance of Obama and his party, and on thoroughly libertarian grounds. The results of the election indicate a massive revolt against both the arrogance and the enabling ideas of the modern state.
The vehicle of this revolt has not been the Libertarian Party, which is no longer the most conspicuous political manifestation of the freedom movement. The main vehicle is now the venerable Republican Party. Despite the absence of a self-described libertarian president, despite the presence of time-serving apparatchiks as leaders of the congressional Republicans, the G.O.P. is as much infused with libertarian ideas as the Democratic Party is infused with socialist ones — and that’s saying something.
This remarkable development was made possible by three other developments, two of them quite unexpected.
One was the internet revolution, a supreme technological application of the principle of spontaneous order that libertarians have always advocated. The internet’s creation of a new kind of spontaneous order ended the hegemony of the government-authorized radio and television networks, which in 1987 allowed barely a hint of libertarianism to surface in the national discourse. Their dominance has been utterly destroyed. Now, anyone who has a good idea, an idea that works — and libertarian ideas do work — can reach out to other people and give the idea a potent political expression. Add to this the growth of cable TV, hungry for real ideas that will interest real people.
Another unexpected development was the growth in influence of libertarian journals, think tanks, and other voluntary organizations, making their way in the new channels of the internet and cable TV. The Cato Institute, the Mises Institute, Reason magazine, Liberty magazine, FreedomFest . . . these are only a few purveyors of libertarian ideas reaching out to a broad audience of Americans and giving them intellectual ammunition to continue the war against the coercive state. Gone are the days when the New York Times quoted someone from the Ford Foundation, and CBS quoted the New York Times, and “public opinion” resulted. Now libertarian ideas and libertarian research and the evidence of a successful libertarian society, as embodied in the internet itself, are as close as anyone’s keyboard, where they compete very successfully, thank you, with the ideas of the closed society.
What’s the third development? It’s simply the persistence and continual confirmation of essential libertarian ideas. The arguments of Locke and Madison, Friedman and Mises, Paterson and Hayek, haven’t changed during the past 23 years; but they have been ratified by more, and more conclusive, events and understood by more, and more informed, people. This is not the moment for regret or despair; this is the moment for confidence in the future, in our country, and in ourselves.
ldquo;reduce government expenditures.rdquo; of industry. But these notions are not the rudder on the ship. In most cases, they are scarcely heard.
ldquo;reduce government expenditures.