How Liberty Is Lost

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When considering the fight to gain — or retain — liberty, at least in the American context, many images come to mind.

John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence.

Armed citizens at Lexington and Concord shooting into lines of government troops — their government’s troops — better known as British redcoats.

When it comes to the loss of liberty, however, the picture usually becomes fuzzier. How is liberty lost? In the American context, the popular mind has no images to associate with such an event. Conventional wisdom holds that we are a free country. The notion that we have less liberty than we used to have is not given much thought.

Attempts to picture the loss of liberty, then, generally conjure up photos of Adolf Hitler and gigantic Nazi rallies.

But, of course, such pictures do not tell the story of how Hitler came to power. They do not really answer the question of how liberty is lost. They only serve to portray a bogeyman for children to fear.

In that regard, the Washington Post has provided a prime example of how liberty is lost. In a story entitled "Survey Shows Support for Internet Rules," the Post reports that

Aimed at stimulating public policy debate as the medium becomes more integral to daily life, the extensive survey of average users and Internet experts conducted for the New York-based Markle Foundation found Americans concerned about their rights and wrestling with several key issues:

While wary of government regulation for the Internet, for example, a majority want some rules to protect their privacy when they are online, and even see a government role in such areas as Internet service problems and the cost of connections.

First, notice that the "survey" was commissioned with a goal in mind: stimulating public policy debate. This is Orwellian newspeak for "greasing the skids for new laws." Here is any politico’s dream: the day after the story runs, water coolers around DC sparkle with such conversations as: "Hey, did you see that thing in the Post about the Internet? Yeah, they gotta regulate it." And what do you know, there is suddenly a public outcry for the government to "do something." Memo to American citizens: you are being manipulated.

Second, notice that when you ask an advocate of more government regulation what the government should do, you will very likely be told that they have no idea what to do. If they do have an idea, query whether it will not violate the First Amendment or the principles of liberty.

In that regard, the Post continues,

By a slim but growing plurality, respondents believe the Internet is disturbingly resistant to accountability, both on the part of individuals for their actions or words online and on the part of private and public institutions that govern its use.

Nearly half of the Internet experts surveyed said that existing institutions are doing a fair or poor job of reflecting the public’s interest.

Do people ever learn, or is the human race simply devoid of any long-term memory? What sort of "accountability" do the people who responded to this survey have in mind? Libelous statements can still be the subject of libel actions, even if they are published on the Internet. People who make terroristic threats over the Internet can — and have been — arrested and prosecuted, just as if they made such threats in some other "old fashioned" way.

With respect to online "actions," how are such "actions" even defined? One can "act" via the Internet, in communicating thoughts, or in purchasing goods and services (or in viewing images or listening to music, whether for pay or for free), but what "actions" do the survey respondents believe are "resistant to accountability?" Also, why do the respondents find such "actions" to be "resistant to accountability?"

Additionally, one has to wonder what "the Internet experts" mean by the claim "that existing institutions are doing a fair or poor job of reflecting the public’s interest." What exactly is meant by "reflecting the public’s interest?" Is the entire Internet now to be seized by the federal government, and operated in the fashion of "public" broadcasting — which, rather than appealing to the entire "public," appeals to upper-class, white, Massachusetts Leftists?

The Post adds that

The study also shows Americans as viewing the Internet primarily as a giant library, rather than a place to shop or use financial services. And in a finding that will likely stir the most political controversy, a strong 60 percent believe it is wrong to exempt online commerce from taxation.

Extending the federal moratorium on Internet taxes — which expires in October — has broad support on Capitol Hill. But governors are seeking the opportunity to develop a long-term, uniform plan that would enable easy Internet tax collection. Representatives of the bipartisan Congressional Internet Caucus will begin examining the study today.

Memo to Congress and voters: not only should the moratorium on Internet taxes be extended in time, the moratorium on taxes should be extended in scope to include every other activity currently taxed by Uncle Sam.

What is the reason for government taxation of Internet commerce? Apparently the government — and its toady allies in the media and in certain foundations — sees money, and therefore simply has to have some of the money. God forbid that there be activity going on which is not "shared" — at gunpoint, mind you — with the government.

If anything, public debate should turn the tables on the government and this latest Internet survey: let the government explain why it simply must burden Internet commerce with taxation. Note that the federal government continues to run a surplus, as reported by the Washington Times on July 10, 2001, even after the tax refunds, the economic slowdown, and higher government spending.

The government does not "need" any more money. In fact, the government does not "need" any money at all. To summarize the Austrian economist Murray Rothbard: 1) anything that can be provided by a market will be provided better than by the government, and 2) there is nothing that has not been provided by a market. The government — if it has any purpose beyond thuggery — serves no purpose other than to enforce what F.A. Hayek termed, in Law, Legislation, and Liberty, "the rules of just conduct," i.e., the basic, societal ground rules which allow for free citizens to go about their private affairs.

Not only should the Internet not be taxed, but taxes should be cut — by real cuts, rather than reductions in spending increases from a 5% increase to a 4% increase, as the Bush "tax cut" effected — to those levels necessary to enable the government to fulfill its purpose, and nothing more.

No more honey subsidies. No more sugar subsidies which keep the price of sugar in the USA three times the price on the global market — to the benefit of millionaire sugar growers who donate large sums of money to the Clintons. No more rural electricity subsidies — they have electricity, well, everywhere but in California. No more EPA studies of cow flatulence as contributing to global warming. And no more "fly your friends around the world for free" junkets at taxpayer expense, all in an attempt to establish "a legacy" for an outgoing president, or for reigning senators.

Finally, the real gem in the Post article comes in the final paragraph. Robert Higgs, in his book Crisis and Leviathan, advances the very convincing theory that the State — that means the government, as distinguished from civil society, i.e. the citizens and their privately-generated social order — grows in times of crisis, via a ratchet effect. The State is ratcheted up to new heights of power, but it never gives up that power after the "crisis" has passed.

Remember that when the Clintons sought to have the government seize 14% of the economy — known as the health-care sector — by criminalizing private care and mandating government "health care" — their strategy was to talk about the phony "health care crisis."

This is not to say that health care in the United States does not have problems. It does have problems. But they can all be traced to the federal government’s meddling with the economy. In this regard, see Harry Browne’s chapters on health care in Why Government Doesn’t Work.

The Post article on the desire to "do something" about the Internet shows the Higgs theory acted out. The Post observes that

Although the Markle study is one of several recent national surveys on online life and concerns, it is unique in its focus on how Internet public policy should develop. And many of the respondents, especially Internet experts, worry that such policymaking won’t be proactive.

"Ultimately, most of the experts expect that major changes in rules and institutions for online accountability are unlikely to change until some kind of disaster occurs," the report states. Officials of the Markle Foundation, which studies and provides grants on the social impact of technology, declined to comment until its formal release.

In other words, it is when there is a "disaster" or a "crisis" that the sheep line up for government "protection," which only means that the government is given control of a part of our lives which we will never again be able to control on our own. No more liberty. No more freedom to choose what’s best for ourselves.

The call to "do something" about a "crisis" can lead only to restrictive laws which, after the crisis has been forgotten, do not go away, and which the public will only wish could be forgotten.

Wonder why health insurance is such a mess? You can thank FDR. When FDR instituted government control of wages — allegedly to fight an economic slowdown — employers competed for employees by enticing them with something out of the reach of the federal regulators: health insurance. Sixty years later, health insurance is wedded to the workplace, fully controlled by the government, and — surprise! — worse than it ever was in the days of fully privatized, free market medical care prior to FDR. Good luck turning back the clock to a better health care system.

In contrast to this already bad state of affairs — where a "crisis" results in the loss of liberty — the "Internet experts" would like to see free citizens willingly sign up for more government power and regulation when times are good.

No thanks. Hands off the Internet.

Mr. Dieteman [send him mail] is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

© 2001 David Dieteman

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