All Commentary
Sunday, December 1, 1996

Making the Case for Liberty Stick

Ideas Can Shake a Misplaced Faith in Government

Rolling back an intrusive, overweening government is no simple task. A remarkably tenacious creature, it spares no expense as it struggles to retain its grip on society. It is greatly aided in that fight by many of those who rely on transfer payments for all or part of their livelihood. Meanwhile, the liberty of all the people hangs in the balance.

As veteran readers of The Freeman know, ideas are what matter most. Pointing fingers, naming names, and unmasking duplicitous politicians can never by themselves win the battle for liberty. Indeed, such tactics can be counterproductive when they lull people into thinking that changing faces in government is enough to change results. Ideas must change, and if they do, the faces will take care of themselves.

For some, focusing on ideas seems to be an unbearably long-term strategy. They yearn for the magic button that, when pressed, will make things better. They think everything depends on who gets into office in the next election. They want to win elections now, so they put their money and time into yard signs and bumper stickers instead of books, articles, seminars, and other educational tools.

These impatient friends fail to understand that politicians rarely operate outside a box framed by public opinion which, translated, means the demands and expectations of those politicians’ particular constituencies. One wealthy patron of hundreds of candidates over the years recently expressed this frustration to me: I wish I could do something so that once the people I support get elected I won’t have to keep calling them to find out why they cast so many bad votes and make so many wrong decisions. I told him that the one most effective thing he could do is to invest in ideas. Give someone a book, I told him, not a bumper sticker.

What better evidence do we have of the importance of education than the experience of the 104th Congress? The Republicans ousted the Democrats for control of both houses, for the first time in 40 years. Most of the freshman class elected in that tumultuous year of 1994 pledged themselves to shrinking the federal government and turning power back to the states and to the people.

But by early 1996, enthusiasm gave way to disappointment. Government had been nicked here, shaved a little there, but the revolution had fizzled. The more thoughtful among the revolutionaries didn’t lay the blame on the president or the media; they knew they had been thwarted by the sunshine patriots back home—people who buy the rhetoric of less government but run in the other direction at the prospect of actually achieving the real thing. This suggests that much work remains to be done on the idea front. People must deepen their understanding of liberty so they’ll stick with it when the going gets rough.

Making the case for liberty stick, so that it isn’t simply some short-term rhetorical exercise, is a multi-faceted task. It draws support from a range of intellectual disciplines—economics, political science, sociology, and history, to name a few. It requires a nurturing of many personal virtues—self-reliance, enterprise, respect for others and their property, moral inspiration, and optimism about what free people can accomplish. It encourages a patient, long-term perspective over the instant gratification of short-term obsessions. To this list I add one more ingredient that is worthy of our increased attention—demystifying government.

Too many battles are lost to statists because of a misplaced and hard-to-shake faith in government itself. For all its endless failures, now more widely perceived than at any time in decades, government is still regarded as real and tangible while free-market alternatives are often thought of as nebulous and imaginary.

For example, take Social Security. Most Americans now acknowledge its inherent flaws and impending debacle. Suggest ending Social Security and making retirement security a purely personal and market-based responsibility and many of those same people wince in fear. Who would take care of Grandma? they ask. Of course, they want you to answer with a list of names and addresses; anything less will leave them in grudging acceptance of the status quo.

Far too many Americans think that if government provides education, it may do so ineffectively but at least some basic level of schooling will exist. Likewise, they think that if government gets into the low-income housing business, the result may be scandal-ridden but at least the poor will be housed.

It constantly amazes me that defenders of the free market are expected to offer certainty and perfection while government has only to make promises and express good intentions. Many times, for instance, I’ve heard people say, A free market in education is a bad idea because some child somewhere might fall through the cracks, even though in today’s government schools, millions of children are falling through the cracks every day.

Our task as friends of the free market is to reverse this state of affairs. We must portray the promises of government and politicized society for what they are—nebulous and imaginary. We must explain the benefits of free markets and civil society for precisely what they are—real and tangible. After all, isn’t the evidence on these points overwhelming? Where do oppressed people flee when given the chance—to free countries or socialist countries? Where do they conquer more poverty by producing more goods that sustain life the longest and at the highest levels? In which environment do people attain the greatest satisfaction and self-fulfillment—an environment of dependency and sloth, or one of self-reliance and effort? Americans should be embarrassed even to ask such questions.

The Myth of the Magical Bureaucracy, a recent booklet co-authored by Congressmen Pete Hoekstra, Mark Neumann, Sam Brownback, and Mark Souder, demystifies the federal government with a goldmine of facts and figures. For example, Americans have come to assume that since Washington became involved in education in the mid-1960s, education has been advanced; efforts to abolish the Department of Education and its 760 separate programs have been met with stiff resistance.

The facts, however, are these: Educational performance in the United States has been in steady decline since the mid-1960s. Average SAT scores have dropped 35 points since 1972. Sixty-six percent of 17-year-olds do not read at a proficient level. U.S. students scored worse in math than all other large countries except Spain. And 30 percent of all college freshmen must take remedial classes.

For another example, consider the AmeriCorps program, which propagates the myth that magical bureaucrats can create a renewed volunteer spirit in America. The facts are these: AmeriCorps displaces true volunteerism by paying people with tax money to do good. Designed just three years ago to cost taxpayers only $16,000 per volunteer, it now costs between $25,797 and $31,017 per volunteer. Worse yet, only $14,000 of that money goes to the actual volunteer, while the remaining $11,000 to $17,000 goes to overhead and administration!

Making the case for liberty stick will take a lot more of this sort of compelling analysis, marketed in an articulate fashion. The Emperor has no clothes; we merely have to encourage people to take their blinders off and see reality.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is