Latest posts by Richard Ebeling (see all)
- How the Word Liberalism Came to Mean Its Opposite - February 14, 2019
- The Dangers of Negative Interest Rates and a Cashless Economy - January 9, 2019
- Classical Liberalism and the Limits to Compromise - January 7, 2019
Let us be clear. We are living, right now, in a time of emotional fear, hysterical anger, illogical demands, and dangerous temptations. In other words, liberty and prosperity are at risk. A decent and tolerant society is threatened. Common principles of humanity are being undermined.
All of this is concentrated and has been brought to a head in the rhetorical clamor and campaign conflagrations of a presidential election year. To try to understand what is going on, a mountain of words have been spoken by serious think tank scholars, by Sunday morning talk show pundits, or by evening television news 15-second “in-depth” interpreters, as well as miles of written commentaries that have been offered in hardcopy or on the online media and blog sites.
Pandering and Plundering Politicians, Left and Right
On the Democrat Party side, how can a corrupt, manipulative, lying, life-long power-lusting insider like Hillary Clinton be taken seriously and to be, seemingly, riding high to her party’s presidential candidate? How can a self-proclaimed “democratic” socialist, who has praised and apologized for communist dictatorships in Latin America and who chose to honeymoon with his bride in the former Soviet Union, arouse the mass enthusiasm of millions who see him as the deliverer of a transformative “political revolution” in America?
On the Republican Party side, how can a bombastic, rude and crude user of government privilege and favoritism for his business interests, like Donald Trump, who speaks most of the time in empty phrases and wrong-headed illogic on numerous economic and social issues, victoriously steamroll through state primaries and garner the support of millions merely because, many of those multitudes say, “he says it like it is”?
How can we explain the fate of the field of other Republican candidates, heralded in the summer of 2015 as the finest group of minds offered by the GOP for the office of the presidency in several decades? As the autumn began, one of them after another, first in the debates and the public opinion polls, and then in the primaries, failed to inspire or distinguish themselves. Each fell victim to voter indifference and then to Donald Trump’s meat grinder. Until, now, hardly any remain standing.
And what of the voters? Facing an uncertain employment future, experiencing seeming stagnant or low wage improvements, disoriented by a changing cultural environment; angered by political promises unfulfilled by those elected to high political office, as well as burdensome taxation and heavy-handed regulation; frustrated by crony “insiders” close to politicians and bureaucrats who “rig the game” for the benefit of special interests while leaving the costs and lost opportunities on the shoulders of ordinary citizens Sam and Sally, who have none of the “pull” to influence things their way, now insist: “We’ve had enough and we’re not going to take it any more.”
Broken Constitutions and Noses to Get What You Want
This is the sentiment and insistence of a sizable number of voters. And if it takes a socialist with utopian dreams dancing in his head, or a boorish billionaire who says he knows how to fix a broken system because he’s been playing it for decades for all its worth, then so be it. Put the “strongman” in charge to shake things up and give the ordinary guy an even break.
If it takes bending the Constitution or tearing down the wealth and position of some, well, those insiders and fat cats, those “establishment” types, have been rigging the rules for as long as can be remembered. So its time someone stuck it to them with some of the same political power, just in “the people’s” direction for a change.
And if some people have to be “roughed up,” if their words need to be shouted down or shut up, again, we’ve had enough of what they have had to say. Of course, who the “we” are and who the “they” are all depends upon who the “you” is.
Are you referring to the radical college professor who calls for some “muscle” to drive away a news reporter covering a campus demonstration against freedom of speech? Or a presidential candidate who gets cheers from his followers when he suggests that a physical altercation against protesters at their meeting is a lot more fun than listening to a boring campaign speech?
What we are witnessing are the latest episodes in the continuing bankruptcy of the modern American political system. These millions of voters all along the political spectrum wrap their frustrations and demands in rhetoric of either restoring or establishing “real” and “true” American values.
Long Down the Road of Lost Liberty
The fact is the original or traditional premises and values of the American system have been eroding away for almost a century, now. Several decades ago, the libertarian social analyst and critic, Garet Garrett, penned an essay with the title, “The Revolution Was.” He pointed out that too many people concerned with the preservation of the American constitutional system of government and a free society failed to appreciate how much of the ideas and institutions for a society of liberty had already been eroded away by forces opposed to its preservation.
We are a lot further along this path today from when Garet Garrett tried to point out how far away from a free society we had already moved. To appreciate this, we must first remind ourselves what are the premises and institutions upon which a free society ultimately stands or falls.
The philosophical foundations were expressed, of course, in the Declaration of Independence, when the authors in 1776 insisted that all men are created equal and are endowed with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And that government is formed among men to secure these rights from their violation by private individuals and groups or from government itself.
To guard against such violations by government, the very political institution meant to secure liberty is formally restrained in how it may use and apply its legitimized use of force in human affairs by constitutional rules. The American Constitution was meant to clearly demarcate the limited and enumerated functions of the federal government, with the additional restraining device of “divided government” between the branches of the federal government and then between the federal government and the duties and responsibilities of the individual state governments.
The restraining of government was meant to assure that political power remained a servant of the citizenry and their individual rights, and not a threatening master taking away or reducing their liberty. Secondly, federal government in terms of divided responsibility among national, state and local political decision-making was meant to reflect functions needing to be performed at different horizons of importance to the citizens, and to keep government control and decision-making as close to those citizens as those different governmental tasks allowed.
Freedom Needs Habits of the Heart and Mind
But pieces of paper upon which are written the administrative duties and responsibilities of different levels and branches of government is not sufficient in itself to maintain a society of individuals secure and protected in their rights. As the famous French social philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville, pointed out in his Democracy in America, written after his extended visit to the United States in the 1830s, the free society is more than elections, and legislative procedures, or a written constitution. It is based upon “habits of the heart” and “character of the mind.”
That is, it is dependent upon a wide network of “structures of shared meaning” and values among the members of a society. They must believe in human worth, that is, the dignity of each individual, and a respect for and tolerance of the diversity of men’s dreams, wishes, hopes and values. And most importantly, that each and every individual has a “natural” or inviolable right to their own life, to be lived peacefully and honestly in whatever manner and form that the individual considers most likely to bring him meaning, happiness and fulfillment of the goals and purposes that he sets for himself.
There must be a shared view that human relationships should be based on voluntary consent and mutual agreement. Coercion and physical threat or intimidation in any and all forms should form no part in the patterns of human association and relationship. And that government’s own use of force should be reserved and restricted to its “negative” application, that is, always and only in defensively protecting people’s rights to their life, liberty and honestly acquired property and not any types of violation or weakening of these rights.
There needs to be at least an implicit agreement among the members of such a free society that what a man has honestly and peacefully earned through his mental and physical labors and his voluntary exchanges with others is rightfully his. Accumulated wealth and income, as long as it has been honesty and peacefully acquired, is not a mark of injustice or unfairness or unethical conduct, but rather an indication of the industry, energy, and successful effort in improving an individual’s own circumstances through mutually beneficial production, trade and association with others.
And more broadly, there needs to be a spirit and sense that whatever differences may exist among individuals due to accident of birth or social and historical circumstances, the idea and ideal is that each person is looked at, judged and evaluated as an individual in terms of his distinct qualities, characteristics, talents, abilities and achievements as an human being and not as a member of a collective group. Political and economic individualism should be matched with ethical and social individualism as we look at, interact and treat others in the community of mankind.
These principles and ideals when shared in common, again to use de Tocqueville’s phrases, the “habits of the heart” and “character of the mind,” gives unity to the members of a free society, while at the same time providing the respect, tolerance and “space” for diversities of among men as expressed in their individual and social interactive goals, purposes, ends, values and meanings for life and happiness.
American History an Incomplete Reflection of Its Own Ideals
America, of course, has never fully lived up to this conception of man, society and government. Slavery deprived humanity to millions during the first half of the country’s history; this was followed by legally imposed discrimination laws and practices that contemptuously treated those who were equal citizens of the nation as less than fully human as peaceful associative relationships and economic opportunities were closed to them in the name of explicit and implicit racial inequality.
Government, even in the early days of the nation’s history, never confined itself within the constraint of protecting rights rather than plundering them. Corruption, political special interest pandering, and misuse of the fiscal purse strings resulted in state and federal regulations and favoritism benefiting some at the expense of many others. Tariffs, subsidies, land grants, monopolies, and financial contracts awarding government money to companies undertaking “internal improvements” (public works projects in the more modern language) assured that the peacefully and productively earned income and wealth of many were politically transferred into the hands of those close to and influential over those holding political office.
However Incomplete, American Practice Gave Liberty to Multitudes
But however imperfect and hypocritical in practice, it remained nonetheless the fact that the idea and ideal of political, economic and social individualism were more believed in and implemented in the United States in the nineteenth century and into the 20th century than anywhere else on the face of the globe.
It generated a spirit of optimism, hope and effort that fostered multitudes to live and experience the fruits of those ideas and ideals to a degree never known before in human history. It gave Americans – even with the contradictions, inconsistencies and corruptions – a higher standard of living and a greater degree of actual individual freedom and opportunity than in any other part of the world.
The older or “classical” liberalism of the nineteenth century had called for the end of these various political privileges and forms of favoritism, that is, to abolish these remaining governmental inconsistences and exceptions. And it called for the social spirit of individualism and free market competition to overcome those attitudes and actions by people in contradiction with a full respect and tolerance of the dignity of men as individuals.
But before these forces of liberal individualism could complete the liberation of humanity from plunder and prejudice, a counter-revolution emerged, a counter-revolution of new forms of collectivism, statism, and socialism. They rejected the individualist ideal and insisted that the group and the tribe came before the individual human being; that any person’s sense of identity and position in society was determined by and dependent upon into what “social class,” or racial group, or nation-state the individual was born and lived.
Any hardship, disappointment and sense of mistreatment or frustration experienced by an individual was the result of the exploitive, or oppressive, or “socially unjust” actions of those in some other social or racial group or nation-state other than the one to which he belonged.
Individual responsibility was replaced by group status and privilege. Rights were not something unalienable and belonging to individuals; instead, “rights” were “entitlements” belonging to members of a categorized group, and for the provision of which individuals in other groups were obligated to provide and supply.
The idea of a common humanity among all men as individuals was slowly but surely replaced with the notion of group “identities” based upon which the individual’s sense of self-esteem or social position and belonging was dependent.
Politics and the political process was not a restrained and limited institutional method for finding the most effective and efficient ways of delineating, protecting and enforcing the individual rights of each citizen to their life, liberty and honestly acquired property. Instead, politics and the political process was conceived as the arena in which the power of the government was captured and used to “redress grievances” by using legal force to redistribute wealth, reorder social and other status positions of privilege and favor for the benefit of “deserving” groups in place of “undeserving” groups.
Freedoms Curtailed for Controlled Entitlement
Freedom of speech and the press, the right of peaceful assembly and association were no longer considered the avenues through which each individual’s right to express, share, debate and manifest his ideas and ideals was guaranteed by limiting government’s ability to interfere with such peaceful acts and interactions.
Instead, freedom of speech and the press and freedom of association came to be considered tools of intellectual and ideological control and exploitation by the “powerful” against the social, racial or gender “under-privileged.” And as such, the spoken and written word and any forms and types of permitted association had to be modified, molded and controlled to assure collective social, racial and gender equity and balanced access and privilege through governmental regulation and planning.
Collectivist “Rights” Through Political Action
The individual was, now, portrayed as too weak and inconsequential to find his own way to betterment and happiness in such a setting of social, racial and gender oppression. Personal liberty and free association in the marketplace and other voluntary settings were declared to be “illusionary” notions of freedom.
“True” freedom and opportunity could only come through the advancement of the social, racial and gender group to which one belonged in a political competition for entitlement “rights.” In this circumstance, each group had to have leaders and leaderships that expressed and represented the “real” and “just” interests of the group for which they claimed the right, duty and responsibility to speak and act.
This road from political, economic and social individualism to collectivist identity and privilege through group competition for political power is what has brought us to our current political crisis as captured in this year’s presidential campaign.
Your job security is uncertain? Your income has not increased the way you had wished and desired? Your social status and acceptance by others has not matched your expectations and personal sense of deservedness? The ideas you want accepted by others and the actions and attitudes you want others to follow and express have not materialized?
Then the task is to use the government to give you what you want, and to force and compel others in society to conform to your vision of the good, right and just. If mouths have to be shut when you consider them to be speaking evil or “hurtful” words, if people must be coerced to act in the way you want them to, if wealth and opportunities of life must be redistributed by government’s police power so you and others in our group may have what you consider that which you rightful deserve, then so be it. That is the means and methods of “true” democracy, since if you and your group do not use government to get what you want, some other groups will do so at your expense.
This is the new America system: a democratic politics of power, plunder and privilege in a perpetual social conflict of social classes, racial groups and gender identities. It is a system in which the individual seems weak, small and powerless; and needing “leaders” who will use politics to bring them to the social, economic, racial and gender “promised lands” that are laid before the constituent-voters, if only this or that political candidate is elected to set the world right for the benefit of a coalition of collective groups who want certain things and to which they are told they are entitled.
This the outcome of the journey from liberal individualism to political collectivism that has placed before us Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and a cast of other remaining candidates who sometimes speak the language of liberty but do so interwoven with inconsistencies and contradictions that leave the message of freedom with no fully principled spokesman in this year’s race to the White House.
The path back to and forward towards liberty, therefore, will have to be journeyed far beyond the outcome of this November’s election.