Benign or Malignant?

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 counter-facts.

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 note: 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.”

May 19, 2006