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Friday, January 1, 2010

What Next?

Liberty always walks uphill.

U.S. takes majority stake in GMAC,
giving lender $3.8 billion more in aid

U.S. International Trade Commission rules in favor
of U.S. steel industry on subsidized Chinese imports

–Washington Post, Dec. 31, 2009

I guess those were appropriate headlines for the final day of 2009. That’s the kind of year it’s been. Government grew larger, and liberty yielded. In terms of the political-economic news, good riddance, 2009. Let’s hope we don’t seen your likes again.

But that is wishful thinking. Today there are few inhibitions on using government—yes, force—to solve economic problems. This is not something that developed over the last year. It’s been true for a long while, regardless of which political party was in power. But any remaining inhibitions weaken during perceived crises, as Robert Higgs shows in his classic, Crisis and Leviathan. When White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said in the early days of the Obama administration that the economic crisis should not be “wasted,” he was simply verbalizing what politicians and social engineers have long understood: When people are insecure, they are more willing to take orders. Politicians, H. L. Mencken understood, succeed to the extent they can exploit this fact. That’s why they have an interest in crisis. They’ll create one if they have to, but they usually don’t have to—because their own previous enactments are sure to have created one already.

The trick is to make sure the people don’t figure out that most crises have political origins. This isn’t that tough a trick, however. Most people don’t understand economic reasoning and would see little benefit from engaging in it if they knew what it is. Bryan Caplan is persuasive when he writes, in The Myth of the Rational Voter, that most people harbor anti-market biases, picked up at an early age and reinforced ever since. Who goes out of his way to look for evidence against one’s own worldview, especially when there is no practical payoff? (What would one changed vote mean?)

So blaming “the unfettered market” for what the political-military-industrial complex has wrought is a piece of cake. Misrepresentatives like Barney Frank and Chris Dodd can pledge to bridle Wall Street, confident that their personal responsibility for the financial debacle will be neither widely understood nor exposed.

There has been no unfettered market. (Even free markets are not unfettered, as I point out here.) Government influence, control, and privilege are pervasive and have been for generations. Regulator and regulated are cozy partners of longstanding—a phenomenon indistinguishable from an outright conspiracy against the public. A freed market—I like this neologism—couldn’t have produced the various messes that have been dumped on us. But as I’ve said before, no matter how much the government controls the economic system, any problem will be blamed on whatever small zone of freedom remains. Liberty always walks uphill.

So it is with medical insurance, with banking and finance, with energy, with the economy in general, and with many other issues. More of them will no doubt arise in 2010. The helmsmen of the corporate state screw up, blame someone else, and accumulate more power. The next screw-up will furnish overwhelming evidence that power was not increased enough last time. Government will grow, liberty will yield, and the people will pay and pay.

Onward to 2010

So what do we do?

We do what we must and can do. We continue to spell out as clearly as possible what’s going on and how things can be changed for the better. We expose the system of privilege, intervention, and exploitation for what it is. We find innovative ways to tap into that vestige of libertarianism that has survived the ideological onslaught against freedom. We talk directly to real people—as FEE has always done—realizing that much of the intellectual class has a vested interest in the status quo.

Indispensable to all this is a commitment to continuing self-education. Know your own case as thoroughly as possible–to be for freedom is to be a radical; read what the bright young libertarian economists, historians, and philosophers are writing, (Don’t overlook their blogs!) And remember John Stuart Mill’s line from On Liberty: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.” Read the arguments of liberty’s adversaries—strive to know their case better than they do. Then when you speak, even if only among a small group of friends, your voice will have authenticity. (Here I am only repeating Leonard Read’s sage advice.)

The job ahead is big. Political interference with freedom is not merely a thin crust to be scraped away in order to expose an essentially free society. On the contrary, intervention runs deep—to the foundation—tainting everything it touches, distorting our society in many subtle ways, corrupting education, banking, the media, medicine, science, philanthropy, and more.

Before we can work to change things, we must know what we are trying to change.

Have a happy, healthy, productive New Year. We have work to do.

  • 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.