I’m finding it ever more difficult to describe to people the kind of world that the Mises Institute would like to see, with the type of political order that Mises and the entire classical-liberal tradition believed would be most beneficial for mankind.
It would appear that the more liberty we lose, the less people are able to imagine how liberty might work. It is a fascinating thing to behold.
This list could go on and on. But the problem is that the capacity to imagine freedom – the very source of life for civilization and humanity itself – is being eroded in our society and culture. The less freedom we have, the less people are able to imagine what freedom feels like, and therefore the less they are willing to fight for its restoration.
This has profoundly affected the political culture. We’ve lived through regime after regime, since at least the 1930s, in which the word freedom has been a rhetorical principle only, even as each new regime has taken away ever more freedom.
Now we have a president who doesn’t even bother to pay lip service to the idea of freedom. In fact, I don’t think that the idea has occurred to Obama at all. If the idea of freedom has occurred to him, he must have rejected it as dangerous, or unfair, or unequal, or irresponsible, or something along those lines.
To him, and to many Americans, the goal of government is to be an extension of the personal values of those in charge. I saw a speech in which Obama was making a pitch for national service, the ghastly idea that government should steal 2 years of every young person’s life for slave labor and to inculcate loyalty to leviathan, with no concerns about setting back a young person’s professional and personal life.Now we have a president who doesn’t even bother to pay lip service to the idea of freedom. In fact, I don’t think that the idea has occurred to Obama at all. If the idea of freedom has occurred to him, he must have rejected it as dangerous, or unfair, or unequal, or irresponsible, or something along those lines.
How did Obama justify his support of this idea? He said that when he was a young man, he learned important values from his period of community service. It helped form him and shape him. It helped him understand the troubles of others and think outside his own narrow experience.
Well, I’m happy for him. But he chose this path voluntarily. It is a gigantic leap to go from personal experience to forcing a vicious national plan on the entire country. His presumption here is really taken from the playbook of the totalitarian state: the father-leader will guide his children-citizens in the paths of righteousness, so that they all will become god like the leader himself.
To me, this comment illustrates one of two things. It could show that Obama is a potential dictator in the mold of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, for the presumptions he puts on exhibit here are just as frightening as any imagined by the worst tyrants in human history. Or, more plausibly, it may be an illustration of Hannah Arendt’s view that totalitarianism is merely an application of the principle of the “banality of evil.”
With this phrase, Arendt meant to draw attention to how people misunderstand the origin and nature of evil regimes. Evil regimes are not always the product of fanatics, paranoids, and sociopaths, though, of course, power breeds fanaticism, paranoia, and sociopathology. Instead, the total state can be built by ordinary people who accept a wrong premise concerning the role of the state in society.
If the role of the state is to ferret out evil thoughts and bad ideas, it must necessarily become totalitarian. If the goal of the state is that all citizens must come to hold the same values as the great leader, whether economic, moral, or cultural, the state must necessarily become totalitarian. If the people are led to believe that scarce resources are best channeled in a direction that producers and consumers would not choose on their own, the result must necessarily be central planning.
On the face of it, many people today do not necessarily reject these premises. No longer is the idea of a state-planned society seen as frightening. What scares people more today is the prospect of a society without a plan, which is to say a society of freedom. But here is the key difference between authority in everyday life – such as that exercised by a parent or a teacher or a pastor or a boss – and the power of the state: the state’s edicts are always and everywhere enforced at the point of a gun.
It is interesting how little we think about that reality – one virtually never hears that truth stated so plainly in a college classroom, for example – but it is the core reality. Everything done by the state is ultimately done by means of aggression, which is to say violence or the threat of violence against the innocent. The total state is really nothing but the continued extension of these statist means throughout every nook and cranny of economic and social life. Thus does the paranoia, megalomania, and fanaticism of the rulers become deadly dangerous to everyone.
It begins in a seemingly small error, a banality. But, with the state, what begins in banality ends in bloodshed.
Let me give another example of the banality of evil. Several decades ago, some crackpots had the idea that mankind’s use of fossil fuels had a warming effect on the weather. Environmentalists were pretty fired up by the notion. So were many politicians. Economists were largely tongue-tied because they had long ago conceded that there are some public goods that the market can’t handle; surely the weather is one of them.
Enough years go by and what do you have? Politicians from all over the world, every last one of them a huckster of some sort only pretending to represent their nations, gathering in a posh resort in Europe to tax the world and plan its weather down to precise temperatures half a century from now.
In the entire history of mankind, there has not been a more preposterous spectacle than this!
I don’t know if it is tragedy or farce that the meeting on global warming came to an end with the politicians racing home to deal with snowstorms and record cold temperatures.
I draw attention to this absurdity to make a more general point. What seems to have escaped the current generation is the notion that was once called freedom. Let me be clear on what I mean by freedom. I mean a social or political condition in which people exercise their own choices concerning what they do with their lives and property. People are permitted to trade and exchange goods and services without impediment or violent interference. They can associate or not associate with anyone of their own choosing. They can arrange their own lives and businesses. They can build, move, innovate, save, invest, and consume on terms that they themselves define.
What will be the results? We cannot predict them, any more than I can know when everyone in this room will wake up tomorrow morning, or what you will have for breakfast. Human choice works this way. There are as many patterns of human choice as there are humans who make choices.
The only real question we should ask is whether the results will be orderly – consistent with peace and prosperity – or chaotic, and thereby at war with human flourishing. The great burden born by the classical liberal tradition, stretching from medieval times to our own, is to make believable the otherwise improbable claim that liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of orderliness.
To be sure, that generation of Americans that seceded from British rule in the late 18th century took the imperative of liberty as a given. They had benefitted from centuries of intellectual work by true liberals who had demonstrated that government does nothing for society but divide and loot people in big and small ways. They had come to believe that the best way to rule a society is not to rule it at all, or, possibly, rule it with the people’s consent in only the most minimal way.
Today, this social order sounds like chaos, not anything we dare try lest we be overrun with terrorists and drug fiends, amidst massive social, economic, and cultural collapse. To me this is very interesting. It is the cultural condition that comes about in the absence of experience with freedom. More precisely, it comes about when people have no notion of the relationship between cause and effect in human affairs.
One might think that it would be enough for most people to log-on to the World Wide Web, browse any major social-networking site or search engine, and gain direct experience with the results of human freedom. No government agency created Facebook and no government agency manages its day-to-day operation. It is the same with Google. Nor did a bureaucratic agency invent the miracle of the iPhone, or the utopian cornucopia of products available at the Walmart down the street.
Meanwhile, look at what the state gives us. The department of motor vehicles. The post office. Spying on our emails and phone calls. Full-body scans at the airport. Restrictions on water use. The court system. Wars. Taxes. Inflation. Business regulations. Public schools. Social Security. The CIA. And another ten thousand failed programs and bureaucracies, the reputation of which is no good no matter who you talk to. Now, one might say, oh sure, the free market gives us the dessert but the government gives us the vegetables to keep us healthy. That view does not account for the horrific reality that more than 100 million people were slaughtered by the state in the 20th century alone, not including its wars.
This is only the most visible cost. As Frédéric Bastiat emphasized, the enormity of the costs of the state can only be discovered in considering its unseen costs: the inventions not brought to market, the businesses not opened, the people whose lives were cut short so that they could not enjoy their full potential, the wealth not used for productive purposes but rather taxed away, the capital accumulation through savings not undertaken because the currency was destroyed and the interest rate held near zero, among an infinitely expandable list of unknowns.
To understand these costs requires intellectual sophistication. To understand the more basic and immediate point that markets work and the state does not, needs less sophistication, but it still requires some degree of understanding of cause and effect. If we lack this understanding, we go through life accepting whatever exists as a given. If there is wealth, there is wealth, and there is nothing else to know. If there is poverty, there is poverty, and we can know no more about it.
It was to address this deep ignorance that the discipline of economics was born in Spain and Italy, the homes of the first industrial revolutions, in the 14th and 15th centuries, and came to the heights of scientific exposition in the 16th century, to be expanded and elaborated upon in the 18th century in England and Germany, in France in the 19th century, finally achieving its fullest presentation in Austria and America in the late-19th and 20th centuries.
And what did economics contribute to human sciences? What was the value that it added? It demonstrated the orderliness of the material world through a careful look at the operation of the price system and the forces that work to organize the production and distribution of scarce goods.
Its main lesson was taught again and again for centuries: government cannot improve on the results of human action achieved through voluntary trade and association. This was its contribution. This was its argument. This was its warning to every would-be social planner: your dreams of domination must be curbed.
In effect, this was a message of freedom, one that inspired revolution after revolution, each of which stemmed from the conviction that humankind would be better off in the absence of rule than in its tyrannical presence. But consider that what had to come before the real revolutions: there had to be this intellectual work that prepared the field of battle, the epic struggle that lasted centuries and continues to this day, between the nation-state and the market economy.
Make no mistake: it is this battle’s outcome that is the most serious obstacle to the establishment and preservation of freedom. The political order in which we live is but an extension of the capacities of our collective cultural imagination. Once we stop imagining freedom, it can vanish, and people won’t even recognize that it is gone. Once it is gone, people can’t imagine that they can or should get it back.
I’m reminded of the experience of an economist associated with the Mises Institute who was invited to Kazakhstan after the fall of the Soviet Union. He was to advise them on a transition to free markets. He talked to officials about privatization and stock markets and monetary reform. He suggested no regulations on business start-ups. The officials were fascinated. They had become convinced of the general case for free enterprise. They understood that socialism means that officials were poor too.
The economist listened to this point and kept waiting for the objection. He nodded his head that this is precisely what people will do. After some time, the government officials became more explicit. They said that they cannot simply step aside and let people move anywhere they want to move. This would mean losing track of the population. It could cause overpopulation in some areas and desolation in others. If the state went along with this idea of free movement, it might as well shut down completely, for it would effectively be relinquishing any and all control over people.And yet, an objection was raised. If people are permitted to open businesses and factories anywhere, and we close state-run factories, how can the state properly plan where people are going to live? After all, people might be tempted to move to places where there are good-paying jobs and away from places where there are no jobs.
And so, in the end, the officials rejected the idea. The entire economic reform movement foundered on the fear of letting people move – a freedom that most everyone in the United States takes for granted, and which hardly ever gives rise to objection.
Now, we might laugh about this, but consider the problem from the point of view of the state. The whole reason you are in office is control. You are there to manage society. What you really and truly fear is that by relinquishing control of people’s movement, you are effectively turning the whole of society over to the wiles of the mob. All order is lost. All security is gone. People make terrible mistakes with their lives. They blame the government for failing to control them. And then what happens? The regime loses power.
In the end, this is what it always comes down to for the state: the preservation of its own power. Everything it does, it does to secure its power and to forestall the diminution of its power. I submit to you that everything else you hear, in the end, is a cover for that fundamental motive.
And yet, this power requires the cooperation of public culture. The rationales for power must convince the citizens. This is why the state must be alert to the status of public opinion. This is also why the state must always encourage fear among the population for what life would be like in the absence of the state.
The political philosopher who did more than anyone else to make this possible was not Marx nor Keynes nor Strauss nor Rousseau. It was the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who laid out a compelling vision of the nightmare of what life is like in the absence of the state. He described such life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The natural society, he wrote, was a society of conflict and strife, a place in which no one is safe.
He was writing during the English civil war, and his message seemed believable. But, of course, the conflicts in his time were not the result of natural society, but rather over the control of leviathan itself. So his theory of causation was skewed by circumstance, akin to watching a shipwreck and concluding that the natural and universal state of man is drowning.
And yet today, Hobbesianism is the common element of both left and right. To be sure, the fears are different, stemming from different sets of political values. The left warns us that if we don’t have leviathan, our front yards will be flooded from rising oceans, big business moguls will rob us blind, the poor will starve, the masses will be ignorant, and everything we buy will blow up and kill us. The right warns that in the absence of leviathan society will collapse in cesspools of immorality lorded over by swarthy terrorists preaching a heretical religion.
The goal of both the left and right is that we make our political choices based on these fears. It doesn’t matter so much which package of fear you choose; what matters is that you support a state that purports to keep your nightmare from becoming a reality.
Is there an alternative to fear? Here is where matters become a bit more difficult. We must begin again to imagine that freedom itself could work. In order to do this, we must learn economics. We must come to understand history better. We must study the sciences of human action to re-learn what Juan de Mariana, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Frédéric Bastiat, Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Henry Hazlitt, Murray N. Rothbard, and the entire liberal tradition understood.
What they knew is the great secret of the ages: society contains within itself the capacity for self-management, and there is nothing that government can do to improve on the results of the voluntary association, exchange, creativity, and choices of every member of the human family.
If you know this lesson, if you believe this lesson, you are part of the great liberal tradition. You are also a threat to the regime, not only the one we live under currently, but every regime all over the world, in every time and place. In fact, the greatest guarantor of liberty is an entire population that is a relentless and daily threat to the regime precisely because they embrace this dream of liberty.
The best and only place to start is with yourself. This is the only person that you can really control in the end. And by believing in freedom yourself, you might have made the biggest contribution to civilization you could possibly make. After that, never miss an opportunity to tell the truth. Sometimes thinking the unthinkable, saying the unsayable, teaching the unteachable, is what makes the difference between bondage and sweet liberty.
The title of this talk is “the Misesian vision.” This was the vision of Ludwig von Mises and Murray N. Rothbard. It is the vision of the Mises Institute. It is the vision of every dissident intellectual who dared to stand up to despotism, in every age.
I challenge you to enter into the great struggle of history, and make sure that your days on this earth count for something truly important. It is this struggle that defines our contribution to this world. Freedom is the greatest gift that you can give yourself, and give all of humanity.
Lewellyn H Rockwell, Jr.
January 26, 2010
Lew Rockwell, former congressional chief of staff to Ron Paul and founder and president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute, is an opponent of the state, its wars and its socialism. He is the editor of The Irrepressible Rothbard , Speaking of Liberty , Man, Economy, and Liberty: Essays in Honor of Murray N. Rothbardand and LewRockwell.com.
Excellent! Thank you.
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libertarianism has much to recommend it. however, i have never seen any libertarian/austrian economist explain how libertarianism deals with externalities. That such phenomena, both negative and positive, exist is beyond reasonable dispute. If my factory and dozens of others pollutes and people 1000 miles away suffer the consequences of acid rain or particulates without being able to assign responsibility to any one polluter, how are the victims of my behavior supposed to obtain redress? private lawsuits are no answer. the recipients of my pollution may not even know i exist, much less be able to differentiate my pollutants from those of dozens, hundreds or thousands of other emitters. perhaps you could devote a post to this subject at some point.
I did read the article and in some areas did agree to what has happen to our country, however you cannot lump every to just wanting freedom. The general public does not know what they want. If you have no regulation then the greed factor takes over. You can see it time after time, payday loans on ever corner, then tv ads, send us your old gold, and one of the biggest is credit card cos that have now reached the usery levels on interest. Do we need protection? No if you are smart but the average person is not smart, they want it all now, you can tell by the home mortgage collapse. That so many are upside down on their homes, and want to get out from under obligations but cannot. I can go on and on but overall our goverment is not working as our founding fathers would have liked, most have sold themselves to outside interest to maintain. their place in office. Until you or others find an answer to some of these questions, I do not think our country can work its way out of this present day level of misfortune.
Nice article. I have just one question. One does one privatize roads as a matter of practicality?
and one further question: how do you deal with externalities?
Jay, dear…you follow Epictetus and say “You’re a filthy external and you’re nothing to me!” Hugs, Linda
Hi, Motley Fool…haven’t seen your name in a while. You privatize roads by ceasing to build them with tax money. When enough drivers want any particular road built, someone will construct or maintain a toll road at far less cost than current taxes, paid for by those who actually use it. Private owners have real motivation to build the best roads they can as inexpensively as possible and maintain them well to prevent further expenses. If you don’t have the skills or machinery to fix a pothole on your street, in a free market system someone will offer that service. There is no reason to filter such funds through layers of bureaucracy and countless opportunities for corruption. For every problem there is a better free-market solution. Most of our difficulties are the direct result of interference from governments. Probably all of them, although I have not gone to the effort to ascribe blame in every instance. You know what caused the melt down in housing: “progressives” insisting that those unquilified be given loans they could not make payments on, although other governmental intervention worsened the situation. Hope that helps. Linda
Dear Jay: What’s wrong with many of the American people is the same thing wrong with the stock market and the housing industry: they need to take their lumps in order to learn not to do dumb things again. When people are paid to behave badly, we have to expect them to behave badly and stupidly. The Great Society may have sounded like a good idea to a lot of people (it didn’t to me) and “no fault” divorce seemed reasonable to most…but the effect of welfare has been to catapult the illegitimacy rate for whites from 5% to 25%, and for blacks from 25% to 75% in slightly over 50 years. How can we expect “families” composed of multiple half-siblings all supported by the government to excell? Obviously, we can’t. We’re into 7th and 8th “generation” welfare. I put that in quotes because traditionally we figure about 25 years to a generation. If all you have to do to get food, an apartment, and many other goodies–and not have to go to school any more–is to get yourself pregnant, that strikes a lot of young teenaged girls as a great deal. Divorce laws should have been loosened very slightly (so embarrassing to have the man’s photo taken with a prostitute to prove adultery) but not to the point where either party can walk away on a whim. Tommy Thompson had excellent results by ending welfare in his state; the recipients went to where they could find easy pickiings. However, who is brave enough to sayy that welfare payments will be reduced by 5% every month for the next 20 months and those who are on welfare must clean offices or pick up trash unless they are truly incapacitated? We have a nation full of children who aren’t going to grow up because they don’t have to grow up.
Thank you for your reply. I avidly read W&G but there is rarely a instance where I lack understanding and hence need too ask questions, so I tend to be quiet.
The reason for my asking is that a couple of weeks ago I decided to consider what things need to be run by government and what can be run privately(better). I concluded that in order to make profits in a private enterprise of road building, toll roads would be the answer. The logistical complexity of different private owners and the inevitable delays caused by payments along your route, never mind the nightmare of civilian housing area roads led me to conclude that this is best left to government.
The building of the roads with private funds was not my objection, the method of repayment was. If you could be willing to provide me with a logical argument why my (vaguely stated but easily extrapolated) reasoning is at fault I would be greatly obliged. Fact of the matter is I want this to be possible, but I could not find the logical path to envision it would be.
Ps. I also imagined that prison populations could be used to fulfill augment the building and maintenance of roads so that they also contribute to society instead of just being a drain.
Dear Motley: What interesting questions you ask. Let’s see if we can work this one out since I am always interested in good arguments for why we don’t need enough government to talk about. I’m supposing that by “logistical complexity of different private owners” you are envisioning a road system similar to the dotted lines demonstrating how a side of beef is cut up: great toll roads some places interspersed with broken asphalt or rutted clay. We’re back to the same proposal: if a bit of road is feasible economically someone will build it and if a smaller road is so little travelled there is no point in replacing it then either (a) private road repair firms will come into being to patch small potholes on side streets or (b) the residents will learn to deal with spreading crunchies of hot asphalt themselves, or (c) those who travel in rare areas will drive slowly until it irritates them enough to fix the road only they use. I live in the country and I am approached frequently about paving the quarter of a mile graveled road up to my house. I engaged the men to pour me a couple of parking pads, but when we get a chughole the hands fill it with gravel. This works fine. The biggest problem isn’t our city streets–particularly in residential areas. It is increasing traffic to, through, and around large cities. This is exacerbated by very poor planning and social engineering. It infuriates me to see “HOV” lanes with very light traffic which are almost certainly unconstitutional via “equal treatment before the law.” At the price of roads it is insane to forfeit anywhere from a third (on 3 lane roads) to a quarter (4 lane roads) of the available capability in a futile attempt to force Americans to car pool. We don’t want to and we aren’t going to. Charles and I found out (to our considerable frustration!) that delays are by no means inevitable…once you can get ON Tollway 8 in Houston! A very few entrances on that have lanes where one can actually pay a toll quite quickly. Their solution is their system of electronic tags that are read automatically; the driver is billed once a month. Every few miles we came across a kiosk that would allow us to purchase a tag, but since we avoid Houston with almost religious fervor we didn’t want one. We were on the toll road at all only to purchase something we had found on Craig’s List. Traffic moved extremely swiftly even in the rare areas with toll booths. We had our choice: travel city streets slowly, buy a pass, or go through the minor inconvenience of paying in segments. Our GPS was having a nervous breakdown! It knew 8 would get us where we wanted to go quickly, but it didn’t grasp that we couldn’t get ON the thing. As for repayment, the builders set the tolls pretty high–but that is frequently a choice. My husband had a saying for those who wanted his services: “There are three parameters. You may choose two of them, but I control the third.” Those were speed, quality, and cost. If you want fast travel on good roads it will cost more–but not anywhere near as much as the current system. If you are willing to sacrifice speed quite frequently a better choice–and faster and less frustrating at peak hours–is using smaller roads. I hope this helps. Regards, Linda
Dear Motley: I disapprove strongly of prisons that cost the equivalent of a college education and teach the inmates skills we would prefer they not learn. My long reply on how to solve the road problems you were concerned about did not post and will probably be caught in the spam filter until Monday. I think chain gangs are a delightful solution, but how is this for a better one? Let’s outsource prisons to Mexico! Mexican jails are very unpleasant places which would give criminals strong incentives not to return and would be far, far less expensive. I’m also a big fan of Sheriff Joe Arpaio. It is clearly wrong to provide luxurious surroundings for those who have broken the law. What lunatic Liberal judge decreed prisoners have to be coddled with more TV channels and far better gym facilities than most Americans can afford? Jails aren’t supposed to be pleasant places. They are intended to punish and deter future bad conduct. However, banning smoking is clearly cruel and unusual punishment! Regards, Linda
Ok, I’ll wait for it to get past the spam filters.
Thanks, Motley, although I see it still isn’t up. You should know my address by now! ranchLT4@aol.com. Hugs, Linda
Quick answer, in case the previous doesn’t one doesn’t post. Suppose that private enterprise builds roads where there is a demand and private enterprise offers road-repair (as it does now.) Where there is little need the locals put up with it, repair their own potholes, or learn to do it themselves. City streets and small back roads tend to remain in good repair.
in reference to your last comment, here you get into the externalities problem again. if i fix the pothole in front of my house, everyone who uses it benefits without it costing them anything. i.e. they freeload on my efforts. since it’s obvious that we can’t put a toll booth in front of every house, how am i to be compensated for my repair? how can every other owner be convinced to do similar repairs?
privatising roads sounds like a great idea until you realize that while the costs have been privatized, the benefit is public–exactly what the gummint’s bailouts accomplished.
I find myself in agreement with Jay. Of course the repair and building for roads can be subcontracted to private companies, but I still don’t see how this is practically solved without taxes.
I asked about roads specifically as I stated before, because I could not envision a private solution.
Of course this does not mean I want government to tar the whole country at my expense.
“The desire for an increase of wealth can be satisfied through exchange, which is the only method possible in a capitalist economy, or by violence and petition as in a militarist society, where the strong acquire by force, the weak by petitioning. ” – Ludwig von Mises
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