This speech was delivered at the Ludwig von Mises Institute‘s seminar on Liberty and Public Life in Newport Beach, California, on February 2, 2001.
I haven’t been in good standing with the powers-that-be for some time. But I can guarantee this much: after this speech, I will never be offered a cabinet position in any future administration.
We live in times that are both despotic and revolutionary. We know what despotism means. Never before has any people lived under a government this well-funded, this technologically sophisticated, this well-armed, which daily undertakes activities that would have been inconceivable to governments of ages past. The great tax and political revolts in history occurred under regimes that mostly look like paradises of liberty by comparison.
We shell out 40 percent and more of our income to fund a government to oppress us with its regulations and routine invasions of our private life, to erect and run schools to which we are loathe to send our children, to engage in far-flung wars that create nothing but wreckage and death, to gouge us with their mail and utility services, to seize our guns, to fund welfare schemes and entitlements that drain life from economic affairs.
An even greater loss consists in what we do not see. How many innovations have been lost due to regulations? How many businesses have left their plans unfulfilled due to discrimination lawsuits and taxes? How many good minds have been lost to the public-school system? These are the sunk costs of statism, and they are incalculable.
What’s more, the defenders of this system posture as the nation’s moral elite, and are nearly wholly in control of the establishment media and educational institutions. On a day-to-day basis, it is this aspect of the present despotism, the endless prattle from the Left, that drives us all bonkers.
Who can stand to listen to National Public Radio pose as a voice of moral authority as it spews out repackaged press releases from the Democratic National Committee? Who can bear another solemn proclamation from the New York Times that Jesse Jackson’s plan to redistribute wealth should be immediately implemented? Who can stand to hear another election analyst tell us that the Republicans must curb their extremist rhetoric, or that no living soul ought ever again to speak at Bob Jones University, or that no person who aspires national office should ever again take a principled stand on anything?
Most of this nonsense is made up out of whole cloth, and has no connection to what any real American is thinking about these issues. These statements reflect media etiquette, which is nothing but a repackaging of the etiquette of the State. In that etiquette, one must never say anything that would cast a poor reflection on the left-liberal agenda, and must always treat any alternative as morally suspect.
The etiquette needs no conspiracy to enforce it. It is the backdrop of the entire profession. It is pervasive because the corruption begins at the top and journalists are professionally ambitious. If the crime reporter for the local paper hopes to make it to the national news desk of a major daily, he had better start thinking like a reporter thinks. And he finds out very quickly what this means. It means adopting the official etiquette of the profession.
Thank goodness for the advent of web communications, which has liberated so many of us from the tyranny of this tiny elite and their insufferable and intolerable bias against normalcy and good sense. The promise that talk radio offered in the early 1990s has exploded into something unimaginable in the past: the possibility of being, at the same time, completely informed on public affairs and completely independent of established channels of information.
What Is Revolution?
More on the media despotism and what to do about later. What about this word revolution? I fear that we no longer know what it means. Newt Gingrich called himself a revolutionary. But his only lasting legacy was to impose term limits on House committee chairmen. Whatever you think of that idea, it is not revolutionary. These days political figures have watered down the word so much that we hear calls for a revolution every few months. What they mean is a more compelling version of the status quo.
That is not what I mean by revolution. In 1969, when the New Left was proclaiming its desire for revolution, Murray N. Rothbard wrote a short but extremely powerful essay on the subject, one that penetrates to the essence of the issue. In those days, the word revolution still had an edge. It still caused people to sit up and listen. It was not used to describe a new line of toiletries or a new Congressional spending bill. It meant a wholesale turning over of political affairs marked by direct acts against the State, some nonviolent, some not. Often revolutions led to war. But they certainly ended in an entirely new state of affairs.
The word revolution recalled Lexington and Concord, the storming of the Bastille, and the murder of the Tsar — all three of which were directed against government power but only the first of which ended by establishing liberty. Today, we have other examples that keep within the American tradition: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the trial and execution of Nicholai Ceausescu, the flight of Gorbachev loyalists from the Politburo. These are all examples of revolutions that turned out much better for the cause of human liberty.
Rothbard emphasized that such events are just the culmination of a long, mighty, complex process with many vital parts and functions. A revolution necessarily begins with small acts on all fronts. The seeds of the American Revolution, for example, were planted centuries before when scholars in Spain and France in the High Middle Ages began to radically question the need for the State as a social and political manager. They were the first moderns to see the potential for individuals and voluntarily formed associations to serve as the foundation for a prosperous and peaceful society. They were the first to formulate systematic objections to coercion as a means of social organization.
These ideas became the basis of the great liberal movements of the 17th and 18th century, movements that involved everyone who cared about ideas: intellectuals, pamphleteers, journalists, teachers, philanthropists, churchmen, students, agitators, businessmen, propagandists, and statesmen. Not one of the groups could do it alone, but inspired by an idea and driven by a moral agendau2014carried out over the generationsu2014they finally overthrew mercantilism and perpetual war, and replaced them with the foundations of social peace, the free market, and a free society. We owe the prosperity and freedom we have today to these movements that took a great idea, and acted on it.
In passing, Rothbard also exposed the phoniness of the idea of socialist revolution. He argued that socialism is neither genuinely radical nor truly revolutionary. True, it claims to achieve classical liberalism: that is, bring about economic progress and the withering away of the State. But it does so using collectivism and State control. Socialist ideology, he said, is not revolutionary but rather a new form of Toryism that seeks to take the present system of government and entrench it so deep and expand it so far that it cannot be questioned or challenged.
His insight here helps us understand why many of us feel so uncomfortable with the word conservative to describe our agenda. The last thing we need today is to conserve the collectivist and socialist victories of Clinton, Johnson, FDR, Wilson, and Lincoln, or keep in place the present media elite that are constantly telling us how wonderful these people are.
And as Rothbard further emphasized in this piece, there is no one predetermined path to achieving a revolutionary victory. Rather, each individual uses the talents he has to delegitimize and fight the present structure of mainstream opinion. The action could be introducing a friend to a book or article he may not otherwise have seen. It could be writing the definitive treatise reinterpreting a historical event, or one improving our understanding of economic theory. It could be a letter to the editor, a speech to a civic organization, an article, a scholarship to promising student of liberty, or education you provide your own children and grandchildren. These actions produce a cumulative effect, maybe not in one year or one generation. The key is that the movement behind them endures to the end.
Rothbard also underscored a point Mises often made in his writings. The difference between a revolution that is building and one whose time has come can be found in the shape of public opinion. But that I do not mean polls, though they are variously helpful and misleading depending on the methodology. I mean the assumptions about political and economic life shared by the majority of people. So long as public opinion generally supports a regime, so that the system has more friends than enemies, it survives. But when the situation reverses, so that the regime has more enemies than friends, the path of history can turn dramatically. The regime must either conform to the turning of the tide, or risk its very existence.
The Role of Opinion
It is no accident that the art of molding and shaping public opinion has been the preoccupation of governments from time immemorial. Their very existence depends on it, simply because — as Boetie, Hume, Mises, Rothbard, and many others have shown — the State cannot rule by coercion alone. It needs consensus if it is to have control. It follows, then, that the prospects for a genuine overthrow of the current despotism depends heavily on access to information. Not just any information but the kind of information that tells the truth about the State and its apologists.
Consider the place of Tom Paine’s Common Sense, the pamphlet that circulated in the months before the American Revolution. Published in 1776, an incredible 120,000 copies sold in three months. Nearly every literate home in the country could quote its contents. It was more than an attack on the British monarchy; it was an exegetical treatment of the origin of the State itself. He distinguished between society, which he called our patron, and government, which he called our punisher. "Society in every state is a blessing, but government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one…. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise."
Incidentally, Paine was sound on a whole host of issues from taxation to inflation. He was an advocate of the gold standard and even 100 percent reserves in banking.
Just as Paine’s pamphlet emboldened the radicals, it terrified the Tories. The work was called artful, insidious, pernicious, and seditious. It was said that this pamphlet could lead to ruin, horror, desolation, and anarchy. These days, such language seems to be lost on our media elite, who would be satisfied to dub it racist, sexist, homophobic, Anti-Semitic, hateful, and generally meanspirited. But the fact remains that the pamphlet triggered a revolution, without which America might have sunk into the historical ditch.
Why have there been so few decisive pamphlets since Paine’s? It wasn’t long after the Constitution was ratified that the American elite worked to suppress such radicalism, and took up the Tory line that anyone who wrote such things was crazy, cranky, dangerous, and flirting with anarchism. Indeed, if you look back over the course of American history, it is actually quite surprising how far the radicalism of Tom Paine has faded into memory. As the ultimate insult, some left-wing outfit, a shill for the State, bought the internet domain TomPaine.com and uses it to disseminate hate campaigns against smoking and other civil sins. That’s one dot com I’d like to see go belly up.
Tom Paine-style thinkers have been especially been rare in the last century, when the intellectual classes and the approved journalistic voices have tended to sympathize with the State. If you leaf through the library for American books on liberty between the years 1900 and 1920, for example, you will find precious few authors who understood the essential issues. There were virtually no economists denouncing the income or inheritance tax on principled grounds, and virtually none warning of the dangers of central banking.
These watershed years also gave us the first world war and the embryonic version of the New Deal. What strikes you when studying this time was the lack of a coherent opposition movement. Yes, there were people who resisted the drive for war and people who resented the income tax. But still, the libertarian movement was small and lacked a firm intellectual foundation. It had virtually no institutional apparatus of support and precious little presence in the universities.
But as the State continued to grow, so did its opponents, so that each new generation created a crop of thinkers, activists, and statesmen that had been influenced by the last generation of dissidents. There were the Anti-New Dealers, a vibrant movement that fought FDR at every turn, but which was later almost destroyed by the war. Their successors made something of a showing in the 1950s, and again in the 1980s. Thus, parallel with the rise of the State in our century has been the growth of a radical opposition movement, a revolutionary movement, one that continues to build today.
The Mises Institute was founded in 1982 with the goal of encouraging that opposition, as well as becoming the vanguard intellectual movement to further anti-statist trends in academic and public life. And today that revolution is proceeding in ways that should make us hopeful for the future, most noticeably in the manner in which public opinion has been transformed in recent years by the explosion of quality information available.
The explosion of web access has also created an effect that I couldn’t have imagined. Outstanding writers from all walks of life are coming forward with excellent articles on a wide range of political and historical subjects. I run a daily news site, and I can tell you that I have far more excellent copy than I could ever run. And the irony strikes me daily that the difference between my one-man news site and the massive MSNBC is nothing more than a click.
At a time when web traffic is highly competitive, Mises.org is receiving 2 million hits per month. Users range from students and professors doing deep research, to classrooms using journals and articles, to businessmen simply reading the latest commentary. And the traffic is international and truly interdisciplinary.
This reality has contributed to the threat of accountability to the press and their allies on campus. No longer do their lies and distortions go uncorrected. Reporters find themselves flooded with email when their biases get out of hand. And when they cover up a story, there is always a site out there to pick it up and get the truth out. The speed at which this happens on a daily and hourly basis is truly breathtaking. And this change has contributed to the brewing revolution. Indeed, access to information may in the long run prove to be the critical turning point.
Now, the Left uses the web as well, but not with nearly the degree of success that real dissidents have. Salon.com, for example, was deluded into thinking that it could actually make a profit by combining hit pieces on Clinton’s opponents with pornography. They even went so far as to hold an IPO, selling shares for $40 a pop. Today that stock is in the penny category, with the site plagued by lack of traffic and unimpressed advertisers.
It is due in part to the new technologies that no excrescence of government enjoys the uncritical public support they all did from the First World War until the mid-1970s. The new media have helped encourage and embolden the trend away from State worship, and dramatically accelerated the process of discrediting the old media.
The election of 2000 illustrates what I mean. For years leading up to this election, we were told by the pundit classes that the American people had once again fallen in love with big government. People didn’t want tax cuts. Indeed, we were told, people would be glad to pay higher taxes in exchange for more government "services." The spirit of 1994 was gone forever because, thanks to Clinton, we have at last made our peace with Leviathan.
Again, this was sheer nonsense. In the waning days of the campaign, both candidates declared themselves opponents of big government. Gore probably told the biggest whopper of his life when he said, on national television: "I’m opposed to big government… I don’t believe any government program can replace the responsibility of parents, the hard work of families, or the innovation of industry."
Bush refined his message down to his claim that he is for the people, not the government — a version of Tom Paine’s essential message. Now, if it is really true that the American people have abandoned that old libertarian spirit, if people had really come to love Leviathan, why were the candidates talking this way? Of course: they and their pollsters knew what the voters on the margin wanted to hear.
The lack of public confidence in the State is evident in these large areas but also small ones. The post office, for example, was recently forced to cut a deal with Federal Express to help maintain its overnight delivery service. The post office is on life support as it is, and with the march of electronic communication, we can confidently predict that it probably has no more than a decade of life left.
There was a rush after the rolling blackouts in California to place the blame on deregulation. But this was absurd because price controls were never fully repealed and environmental controls prevented the construction of new power plants and shut down old ones. Once again, the government showed itself unable to perform even the most basic function of keeping the power on.
There was a time when we had to wait for publishers to correct these errors in articles that came out months later. No more. We are now able to respond within hours to such nonsense, posing pieces on our sites, sending messages to our lists, and broadcasting the response to major media outlets. Such responses are taken up in classrooms and newsgroups around the world where current events are discussed. We are also able to anticipate the left-wing line and counter it before it takes hold of the public mind.
The free market position, the truly revolutionary position, is getting a hearing.
And the effect not only works in the popular press. When an antigun historical tract by a professor at Emory appeared last year, gun experts from around the country started to rip it to shreds. It was only a matter of weeks before large archives of rebuttals, including some from LewRockwell.com and Mises.org, were available in an instant, and the professor ended up whining to the press about how horribly he been treated.
The Left Is Worried
The Left is worried about all this activity. They have taken note of where the energy is in American life. They grow bitter at developments like the massive growth in private arbitration, the explosion in private security guards and gated subdivision living, and they see all these trends as indicators of a decline in public confidence in their beloved government. They are as aware as anyone that the ideological forces in American life that oppose government control are huge, diverse, and young, while the defenders of the old order of government control, while retaining power, lack intellectual confidence.
Recently, Ex-New York Times writer Anna Quindlen, writing for MSNBC, tried to console leftists by assuring them that they are merely out of power and not irrelevant. She cited the example of the delayed Ashcroft nomination as proof of the kind of mischief the Left can cause.
It is a good example because it illustrates how fundamentally thin and absurd the Left has become. Instead of being a robust intellectual movement, it is nothing but a collection of grasping, screaming, hysterical special interests who come nowhere close to representing anything normal. Given Ashcroft’s public positions, and the extent of leftist power in the media, it is something of a shock that he was nominated at all.
And yet, this powerful apparatus, involving many sectors of society, has a weak hold on power and a very thin margin of public support, and they grow weaker and thinner by the day. That fact in large part accounts for the increasingly hysterical tone of left-wing rhetoric and the maniacal behavior of interest groups that depend on the welfare-warfare state.
No longer does the Left, and its media backers, consider people who oppose wealth redistribution and support local self government and free enterprise to be merely mistaken or misguided. No, we’ve seen a change in tone in the last few years. Even the slightest deviation from left-wing orthodoxy is decried as hate, and any man who dares think unapproved thoughts is pounced on as an enemy of society. This is true in politics, academic, the business world, and many other sectors.
Hate as a Political Weapon
To be sure, this type of rhetoric has a long historical precedent. In the 1960s, books were already appearing that purported to unearth hate and danger on the Right. The tactic was always the same: linking people through association. If a conservative politician had once taken a phone call from a donor who was friends with someone who was on the board of an alleged Nazi group, the politician was said to be secretly allying himself with Nazis.
Now, you might think that such tactics actually date from the McCarthy era of the 1950s. That’s not entirely accurate, because it is impossible to understand McCarthyism without seeing it as partially a response to FDRism of the 1930s, in which every opponent of the New Deal and the run-up to war was smeared as a proto-fascist. Many of the anti-New Deal writers and activists lost their jobs and had their lives ruined by the Roosevelt Administration’s determination to shut up all its critics by any means necessary. The McCarthyites, who often had a strong case to make, simply regarded turn-about as fair play.
We can keep going back further in American political history, to see that Wilson decried his political opponents as reactionaries or Germanophiles, and ended up jailing quite a few of them. German teachers were even lynched. And before that, there was Reconstruction, in which every white Southerner was treated as a political criminal by virtue of his birth and race, not to speak of Lincoln’s jailing of his opponents and shutdowns of dissenting newspapers. In truly Stalinist fashion, Americans were jailed for the crime of being present when Lincoln’s policies were criticized, and remaining silent.
In fact, we can trace the use of smear tactics back all the way to the Federalists, who used vicious rhetoric against any partisans of the Articles of Confederation, and later attempted to shut down political opposition with the Alien and Sedition Acts. All opponents of the regime have received the same treatment given Tom Paine by the Tories in 1776.
The Mainstreaming of Marxism
Today, contrary to conventional wisdom, Marxism is more, not less, mainstream than in the past. Instead of defining people according to class, the new Marxists define people according to race, sex, religion, and, now, sexual orientation. History, in their eyes, is nothing other than the working out of a great struggle within these categories.
The philosophical method by which this transition took place is complex, and I don’t want to go into it here, but it involves a several-stage process by which old-fashioned standards of logic and reason and truth are thrown out. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, people are first encouraged to believe in nothing, and then are fully prepared to believe in anything. What the Left, particularly that which runs the mainstream media, believes in today is power and little else, because, to them, only power, exercised in the interest of group identity, has meaning.
Today, if a free-market economist makes an argument against taxes, he is called a tool of the rich. If he argues against race and sex quotas, he is called a racist and a sexist. If he argues against trade sanctions, he is called a tool of Saddam or Castro. If he argues against disability or environmental regulations, he is called an enemy of the disabled and clean air. These are not arguments but attempts to shut people up, which is just about all the Left can come up with. This is Marxism at work, throwing out rationality in favor of identity demonization.
This approach is pervasive in today’s political culture, but far from being an indication that we are losing the battle of ideas, it is actually a measure of how much we are winning, and how close we are coming to the day when the regime’s enemies outnumber its friends. Increasingly, the State and its allies resort to intimidation and power as their means of maintaining their grip on the sectors of national life they control.
Think of all the old liberal cliches that are hardly ever invoked anymore. Remember this one from Voltaire? "I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." This has been transformed, so that the new left-wing message, on campus and in public life, is: if you say the wrong thing, I’m not only going to run you out of polite society, I’m going to call the federal cops.
Recall the phrase "academic freedom," once so sacred to the Left? Today, people who invoke it are dismissed as dangerous rightists attempting to bypass the thought police on curriculum and human rights committees.
The Real Struggle
Now, there is some truth to the Marxist idea that a type of struggle characterizes history. In fact, Marx himself stole the idea from the classical liberals, who saw that a struggle between the tax eaters and the tax payers, the producers and the dependents, the market and the State, is at the heart of politics, and no more so than in our heavily interventionist society. In the days after the national election, USA Today produced a county-by-county map of the US, with the areas that voted for Bush colored in red and those that went with Gore colored in blue.
If you have seen this map, you know that it is worth more than any lecture in politics or sociology you every heard. What it showed was nothing short of a sea of red, from top to bottom and left to right. The red zone represent 5 times more land mass than the blue. What’s more, the division perfectly summed up the deep split between the tax eaters and the tax payers.
The blues were inner cities, the state capitols, the government-funded intellectual class on the east coast, the leftist cultural elite on the California coast, immigrant areas on the borders, and the environmental crazies. And who are the reds? Everyone else. If you believe that we live in a stable political system, one look at this map and you will see that it is wildly unstable, and unworkable over the long run.
Now, this is not to say that Bush somehow represents a pure case of political revolt, but when you are aware of how hard the press worked to defeat him, and how the media did this work for 12 months leading up to the election, you begin to realize just how entrenched mainstream American opinion is against the ideological orientation approved by the media elite.
Attacking the Institute
The Mises Institute recently came under fire from one of these watchdog groups that claims to oppose intolerance and hate. What was our offense? We have published revisionist accounts of the origins of the Civil War that demonstrate that the tariff bred more conflict between the South and the feds than slavery. For that, we were decried as a dangerous institutional proponent of "neo-confederate" ideology. Why not just plain old Confederate ideology? The addition of the prefix neo is supposed to conjure up other dangers, like those associated with the term neo-Nazi.
These are desperate tactics of people who know, in their heart of hearts, that they are on the wrong side of history. Their day has come and gone, and now they will do anything to hang on to the only source of life they have, which is not intellectual or popular, but rather rooted only in government power.
The Left and the partisans of government power are surrounded on all sides by dissidents. In the media, only one of four networks, Fox, offers anything close to a balanced view of current events, and it recently zoomed past the other three networks in total viewership.
This is a change most of us never expected to see in our lifetimes. In the universities, Mises Institute faculty members report that it is precisely their political incorrectness that draws students to their classes and drives young people to devour the literature they recommend. When they get in trouble with the thought police on campus, it is the students who come to their defense.
As for the attack on us, distributed by a major leftist organization to every important media outlet in the country, we received all of two phone calls. Neither resulted in an article.
Irrational Fear of the Press
Someday, perhaps even Republicans will figure this out. An amusing exchange occurred the other during the hearings on John Ashcroft, who once correctly wrote that the most important reasons for private gun ownership was to protect against tyranny. Ted Kennedy exploded in a tyrannical rage at Ashcroft for suggesting that the United States system of government could ever be tyrannical — this coming from an architect of the tyranny.
Ashcroft, in keeping with the instructions he received from the Bush transition team, didn’t respond to Kennedy’s harangue. But wouldn’t it have been nice to actually hear him explain what he meant? He could have quoted the founders on the issue of gun ownership. He could have upbraided Kennedy’s strange arrogance in thinking that the US government is somehow, unlike any government in the history of the world, incapable of tyrannical acts. How glorious to have heard Ashcroft say what we hope he believes: that the Kennedys of this nation are personally responsible for the present tyranny, and that Ted stands as the living embodiment of why it is so important that the citizens be armed.
Alas, Ashcroft did not. And though we may be disappointed, we are no longer surprised that Republicans acquiesce to left-liberal claims of moral and intellectual superiority. We’ve seen it for so long. Anyone who expects the Republicans to set out to reverse the tide of statism ushered in by Democrats hasn’t been paying attention to the course of American politics for the last century. The Democrats and Republicans have played the role of Good Cop and Bad Cop in the statist enterprise, each putting a face on despotism that can be accepted by their loyal constituents.
A good example is Clinton’s program of Americorp, an embryonic system of national service. This program was passed by a Democratic Congress in 1993 with nearly universal Republican opposition. Over seven years, it has paid young people to become servants in a political army whose job it is to entice families and businesses to get on welfare, and otherwise agitate to sell big government to the grass roots through grants to left-wing organizations.
So committed has Americorp been to big government that its enlistees have even distributed the much-hated low-flush toilets to households that still have old-fashioned toilets that use enough water to keep them clean and working. On the other end, Americorp enlistees have worked to round up and crush older toilets, to make sure that they do not become part of the burgeoning black market.
What are Republicans saying about the program today? In the last week of its term, the Clinton White House sent out a press release quoting Republicans — including John McCain, Rick Santorum, John Kasich, Robert Bennett, Orrin Hatch, Thad Cochran, Chuck Grassley, Mitch McConnell, Conrad Burns, Mike DeWine, Pete Domenici, among many others — testifying that the program is wonderful, efficient, and should be preserved and expanded.
Another example: the Republican Congress is going wild for President Bush’s education proposal. The New York Times announced the proposal with the following lead sentence: "President Bush proposed a significant increase today in the federal role in public education." That’s really all you need to know to make a judgment about it. It spends more money, grants more power to the Department of Education, imposes a national testing scheme on schools for the first time, and pushes a new spending program that will put willing private schools on the federal dole.
The GOP is intimidated by the media and always looking for an occasion, if not a good reason, to sell out, only to be shocked that the much-anticipated praise from the Left never arrives. A bigger problem is that, while Republicans are blessed with some degree of sense, and they are less reliant on parasitic special interest groups than the Democrats, they lack any kind of ideological sophistication, and thus are not prepared to make any kind of serious argument against government intervention.
In all my years of observing Capitol Hill, I’ve known of only one man who did not succumb to the temptations of power. He is Ron Paul of Texas. And still, there is little chance of cloning him, no matter how many think tanks move their offices to Capitol Hill, no matter how many seminars are held for legislative aides, no matter how many cocktail parties we hold for our rulers.
In the end, political involvement and activism of the conventional sort will not be enough reverse the tide. What is needed, and what is occurring right now, is an underlying intellectual and cultural shift. For years, libertarians and conservatives have placed their hopes in politicians and political forces, only to be disappointed again and again. It’s time that we understand that these people are often late barometers of shifts in public opinion; they tend to follow, not lead.
The Prospects for W.
Now, whether you are optimistic or pessimistic about the prospects for the Bush presidency depends a lot on your starting point. If you start with the assumption that these people will govern like many other Republican administrations, it means you expect no serious decrease in any area of big government, and fear massive increases. We need only think about the Hoover, Eisenhower, and Nixon administrations.
People look back on the Reagan years with some degree of fondness but, in fact, his reputation is wildly overblown. At the end of the 1980s, taxes were higher, spending has quadrupled, the welfare state had doubled, and regulation on the private sector had dramatically increased. Was it all the Democrats fault? These things took place with a Republican Senate.
A serious problem also presents itself when you look at the legacy of George W. Bush’s father, who not only gave us a tax increase but also the Americans With Disabilities Act, some disastrous amendments to civil rights law, and the first major post-Cold War war, which set a precedent for Clinton’s warmongering during the 1990s. We can only hope that his son does not follow his father in this respect.
One reason many of us are not woefully pessimistic about this administration, of course, is that whatever it is, it is not the Clinton administration, a regime implacably opposed to the ideals of a free society. And yet, when you consider what the administration wanted, and measure that against what it actually did, there are some surprising results.
Despite its desire, expressed by Hillary when she complained there were no gatekeepers on the web, the Clinton government was never able to regulate or tax the Internet. In fact, the Clinton regime was pressured into accepting legislation that guaranteed a measure of freedom. Many plots to read our email, tax our mail-order and Internet transactions, and spoil our privacy were foiled by the enormous public outrage that each attempt provoked.
Despite the Clinton administration’s socialist ideological orientation, it was not able to raise taxes after its initial increase in Clinton’s first term. You might chalk that up to increased revenue due to the economic expansion. And yet it is interesting that the rate of discretionary domestic spending actually slowed during the Clinton years.
It is preposterous that Clinton claimed to have shrunk the government to its smallest level in postwar times. Yet it does remain true that the employed workforce of the federal government is smaller than anytime since World War II. That is due to a major problem that faces government: people are quitting, and recruits to government work are fewer every year. This reflects no deliberate change in policy, but rather a dramatic shift in public opinion that is working itself out in ways that are going to change our future.
The Times They Are Changin’
What do the ideological convolutions of our age tell us? I believe they tell us which way the wind is blowing, and it is toward freedom and away from government planning. The Left continually claims that government has never been weaker or more downtrodden than today. They see the triumph of capitalism everywhere and bemoan it. They cry and wail that there are no more New Deals, Great Societies, or grand socialist experiments abroad. They say this represents the end of political idealism, a word used to mask an essentially totalitarian agenda.
Now, the Left is obviously exaggerating for political effect. Nonetheless, there is truth in what they say. The socialists control the universities, the labor unions, the non-profit world, most special interest lobbying organizations, the international bureaucracies, the public schools, and nearly all positions in the permanent bureaucracy. And yet, strangely, they complain that they have no power and no influence.
This is because they sense that they do not and cannot control those things which are most determinative of the shape of the future: the pace and direction of technological change, the explosive growth of the private sector worldwide, the anti-government trendline in public opinion, and, most importantly, the imaginations of the new generation of intellectuals.
There is a revolution that is brewing and building slowly, systematically, but relentlessly. And it is a revolution against that ideological centerpiece of the twentieth century, the omnipotent State. It is taking the form of a renewal of private life and the establishment of a new generation of natural elites and intellectuals who have no interest in allying themselves with State. Indeed, they are working for a society in which society is left to flourish in the State’s absence.
Counting the Days
How long it will take for this revolution to run its course, and turn the world we live in upside-down, cannot be known. It may be this year or it may be fifty years. But this much we do know: those of us committed to the building of an intellectual infrastructure necessary to overturn the despotism of a government-managed society must never let up. Never let anyone tell you that what you believe is an anachronism. The Left does not own the future.
If we get discouraged we also need to remember that our efforts are not in vain even when they are not victorious. I’m reminded of something C.S. Lewis said in response to the example of a man who is both very bad and very religious. Lewis asked us to imagine how much worse he might be without religion. In some ways, we might also imagine how much worse off we would be today without efforts of our forebears.
What if Mises had never written his attack on socialism when it was universally popular, or if Rothbard hadn’t come to the defense of property rights at a time when they were universally traduced? Knowing the ways in which ideas affect the course of events, we can say that we would be much worse off. All great revolutions in history had an ideological basis that took generations to build up. That is the stage we are in today.
The times are also right. We are not in depression and we are not in war. We are not locked into any Mannichean international struggle. It has never been easier to see that the enemy of American freedom is not overseas, but within the Beltway. It has never been easier to find out the truth, and the tellers of truth have never told it with so much evidence and moral conviction.
We have every reason to celebrate the political and cultural constellation of our time. These days supporters of less government at home also tend to be those who doubt the wisdom of globalist nation building, while those who favor big government at home are also most likely to push for the globalization of government authority abroad. This is a huge step in the right direction: our side is working to shed the ideological baggage of imperialism, and approaching something like a consistent set of principles.
The rise of homeschooling and gated communities gives the middle class a strong interest in the protection of the sanctity of the home and private property. As Mises explained, these are as much issues of capitalism as complicated questions of corporate finance. Also, the new generation of web users and people whose livelihoods and essential sources of information are connected with the new technologies are with us as well.
There is much work left to do. The judiciary needs to be desanctified. The history of statism and its evil needs to be constantly researched and published. Economic theory needs to be separated from its positivist research program that fits so well with the needs of the State, and good economic theory restored to its proper foundation in the social sciences. Students need ever more opportunities to escape the ideological prisons of their universities and colleges, and to be exposed to alternative modes of thought. The need for funding for books, conferences, teaching materials, journals, and scholarships is immense.
If we approach our task with vigor and continue to build on our victories, we can win. This victory will not take a conventional path, or even a path we can expect. But we know that victory is impossible unless we continue to raise up and encourage a new generation of intellectuals, whose work with future students can build a powerful force for change, and continue to sway public opinion for freedom and against the State.
That is the mission of the Mises Institute. Throughout history, the strongest defense of liberty has come from the natural elites in society who own property, form families, establish dynasties, worship their God, and serve as the backbone of the business class. As in past revolutions for liberty, they must link arms with the dissident intellectuals who refuse to become mouthpieces for the ruling regime, and have the courage to defy conventional wisdom.
When freedom is finally secured, and big government brought to its knees, it will be the consequence of a revolution led by this coalition. It is this intellectual and political movement that can speak a radical language that embraces the free economy and the prosperity that comes with it, and tolerates no more government interference in family, community, business, or any other aspect of our lives.
As Tom Paine concluded his pamphlet, "we have it in our power to begin the world over again. The birthday of a new world is at hand."
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., founder and president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, delivered this talk at the Institute’s seminar on Liberty and Public Life in Newport Beach, California, on February 2, 2001.