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Libertarian Wishful Thinking – OpEd

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As a rule, libertarians incline toward wishful thinking. They constantly pluck little events, statements, and movies from the flow of life and cry out, “Eureka! Libertarianism is on the march!” With some of my friends, this tendency is so marked that I have become amused by its recurrent expression—well, there he goes again!

Some of this tendency springs, I believe, from their immersion in abstract thought and writing. Many of them have read hundreds of books and articles on libertarianism itself or on closely related ideas and personalities. They love to point out that ideology controls everything and to remark that as soon as we can bring a substantial minority over to our way of thinking, the whole social and political apparatus will tip from tyranny into liberty—rather as the old Eastern European satellites of the USSR (seemingly) abandoned their Communist regimes and substituted much less oppressive regimes almost overnight, in most cases with little bloodshed.

Although I agree that ultimately ideology controls many other elements in social and political affairs, I do not agree that ideology in the Western welfare-warfare states is nearly as fragile as Communist ideology was in the old Soviet satellites. Libertarians rarely invest much time in the detailed study of how the dominant ideology is generated and maintained in the contemporary West. Even fewer of them dig into the detailed composition and operation of the many economic, social, and political institutions that are tied in countless ways into reliance on and support of the politico-economic status quo. Hundreds of thousands of such organized efforts go on day in and day out all over the country at every level. One has only to thumb through the telephone directory for the Washington, D.C., area to gain an impression of the amazing array of well-organized, well-funded, special-interest groups now working ceaselessly, in effect, to keep all attempts to restore liberty at bay and if possible to bind individuals down by additional legal restraints and obligations. Participatory fascism in the contemporary USA and other advanced Western countries is an arrangement so vast and far-reaching that it defies the grasp of any single researcher. Specialists can easily work full-time in simply trying to understand the workings of one tentacle among the thousands that the beast possesses.

To suppose that an overnight ideological conversion or “tipping” can remove all of these organizations from the scene or lead them to alter their objectives and modus operandi is fanciful beyond imagination. To borrow from the vernacular, it just ain’t gonna happen. For it to do so would amount to the most preposterous instance of the tail wagging the dog in human history. Communist regimes could be (seemingly) tipped because Communism was widely recognized as a failure, as a recipe for societal backwardness and a low level of living. After its initial revolutionary surge of support, its ideological underpinnings grew weaker and weaker with each passing year and, by the 1980s, not many true believers remained.

Such is not at all the case in the West today. Here nearly everybody is held tightly in the system by countless seemly beneficial ties that few people can imagine doing without: Who’ll send grandma a monthly check to keep her in groceries? Who’ll provide medical care for the scores of millions of lower-income people whose care now comes via Medicaid? Who’ll cover the huge medical bills the elderly now expect Medicare to pay? Who’ll subsidize the college loans on which millions of students rely? And so on and on. One has only to wade through the Code of Federal Regulations and ask on each page: if this particular regulation were scrapped today, how would its corporate and union beneficiaries react? Can one really imagine that these powerful institutions would simply shrug their shoulders if liberty should break out, after having fought for more than a century to forge the fetters that now bind the populace in the service of almost innumerable special interests?

One who maintains, as I do, that the existing system may crumble little by little, having heedlessly sowed thousands of poisonous seeds of its own destruction, but almost certainly will never just roll over and admit defeat, may seem to be a defeatist. But nothing is gained by entertaining an unrealistic view of what liberty lovers are up against. Even if one believes, as I do, that the existing system is not viable in the very long run, it may last in episodically patched-up forms for a long, long time. There are no magic bullets, such as abolishing the Fed. The state can use other means in the highly unlikely event that it should no longer have the Fed in its arsenal. The same can be said about most of the system’s other key elements.

In truth, the time for liberty lovers to make a stand that had a fighting chance of success was a century ago. But that chance was squandered, if indeed it ever packed much punch. Powerful economic, institutional, and ideological currents were working against it even then, and by now those currents, swelled by the self-interested efforts of several generations of statists in positions of great power and influence, have grown into a mighty river. This fascistic Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it wasn’t built by accident, either. It is not so flimsy that it will collapse because someone gives a libertarian-sounding speech in the Senate, because thousands of powerless college students turn out to hear Ron Paul speak, or because a writer embeds a libertarian sentiment in a film script. These things, however much they may cheer the libertarian heart, are the equivalent of the proverbial sparrow pecking at a pyramid. Wishful thinking about the impending triumph of liberty may be uplifting for libertarians, but it avails neither them nor the world anything of real importance.

Robert Higgs

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy for The Independent Institute and Editor of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation.

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