All Commentary
Tuesday, December 1, 1998

Reports of the End of History Are Grossly Exaggerated

Organized Force Is Being Overused

The disintegrating Russian economy has emboldened the Bolshevik remnant. There’s been talk in the duma of re-nationalizing industry. Could Francis Fukuyama have been wrong when he declared that, with the fall of communism, history had reached its end?

I think so. But I thought he had erred even before the Russian communists began their latest agitation. Contrary to the “end of history” school, the fall of communism at the turn of the decade did not end a great ideological debate. It began one. Or should have.

The debate we need is between individualism and statism. It should have taken place much earlier in this century, but communism distracted us. The opponents of communism were a disparate lot who agreed on little else but that total state control of economic affairs, and its attendant political terror, were bad things. When communism disappeared, the disagreements within the opposing coalition revealed themselves. Before, the contest was between communists and anti-communists (including a variety of “mild” socialists); today, the contest is between mild socialists and libertarians, or true liberals—between those who would use organized force for something other than simply defending individual rights (including, of course, property rights) and those who oppose all such non-defensive use.

The terms “left” and “right” are not helpful here. It is too easy to find people who embrace those labels advocating coercion against those who themselves do not violate rights. The left wants to stop people from smoking tobacco. The right wants to stop people from smoking marijuana. The left wants to stop so-called hate speech. The right wants to stop so-called obscene speech. The left wants to regulate what people can do with their land. The right wants to regulate what people can do with their persons. Sometimes, as in the Microsoft antitrust case, they agree to unite in their persecution of peaceful conduct.

In contrast, the libertarian proposes to let people go about their peaceful business unmolested. He doesn’t do so in a fog of moral agnosticism. On the contrary, freedom, properly conceived, is grounded in a moral certainty: that each individual owns himself and therefore should be free to think and act peacefully—and even to err—without shifting the consequences to others.

It’s time to get on with the real debate.

* * *

You can’t open a newspaper without reading about the economic woes of the Asian countries. Predictably, much of the commentary blames those woes on an excess of capitalism. Christopher Lingle, who’s spent time in that part of the world, says the problem, alas, is too little capitalism.

We close our observance of the 100th anniversary of the birth of FEE’s founder, Leonard E. Read, by reprinting his article elaborating the nature of true glory as defined by Pliny the Elder.

The contrast between how private and government agencies treat “customers” can be dramatic. When Andrew Morriss and his wife decided they wanted a dog, they got a firsthand lesson that left a lasting impression.

The benefits of true liberalism can be found in the unlikeliest places. European countries have dominated world soccer in recent years. Jacobo Rodríguez traces that success to pro-market reforms on the continent.

We live in a time of contradiction. The private market’s unprecedented wealth and progress exist side by side with government depredation and threat. Bruce Yandle surveys both sides of the ledger and wonders if a new golden age lies ahead.

This month is the anniversary of the American Bill of Rights and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. The two documents are often lumped together, but Richard Stevens shows they could hardly be more different.

Do libertarians care only about economics? That’s a common criticism made by intellectuals of the left and right. Using three prominent examples, Tadd Wilson demonstrates that the criticism is unfounded.

This year was the 100th anniversary of the Spanish-American War, America’s first large-scale foray into imperialism. Historian Burt Folsom recounts the government’s ineptitude and scheme to fund the war. He sets the stage for William Graham Sumner’s passionate protest and warning that is still worth reading.

Our columnists again have come up with riveting topics: Lawrence Reed wonders what all the trade-deficit fuss is about. Doug Bandow warns against letting the military move into civilian service. Dwight Lee explains how enforced minimum prices create surpluses. Mark Skousen marvels that goods are getting cheaper all the time. In “The Pursuit of Happiness,” guest columnist Jon Sanders catalogues what’s wrong with legislating the “proper.” And Thomas DiLorenzo reads a Harvard professor’s description of the tobacco industry and cries, “It Just Ain’t So!”

Our reviewers scrutinize books on such issues as personal freedom, gun control, medicine, cable TV, and the ethics of liberty.

—Sheldon Richman

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.