Not for the first time in world history, US voters on November 2 faced a choice between two varieties of statism, two forms of central planning, two types of duplicity, two approaches to rule by the central state. One won, one lost.
In this, our times are not unlike the 1930s, when during a crisis just about everyone believed that there were only two political options worth pursuing. You were either some variety of communist (a.k.a. socialist, Bolshevik, Trotskyite, etc.) or some variety of fascist (a.k.a. corporativist, national socialist, new dealer, etc.). To reject the idea of government control and centralization, it was believed, was to stand outside the main current of history.
In the presidential election, one central plan wanted to soak the rich, the other wanted to spend now and pay later. One had a plan for national life at home, and the other had a plan for the whole world. One emphasized bread and the other circuses, one wanted unilateral war while one wanted lots of consultations and more troops before doing the same thing, but neither knew or cared anything for the great tradition of thought which gave birth to this nation or which built the prosperity of our times.
The missing piece in all of this is the forgotten liberal tradition, which affirms the dignity of all human life, believes in the rights of all, and fights for freedom against the never-ending attempts by government, all government everywhere, to restrict and destroy it.
The liberal tradition believes that individuals and society can work out their own problems in the absence of top-down management. It denies to government any role in managing the nation or the world. It embraces private property, cherishes freedom of association, and sees peace as the mother of civilization.
The great intellectual strain of this liberal tradition spans 500 years and longer, and has survived every onslaught from left and right, and will continue to do so. It is the liberal tradition to which we owe the world’s prosperity and well-being, all technological innovations, and improvements in health, housing, nutrition, and information distribution. The liberal tradition will continue to thrive, but with no help from the elites in power.
That this tradition is not represented as a political option is not particularly surprising. As Mises wrote in 1929, “government is essentially the negation of liberty.” This is why “A liberal government is a contradictio in adjecto. Governments must be forced into adopting liberalism by the power of the unanimous opinion of the people; that they could voluntarily become liberal is not to be expected.”
But elections such as this one present an opportunity for learning. We learn, for example, who the true friends of liberty are, and how to distinguish them from the partisan hacks who are glad to sell out in exchange for getting and staying close to those in power.
That’s a pretty good description of just about everyone in DC who works to have “good relations” with the party in power. This is a tendency you find on the left, right, and center, and even among supposed libertarians. Concerning the latter, intellectual sycophancy towards power is always unseemly, but never more so than when it masquerades as a principled attachment to liberty.
We’ve also learned something about the nature of liberty’s most formidable enemies of today as versus most of the 20th century. In 1989—1990, the party of liberty was witness to the thrilling fact that socialism around the world had collapsed like a house of cards. The ghastly intellectual tradition that had given rise to the bloody communist experiment suffered a blow from which it is not likely to recover.
How pathetic is the soft leftism of today’s mainstream Democrat. For most of the election season, Kerry was the voice of this view. He went from place to place seeking dependents for the state among minorities, the aging, public employees, union workers, and anyone else looking for a favor from government. He dutifully invoked those tired soft-left themes about all the wondrous things government will do at home if we could just soak the rich a bit more.
So, Kerry’s domestic program looked ridiculous. It seemed to be yanked out of the 1970s and transplanted into another economic world, one ruled by markets and entrepreneurship. We know these issues hurt him among swing voters because it was precisely on these grounds that the Bush camp ridiculed his entire domestic program. If there is a silver lining to the election, it is in the defeat of this program, once again.
However, it is about time that the friends of liberty realize the main threat to liberty in our time in our country comes not so much from the left but from the militarist and imperialist right, which has shown itself uninterested in fiscal discipline, peace, civil liberties, constitutional restraints on power, decentralist decision-making, privacy, or freedom of association. Pillars of Western law and justice have been broken and tossed aside by this regime, under the guise of national emergency and security against threats real and imagined.
So infatuated with power has the Bush administration become that it has bragged that it would place its stamp on the whole world. There is no place that would be or should be immune from its influence and control. It would remake the world, its spokesmen have promised, in Trotsky-like pledges.
This is quite a leap from the “humble” foreign policy Bush campaigned on in 2000, and a measure of how power and crisis can lead to corruption and even insanity.
Imperialism and war are forms of planning, as much as any domestic variety. They presume knowledge over time and place that is ultimately inaccessible to planners. In order to achieve the plan, they do not depend on consent and exchange, but on taking resources by force and imposing their use against the will of their subjects.
The manner in which resources are used is dictated by the will of bureaucrats and politicians, not markets and consumers. They end not in wealth creation and improved living standards — as with market exchange — but in the usual symptoms of government control: debt, destruction, and even death.
Bush started an unnecessary war that has killed tens of thousands of people, and ground into dust a country and a regime that had never done a thing to the United States and represented no threat whatsoever. We were told that this country had weapons of mass destruction. There were none. We were told that the Midas touch of the US government would bring civilization. Instead, it has led to mind-boggling calamity, as citizens flee, reporters hide, and death, abduction, and chaos are routine in what was once the most liberal Arab state.
The claim that the Bush administration provided this country security has no plausibility to it at all. The attacks of 9-11 came about during Bush’s rule, and were a result of policies favored by Bush. The response of the administration was to create bigger bureaucracies, put government totally in charge of airline security, impose draconian laws that violated civil liberties, and hold people in prison indefinitely without charge.
What’s more, it does not take a foreign-policy genius to see that invading and smashing countries is not a very good way to go about suppressing terrorism, any more than plunging into snake pits is a good way of avoiding snake bites. Of course the analogy doesn’t quite work because the government actually benefits from terrorism to some extent because it permits unscrupulous leaders to alarm the public into forking over more money and power, even as life becomes ever less secure.
As for Kerry, he never wanted to be the anti-war candidate. The Bush camp was right that he waffled, providing a sometimes-plausible critique of the imperial state and yet proposing nothing much different as a replacement. It wasn’t until Kerry began to discuss the war that his camp made any progress. He gave series of speeches that affected ideological opposition to what Bush was doing. They weren’t great speeches, and parsing them led to the realization that his plan was not that different from Bush’s own. But activists poured their hearts into the campaign nonetheless, in the hopes that perhaps he would come around.
In the end, however, there was no great choice to be made. Voters were being asked to choose between two forms of central planning, one domestic, tired, and uninspiring, and another international and promising to conquer ever more countries until the whole region and world were bent at the knee. One plan required higher taxes and more economic regimentation, and the other required higher debt and more death.
At brief moments during the campaign, the regime trotted out the old rhetoric about how Bush was for freedom and for you, whereas his opponent was for the government. This goes beyond cynical. After all, here is an administration that inflated government spending at a rate that compares only to Lyndon Johnson at his Keynesian worst. Here is an administration that used government more than any other in memory. Those who thought Clinton favored big government can only look back nostalgically at a president who seemed to know the limits of power.
Then there are the so-called cultural issues. They are used by the two parties as get-out-the-vote mechanisms. One group runs to the polls to prevent the other group from making headway on a panoply of hot-button causes. But neither party has any real incentive to enact change in either direction, since the whole purpose is to stir people into donating their money and their time, and pulling the right lever at the next election.
The Bush administration views the results of the 2004 election as a mandate. But friends of liberty should know that conceding a mandate to anyone in power is always dangerous business. One form of central planning has been defeated but another form has raised its ugly head. It too must be fought, and on principled grounds.
But the party of liberty is so much better off today than it was in the 1930s. Our intellectual foundation is far stronger. Ours is an international movement with brilliant writers and activists in most all countries of the world, and in all sectors of society. We live amidst the greatest technological advances since the Industrial Revolution, all made possible through liberal means. The globalization of commerce is thinning out the ranks of the war party.
With allies from all walks of life, from many countries, and with passion for truth, the party of liberty works for and joyfully anticipates liberation from despotism — left, right, or center.