This talk was delivered on August 9, 2003, at the Ron Paul Leadership and Strategy Meeting in Brazoria, Texas.
The biggest enemy liberty faces is demoralization and discouragement among its friends. This has always been true. It is also true that there has always been a good case to be made for demoralization and discouragement. The founding fathers felt it before 1776. The opponents of communism in Russia felt it from the 1920s through the 1980s. In the US, the Jeffersonians felt it before their revolution of 1800, as did the opponents of prohibition in the 1920s.
We feel it in our own time, when Washington has never been more overt in its displays of hegemonic power. All over the world, in Europe, Latin America, and Asia too, as well as North America, intellectuals and political organizations hold to a libertarian worldview, and each has been influenced to some extent by the Austrian School of economics of which the premier exponent is the Mises Institute.
The world these movements are working for is radically different from the present. It is a Jeffersonian world in which private property is fully respected; voluntary action within the framework of a free-market economy is unencumbered by the state; money is good as gold and unmanaged by a central bank; people are safe from war and political violence; and the rule of legislators is replaced by the rule of law. We all of us seek a world in which individuals, families, communities, and whole societies are permitted to shape their own futures, and no institution calling itself the state enjoys special privileges to steal from and rule over others.
Given our ambitions, the short-term pessimist is nearly always a prophet. If he has influence over others to the point that they are sapped of energy, he can also be a prophet in the long run. And yet, liberty has prevailed in the past and it can again. I do not mean through military victories, which are so often Pyrrhic, but rather intellectual victories that result in changing history for the better. It can happen, and in ways we least expect. We must never lose sight of that. If we give up hope, we give up the fight, and doing that clears the path for the victories of despotism.
I say all this at the outset of my talk here today because I am aware that the attention people give words in speech is subject to the law of diminishing marginal utility, and this message is what I would like you to remember as you go about your daily affairs in the city of the beast, Washington, DC, and in its shadow here in Texas. But I also say it because I am all too aware of the discouragement that can come as a result of working in a place like Washington, or any capital city. This discouragement can lead to a pessimism that makes all our efforts appear futile and hence not worth undertaking.
There is a line in a Woody Allen movie in which a pontificating pessimist, reflecting on man’s inhumanity it to man, says (approximately): “I’m not surprised that the Holocaust happened; I’m surprised that it doesn’t happen all the time.” In the same way, we might observe that we shouldn’t be shocked by overweening state power; we should be surprised that despotism is not the universal and eternal condition of man. Why? Because states are never liberally minded (as Ludwig von Mises said) and they are always prone to expansion. Rather, we should be surprised when power does not manage to prevail over liberty. We need to understand why that happens if we are to achieve victory.
An old hymn offers us this famous couplet: “Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne.” These lines are often quoted, but let us never forget the lines that follow: “Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.”
This was economist Murray Rothbard’s favorite hymn. We sang it at a memorial service in his honor. In many ways, the words reflect what were his own views of the world. He saw that the long history of humanity is dark in many ways. But he was far more interested in that most unusual phenomenon when periodically in the history of world affairs, the small light of liberty appears, powered by faith and the work of people who believed in the idea. He saw that this small light is the source of civilization itself. Liberty is the truth on the scaffold, and it is the truth that sways the future.
For this reason, we must never tire of professing what is true, and never tire of working toward liberty. Murray never did. As a graduate student at Columbia in the 1950s, he was perfectly positioned to take up the banner of Keynesianism and make a great career for himself, as a defender of the theoretical apparatus and as a political apologist of Keynesian-style intervention. But he had happened upon a book by Ludwig von Mises: Human Action. In it, Mises explained the relationship between human advancement and human liberty. He not only demonstrated the errors of the new economics; he showed how all the statist trends of our time are counterproductive to the building of prosperity and civilization. This applies to not only socialism but also to interventionism of every variety, including that practiced by the welfare-warfare-central-banking state in the US.
Convinced of this truth, Murray set out on a different course, to expand on Mises and do his work within the framework of the Austrian School of economics. He eventually came to reconstruct the theoretical basis and historical understand of liberty itself, and set in motion the formation of a modern intellectual movement, now worldwide, which poses the most serious intellectual threat that omnipotent government faces in our time. Yes, he paid a personal price for doing so, but he had no regrets. Mises once said that his only regret in life was the few times that he had compromised. I’m not sure that Murray could have had that regret.
And let’s be clear about the body of ideas that these two men advanced. We are not talking about a niche idea that is important in one area of life but no other, like a small insight in the natural sciences, however important that may be. No, they were thinking about something far larger: they saw that the idea of human liberty itself is the mother of all progress that mankind has ever made, in science, health, and human well being in general.
We owe it to the idea of liberty that life spans have increased so dramatically in the last 500 years, that diseases have been eradicated, that the population has expanded so dramatically, that we have access to so many goods and services today, that a major part of the world’s population need not worry about clean water, healthy food, or safe housing. It is to human liberty that we must give credit for all the technological advances of the last centuries, right up to our own time.
That idea is so large and so all-embracing that, ironically, it can be easy to miss. Most intellectuals miss it. But these two men dedicated their lives to making sure that we do not miss this point, and that the idea of liberty withstands criticism from all its enemies. For this, we owe them a great debt. Indeed, all of civilization owes them a debt, particularly because they defended truth in a time when it was gravely unpopular. They lived lives attached to an idea and lived them according to a set of principles.
So too has Ron Paul, the esteemed Congressman from Texas. I’ve observed Ron in action for many years. In fact, I once worked for him in his Congressional office. I don’t believe that public affairs in this country has benefited from the presence of a more principled man in longer than a century. In fact, you would have to go back to the 19th and even 18th centuries to find a man who has exhibited such constant attachment to liberty in public life. He should be a model for all statesmen in this country, but, alas, truth is on the scaffold in DC, where Ron is regarded as anachronistic. But it does sway the future, as witness Ron’s reputation outside the beltway and around the world, where he is rightly regarded as a hero for our times.
Let’s look at the contrast between what happens in Washington and what pollsters say about American opinion. Most Americans continue to favor cuts in government. This has been true since the end of World War II. And yet government grows unceasingly, without admitting that it is doing so. Washington considers a budget that keeps up with the GDP, meaning a budget that grows 2 to 4 percent per year, to be a dramatic cut. How? Well, it is an accepted part of Washington’s fiscal culture that government must grow faster than the private sector, which is to say, 7 to 8 percent per year, as in the Clinton years, or 10 to 15 percent per year, as in the Bush years. A cut is anything less.
But we all know how the language of government is corrupt and how the true meaning of words can often end up being the very opposite of what the words would suggest. More notable is the reality of power itself. All of Washington seems to be organized to impart just this message: do not resist power, do not fight the inevitable expansion of the state, and do not dabble in crazy theories about the merit of a society not managed from the top.
Instead, be impressed at power, pay obeisance to the state, and join in the fun that comes with bossing people around, invading other countries, and spending fully $2.5 trillion of other people’s money every year. No one who lives in Washington can escape this message, and it does have real effects. It draws people into the power web in hopes of becoming part of the in team, and it discourages people who have their doubts about the merit of Leviathan.
The cultural incentives of Washington are very different from the rest of the country. To make social advances in most places in the United States requires attention to the essential pieties of life itself. You must contribute something substantial to the life of your community, which means being a good church member, raising a family, or making a contribution to the commercial life of your community through hard work, service, and entrepreneurship. There is a moral component at work here. You must gain a reputation for honesty and keeping commitments. In short, you must practice the bourgeois virtues.
Matters are oddly different in Washington. The goal is not service traditionally understood but knowing the right people in hopes of privilege and favor in the eyes of power itself. The goal of a politician is not adhering to principle but finding the right configuration of favor-granting and quid pro quos to make his term in office a success, a term which is understood to mean security in office and good prospects for higher office, and a cozy state-connected sinecure afterwards. Vote trading, not commercial trading, is the norm. No matter how many ethics-in-government laws are passed, a glorified version of the bribe in one form or another is the way business is done.
Now, it is not essential for life that people partake in this, but it takes extraordinary courage and independence of mind to resist. Ron Paul does not do business this way. The lobbyists largely stopped visiting his offices years ago. In the great log-rolling game of Washington politics, everyone knows that Ron is not a player. But he is admired the world over for how different he is. In fact, he is admired by his colleagues for this, even if they do not entirely understand why he refuses to play the game. They respect him, but they cannot understand him. To them, the business of politics is not adhering to principle but rather the exercise of power. This hardly makes them unusual in the history of human affairs.
What is unusual is the willingness to stand up for what is right and to apply bourgeois virtues in a place that believes itself to be above and beyond such concerns. By choosing to be associated with Ron Paul and his work, you have demonstrated your willingness to be apart from the crowd. By choosing to advance liberty over advancing the state, you have similarly made sacrifices. Is it worth it? Financially? Probably not. Personally, perhaps not either, but for the peace of mind that comes with doing the right thing.
What is that worth? Everything in the world. Ron uses his position as congressmen to try to protect the lives, liberty, and property of his constituents but also to be a free-market educator to the world. His speeches and writings are the most intelligent you will ever read. He can be a fierce questioner in committee meetings. I enjoy thinking of the dread Alan Greenspan feels when he is testifying and sees that Ron Paul is about to take to the microphone. I revel at the grumbling they must do at the White House when they consider the one lone man in Congress who can’t be intimidated or bought. Mostly, I enjoy reading and linking to his amazing speeches in the House, in which he tells what is true regardless of the consequences.
Who is Ron’s audience? Some of his colleagues might be persuaded from time to time, to be sure, and they may or may not act on his message. But they are not his primary flock. Instead, he is speaking to the people of Texas, to the American people, and even to all people in the world whose main political interest is keeping the state out of their lives. They are the ones open to hearing what he has to say.
By dealing in the world of ideas as opposed to the world of power, he is on the right side of history. It is not, finally, power that determines the course of history, for power must finally submit to something that is far bigger, namely, ideas. Ideas are so powerful that not even the most well-armed state apparatus can govern without them. Power, always and everywhere, needs an ideological cover. Bombs and bayonets can take you only so far in this world. Government propaganda is the tribute that power pays to ideas: even the most totalitarian state cannot risk governing a society without some stated rationale.
Think about the reason for the prevalence of censorship. If ideas contrary to those of the regime were not a threat, no government would have to bother with censoring anyone. They would all tolerate the free expression of ideas. But they do not. Knowing that the free flow of ideas was essential to liberty, the founding fathers gave us the First Amendment , which was and is the most important tool we can use in the fight for freedom. What would we be without it? The US government has never hesitated to impose censorship when it operates in foreign countries, as it does now in Iraq. It attempts to do this at home, but is only restricted by the latent cultural respect that still exists for the First Amendment .
The state wants to suppress ideas contrary to the governing rationale for the same reason that the prison warden wants to suppress pro-riot leaflets. Ideas can have consequences, and the only way to insure those in power against fundamental challenge is to control the minds of those who threaten it. This is why no government is immune from the temptation to suppress dissent.
Everyone recalls Hilary Clinton’s complaint that the Web has no gatekeepers. This was the lament of a political class that fears criticism. But even in the years following the ratification of the US Constitution, the Hamiltonians couldn’t resist the impulse either, and they passed the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which declared as a criminal anyone who writes with an “intent to defame” the government. Two years later, however, the Hamiltonians were tossed out of power and replaced by the Jeffersonians.
Clearly, power worries about contrary ideas. This is why governments from time immemorial have attempted to monopolize education. The purpose is not to provide equal access or good pay for teachers or correct for some market failure. The purpose of public schooling is to make it possible for the powers that be to have a ready vehicle for instilling the civic religion in children. This is also why there is a relentless push to centralize the control even of public schools. The more centralized it is, the less likely it is that ideas considered dangerous might leak out and threaten power. It is in the temple of the civic religion, that no child must be left behind.
The writers of dystopian novels like 1984 and Brave New World implicitly understand the role that the Ministry of Information plays in securing the control over the population. In a similar way, the heroes of such novels work to get their message out. What the regimes fear most is the solitary individual who performs the ultimate revolutionary act: he tells what is true. The struggle between those who want to speak and hear the truth, and the power elite that wants to keep it under wraps, is the main drama of these books. That is precisely why these novels are so compelling. They are novels about the suppression of ideas. That is why they connect with what we know about despotism and the struggle for liberty.
To undermine a regime one must fight, above all, an ideological struggle. A person who lives to promote the idea of liberty is rightly called an idealist. And yet, it can be overwhelming to be an idealist in the nation’s capital. The system of governance, day to day, seems secure, impossibly large, and thoroughly locked up against intrusion. Most anyone you meet has something different from libertarian ideas in mind. Intellectuals in Washington are for hire, almost invariably employed by some party or institution in order to justify some preexisting line. Such intellectuals are acting according to their interests, which do not typically involve leaving people alone.
The culture of the capital itself wars against any intellectual belief in liberty. It is also uninterested in history, whether intellectual or political. Scheming takes precedence over truth telling. Jockeying for position and power takes precedence over intellectual exploration and honest debate.
I recently read some comments by a famous economist who contradicted a lifetime of writings by saying that the deficit is nothing to worry about. Well, we shouldn’t be surprised: he is now working for the White House, which is running the biggest deficits in human history. Even more notable is how nobody was surprised that he would reverse himself. It is just expected that nearly everything that comes out of your mouth, once you are in the employ of the state, should be funneled through politics, which is to say, based on untruth.
The Mises Institute used to have an office in Washington, until one day it dawned on us that this was no place for an institution dedicated to the life of the mind. Whether people came to our lectures on the history of economic thought or the causes of monetary crisis, or whatever the topic of the day would be, was wholly contingent on whether we could offer access to powerful people, not to mention the quality of the food and drink.
This raises a question. How much respect does a libertarian enjoy in the capital? Well, that depends. If the libertarian is saying what he should be saying — that we need to abolish the state as we know it, that society can manage itself without the help of DC, that human liberty is a more productive force than power — he will enjoy very little respect and receive virtually no hearing. His ideas will have little credibility. Very little if any money or media favor is available to this person.
If the libertarian is willing to trim his sails, to endorse a state program from time to time, or, better yet, advocate expanding the state in one area, he can expect temporary praise and attention, as a libertarian think tank did in 2001 after it endorsed the war on terrorism and the invasion of Afghanistan. This is the way Washington rewards people with souls to sell. There are profits to be had in betraying one’s principles.
Not only libertarians are affected by the ability of the power elite to make and break media stars. Pundits are chosen and dropped based on their ability to articulate a rationale that seems to back the prevailing opinions in the White House and on Capitol Hill.
I’ve seen a highly regarded pundit attempt to trade in his fame and notoriety to make a principled stand, only to find that he has been dropped and forgotten even before his message was made public. Only then does he realize that his fame was not due to his personal talents so much as the usefulness of his message. Most pundits intuitively understand this, and see it as part of their career choice and expertise to say the right thing at the right time.
Given the odds, why would anyone make the choice in favor of limited influence, of fighting a fight that seems unwinnable, of battling something that seems so huge and impenetrable as the leviathan state? No one wants to undertake the impossible, and it seems imprudent to do so. But I do not believe that the battle for liberty is unwinnable. In fact, I believe it is being won, precisely because of people who are willing to look past the day-to-day affairs of the nation’s capital and understand certain immutable truths. In the battle for liberty, the principled choice is also the practical choice.
Let me explain why by first discussing the role of Ron Paul in the life of the nation. Though he has been called the Taxpayer’s Best Friend, though he draws attention as the sole dissenting vote on bad legislation, though he frequently tangles with the chairman of the Federal Reserve, though he wins election after election by good margins, and though his congressional website is one of the most popular, he is sometimes called an ineffective politician. In fact, he is glad to admit that he is ineffective by any conventional standard. His name doesn’t appear on legislation that ends up being signed in the Rose Garden and heralded by the tax eaters.
But he is effective in another way. He is effective as a true leader, which is to say as a teacher. His stance has inspired millions, in ways we know of, and in ways we do not. His very example has shown that it is possible to be independent minded, to prevail with a fighting spirit, to stand up to dominance, to speak truth to power.
Were he not in Congress, one might be tempted by the full logic of the school of economics known as Public Choice. In the view of this school, politicians act only in their self interest to maximize their personal gain in all ways. Liberty may be the public interest but it is not in the private interest of those who hold power. Nor, they say, is liberty in the interest of most private people, who pay only marginal costs for the diminution of liberty as compared to the special interests who stand to reap huge gains from statism. And truly this model does explain a lot. But it does not explain men like Ron. It doesn’t explain all those who have dedicated their lives to higher causes in all of human history.
In many ways, Ron is a revolutionary. But something similar could be said about many and even most Americans who are attempting to go about their lives without being drawn into the clutches of the superpower. Americans can be extremely fickle, flitting from wildly misplaced patriotism to widespread antipathy toward government — and we have seen these ups and downs in the last two years. But day-to-day, in the manner in which people manage their lives, Americans pay little attention to public affairs, generally distrust politicians, are not surprised to hear that even the president has told an untruth in the run-up to war, resent taxes and regulations, and generally presume the right to go about their affairs as if they were free to live, work, and associate as they please. Contrary to what is presumed in Washington, the country is not hanging on the words of political leadership.
What’s more, practically every adult in America has had real life experience in dealing with the federal government, and their experiences do not speak well for the prospects of central planning. Many Americans are taking that extra step that it takes to arrange their lives in such a way as to be as independent as possible from the state apparatus.
We are seeing explosive growth in such institutions as homeschooling, gated communities, private arbitration, and alternative news reporting and reading, all of which represent small acts of secession from the regime. No matter what people report on day-to-day polls, looking at the long-term trend, we are in the midst of a large-scale disillusionment with the whole ideological basis of the modern state. It is a trend that is some three decades old, and, despite periodic setbacks, it continues to this day.
There is no question in my mind that the Internet has made a huge difference for our side. Mises.org and my own personal site rank at the top of sites of their kind in terms of traffic. Ron Paul is able to reach the multitudes. We have instant access to news sources from around the world. The web itself is taking on new shapes and forms no one would have thought possible even one year ago.
The rise of the blogger community, now involving millions, has meant that the truth about government’s action can get out to many more millions in seconds. There is no question that this has spooked those in power. “In the long run,” wrote Mises, “even the most despotic governments with all their brutality and cruelty are no match for ideas.”
The ubiquity of libertarian ideas has also created a situation in which government can no longer rule with the confidence it once had. After World War II, people thought there was only an upside to letting the government manage all education, pensions, family and economic life, technological innovation, housing and even food provision. Nationalization of industry was a popular idea. The programs and bureaucracies that were inspired by such a vision are still with us, of course, but the faith that they can do a better job than the private sector is no more. The socialists are still around, of course, but they focus not on the technical details of how wonderful life would be if the government ran everything — who would give them a hearing? — but rather about moral themes of fairness, justice, and equality.
Hence, on the level of practical economics and social affairs, the socialists have lost the debate. It is important to remember what an enormous victory this is. As for the moral point, we still have much work to do. In political affairs, too, restraining the state requires enormous work. But the groundwork has been laid. The state is on a far shakier foundation than we know.
All states everywhere enjoy power only because people are willing to grant it to them, which in turn means that power is ultimately based on that illusive notion called legitimacy. Legitimacy can vanish in an instant, exposed as a façade that covers up the massive looting machine that is government. But this is even more true in a system like our own where it has been tested and tested, and failed and failed again.
Recall how the Bush administration characterized the Iraqi regime as a small band of tyrants ruling a huge population poised to resist. That the same urge to resist has now turned against the US military doesn’t change the point. There is a certain truth to the idea that all governments everywhere are unstable, and the more ambitious they are the more unstable they become. That they work so hard to create a rationale for their rule underscores the point: without it, they can collapse in an instant. The Bush administration was right that Saddam’s tyranny was fragile, but, at the same, the tyranny that the federal government exercises over this country and the world is similarly fragile.
That government rule is dispensable is the great truth that revolutionaries have known when others have not. Consider the likes of Vladimir Lenin. Holed up in exiled and plotting the Bolshevik Revolution, he never doubted that the Russian tsar could be overthrown. He saw his job as merely finding the weak spot — in this case it was the Russian involvement in the great war that was killing off so many thousands of young men in a pointless undertaking — and exploiting it.
Had he sat around fretting about the risks and doubting the future victory of his cause, it is likely that he never would have triumphed. The cause he was promoting, namely communism, was evil and it resulted in incredible calamity. Given the truth of freedom, how much more passionate and sure footed should we be?
A major source of discouragement is the trend line itself. Since the inception of the American republic, and especially since Lincoln’s war, government has grown. Why should we think any alternative future can happen? Well, Mises titled one of his essays: “trends can change.” It is amazing how often we forget that.
I’m reminded of the planner employed by the local water board who forecasted a deadly drought merely because it had not rained in a month. This makes no more sense than forecasting a flood in the midst of the next rain. Forecasting the future requires more than a straight edge and a pencil. The fact is that we do not know what the future holds, and we have every reason to expect a dramatic turnaround that will result from our kinds of efforts.
In the days following 9-11, we heard pundits tell us that the libertarian view of public life had been made irrelevant, that a new sense of nationalism and love of the state would displace it. But that view presumed something that could not be true: namely, that the new powers assumed by the government would turn out to be good for the country. That is has not turned out to be true at all.
The Bush administration has squandered all the good will it accumulated for the state by undertaking a far-flung and utterly unworkable venture. With Ron Paul, the Mises Institute took a lot of flak for being among the earliest voices to cry foul. But today, we receive constant communication to the effect that we were right about the dangers of overthrowing principle in a time of crisis.
It is our job to take the inchoate feelings that there is something wrong about federal power, and turn it into a more vivid sense of the practical and moral urgency of freedom itself. As far as teaching moments are concerned, the failure of the war on terrorism, and the mess that the Bush administration has made of the budget and its wars, provides a perfect opportunity.
In the course of four short months, a war that was seen as a glorious triumph of the US government has turned into an unprecedented fiasco for the world’s only superpower, which now stands accused of having lied to the world to start a war that has spelled disaster for a suffering country. Nor does there seem to be any way out of the current mess in Iraq — other than leaving the country.
For the political right, the lesson of the run-up and conduct of this war should be that the government is no better at warfare than it is at welfare; for the political left, the lesson should be that the government you cannot trust to run the world should not be trusted to run the country. These are simple truths with enormous power. To illustrate the failures of government is not a difficult undertaking. Not a single federal program is untouched by scandal at some level. Not a single line in the budget represents money spent efficiently and effectively. Not a single dream behind any government undertaking has achieved the stated ambitions of its architects. Meanwhile, the evidence of the success of freedom surrounds us.
No, we are not lacking for evidence that our cause is right. It is essential that this message get out to the public through every means possible, whether through academic work, popular articles, or speeches on the floor of Congress. We have the means. We have the will. We also have a good strategy, which should consist of saying what is true as often and in as many venues as we can.
Quite often, saying what is true is all that is necessary to defeat myths and lies. It is our main job. I’m sure you have had the experience of passing on an insight on politics or economics and having the person who heard you express shock at your comment, only to come back to you, perhaps years later, and say that you were right.
By merely saying what is true, you planted a seed in that person’s mind. It takes a while, but sometimes the smallest insight can cause a person to eventually come to look at the world in a completely new way. At the Mises Institute, we have done this for 21 years in hundreds of seminars and lectures. In fact, we do it around the clock every day for an international audience. And we have made a huge difference for the good. Hardly a day goes by when we do not receive emails from some students somewhere who credit our work with changing the way they look at the world.
Does it matter that, say, one student’s mind is changed? Yes, it matters. It matters for that one person and it matters for the history of liberty itself. If we work every day to sponsor scholarship and education that backs the idea of freedom, and we work harder and smarter than the other side, and we do not become discouraged or allow ourselves to be intimidated, someday we will turn around to discover that we have made a revolution.
We may never get the credit, but that is not what we seek. To become famous and rich is not why we got in this business in the first place. We are in it because we believe. We have faith, which is the evidence of things unseen. What is unseen in our country and world right now is a free society that we know would be productive, peaceful, and moral.
What the friends of freedom need more than anything else today is the personal stamina that comes with moral conviction. The cause needs you more now than ever. A time for liberty will come when we realize that history is nothing more than the working out of what we think and believe.
By choosing to pursue education as the means to revolution, you have seized on the most workable means to save civilization itself. It is an awesome responsibility. But with the right views, we can remake the world. Let us never forget the words of Mises: “In a battle between force and an idea, the latter always prevails.”