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The New Revolution for Liberty


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Are Americans now joining the revolution for liberty that has been sweeping the world? After the overthrow of communism in Eastern Europe and the demise of the Soviet Union, many commentators noted that the United States, unlike most other nations, continued to sacrifice the liberties of its citizens on the altar of government power. As Nobel laureate James Buchanan put it, “socialism is dead, leviathan lives.” But more recent events show that Americans, too, are increasingly fed up with government exactions and restrictions, and more willing to put fetters on their imperious rulers.

The elections of 1994 indicate that the American version of statism, the collectivist oppression known in this country as Big Government “liberalism” (as opposed to the classical liberalism of Jefferson, Smith, and Tocqueville), has lost its charm for the majority of voters. The Democratic Party, corrupt and complacent after controlling the House of Representatives for fifty-eight years and the Senate for fifty-two years since 1933, took a thrashing last November. The Republicans now control both houses of Congress for the first time in forty years. More promising is that the Republicans now declare that they intend to cut off some of Leviathan’s appendages, not just slow down the monster’s destructive advance. I cannot recall when so many members of Congress talked so seriously about repealing laws and abolishing agencies.

Meanwhile, in the hinterlands other rebellions are taking place. Hundreds of counties have adopted so-called Catron County ordinances, which seek to restrict the local actions of federal land managers. Disgusted by the arrogance of entrenched officeholders, voters have approved term limits for elected officials in more than a dozen states and hundreds of counties and cities. Initiatives to limit the growth of state taxes and spending have proliferated. Movements for school choice continue to gain momentum. Advocates of the privatization of local government functions have gained many victories. Defenders of private property rights have succeeded in overturning a variety of local land-use controls or electing representatives pledged to modify or abolish these much-abused powers.

How did government power ever become so vast that it now provokes open rebellion? To answer this question, an excellent point of departure is Friedrich Hayek’s 1944 classic, The Road to Serfdom. Nobel laureate Hayek argued that all attempts to manage the economy would lead ultimately to totalitarianism. Good intentions would not alter the process. “Many who think themselves infinitely superior to the aberrations of Nazism, and sincerely hate all manifestations,” Hayek wrote, “work at the same time for ideals whose realization would lead straight to the abhorred tyranny.” Purchase of the book will be more than compensated by reading the chapter on “Why the Worst Get on Top.” In a big government, Hayek observed, “there will be special opportunities for the ruthless and unscrupulous.” Four decades later, he revisited the subject of socialism in his final book, The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, which pulled together several strands of his thought, including his controversial views on societal evolution.

Critical episodes in the twentieth-century growth of government in the United States receive detailed analysis in my Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government, which emphasizes the government’s responses to national emergencies, especially the world wars and the Great Depression, and how those events and responses moved the public’s prevailing ideology toward greater acceptance of, and even positive demand for, a multitude of federal economic and social programs.

Events of recent years receive vivid description in James Bovard’s Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty. If you care at all about honesty, fairness, and individual rights, Bovard’s book will make your blood boil as it documents in shocking detail the extent to which our government is already behaving like a police state.

Of course, throughout much of this century the descent into collectivist tyranny was taking place on a worldwide scale. No more readable survey of these tragic global developments can be found than Paul Johnson’s Modern Times: The World from the Twenties to the Nineties. Bringing the story up to date, Johnson also describes the recent resurgence of political rights and the market economy in many parts of the world.

Big government will never surrender without a struggle. To understand the many strengths of the status quo, the reader can turn to such outstanding works as Ludwig von Mises’s Bureaucracy, Milton and Rose Friedman’s Tyranny of the Status Quo, and Charles Peters’s How Washington Really Works. These books describe and analyze how government bureaucracies operate to promote the ambitions of their legislative overseers, cater to privileged clients and, of course, sustain the bureaucrats.

However, the latest and best introduction to understand the operations of big government appears in a lucid and fascinating book by William Mitchell and Randy Simmons, Beyond Politics: Markets, Welfare and the Failure of Bureaucracy [Revised and Updated Edition by Professor Simmons: Beyond Politics: The Roots of Government Failure], a public choice analysis—rational choice theory applied to politics and government. Unlike most public choice analysts, Mitchell and Simmons recognize that politicians are not just like the rest of us. “Successful politicians,” they write, “become the mirror image of what they do, shifting, smoothing, evading, concealing, lying, and diffusing hostility. Insincerity and flattery are common forms of political behavior; so, too, are paranoia, hatred, envy, and cynicism.” To read this book is to experience a shock of recognition, to see real politicians and bureaucrats doing what they actually do, and to understand why they are doing it.

All but the most naive understand that governments thrive on mendacity. To appreciate the nature and vast scope of government disinformation, one can read the delightfully written Official Lies: How Washington Misleads Us, by James Bennett and Thomas DiLorenzo. From phony fuel shortages to make-believe farm crisis to outrageously unreal environmental scares, the whole fraudulent ensemble gets its comeuppance. Read, laugh, and weep.

In the so-called “Reagan Revolution” of the 1980s, Republicans emphasized cutting income taxes and increasing defense spending. Slowing the advance of regulation got short shrift and, with few exceptions, regulations continued to proliferate. For readers who want to go beyond generalities and journalism, penetrating yet readable accounts by first-rate analysts can be found in Regulation and the Reagan Era: Politics, Bureaucracy and the Public Interest, edited by Roger Meiners and Bruce Yandle.

Closely related issues receive close analysis by America’s leading classical liberal legal expert, Richard Epstein, in his instant classic, Takings: Private Property and the Power of Eminent Domain. The book’s dust jacket blurb exaggerates only a little when it says that if Epstein is right, then the New Deal is wrong. And if the New Deal is wrong, our current legal condition, which only compounds the evils of the 1930s, is even more wrong. Epstein’s work has helped to provoke efforts now under way in Washington and in the states to require that government compensate people whose property values are reduced by regulations.

One of the most pernicious ideas of the twentieth century is that government ought to see that everybody who wants to work has a job. In its many attempts, direct and indirect, to manage the labor market, the government has compiled a lamentable record. The award-winning, blockbuster book, Out of Work: Unemployment and Government in Twentieth-Century America, by Richard Veddar and Lowell Gallaway, tells this sad tale by combining an impressive historical narrative and a simple yet highly explanatory economic model. Vedder and Gallaway have a flair for presenting economic analysis and quantitative evidence in an easily understood way. Their outstanding book makes a major contribution to refuting Keynesian myths about the benefits of government’s pervasive intrusion into the economy that has been widely accepted for half a century.

Liberal welfare policy, a centerpiece of LBJ’s Great Society, comes in for devastating criticism in Charles Murray’s Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, one of the most influential books of the past 20 years. Murray followed his tour de force with a rather different but equally stimulating work, In Pursuit, in which he explores what it means to pursue happiness, and what government can and cannot do to assist people in that pursuit. Murray has a gift for stating obvious but overlooked truths, as when he remarks apropos of those dependent on welfare, “To stop trying is to lose self-respect.” More than a valuable perspective on policy making, this book will help you to think more deeply about a wide range of social issues.

Of all the policies now up for grabs, perhaps none offers as much hope for breaking the government’s iron grip as education. Government schools have made such a mess that nearly everyone—save only the administrators, teachers unions, and others slurping at the public school trough—concedes their failure and willingly considers alternatives. Recently a number of books have criticized the performance of government schools and proposed such reforms as decentralization, privatization of school management, and education vouchers.

Although many of these books are good, we now have a book that outshines them all, Sheldon Richman’s Separating School and State: How to Liberate America’s Families. Brief, uncompromising, beautifully written and superbly argued, this book may be to the schooling revolution what Thomas Paine’s Common Sense was to the American revolution. Richman’s key insight is that the government school system has not failed; indeed, it has succeeded spectacularly. One simply must understand what it was designed to do in the first place, namely, to produce Good Citizens—browbeaten drudges accustomed to regimentation, indoctrinated to revere the government and ready, if need be, to serve as cannon fodder. Using compulsion to fill its classrooms and the tax power to pay its bills, this oppressive system has contributed mightily to destroying the independence and authority of the family.

Besides taking control of education, the revolutionaries will want to smash other bastions of state control and privilege, such as the programs that channel funds from taxpayers into the bank accounts of (mainly) wealthy farmers, who reciprocate by growing crops of little value or not growing crops at all. For outstanding accounts of these reverse-Robin Hood programs, see Agriculture and the State: Market Processes and Bureaucracy, by E. C. Pasour, Jr. [expanded and updated as Plowshares & Pork Barrels: The Political Economy of Agriculture, by E.C. Pasour, Jr. and Randal Rucker], and The Farm Fiasco, by James Bovard.

Another set of programs whose reality differs greatly from its advertised image is the military-industrial-congressional complex, which has soaked up more than $10 trillion (1995 dollars) since 1948 and, even with the Cold War won, fights tooth and nail to resist reduction. Anyone who thinks a military bureaucrat is essentially different from other government bureaucrats should read The Pentagonists: An Insiders’s View of Waste, Mismanagement and Fraud in Defense Spending, by the famous Pentagon whistle-blower, A. Ernest Fitzgerald, and the first-rate studies contained in Arms, Politics, and the Economy: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, which I had the pleasure to edit.

For twenty-five years, environmental radicals have exerted disproportionate influence on national policy, to the great distress of property owners and those who prefer real environmental protection to sanctimonious posturing. Lately a fierce backlash has developed. Penetrating analyses and promising policy proposals appear in Terry Anderson and Donald Leal’s Free Market Environmentalism for the Next Generation. The combination of clear-headed analysis and political outrage bodes well for a rout of the radical environmentalists and their friends in high places.

Revolutionaries need to understand the nature of the beast they aim to bring down, but they need inspiration, too, because lovers of liberty seek not just to destroy unjustified state power but to build a productive free society. Works that combine instruction, inspiration, and visions of a liberated world include Milton Friedman’s classic, Capitalism and Freedom, a book whose visionary proposals have in some cases (e.g., free markets in foreign exchange, school vouchers) already been adopted more or less, and Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, which invites us to create a world completely without government tyranny.

While encouraging others to join the revolution, one must be prepared to respond to doubters—those who believe that we need government to prevent a recurrence of the Great Depression, to care for the poor, or to guarantee the safety of food and drugs. Brief articulate responses to dozens of such misguided beliefs appear in Clichés of Politics, edited by Mark Spangler, with contributions by such masterful expositors as Henry Hazlitt, John Hospers, Murray Rothbard, and many others.


Robert Higgs is a Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute and Editor at Large 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, the University of Economics, Prague, and George Mason University.


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