The Great Society: A Libertarian Critique

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First
published in
The Great Society Reader: The Failure of American Liberalism,
edited by Marvin E. Gettleman and David Mermelstein (New York:
Vintage, 1967).

The Great
Society is the lineal descendant and the intensification of those
other pretentiously named polities of twentieth-century America:
the Square Deal, the New Freedom, the New Era, the New Deal, the
Fair Deal, and the New Frontier. All of these assorted Deals constituted
a basic and fundamental shift in American life – a shift
from a relatively laissez-faire economy and minimal state
to a society in which the state is unquestionably king.
1
In the previous century, the government could safely have
been ignored by almost everyone; now we have become a country
in which the government is the great and unending source of power
and privilege. Once a country in which each man could by and large
make the decisions for his own life, we have become a land where
the state holds and exercises life-and-death power over every
person, group, and institution. The great Moloch government, once
confined and cabined, has burst its feeble bonds to dominate us
all.

The basic
reason for this development is not difficult to fathom. It was
best summed up by the great German sociologist Franz Oppenheimer;
Oppenheimer wrote that there were fundamentally two, and only
two, paths to the acquisition of wealth. One route is the production
of a good or service and its voluntary exchange for the goods
or services produced by others. This method – the method
of the free market – Oppenheimer termed "the economic
means" to wealth. The other path, which avoids the necessity
for production and exchange, is for one or more persons to seize
other people’s products by the use of physical force. This method
of robbing the fruits of another man’s production was shrewdly
named by Oppenheimer the "political means." Throughout
history, men have been tempted to employ the "political means"
of seizing wealth rather than expend effort in production and
exchange. It should be clear that while the market process multiplies
production, the political, exploitative means is parasitic and,
as with all parasitic action, discourages and drains off production
and output in society. To regularize and order a permanent system
of predatory exploitation, men have created the state, which Oppenheimer
brilliantly defined as "the organization of the political
means." 2

Every act
of the state is necessarily an occasion for inflicting burdens
and assigning subsidies and privileges. By seizing revenue by
means of coercion and assigning rewards as it disburses the funds,
the state creates ruling and ruled "classes"
or "castes"; for one example, classes of what Calhoun
discerned as net "taxpayers" and "tax-consumers,"
those who live off taxation.3
And since by its nature, predation can only be supported out of
the surplus of production above subsistence, the ruling class
must constitute a minority of the citizenry.

Since the
state, nakedly observed, is a mighty engine of organized predation,
state rule, throughout its many millennia of recorded history,
could be preserved only by persuading the bulk of the public that
its rule has not really been exploitative: that, on the contrary,
it has been necessary, beneficent, even, as in the Oriental despotisms,
divine. Promoting this ideology among the masses has ever been
a prime function of intellectuals, a function that has created
the basis for co-opting a corps of intellectuals into a secure
and permanent berth in the state apparatus. In former centuries,
these intellectuals formed a priestly caste that was able to wrap
a cloak of mystery and quasi-divinity about the actions of the
state for a credulous public. Nowadays, the apologia for the state
takes on more subtle and seemingly scientific forms. The process
remains essentially the same.4

In the United
States, a strong libertarian and antistatist tradition prevented
the process of statization from taking hold at a very rapid pace.
The major force in its propulsion has been that favorite theater
of state expansionism, brilliantly identified by Randolph Bourne
as "the health of the state": namely, war. For although
in wartime various states find themselves in danger from one another,
every state has found war a fertile field for spreading the myth
among its subjects that they are the ones in deadly danger,
from which their state is protecting them. In this way states
have been able to dragoon their subjects into fighting and dying
to save them under the pretext that the subjects were being
saved from the dread Foreign Enemy. In the United States, the
process of statization began in earnest under cover of the Civil
War (conscription, military rule, income tax, excise taxes, high
tariffs, national banking and credit expansion for favored businesses,
paper money, land grants to railroads), and reached full flower
as a result of World Wars I and II, to finally culminate in the
Great Society.

The recently
emerging group of "libertarian conservatives" in the
United States have grasped a part of the recent picture of accelerated
statism, but their analysis suffers from several fatal blind spots.
One is their complete failure to realize that war, culminating
in the present garrison state and military-industrial economy,
has been the royal road to aggravated statism in America. On the
contrary, the surge of reverent patriotism that war always brings
to conservative hearts, coupled with their eagerness to don buckler
and armor against the "international Communist conspiracy,"
has made the conservatives the most eager and enthusiastic partisans
of the Cold War. Hence their inability to see the enormous distortions
and interventions imposed upon the economy by the enormous system
of war contracts.5

Another conservative
blind spot is their failure to identify which groups have
been responsible for the burgeoning of statism in the United States.
In the conservative demonology, the responsibility belongs only
to liberal intellectuals, aided and abetted by trade unions and
farmers. Big businessmen, on the other hand, are curiously exempt
from blame (farmers are small enough businessmen, apparently,
to be fair game for censure.) How, then, do conservatives deal
with the glaringly evident onrush of big businessmen to embrace
Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society? Either by mass stupidity
(failure to read the works of free-market economists), subversion
by liberal intellectuals (e.g., the education of the Rockefeller
brothers at Lincoln School), or craven cowardice (the failure
to stand foursquare for free-market principles in the face of
governmental power). 6 Almost never is interest pinpointed as an
overriding reason for statism among businessmen. This failure
is all the more curious in the light of the fact that the laissez-faire
liberals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (e.g.,
the Philosophical Radicals in England, the Jacksonians in the
United States) were never bashful about identifying and attacking
the web of special privileges granted to businessmen in the mercantilism
of their day.

In fact,
one of the main driving forces of the statist dynamic of twentieth
century America has been big businessmen, and this long before
the Great Society. Gabriel Kolko, in his path-breaking Triumph
of Conservatism,7 has shown that the shift toward
statism in the Progressive period was impelled by the very big
business groups who were supposed, in the liberal mythology, to
be defeated and regulated by the Progressive and New Freedom measures.
Rather than a "people’s movement" to check big business;
the drive for regulatory measures, Kolko shows, stemmed from big
businessmen whose attempts at monopoly had been defeated by the
competitive market, and who then turned to the federal government
as a device for compulsory cartellization. This drive for cartellization
through government accelerated during the New Era of the 1920s
and reached its apex in Franklin Roosevelt’s NRA. Significantly,
this exercise in cartellizing collectivism was put over by organized
big business; after Herbert Hoover, who had done much to organize
and cartellize the economy, had balked at an NRA as going too
far toward an outright fascist economy, the US Chamber of Commerce
won a promise from FDR that he would adopt such a system. The
original inspiration was the corporate state of Mussolini’s Italy.8

The formal
corporatism of the NRA is long gone, but the Great Society retains
much of its essence. The locus of social power has been emphatically
assumed by the state apparatus. Furthermore, that apparatus is
permanently governed by a coalition of big business and big labor
groupings, groups that use the state to operate and manage the
national economy. The usual tripartite rapprochement of
big business, big unions, and big government symbolizes the organization
of society by blocs, syndics, and corporations, regulated and
privileged by the federal, state, and local governments. What
this all amounts to in essence is the "corporate state,"
which during the 1920s served as a beacon light for big businessmen,
big unions, and many liberal intellectuals as the economic system
proper to a twentieth century industrial society.9

The indispensable
intellectual role of engineering popular consent for state rule
is played, for the Great Society, by the liberal intelligentsia,
who provide the rationale of "general welfare," "humanity,"
and the "common good" (just as the conservative intellectuals
work the other side of the Great Society street by offering the
rationale of "national security" and "national
interest"). The liberals, in short, push the "welfare"
part of our omnipresent welfare-warfare state, while the conservatives
stress the warfare side of the pie. This analysis of the role
of the liberal intellectuals puts into more sophisticated perspective
the seeming "sellout" of these intellectuals as compared
to their role during the 1930s. Thus, among numerous other examples,
there is the seeming anomaly of A. A. Berle and David Lilienthal,
cheered and damned as flaming progressives in the thirties, now
writing tomes hailing the new reign of big business. Actually,
their basic views have not changed in the least. In the thirties,
these theoreticians of the New Deal were concerned with condemning
as "reactionaries" those big businessmen who clung to
older individualist ideals and failed to understand or adhere
to the new monopoly system of the corporate state. But now, in
the 1950s and 1960s, this battle has been won, big businessmen
are all eager to be privileged monopolists in the new dispensation,
and hence they can now be welcomed by such theorists as Berle
and Lilienthal as "responsible" and "enlightened,"
their "selfish" individualism a relic of the past.

The cruelest
myth fostered by the liberals is that the Great Society functions
as a great boon and benefit to the poor; in reality, when we cut
through the frothy appearances to the cold reality underneath,
the poor are the major victims of the welfare state. The poor
are the ones to be conscripted to fight and die at literally slave
wages in the Great Society’s imperial wars. The poor are the ones
to lose their homes to the bulldozer of urban renewal, that bulldozer
that operates for the benefit of real estate and construction
interests to pulverize available low-cost housing.10
All this, of course, in the name of "clearing the slums"
and helping the aesthetics of housing. The poor are the welfare
clientele whose homes are unconstitutionally but regularly invaded
by government agents to ferret out sin in the middle of the night.
The poor (e.g., Negroes in the South) are the ones disemployed
by rising minimum wage floors, put in for the benefit of employers
and unions in higher-wage areas (e.g., the North) to prevent industry
from moving to the low-wage areas. The poor are cruelly victimized
by an income tax that left and right alike misconstrue as an egalitarian
program to soak the rich; actually, various tricks and exemptions
insure that it is the poor and the middle classes who are hit
the hardest.11
The poor are victimized too by a welfare state of which the cardinal
macro-economic tenet is perpetual if controlled inflation. The
inflation and the heavy government spending favor the businesses
of the military-industrial complex, while the poor and the retired,
those on fixed pensions or Social Security, are hit the hardest.
(Liberals have often scoffed at the anti-inflationists’ stress
on the "widows and orphans" as major victims of inflation,
but these remain major victims nevertheless.) And the burgeoning
of compulsory mass public education forces millions of unwilling
youth off the labor market for many years, and into schools that
serve more as houses of detention than as genuine centers of education.12
Farm programs that supposedly aid poor farmers actually serve
the large wealthy farmers at the expense of sharecropper and consumer
alike; and commissions that regulate industry serve to cartellize
it. The mass of workers is forced by governmental measures into
trade unions that tame and integrate the labor force into the
toils of the accelerating corporate state, there to be subjected
to arbitrary wage "guidelines" and ultimate compulsory
arbitration.

The role
of the liberal intellectual and of liberal rhetoric is even more
stark in foreign economic policy. Ostensibly designed to "help
the underdeveloped countries," foreign aid has served as
a gigantic subsidy by the American taxpayer of American export
firms, a similar subsidy to American foreign investment through
guarantees and subsidized government loans, an engine of inflation
for the recipient country, and a form of massive subsidy to the
friends and clients of US imperialism in the recipient country.

The symbiosis
between liberal intellectuals and despotic statism at home and
abroad is, furthermore, no accident; for at the heart of the welfarist
mentality is an enormous desire to "do good to" the
mass of other people, and since people don’t usually wish to be
done good to, since they have their own ideas of what they wish
to do, the liberal welfarist inevitably ends by reaching for the
big stick with which to push the ungrateful masses around. Hence,
the liberal ethos itself provides a powerful stimulant for the
intellectuals to seek state power and ally themselves with the
other rulers of the corporate state. The liberals thus become
what Harry EImer Barnes has aptly termed "totalitarian liberals."
Or, as Isabel Paterson put it a generation ago:

The
humanitarian wishes to be a prime mover in the lives of others.
He cannot admit either the divine or the natural order, by which
men have the power to help themselves. The humanitarian puts
himself in the place of God.

But
he is confronted by two awkward facts; first, that the competent
do not need his assistance; and second, that the majority of
people. . . positively do not want to be ‘done good’ by the
humanitarian. . . . Of course, what the humanitarian actually
proposes is that he shall do what he thinks is good for everybody.
It is at this point that the humanitarian sets up the guillotine.13

The rhetorical
role of welfarism in pushing people around may be seen clearly
in the Vietnam War, where American liberal planning for alleged
Vietnamese welfare has been particularly prominent, e.g., in the
plans and actions of Wolf Ladejinsky, Joseph Buttinger, and the
Michigan State group. And the result has been very much of an
American-operated "guillotine" for the Vietnamese people,
North and South.14 And even Fortune magazine invokes the spirit of humanitarian
"idealism" as the justification for the United States'
falling "heir to the onerous task of policing these shattered
colonies" of Western Europe, and exerting its might all over the
world. The will to make this exertion to the uttermost, especially
in Vietnam and perhaps China, constitutes for Fortune,
"the unending test of American idealism."15 This liberal-welfarist syndrome
may also be seen in the very different area of civil rights, in
the terribly pained indignation of white liberals at the recent
determination of Negroes to take the lead in helping themselves,
rather than to keep deferring to the Lords and Ladies Bountiful
of white liberalism.

In sum, the
most important fact about the Great Society under which we live
is the enormous disparity between rhetoric and content. In rhetoric,
America is the land of the free and the generous, enjoying the
fused blessings of a free market tempered by and joined to accelerating
social welfare, bountifully distributing its unstinting largesse
to the less fortunate in the world. In actual practice, the free
economy is virtually gone, replaced by an imperial corporate state
Leviathan that organizes, commands, exploits the rest of society
and, indeed, the rest of the world, for its own power and pelf.
We have experienced, as Garet Garrett keenly pointed out over
a decade ago, a "revolution within the form."16
The old limited republic has been replaced by Empire, within and
without our borders.

Notes

1 Recent triumphal disclosures by economic historians that pure laissez-faire
did not exist in nineteenth century America are beside the
point; no one ever claimed that it did. The point is that state
power in society was minimal, relative to other times and countries,
and that the general locus of decision making resided therefore
in the individuals making up society rather than in the State.
Cf. Robert Lively, "The American System," Business
History Review, XXIX (1955), pp. 81–96.

2 Franz Oppenheimer, The
State
(New York, 1926), pp. 24–27. Or, as Albert
Jay Nock, heavily influenced by Oppenheimer's analysis, concluded:
"The state claims and exercises the monopoly of crime"
in its territorial area. Albert Jay Nock, On
Doing the Right Thing, and Other Essays
(New York, 1928),
p. 143.

3 See John C. Calhoun, Disquisition
on
Government
(Columbia, S. C., 1850). On the distinction between this and
the Marxian concept of the ruling class, see Ludwig von Mises,
Theory
and History
(New Haven, Conn., 1957), pp. 112 ff. Perhaps
the earliest users of this kind of class analysis were the French
libertarian writers of the Restoration period of the early nineteenth
century, Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer. Cf. Elie Halevy,
The Era of Tyrannies (Garden City. N. Y., 1965), pp.
23–34.

4 On various aspects of the alliance between intellectuals and the
State, see George B. de Huszar, ed., The Intellectuals (Glencoe,
Ill., 1960); Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism,
Socialism, and Democracy
(New York, 1942), pp. 143–55;
Karl A. Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism (New Haven, Conn.,
1957); Howard K. Beale, "The Professional Historian: His
Theory and Practice," The Pacific Historical Review
(August, 1953), pp. 227–55; Martin Nicolaus, "The
Professor, The Policeman and the Peasant," Viet-Report
(June-July, 1966), pp. 15-19.

5 Thus, cf. H.L. Nieburg, In
the Name of Science
(Chicago, 1966); Seymour Melman,
Our Depleted Society (New York, 1965); C. Wright Mills,
The
Power Elite
(New York, 1958).

6 (Note by original editors referring to another essay
in the collection.)

7 New York, 1963. Also see Kolko’s Railroads
and Regulation
(Princeton, N. J., 1965). The laudatory
review of the latter book by George W. Hilton (American Economic
Review) and George W. Wilson (Journal of Political Economy)
symbolize a potential alliance between "new left"
and free-market historiography.

8 The National Recovery Administration, one of the most important
creations of the early New Deal, was established by the National
Industrial Recovery Act of June, 1933. It prescribed and imposed
codes of "fair competition" upon industry. It was
declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1935. An analysis
of the inception of the NRA, see my America’s
Great Depression
(Princeton, N. J., 1963).

9 Part of this story has been told in John P. Diggins, "Flirtation
with Fascism: American Pragmatic Liberals and Mussolini’s Italy,"
American Historical Review, LXXI (January, 1966), pp.
487–506.

10 See Martin Anderson, The
Federal Bulldozer
(Cambridge, Mass., 1964).

11 Thus, see Gabriel Kolko, Wealth
and Power in America
(New York, 1962).

12 Thus, see Paul Goodman, Compulsory
Mis-Education
and
The Community of Scholars
(New York, Vintage
paperback edition, 1966).

13 Isabel Paterson, The
God of the Machine
(New York, 1943), p. 241.

14 See John McDermott, "Welfare Imperialism in Vietnam,
" The Nation (July 25, 1966), pp. 76–88.

15 Fortune (August, 1965).As the right wing
of the Great Society Establishment, Fortune presumably
passes the Berle-Lilienthal test as spokesman for "enlightened"
as opposed to narrowly "selfish" capitalism.

16 Garet Garrett, The
People's Pottage
(Caldwell, Idaho, 1953).

Murray
N. Rothbard (1926–1995), the founder of modern libertarianism
and the dean of the Austrian School of economics, was the author
of The
Ethics of Liberty
and For
a New Liberty
and many
other books and articles
. He was also academic vice president
of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and the Center for Libertarian
Studies, and the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
.

Murray
Rothbard Archives

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