Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

February 21, 2008

Are Americans Tired Of Individual Liberty ?

by Doug Mataconis

David Strom asks the question at Town Hall:

Liberty has always been a tougher sell than many of us assume. We all want the freedom to do as we like, but few of us are as committed to allowing others to act contrary to our notion of right and wrong. Majorities have always sought and often found ways to impose their views upon minorities. The most vocal minorities have often been successful in imposing their will on the majority, at least for a time.

So there is nothing new about threats to Individual liberty being a daily part of our lives. What is new is that the institutional barriers to regulating our daily lives have effectively broken down. It took a Constitutional Amendment to pass prohibition of alcohol (and repeal it). Who today expects a Constitutional fight over smoking, obesity, trans-fats, or any of the myriad personal issues now under the purview of government control?

America was founded on the belief that government power should be strictly limited, because the alternative to limited power was unlimited power. The framers of the Constitution were rightly concerned that without strict institutional barriers to the expansion of government powers there would eventually be no barriers at all. Power, in any form, longs to be absolute.

Unfortunately, the concept of limited government is becoming an anachronism in today’s America.

As Strom points out, the history of America over the past year has been replete with increases in the size and scope of government, but it’s happened in a way that will make dismantling Leviathan difficult:

Americans have made a bargain with the devil. Dispensing with the idea of limited government in realm of benefits has meant dispensing with the idea of any limits to government power at all. Once we accept the notion that government should ensure that our pursuit of happiness succeeds, we have accepted the notion that government has the right to define what a happy life should look like.

We can call this trend the encroachment of the “nanny state,” which it is, or the spread of “liberal fascism,” which it also is. But it is also the inevitable result of Americans’ increasing desire to have government guarantee that more and more aspects of our lives turn out all right.

Which is why there’s really only one way to tackle the state:

Limiting government power requires limiting the benefits that government can bestow upon us, and right now that seems a bridge too far for some Americans.

The question is, absent a crisis that brings the whole system crashing down around itself (and, for many reasons I don’t think waiting for an Atlas Shrugged-type collapse makes sense), how do we convince the American people that the state is not their friend ?

H/T: Virginia Virtucon

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  • http://www.orderhotlunch.com Jeff Molby

    Education.

    We need to lay a ton of groundwork before we can even think about “selling” anything. We consider ourselves The Land of the Free and yet the vast majority of Americans have come to believe that our rights come from the Constitution. Libertarianism simply doesn’t make sense until you correct those basic mistakes.

  • http://dangerouslyidealistic.blogspot.com/ UCrawford

    I think Jeff said it. The majority of people generally want individual freedom, but I think they often need to be educated on the finer points of that, such as how using the government to uphold “morality” (as opposed to individual rights) tends to be a very bad idea for everyone. Or how things the government gives you for “free” to make your life better always end up hurting someone else. Or how people in other countries hate our government getting involved in their lives as much as we would if their government did it to us.

    Selling libertarianism isn’t impossible or even necessarily tough, because I honestly believe that libertarianism has obvious benefits in it for just about everybody, but it’s also about finding the right balance of self-interest and empathy in your pitch. Too often the argument goes too far to one side or the other (bleeding heart liberal/sociopathic conservative) and you end up alienating people who might otherwise be very receptive if you just highlight the components that are important to them as well. Too often proponents of individual freedom are more interested in preaching to the choir than bringing people on board (something I’m just as guilty of at times as anyone) and that often works against us (the Paulestinians being a prime example).

  • http://www.1000needles.blogspot.com David Wilson

    I hate to be a cynic…but I really do think it will take some drastic calamity for people to change what has become socially ingrained politics. The current political culture is self-proliferating and will continue to do so. We should still try, and education is an important factor (one in which we cannot succeed if education is going to be kept in the realm of state power. To not try to continue the fight would be unethical, although if the Republicans lose the race, and the next president brings new nanny state programs/expansions as well as inherit a poor economy, we might be fortunate enough to see a change to paleoconservative values, which would offer a window for a propogation of the Libertarian manifesto.

  • Tom G

    David –

    Even if the Republicans WIN, the next president will STILL bring new nanny state programs and expansions.

    You know it’s true.

    George Bush put an end forever to ANY serious claim that the Republican Party can be counted on to reduce government cost or regulatory excess.

  • http://www.orderhotlunch.com Jeff Molby

    We should still try, and education is an important factor (one in which we cannot succeed if education is going to be kept in the realm of state power.

    Yeah, it can succeed, we just have to be creative. A full-frontal assault on the status quo will gain access to classrooms (or any other mainstream medium of education, for that matter), but we if avoid going directly against the grain, we can subvert statism in the same manner they subverted freedom.

  • http://www.orderhotlunch.com Jeff Molby

    *will never gain access

  • http://www.belowthebeltway.com Doug Mataconis

    Education is something that libertarians have been doing for a long time.

    The Foundation for Economic Education was among the earliest groups that engaged in this type of effort. Their magazine, The Freeman, has been continually published since the late 1940s.

    Reason and the Reason Foundation have been around for about 30 years, and Cato have been around for almost the same amount of time.

  • http://hathor-sekhmet.blogspot.com VRB

    Most people have the government they want. Has it occured to libertarians that it is something else that make them desire government differently than others. Ask any person and they would be on the side of indiviual liberty and wouldn’t see the contradictions you would see. Perhaps the wirnig of their synapes or as simple as someone liking the color blue. There many varibles that have to be true, if one were to rely on reason to define libertarian philosphy as true.

  • http://hathor-sekhmet.blogspot.com VRB

    I can see a “libertain government” leading to a totalitarian society as any progressive philosophy. Purity and perfection is so much a part of the libertarin personality, I don’t see toleration being borne of this.

  • http://hathor-sekhmet.blogspot.com VRB

    Sorry about the misspellings.

  • oilnwater

    “becoming” an anachronism?? right, it’s been an anachronism for probably 2x my own lifetime.

  • http://www.orderhotlunch.com Jeff Molby

    Education is something that libertarians have been doing for a long time.

    With a colossal lack of success. Methods need to be reevaluated.

  • http://pith-n-vinegar.blogspot.com/ Quincy

    Freedom is ethereal, welfare state benefits are tangible. Given the choice, most people would vote for the tangible.

    If proponents of freedom are to make any headway against statism, we have to find a way to make the costs of the welfare state as tangible as the benefits.

  • http://www.belowthebeltway.com Doug Mataconis

    Quincy,

    Damn payroll withholding.

    Milton Friedman’s one bad idea.

  • http://dangerouslyidealistic.blogspot.com/ UCrawford

    Doug,

    Milton Friedman’s one bad idea.

    Well that and his argument that open immigration isn’t feasible because of the existence of a welfare state…an argument that’s now being used to justify the continuation of the welfare state. Still, only two horrible mistakes in 90-some years is a pretty impressive record.

  • oilnwater

    heh, Friedman was mistaken on a whole lot more than that:

    “Enter, The Monetarists

    The best known of all Monetarists was Milton Friedman, of course, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1976 “for his achievement in the fields of consumption analysis, monetary history and theory and for his demonstration of the complexity of stabilization policy.”

    In Friedman’s book, Monetary History of the United States 1867-1960, he popularized the monetarist mantra that, “inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.” Therefore, according to Friedman, the “trick” to maintaining an acceptable rate of inflation was simply for the central bank to closely monitor the economy and use central bank policy tools to keep the supply and demand for money at equilibrium.

    Monetarists, as you can see, have no problem with fiat currency. Instead, monetarists view an artificial inflation of the money supply as “ok” as long as it does not become excessive. In other words, pumping up the money supply is fine, as long as you do it slowly… perhaps so slowly that people don’t notice. ”

    http://www.minyanville.com/articles/index.php?a=15995

    odd, I would have thought Friedman was proximal to Von Mises, guess not.

  • http://www.orderhotlunch.com Jeff Molby

    Well that and his argument that open immigration isn’t feasible because of the existence of a welfare state

    It isn’t feasible. I know you’re ok with the resulting collapse, but that’s a separate issue.

  • http://dangerouslyidealistic.blogspot.com/ UCrawford

    oilnwater,

    odd, I would have thought Friedman was proximal to Von Mises, guess not.

    Not all reputable economists have to agree on every subject I suppose.

  • oilnwater

    yeah but the odd thing to me here is that a libertarian-championed economist is pretty much diametrically opposed to Mises on the topic of money. that just really struck me, and funny that the article came out today on minyanville explaining this bit.

  • http://dangerouslyidealistic.blogspot.com/ UCrawford

    Jeff,

    It isn’t feasible. I know you’re ok with the resulting collapse, but that’s a separate issue.

    No, the problem I have is that the argument is actually transposed and manipulated, usually by people trying to obscure the real point. The point isn’t supposed to be that open immigration is non-feasible because we have a welfare state because people are still going to come here illegally as long as there are jobs to be had, whether we restrict immigration or not…the point is supposed to be that the welfare state isn’t feasible for a free society because it turns positive and essential things (like immigration) into negatives and gives the state an opening to expand its power.

    As libertarians we’re not supposed to save ourselves from the consequences of having a welfare state…we want it to collapse because that’s what’s supposed to happen. You can’t convince people that statism is a bad thing if you’re making policy arguments that hide the consequences of that statism from the public…everyone’s going to assume that you’re just asking them to make changes only for the sake of change.

  • http://www.orderhotlunch.com Jeff Molby

    No, the problem I have is that the argument is actually transposed and manipulated, usually by people trying to obscure the real point.

    As libertarians we’re not supposed to save ourselves from the consequences of having a welfare state…we want it to collapse

    You’re not questioning my motives and orthodoxy, are you? Let’s not go there.

    You want it to collapse. I, being aware that a collapse is probable, want to try to avoid the collapse through an orderly dismantling of the welfare state. I realize it’s a longshot, but I think it’s worth pursuing; if you don’t, that’s your prerogative.

    You can’t convince people that statism is a bad thing if you’re making policy arguments that hide the consequences of that statism from the public

    I’m not trying to hide the consequences. I know damn well that falling off the Empire State Building is fatal and I spread the message at every opportunity. That doesn’t mean I want it to happen. “I told you so” is pretty hollow, especially since the masses would probably learn the wrong damn lesson anyways. There’s already a surplus of examples of statism’s failures and still we pursue it at a breakneck pace.

    No, I want to do everything possible to back away from the ledge and take the stairs back to the ground floor.

  • http://doublethinkblog.blogspot.com Jono

    Selling libertarianism should be as simple as pointing out that the benefits provided by government are small compared to the massive costs.

    But its not proving as simple as that. People are very partisan and easily duped. They will vote for a new fresh face who makes the same old promises. They often think – if only we had the right leadership, than all the benefits of big government would be magnified.

    So for me, the best strategy is to take a long term historical approach. Point out how the size of the federal government has ballooned in the last century, the size of tax revenues, the pages of regulations we have to comply with, the inherent problems in socialised education, medicine, the repeated failures of the war on drugs and the war on poverty.

    I think the war on drugs is the best example, how long should a rational person want to keep trying it ? Yet both parties persist in using half of the police resources and most of our prison space in fighting the drug trade.

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany

    oilnwater,

    Monetarists, as you can see, have no problem with fiat currency. Instead, monetarists view an artificial inflation of the money supply as “ok” as long as it does not become excessive. In other words, pumping up the money supply is fine, as long as you do it slowly… perhaps so slowly that people don’t notice.

    And what’s wrong with that? A fiat currency, as long as inflation is low and stable, is not a problem. If people are expecting 2-3% inflation per year, it gets built into their expectation of society in general, built into their plans for asking bosses for raises, built into their spending/buying plans, built into the underlying interest rates for people lending & borrowing money, etc.

    The problem, then, lies elsewhere. The problem with a fiat currency lies in the fact that the government can’t be trusted to keep inflation low and stable when they realize they have a hidden printing press at their disposal. Their spending habits outweigh their ability to tax the populace, so they increase the rate of inflation to keep up.

    That doesn’t change the fact that inflation IS a monetary phenomenon, nor does it make a fiat currency unworkable in theory. The problem comes when incentives make it unworkable in practice due to government not following his mandate to keep inflation low and stable.

  • http://doublethinkblog.blogspot.com Jono

    What if the government is dishonestly reporting inflation, as some half-baked metric called CPI which excludes food and energy ?

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany

    Jono,

    That is obviously a problem, where they act as if the result of inflation (higher prices) is the cause of inflation, while disregarding the fact that it’s the increase in the money supply that is causing the higher prices.

  • oilnwater

    i would like to say that the relationship between money and government is far too close and that is part of what the essence of Mises theory of monetary policy and fiat currency. Friedman was really (as a monetarist) in favor of a Federal Reserve operating as it does today.

    I, speaking only for myself, say that as i see the FR reducing rates to a target of %2 and probably lower, possible to 0, as a reprinting of money which re-capitalizes corporate/govt structures that finance much of the impetus regarding the GWOT and regarding energy.

    there are many degrees of “capitalism.” and ‘free-market’ as a descriptor is debatable within itself. but supporting the idea of competing currencies seems to be capable of thwarting govt spending.

  • oilnwater

    also, supporting competing currency, no matter the form would necessarily get rid of much of the uniform federal tax codes that ensure any level of federal spending is immediately enacted on every point of taxation.

    i hate to sound like an extremist, but taxation will in fact be a real flashpoint in any struggle to change anything regarding our well being. and that point of opposing certain taxes will indeed come to a head as state revenues fall short as they already are.

  • http://thelibertypapers.org/ Brad Warbiany

    oilnwater,

    Believe me, you won’t get any argument from me when you discuss things like competing currencies, nor will I defend the actions of the federal reserve.

    My point is purely theoretical. A properly-managed fiat currency is not dangerous.

    The key words there are properly-managed. Nothing our federal government does is properly managed. Thus, while a responsible government might be trusted with a fiat currency, “responsible government” is in fact an oxymoron.

  • UCrawford

    Jeff,

    You’re not questioning my motives and orthodoxy, are you?

    Nope…I’ve never really questioned your motives or orthodoxy either. I’m just saying that Friedman’s argument has been hijacked to make a case against immigration in favor of a welfare state and I doubt he would approve.

    I, being aware that a collapse is probable, want to try to avoid the collapse through an orderly dismantling of the welfare state.

    You’re operating under the assumption that a politician will take “free” money away from his voting constituency if he isn’t forced to. You apparently have a much higher opinion of politicians than I do…which is an impressive show of faith considering that even when the GOP controlled Congress and the White House they never seriously tried to dismantle the welfare state.

    I know damn well that falling off the Empire State Building is fatal and I spread the message at every opportunity. That doesn’t mean I want it to happen.

    You apparently see the collapse of the welfare state as something that would be fatal to our country. I don’t…I suspect that before it gets to that point our politicians will be forced to make a choice of who to screw over in order to keep us solvent (because they’ll have no other option). And realizing that poor people who live on welfare are much less likely to donate money to political campaigns than the people who actually pay for welfare I have a pretty good idea on which group’s going to get the shaft and be forced to go out and get themselves a McJobbie Job.

    The point being, politicians don’t like to make tough calls unless it’s in their self-interest to make tough calls, and usually the only time it’s in their self-interest to make tough calls is when they don’t really have any other choice (as Winston Churchill once noted).

    I’m not trying to hide the consequences.

    Wasn’t saying that was your intent. But trying to restrict immigration to keep the welfare state solvent is hiding the consequences of the welfare state from the public.

    I want to do everything possible to back away from the ledge and take the stairs back to the ground floor.

    Again, that’s assuming that a majority of politicians are willing to do something that they perceive will be politically unpopular with their voters and may cost them their jobs…which they won’t so long as they think there are other options on the table.

  • http://www.orderhotlunch.com Jeff Molby

    I’m just saying that Friedman’s argument has been hijacked to make a case against immigration in favor of a welfare state and I doubt he would approve.

    If you’re pointing that at me, it’s still a strawman. I am not in favor of a welfare state. I merely accept that one exists and I believe that the ideal way to dispose of it is gradually. I seek practical ways to reach that ideal and they involve the temporary compromises of our ideals. It’s cool that you favor a different approach, but please don’t mischaracterize my position.

    You’re operating under the assumption that a politician will take “free” money away from his voting constituency if he isn’t forced to.

    Again, that’s assuming that a majority of politicians are willing to do something that they perceive will be politically unpopular with their voters and may cost them their jobs

    Well, yeah. If you were in office, wouldn’t you try to dismantle the state? I would. I’m assuming that there’s some small chance that our movement might actually succeed. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t even bother showing up here.

    You apparently see the collapse of the welfare state as something that would be fatal to our country. I don’t…

    Not literally fatal, but yeah, there would be a very serious economic disruption involving mass poverty, the likes of which this country has never seen.

    I refer you back to Cato’s Menu of Pain. Any of the options, chosen immediately, would seriously hamper economic growth for decades. But they’re still not serious about addressing; we’re looking at another 3-5 Presidential terms before the problem comes within the average politician’s scope of concern.

    By then, the addition of 20 million (very) unskilled laborers will not be enough to solve the problem. The rest of the gap will have to be made up through a decreased standard of living. Whether it comes from increased taxes, decreased retirement benefits, or inflation is irrelevant; all of the choices are very bad.

    Wasn’t saying that was your intent. But trying to restrict immigration to keep the welfare state solvent is hiding the consequences of the welfare state from the public.

    It may seem like I’m nitpicking, but there’s a substantive difference between our language. I’m not hiding the consequences. I’m delaying them while seeking to avoid them altogether.

  • http://dangerouslyidealistic.blogspot.com/ UCrawford

    Jeff,

    If you’re pointing that at me,

    I’m not pointing it at you…if I were pointing it at you I would say “You, Jeff Molby, have hijacked Milton Friedman’s argument to support a welfare state and keep out the immigrants”. Jeez, man, paranoid much? :)

    Seriously, if I’m criticizing you directly I’ll let you know…my comment was meant to attack the argument itself because I consider it at best an invalid rationalization and at worst a cover for racism (and no, I didn’t just accuse you of being a fool or a racist).

    Not literally fatal, but yeah, there would be a very serious economic disruption involving mass poverty, the likes of which this country has never seen.

    Really? Because I seriously doubt that we’ve “never” seen that sort of thing before.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_depression

    I refer you back to Cato’s Menu of Pain.

    I think you’ve misinterpreted Cato’s Menu of Pain.

    http://www.cato.org/pubs/journal/cj24n1-2/cj24n1-2-7.pdf

    The results of cutting back as Cato prescribed would be painful, but not fatal. And they are inevitable, and the longer you wait, the more painful and longer lasting the results of those cuts will eventually be. And as long as the politicians think they have any way not to pull the trigger on those cuts, they’ll happy pass the buck to their successsors. So I’m proposing that we get it over with sooner, so the short-term damage is less and the long-term benefits will arrive sooner.

    By then, the addition of 20 million (very) unskilled laborers will not be enough to solve the problem. The rest of the gap will have to be made up through a decreased standard of living. Whether it comes from increased taxes, decreased retirement benefits, or inflation is irrelevant; all of the choices are very bad.

    Given the choice between a) increased taxes, b) decreased retirement benefits (in which I include Medicare), or c) inflation, I opt for “b”, since it’s the only option that puts the burden on the people who deserve to shoulder it…those who’ve benefited unfairly from a welfare system based on theft. I also consider open borders to be part of the solution to the problem since immigrant labor helps to reduce the price of goods and services (and provides more openings for skilled workers) thereby helping to offset somewhat the inflation that will likely also result:

    http://money.cnn.com/2006/05/01/news/economy/immigration_economy/index.htm

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