The Mises Institute monthly, free with membership
Volume 19, Number 2
The Prospects for Liberty
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.
There is a class of pundits that defends public confidence in big government, and trashes those who celebrate its undoing. These pundits had a fit following this year' s election that revealed the least flattering side of the US system of government. If we thought the process of making laws was ugly, few were prepared to observe in slow motion the even more contemptible process of picking lawmakers.
Indeed, the election revealed more than just the mendacity that stains the electoral process from top to bottom. It also showed us, as we hadn't seen in 140 years, the deep sectional, ideological, and interest-group divides that have left no political institution untouched.
A county-by-county map, published first in USA Today and circulated widely on the internet, demonstrated that a government partisan who promises enough to those on the government payroll can nearly rule the country by only winning a majority in 20 percent of the land. And the counts and recounts, and recounts of recounts, showed that it may be possible to win elections by manipulating the outcome via the courts, provided the margin of victory is small enough.
By itself the map doesn't tell you all you need to know, though someone looking at it for the first time would be shocked to hear that this election is being contested at all. But bring to the map insights drawn from David Hume and Ludwig von Mises, namely that the government is and always must be a small minority of the population, and combine that point with some elementary demographics concerning who voted for which candidate.
Government employees and those they support, like unions and welfare recipients, were Gore's base. As Albert Jay Nock would say, these are the tax-takers. Middle-class families of independent means were Bush's base: people who constitute the taxpayers. This is the core of the political war raging in America today. Bush is no John Bright, but given the choice, partisans of liberty have no trouble deciding which side to root for.
This election also taught the man on the street a thing or two about political reality. Government power is a dirty and dishonest business. We are reminded of the wisdom of the framers, found primarily in their desire to curb power as much as possible by distributing it as thinly as they thought possible. Even today, especially today, that insight is the basis of all sound political judgment.
Let's hear no more about how well the "system" works. For starters, the system we have today bears only a slight resemblance to the one ratified in 1788. Back then, there were 13 states, and as compared to today, those sovereign entities were united only in a love of liberty. Now, there are 50 states of radically diverse populations stretching a distance far too wide to be managed by a single regime extracting more than 2 trillion dollars from the national wealth per year.
Back then, the president initially had very few powers, and the ones he did have were subject to Congressional veto. There was no regulatory apparatus. There was no income tax. The Supreme Court could not legislate for the states. The states were in charge of setting their own immigration rules.
There were no national health care plans or government-imposed retirement systems. There were no centralized rules restricting the freedom of association. There was no national policy on anything but foreign policy, and, even here, there was no permanent stationing of troops outside the borders. Indeed, there was no standing army. Congress was supreme and the Senate was elected by state legislatures and mostly loyal to the citizens of the states, not some mythical national constituency.
We lived under the rule of law, and the laws were few and simple. Moreover, the stakes of national elections just weren't that high. The framers' system permitted a president (not a king), and the office was based on the idea that he would largely be a figurehead. He would have no power to impact the daily lives of the people. Impeachment was to play a huge role in American life, as the centralist Alexander Hamilton was forced to concede.
Even in Alexis de Tocqueville's America of the 1830s, the citizens had little or no contact with the federal government. It didn't tax them, regulate their businesses, tell them whether and how they could be armed, or say how they must conduct their private lives. The president's power is "temporary, limited, and subordinate," Tocqueville wrote. He has "little wealth, and little glory to share among his friends; and his influence in the state is too small for the success or the ruin of a faction to depend upon his elevation to power. . . . The influence which the President exercises on public business is . . . feeble and indirect." No matter who was elected, average people would go on living their lives in liberty, fearing only robbers, poverty, and hard winters--not public agents.
Beginning in 1861 all this began to change. The result of the political struggle in the 1860s was that the states were not permitted to exit the regime, a right which many states had asserted in their original constitutions. During the Progressive Era, a new theory emerged. The idea, promoted by Woodrow Wilson, is that of the president as an embodiment of the Rousseauian general will.
Since that time, we have developed the implicit view that the president becomes known to us only after the Holy Spirit descends over the nation and anoints a Chosen One to lead us. Our job was to submit. To question the outcome, much less to bitterly resent it, was to be unpatriotic, even to flirt with treason. All through the 1990s, the Clintons invoked this notion of the presidency, suggesting time and again that because Bill had been elected to this imperial office, he should have his way in all things.
If there is any merit to the gritty and grueling process of election 2000, it is that the modern myth of that magical and holy office of the presidency has been completely debunked, first by Clinton's debasement of the office and now by the debasement of the voting process itself. The entire outcome, and to what extent we are to be looted, hinged on the wishes of one state, one county, a few thousand people, and that will not easily be translated into an undisputed outcome, given the vote fraud and outrageous get-out-the-vote tactics.
To restore the idea of the original republican system, which allows maximum freedom for individuals and communities to govern themselves, should also be the sum total of our agenda. And I'm convinced that we are in a better position to succeed at this goal now than at any point in a century. One reason for my optimism is the dramatic change in public opinion toward all institutions of government. Today it is difficult for us to remember a time when the Left could confidently speak for most people as it celebrated the efficiency and security made possible by State intervention. But in the 1930s through the 1970s, the phrase government planning was not used with any sense of irony. The welfare state was not always associated in the public mind with profligacy, waste, and cultural destructionism.
Indeed, the word bureaucrat once called forth respect and appreciation, exactly as Max Weber intended it to. His definition: "Bureaucratic administration means fundamentally the exercise of control on the basis of knowledge. This is the feature of it which makes it specifically rational." Who would not laugh at such a characterization today? Few young people have any desire to join the ranks of the bureaucrats. Neither is this trend limited to the US. All over Western Europe, the same loathing of the State has become a fixture of political reality.
For years leading up to this election, we were told by the pundit classes that the public has once again fallen in love with big government. But in the waning days of the campaign, let us not forget that both candidates declared themselves opponents of big government. Bush refined his message down to a simple line: "I'm for the people; he is for the government." That comment by itself has radical implications, for it recognizes that the government is something separate from the people and opposed to their interests.
Gore responded defensively: "I don't ever want to see another era of big government. . . . I' m opposed to big government. . . . I' m for a smaller, smarter government." Still quoting Gore: "I don't believe there's a government solution to every problem. I don't believe any government program can replace the responsibility of parents, the hard work of families, or the innovation of industry."
Now, if it is really true that the American people have abandoned that old libertarian spirit, why were the candidates talking this way? Of course: they and their pollsters knew what the voters on the margin wanted to hear. This is an extremely significant fact. If the pundits had been right, we would have expected to hear the opposite language.
The activity we saw at the state level confirmed that the top of the ticket had seized on language used by winners. Montana, South Carolina, South Dakota, Oregon, Arizona, and Massachusetts all passed some form of tax cut or tax limitation measure, while tax increases and measures to make it easier to increase taxes failed in Louisiana, California, and Oklahoma. Spending measures such as school vouchers failed by 2 to 1. Land-use controls went down to defeat in states where environmentalists thought they had a clear margin. There's no telling how much better we might have done had our side been more frank about the urgency of controlling government power.
The presidential election didn' t get really interesting until after voting day. After a year of keeping the lid on ideological wrangling and personal attacks, the post-election dispute unleashed amazing and entirely deserved rhetorical blasts. Forget unity, bipartisanship, and an end to negative campaigning: it was all-out war for a month.
What we are seeing in America, in a very real sense, is a continuation of the revolution against central social and economic management that began during the 1960s, accelerated in the 1970s, and culminated in Eastern Europe in the late eighties and early nineties--though it has far from played itself out to a definitive conclusion. The events of 1989 and 1990 in Eastern Europe completely broke the clock. They were anticipated by neither the Right nor the Left.
And from the point of view of the Left, these events literally stood outside of their vision of history with the state always on the march. They watched in horror as government after government fell, and even their beloved champion Mikhail Gorbachev was toppled by his own people. Transition leaders were dumped by their mere affiliation with the communists. In Czechoslovakia, home of the velvet revolution, the transition was peaceful. In Romania, the president and first lady were tried by a people's court and executed. In Poland, a labor strike did the work. In Russia, the fearsome State security apparatus, built up over seventy years, crumbled.
Now, hard as it is to believe today, we must never forget that all of these regimes--the most murderous in world history--had strong defenders in the US. For example, Laura D' Andrea Tyson, Clinton' s first head of the Council of Economic Advisers, did graduate and post-doc work on the miraculous productivity of the Romanian economy. She studied Ceausescu' s work and concluded, based on certain Keynesian assumptions, that it was in some respects more productive than the US. Paul Samuelson' s textbook, the most widely circulated in the country, still argued in the last edition before the Soviet collapse that the USSR would soon pass the US in annual productivity.
Did you ever wonder why we hear so little about the collapse of socialism, much less the historical crimes of socialism, on television and in the press? Why there are few if any classes in universities on the subject? Why the topic is not brought up on talk shows or the evening news? It's not just because it's old news. Plenty of old news is held up before our eyes regularly. The glories of FDR and how he supposedly saved us from the depression, for example. For that matter, the four thousand killed by the medieval Inquisition has a greater public presence today than the 100 million victims of socialism.
The reason is quite simple: the Left doesn' t want to talk about it. The establishment doesn't want to talk about it. And especially, the government doesn't want to talk about it. All these people and institutions fear that we will learn the real lessons of this period of history.
One lesson we learn is that socialism doesn' t work. Once the regimes were swept away, we were confronted with impoverished and filthy countries populated by undernourished, sickly, and politically bitter and often morally warped people. They really did create the New Soviet Man. But there is another, and more profound, lesson to take from studying the collapse of socialism. The lesson is that no government, no matter how powerful and pervasive, is forever. We might even say that the more powerful governments are more vulnerable to being undermined and overthrown.
We also learned that history doesn' t move just in one direction. These events were not planned by the State. They were the spontaneous result of public revolt. And such public revolts have appeared in nonsocialist countries in the intervening years. Think of the massive gasoline protests in England and France and elsewhere in Europe this year. As the days went on, it became clear that the truckers and consumers were not objecting to high prices so much as high taxes. This fact led the Left to decry the mostly working-class activists as reactionaries in disguise. In the same way, the protests in Dade County, Florida, with Republicans in coats and ties storming the secret offices of the ballot counters, were made of the same stuff.
In the same way the collapse of socialism and the revolts against government control across Europe were not planned by the State, the recent election fiasco was not planned either. The elites had no viable contingency plan on how to deal with it. And so the hot potato of who would become president has been flung from courtroom to courtroom, and all the while public confidence in once-unquestioned institutions has slipped further and further.
For the future, we must remember that throughout history, the strongest defense of liberty has come from the natural elites in society who own property, form families, establish dynasties, worship their God, and serve as the backbone of the business class. We should never forget that the signing of the Magna Carta was forced on the court by the nobility, and that the ideological support for the American revolution began among property holders, and was carried out by them.
Also learning from this history, let us not be shy about declaring our unswerving allegiance to the economics of the capitalist system. Now more than ever, the free economy is a populist issue. With average people holding stocks and moving their money out of the banking system and into the brokerage system, the public has a strong stake in preserving the freedom to trade and an unhampered competitive marketplace. This is true whether we are speaking about domestic or international issues. Interventionist economics and protectionism benefit only the State and its friends. The Republicans have missed out on emphasizing this.
When freedom is finally secured, and big government brought to its knees, it will be the consequence of a revolution led by the bourgeoisie. The intellectual and political movement that can speak the language of the American middle class--and increasingly it is a radical language that loves the free economy and the prosperity that comes with it, and tolerates no more government interference in family, community, or business--that movement is the one that will own the future.
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama (firstname.lastname@example.org).