Lew Rockwell’s book, Speaking of Liberty, is a compilation of his speeches. Rarely do such compilations do justice to their topics. This book is one of those rare exceptions.
A speech is a different medium from a book or even a pamphlet. A speech must present information in a less concentrated form than a printed document. This is because listeners have to keep up with the speaker. They cannot pause, review, make marginal notations, or think carefully about what is being said. They have to keep up.
Unless he is an after-dinner speaker brought in either to amuse the audience or help the sponsoring organization raise money that night, a speaker faces the grim reality of people’s memories. Speeches are like water flowing through a hose. Almost nothing sticks, and even the droplets that do stick soon evaporate. Rare is a speech that presents more than one point that any listener can recall a week later, and this point will probably be different for each listener.
This book is different. The transcribed speeches in Speaking of Liberty are carefully crafted presentations of sophisticated concepts of liberty, yet presented in a way that the information goes down nicely. Somehow, a lot of the information sticks. I did not hear any of these speeches. I don’t know how the audience received them, nor do I know how much information the listeners retained. But I do know that the essays in this book are content-rich, as website jargon says.
If you were to ask any author what the most important point or section of his book is, he probably could not tell you. He worked too hard on the overall project to know, unless the book is a one-trick pony designed to persuade readers of just one thing. So, for the author’s benefit and also yours, permit me to identify the central passage of the book, which is the central doctrine of the author’s life’s work. The passage appears late in the book — unfortunately. It appears in his summary of Ludwig von Mises’s little book, Liberalism.
These three elements — property, freedom, and peace — are the basis of the liberal program. They are the core of a philosophy that can restore our lost prosperity and social stability (p. 315).
The French Revolution had a slogan: “liberty, equality, fraternity.” Lenin had a slogan, and it was a powerful one: “peace, land, bread.” (It is a shame that there is no record that Lenin ever used it, but not so much of a shame that historians cease quoting it.) Lew Rockwell has inadvertently (I suspect) come up with a slogan for libertarianism: “property, freedom, peace.”
Speaking of Liberty is loosely structured in terms of this tripartite slogan. But, unlike the previous tripartite slogans, Rockwell’s slogan is in fact the basis of an integrated social philosophy. It is therefore more than a slogan. He derived these principles from Mises, who was the first man to build an integrated system of economics, and more broadly, of society in terms of these three principles.
Mises did not begin with these principles. He began with the observation that people act. He was an a priorist in his epistemology. He deduced economic corollaries from this single principle of action. His economic system arrived at the tripartite formula of property, freedom, and peace — nineteenth-century liberalism’s worldview — by means of a rigorous system of deductive reasoning.
Rockwell gave speeches. He was not writing a treatise on economics. So, we do not learn here how Mises derived these three principles of nineteenth-century classical liberalism from his axiom of human action. But Rockwell pursues the tripartite foundation throughout the book: in the section on economic theory, in the section on war, in the section on Mises, in the section on ideas and their influence, and in the section of tributes to pioneers who preceded him.
QUOTATIONS FROM CHAIRMAN LEW
As a collection of speeches, the book’s themes are repetitious. That is the book’s whole point. This is not a symphony. It might be called “variations on three themes” or perhaps “Austrian dances.”
Our minds, even when assisted by the low-tech miracle of a yellow highlighter, do not retain much of what we read. So, he keeps coming back to the same three themes, not in the form of a systematic treatise, but in the form of a series of observations and applications. He has read so much of Mises and Rothbard that he instinctively thinks in terms of their economic categories. As a result, his mind keeps popping out insights that a less principle-shaped mind would not. Here are a few examples.
To the free market, we owe all our material prosperity, all leisure time, our health and longevity, our huge and growing population, nearly everything we call life itself. Capitalism and capitalism alone has rescued the human race from degrading poverty, rampant sickness, and early death (p. 29).
Big government abroad is incompatible with small government at home. To the extent that we cheer war, we are cheering domestic socialism and our own eventual destruction as a civilization (p. 37).
In any case, as with the gold standard, it might be said that advocating privatization is politically unrealistic and therefore a waste of time. What’s more, we might say that by continuing to harp on the issue, we only marginalize ourselves, proving that we are on the fringe. Again, I submit that there is no better way to assure that an issue will always be off the table than to stop talking about it (p. 60).
The free-market economy has a record like no other of offering economic advancement for everyone no matter what his station in life. However, it does not offer equality of result or even equality of opportunity. The free market offers not a classless society, but something of much greater value: liberty itself (pp. 111—12).
Mises had a way of getting to the heart of the matter, so his comments on socialized health insurance apply to our own situation. Reviewers at the time noted his opposition and derided them as the ravings of an extreme classical liberal. If so, I am happy to rave myself (p. 114).
Never have so many rich people who have been given so much by government demanded so much more (p. 116)
What is more troubling, and far more difficult to unravel, is the situation we currently face, in which a regime knows and embraces a partisan language of economic liberty while promoting the opposite. Though the Republicans have been generally derided as the Stupid Party, in fact this approach of doublespeak is far shrewder than the approach of the other party. When Republicans promote big government as liberty, it is intimidating to the opposition, which finds itself robbed of its only opposition tactic, even as it is rhetorically compelling to those generally disposed to support the ideals of freedom (p. 131).
In sum, we have something worse than a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We have a wolf that has also learned to b-a-a-a-h (p. 132).
When did free trade come to mean its opposite? As with so much else, it was World War II that changed everything. The trust and deference that the American people gave the government during the war spilled over to the postwar plans for carving up the spoils. At the Bretton Woods conference in 1944, trade came to mean investment guarantees and global bureaucracies in statist treaties between governments. This was central planning exalted to new heights (p. 144).
The presidency — by which I mean the executive State — is the sum total of American tyranny. The other branches of government, including the presidentially appointed Supreme Court, are mere adjuncts (p. 175).
But overall, my favorite President is William Henry Harrison. He keeled over shortly after his inauguration (p. 181).
One wonders how it is possible that in wartime, all the rules of civilized life, all the lessons learned from history, all the checks on power that have been established over the centuries, are thrown onto the trash heap (pp. 201—2).
The problem for Mises was that he bucked the fashionable opinions of the time, rejected the planning mentality, and persistently and consistently insisted the purest free market position, even when everyone around him was caving in (pp. 216—17).
And yet, at the lowest point in his life, Mises had only one regret: that he had not been even tougher and less compromising (p. 218).
Politics consists of 100,000 pressure groups trying to get their hands on the loot (p. 261).
Show me a student who aspires to enter the civil service these days, and I’ll show you a failure (p. 264).
In every case we see stagnation, waste, vast bureaucracy, and lack of innovation, that is, we see the hand of the State (p. 277).
In all of human history, philosophers have sought to find a system of social organization that truly embodies the will of the people. With the market economy, we have that system (p. 280).
The ultimate lesson is that we cannot trust the State to do what it says it will do (p. 325).
Most economists are political weather vanes (p. 347).
The effect of ideas on a civilization is like waves on water. By the time they reach the shore, no one remembers or knows for sure where they came from. Our job is to stick to the task (p. 385).
Many years ago, Henry Hazlitt gave a speech in which he said it is our moral obligation to continue the battle no matter what the odds. What he said then is still true today: we are not threatened with bankruptcy or jail for holding the opinions we do. All we risk is being called nasty names. Surely that is not too high a price to pay for defending the very foundations of civilization (p. 418).
Speaking of Liberty is a multi-purpose book. It is a good introduction to applied free market economics, as well as to applied liberty. It offers a good summation of the economic theories of Ludwig von Mises. It offers examples of economic first principles applied to specific contemporary practices and events. Like a college reunion, it offers old grads an opportunity to sing the old songs. It even hands out song sheets. But, most of all, it reminds the reader of two facts: (1) free market capitalism is the basis of the wealth that we all enjoy, and to reject it would mean impoverishing ourselves, or worse; (2) this social system rests on three principles, namely, property, freedom, and peace. To attack any of these three pillars of the free society is comparable to sawing away at the leg of the three-legged stool you are sitting on. At best, the stool will wobble. At worst, it will topple.
Critics of the free market are therefore the Wile E. Coyotes of our day: sitting on the stool in comfort, they systematically saw away at the legs beneath them, on the absurd assumption that they will be able to hang in the air indefinitely after their work is done.
Along comes Lew Rockwell and shouts as loud as he can: “Beep, beep.”
January 10, 2004
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