Needed: An American Spring
by Jacob G. Hornberger
I confess that the presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney has me bored, big time. I really don’t care which of them is elected. For me, it doesn’t make any difference. They are mirror images of each other, philosophically speaking. They both believe in the welfare state, the managed economy, and the warfare state. They’re fighting over which one of them would make the better manager of the statist system under which modern-day Americans live.
This week Newsday published an interesting article by Cathy Young, who is a longtime contributor to Reason magazine. Young’s piece weighed the benefits of voting for Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson for president as compared to voting for Obama or Romney as “the less of two evils.”
Young’s article included a quote from me that pointed out that the real philosophical divide in the country is between those who think that it is the role of government to take care of people’s needs, manage the economy, and run a military empire (e.g., Republicans and Democrats) – and those who reject all of the above (i.e., libertarians).
Young pointed out that there simply isn’t a large constituency for libertarian views among the American people, which is why, she suggested, libertarians are oftentimes excluded from the political process, such as participation in the presidential debates.
Young’s article implicitly raises an interesting question, one that I have been periodically asked during the 22-year history of The Future of Freedom Foundation. Given that most Americans embrace the welfare-state, managed-economy, warfare-state way of life, what’s the point of advancing an uncompromising libertarian message? As one donor to FFF said to me several years ago, “Why don’t you modify your message to make it more palatable for people?” He wanted us, for example, to call for a reduction in income taxes rather than the repeal of the income tax and the abolition of the IRS. Another donor early in our existence told us that his continued support depended on our endorsing school vouchers as compared to hewing strictly to our position calling for a separation of school and state.
The reason we continue to hew to pure libertarian principles here at FFF is two-fold: One, because we believe that libertarianism is founded on correct moral principles, which makes advancing this philosophy the right thing to do. Two, libertarianism would mean freedom, peace, prosperity, and harmony for America, as compared to the perpetual violence, conflict, disharmony, monetary destruction, economic recession, and ever-growing infringements on civil liberties that come with the statist philosophy that now holds our nation in its grip.
Suppose that for the past 200 years, the federal and state governments had run a nation-wide public churching system, similar to the nation’s public-school system. State and local governments own and operate most of the churches. Privately run churches are permitted but are required to have a government-issue license. Everyone, children and adults alike, is required to attend church, given the importance of religious values in society. Churches are funded with tax revenues, and the federal government helps out with subsidies, with strings attached of course.
Today, wouldn’t there be extreme dissatisfaction with the public-churching system, much as there is with the public-schooling system? The system would be riddled with corruption, fraud, inefficiency, and massive overspending. Many people would undoubtedly end up hating God and religion.
What would the presidential candidates, along with the mainstream press, be debating? They’d be debating which candidate would be the better manager of the public-churching system. One candidate would show why he’d be better at inculcating a deeper respect for God and the church within the citizenry. The other candidate would be presenting his plan for bringing business-like efficiency to the operation of the public-churching system. Both candidates would be arguing that no child and no adult should be left behind when it comes to religion.
Libertarians, not surprisingly, would be extremely bored with such a debate and with such a presidential race. We wouldn’t care who was elected president, given that both candidates believed in the public-churching system and were simply fighting over how to run it better.
Our position would be that the public churching system is inherently defective. It wouldn’t matter which candidate was chosen or which plan was adopted. With each new reform of the system, the problems would only multiply.
Thus, we libertarians would call for a total separation of church and state, a system in which the state plays no role in religious affairs whatsoever. That would be our solution to the public-churching mess.
Obviously, however, that wouldn’t sit well with most Americans, who would have been born and raised under a public-churching system. That would be too radical for most of them. They would tell us to be practical. People would suggest that libertarians, if they wanted to be effective, should modify their message to gain greater popularity. One possibility would be to endorse a voucher system, whereby parents and children could opt out of public churches and attend the government-licensed private churches.
But that would be the worst thing that libertarians could do. For one thing, it would mean that libertarians would be endorsing positions that are antithetical to libertarian principles. Why should people listen to people who violate their own principles? How can anyone respect such a person?
Moreover, how can society ever get off the wrong track and onto the right track if there isn’t anyone raising people’s vision and thought to the right track? How would it be possible for people to even consider the idea of separating church and state if they haven’t even thought of that possibility?
These methodological principles are no different with respect to the welfare-state, managed-economy, warfare-state way of life. I think Cathy Young is correct — that most Americans, having been born and raised under statism — simply cannot imagine life without it. The thought of life without Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public schooling, farm subsidies, corporate bailouts, foreign aid, food stamps, education grants, and most other aspects of the paternalistic state frightens many people half to death.
Americans are also committed to the concept of the managed economy, whereby the government purports to control and direct economic activity.
They also remain committed to the existence of the vast standing army, military-industrial complex, foreign empire of military bases, the CIA, and the other parts of the warfare state and national-security state. They are convinced that the world would fall apart or that America would fall to the communists, the terrorists, the Muslims, the illegal aliens, or the drug dealers if this gigantic statist operation were to be dismantled.
They also remain committed to the drug war, albeit much less so than 20 years ago. In fact, the drug war is a good example of the effectiveness of continuing to hew to a principled position when it comes to liberty. Today, the number of people calling for an end to the drug war continues to grow. That’s because of those who continued calling for drug legalization notwithstanding the unpopularity of the idea.
Americans today are also able to see the perpetual series of crises that now besiege their lives, not just in the drug war but also Social Security, Medicare, the dollar, the national debt, the war on terrorism, foreign policy, and elsewhere. Everywhere one looks, there is a crisis. A growing number of Americans are now starting to recognize the common denominator of all these crises — statism — or socialism, paternalism, interventionism, and imperialism.
I think our job as libertarians is not so much to convince Americans to become libertarians as it is to find libertarians. Let’s face it: there are people in life who are simply incorrigible statists. It’s part of their DNA. The chances, say, of converting Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama, or Mitt Romney to libertarianism are nil.
But there are lots of people who are natural libertarians but who don’t know it. They have had their minds inculcated with statism during the 12 years they attended public (i.e., government) schools and then state-supported colleges. Not only do they believe in statism but, even worse, have been made to believe that it’s “freedom.”
Oftentimes, it’s possible to help such people achieve a breakthrough to reality. I’m an example of that phenomenon. Up until my mid-20s, I was a died-in-the-wool statist who believed that it was the job of government to take care of people and that the welfare state helped the poor. Discovering libertarianism caused the scales to fall from my eyes. But that wouldn’t have happened if there hadn’t been others presenting the uncompromising case for libertarianism.
My hunch is that if we can continue finding libertarians and growing our numbers, we will reach a critical mass that will cause society to simply shift to libertarianism. And I’m convinced that that critical mass can be significantly less than a majority. Achieving such a critical mass obviously involves the continued spread of libertarian ideas. It’s the best way to find more libertarians.
Of course, there are no guarantees. One can spend his entire life advancing liberty and hoping to achieve the free society and fail to attain it. A good example is Frederic Bastiat, whose writings continue to inspire libertarians today but who failed to achieve the free society in France during his lifetime.
The advancement of libertarianism is the only chance there is to bring about a revolutionary shift in American life, which is precisely what America needs. The welfare-state, managed-economy, warfare-state way of life is not only morally deficient, it has produced nothing but horrific consequences. The only solution to America’s woes lies in libertarianism.
Thus, it is essential that we libertarians continue to speak the unvarnished truth, not only because it is right but also because it’s the only chance there is to bring an American Spring to our land, one in which the American people lead the world out of the statist morass and onto the greatest reaches of freedom ever seen my mankind.