Benign or Malignant?

Email Print

In the Criminal
Code of Canada, there is a law which interdicts the sale or purchase
of what are called “crime
comics” — section 163 (1)(b) et al. idem
. My disclosing
this may bring a smile to some faces, but a professional economist
would note that a law prohibiting the sale of crime comics is just
as much an infringement upon free exchange as the prohibition of
the sale of illicit drugs is. After noting that both laws are subtractive
of utility as demonstrated by exchange, the economist has to pull
a demur, leaving any attempt at quantification of their effects
to the economic historian, or to the political one. This quantification
can be precise or vague.

For some evidently
undisclosable reason, the profession of political science has been
loath to quantify the influence of a specific liberty-invasive law
upon further breaches of liberty, even at the rudimentary level
used to gauge influence of professors' papers. So, I have to resort
to informed guesswork in this piece. With respect to crime comics,
I trust I am on safe ground when I say that this part of Canada's
Criminal Code is no thin edge of a tyrannical wedge — unlike the
prohibition of illicit drugs has been.

Most of the
thin-edge measures, which have proven to foreshadow real wedges,
are the result of government interference in the economy for ostensibly
economic reasons. Before fleshing this out, I should call attention
to one American measure which was widely feared to be the thin edge
of a wedge, but turned out not to be. This act of government interference
was the setting up of the government-owned Tennessee Valley Authority.

You have to
be somewhat of a past-delver to see how much of a threat to liberty
the TVA was thought to be. It was widely excoriated in the old Right
as the dam-breaker that would drown America in plain socialism,
as Britain seemed to be fated for as of the late 1940s. Once the
government got its hands on a corporation for the purpose of providing
"needed services," how far would it go? Would farms be
impounded too, on the basis that people need food more than electricity?
Would banks be nationalized, to protect good Americans from flinty-hearted
bankers? Would the bond, or even the stock, market be nationalized,
in order to "throw the crooks out" of securities sales?
Where would it stop?

We now know
what the answer to the last question is: it stopped at the TVA itself.
The interesting side angle to this stoppage is that the same thing
happened in the U.K. after the 1940s ended and Sir Winston Churchill
re-won the Prime Minister's slot. Democratic socialism, after an
initial burst of enthusiasm impelling it, subsequently went nowhere,
except for marking time.

The Buckleyite
conservatives can congratulate themselves on stopping it, of course,
as can Austrian economists. The economic case for the inefficiency
of socialist enterprise did win out against this political trend.

If a victory
against domestic socialism was won, though, the question remains:
why no victories against most other policies that are just as economically
myopic, like minimum wage laws and pervasive regulations? Why do
policies of that sort keep growing despite refutations of them?
The only other rollback victory which libertarians can congratulate
themselves on winning is repeal of explicit price controls,
including some rent controls, during times of peace. Why are other
interventions so immune to repeal?

The most obvious
demarcation point between battles eventually won and plain routs
is practicality versus morality. Socialism was held to be a practical
means of bringing prosperity; the moral component of it was only
an attribute. Thus, it was possible for an ordinary citizen to assess
the success or failure of socialization without feeling like a total
heel for doing so. Observe that anti-liberty programs which have
thrived despite telling criticism of them use moral arguments
as the essence of the backing of them, arguments which still prevail
even after the factual basis for them is debunked. A kind
of moral argument is used which seems insulated even from relevant

How many people
reading this know that the release of thalidomide was actually stopped
by the FDA acting under the 1938 protocols, not
the much more restrictive 1962 ones
? The claim that thalidomide
would have been approved under the
1938 rules
runs contrary to the safety requirement in them,
as well as to the actual stoppage of the release of thalidomide
to the public before the approval process was tightened up in 1962.

The fact that
the '38 system worked, though, did not deter the call to tighten
up its protocols one bit.

Try using this
fact as a base for advocating a return to the 1938 protocols. You'll
be portrayed as a hideous monster, quickly.

The same "immunity
from debunkment" exists for all the programs that have served
as the base for expanding the State to its current level. Consider
that one of Senator Goldwater's reasons for privatizing Social Security
was a back-of-the-envelope actuarial study showing that the average
worker who pays into the system from day one on the job ends up
getting less than the equivalent in savings stored in the bank would
have. Despite this audit check, Senator Goldwater was projected
as a hideous monster for even considering privatization to be a
viable option.

Even a more
thorough debunking of the system — one which discloses its origin
in Prince Bismarck's sponsorship of social insurance programs in
the German Empire, and its base justification as the belief that
the fine, happy-go-lucky peasant is too feckless by nature to see
to his health and dotage — turns the would-be debunker into a hideous
monster, and little else, in that part of the country which pledges
itself to fine thinking. To confirm this, try advocating the replacement
of all social insurance programs with more explicit forced-saving
laws that accomplish the same goal, with a State charity proviso
for those unfortunates whose personal funds are exhausted. You'll
be portrayed as a hideous monster with all due haste.

The retribution
is more comprehensive nowadays for those who dare to debunk government-owned
health care. Should you choose to do so, you will not only be portrayed
as a hideous monster, but also as a presumptive deviant of one sort
or another.

As is evident
from the above, the government programs which invade liberty and
are also shielded from all criticism have as their "moral"
base an appeal to brute fear. The object of their attendant propaganda
is to turn the loyal citizen into a scared bully. Any interventionist
program that does not appeal to this kind of fear does not grow
and thrive in its government niche; it stays benign.

The moral of
this admittedly impressionistic survey is: be wary of appeals to
fear! For those who are libertarian activists, this moral does contain
an implication: a large part of the voting public may cling to fallacious
arguments when justifying this or that "social program,"
but the fear behind their insistence is real. Many workers seriously
believe that their work would be worth only "a dollar a day"
if the minimum wage laws were dropped, or that they would be treated
as nothing better than illegals are now. Many citizens seriously
believe that the risk of bankruptcy, and the consequent risk of
winding up in a "charity hospital" which, they believe,
is run like the VA hospital which the protagonist in the movie Born
On The Fourth Of July
was put in, is a serious risk in a
completely private health-care system. Advocates of minimal government
do not have the luxury of the well-connected statist who can dismiss
fears (ones that he or she doesn't share) out of hand as "symptomatic
of paranoia." Even the irrational fears of the public have
to be acknowledged as legitimate ones on this side of the street.

One related
warning: it's a logical guess that libertarians who do see through
statists' fear-mongering, and base their conduct upon allaying those
engendered fears, are the ones who are made an example of. Libertarians
with a heart can bring the scare-'em game to an end; hence, they
are a threat to the present order. They're not the hideous monsters
— the "heartless bourgeoisie" – which they are portrayed
to be.

Yes, domestic
rollback is truly an uphill sled-ride – but it is possible
through reform. Why? Because it's been done before.

Fearful of rising political opposition sparked by the
depression, the government tried desperately to relieve the victims
of the depression by maintaining wage rates at a high level and
keeping failing companies in operation. The result was only to prolong
and intensify the depression the government was trying to cure:
artificially high wage rates deepened unemployment in the clothing
centers and imposed higher costs on an already high-cost industry;
propping up of inefficient producers wasted more capital and ruined
their creditors; and the domination of inefficient monopoly companies
was tightened up at the very time when the industry's salvation
could only come from free competition and escape from the taxation
and regulation of government.

Sound familiar?
Yes, it came from the pen of Murray N. Rothbard. What he is describing,
though, is not the New Deal – it's the response of the British government
to the depression of the 1620s. (Conceived
In Liberty
, Volume 1, p. 166.)

Two centuries
later, the government of the U.K. was well on the way to providing
government which was truly minimal — and the striving towards laissez-faire
was done, after 1688's
Glorious Revolution
, all through reform measures. The Britons
did it, even if Parliament, at times, had to be more rowdy than
the modern Republican party has ever been in our time.

One final
The spear carriers for welfare statism are people who were born
and raised to respect the thinkers, which we tend to scoff (or laugh)
at, simply on the basis of those thinkers' position in society.
These “foot soldiers” do tend to be decent, as do the old social-democrat
activists who brought us government-owned health care. Poverty does
coarsen: the social democrats who hail from poor homes, and who
are habituated to seeking decency while living in penury, find it
unimaginable that “professionals” and “experts” could be turning
the welfare state and the health-care state into a hogs' state.

As far as their
upper-middle-class analog, the modern liberal, is concerned: these
people seriously believe that a mega-state can be constructed through
appeals to fear, and upon the bedrock of Bismarckism, without the
militarist getting in on the action too. They genuinely believe
that “fascist,” “Nazi,” et al. are magic words which can
prevent such a succession from ever taking place. If this confidence
of theirs is ever shattered, as it might be under a more strident
neo-con than President Bush is, then their scarred remains might
very well form the nucleus of a new “Remnant.”

19, 2006

M. Ryan [send him mail]
is a Canadian with a well-known habit of blundering into fields
for which he is inadequately prepared. Visit his

Email Print