Does Our Weakness Matter?


Thucydides tells us that “the strong do what they will, while the weak suffer what they must.”

We recall these words even after 2,400 years because they have the ring of truth. And a hard truth it is, especially for those of us who cannot but regard ourselves as ensconced among the weak. As we look about, we see that the strong, who control the state, are rampaging in every jurisdiction and, sure enough, in countless ways the weak are suffering the consequences of these destructive rampages.

Libertarians habitually indulge in wishful thinking. We live in a country where freedom is under relentless attack in ways too numerous even to categorize easily. Governments at every level seem determined to crush each remaining molecule of liberty, and, worst of all, most of the citizens readily accept, when they do not affirmatively demand, the suffocation of freedom wherever it dares to raise its head. Schumpeter foresaw our present situation with clear eyes when he wrote in his diary: “Humanity does not care for freedom. The mass of the people realize they are not up to it: what they want is being fed, led, amused, and above everything, drilled. But they do care for the phrase.” Ah, yes, “land of the free”—try to utter that phrase three times without breaking down in laughter or weeping. Yet libertarians are constantly seizing on some little tactical retreat by Leviathan or some little endorsement of liberty and describing it as the beginning of an imagined “revolution.”

What are they thinking? Few friends of liberty are willing to recognize forthrightly just how formidable are the legions that oppose us and therefore how close to hopeless is our cause. In the United States today the enemies of liberty have both the big battalions and the big bucks.

Yet, as we are reminded from time to time, other, even worse tyrannies have fallen. The United States is a despicable police state, but it is not as horrible as the Soviet Union was, and today the USSR has passed away and the Russians enjoy a milder form of police state. The United States is not as horrible as Nazi Germany was, and today Hitler’s Thousand-Year Reich survives only as dust blowing in the European wind. The United States is not as horrible as Mao’s great leaping China was, and today the Chinese enjoy a milder form of police state. If worse tyrannies have undergone substantial attenuation or, like Nazi Germany, complete destruction, then perhaps we have some reason to hope that our freedoms will not be crushed into oblivion and perhaps even that a few of our lost liberties may someday be recovered.

When we look closely into how other tyrannies were checked, however, we encounter a vitally important fact: except where a tyranny was destroyed in war, as Hitler’s regime was, great advances of freedom have usually occurred not so much because a hardy band of freedom lovers grew more and more powerful until they ultimately controlled the situation, but because the tyrannies they were resisting destroyed themselves. People did not have to defeat their tyrannical rulers; the rulers changed their minds about the desirability of perpetuating their tyrannical rule and loosened the reins on the people because they were willing to countenance a freer society and economy in the service of their own personal interests.

Thus, the Russian and Chinese Communist rulers were not defeated; they simply switched sides, as it were, declared themselves to be capitalists, and, by hook or by crook, assumed personal control of the socialized assets they had previously administered in their capacities as state planning functionaries. They had come to understand that, in the immortal words of Deng Xiaoping, to get rich is glorious, and, flipping Marx on his head, they undertook to transform themselves and their privileged children into capitalist billionaires or at least millionaires by what a lapsed Marxist might dub acts of not-so-primitive appropriation, well seasoned with rampant perfidy and corruption.

It is more than a coincidence that the way in which freedom tends to be restored―for the most part as a by-product of actions by people seeking only their own narrow goals, as opposed to a freer societal end-state―parallels the way in which freedom gained a foothold in the first place. This centuries-long process occurred in Europe from the eleventh century onward as merchants, seeking a more secure environment for the conduct of their business, essentially bought off the predatory robber barons (the real ones!) who preyed on traders as a source of revenue. In this deal, the lords got money tribute, rather than the customary feudal dues in services and locally produced goods, and they could then purchase the luxury goods, such as spices and fine textiles, that the merchants were making ever more available in Europe, owing to the revival of long-distance trade. In exchange for their periodic payment of money taxes, the merchants received assurances that the lords would respect their private property rights and the “liberties” of their commercial towns and cities (“Stadtluft mach frei”). The merchants, who were much more the pioneers of liberty than the philosophers, were not seeking to build a free society as such; they were simply seeking to diminish a costly hazard to their business dealings. Yet, in the end, they did indeed build that glorious social edifice we know as bourgeois civilization, complete with its private property rights, its tolerance of strangers, and its cultivation of virtues such as prudence, promise-keeping, thrift, and self-responsibility.

Both the history of liberty’s initial establishment and the recent cases of its (partial) restoration in tyrannical societies show that it may eventually win out even though the little band of liberty lovers remains weak. And weak we probably will remain, because, as Schumpeter’s dictum and our own observations alike inform us, few people really care about living in a free society—though they like the phrase. Most people are content as long as they enjoy creature comforts, ample entertainment, and the illusion that the rulers are protecting them from real and imagined dangers. They would rather go to the mall than to the barricades.

Still, notwithstanding our fellow citizens’ customary acquiescence and the alacrity with which they fall for every cheap trick the ruling establishment pulls on them, the giant tower of tyranny may crumble. Like the centrally planned economies that could not allocate resources rationally for want of private property rights and a market price system, our pervasively interventionist tyranny may tie itself in so many regulatory knots, operate its fisc so irresponsibility, and mismanage its fiat-money system so atrociously that it will ultimately find itself incapable of going on, unable to pay for many of its promised benefits, unable to collect many of its taxes, unable to sell its bonds, unable to maintain its globe-spanning structure of military bases, and unable to command anyone’s real respect. The powers that be like to pretend that they have solved all the problems that brought down previous empires, but we may rest assured that they have not actually done so. As the U.S. government taxes, spends, borrows, regulates, mismanages, and wastes resources on a scale never before witnessed in the history of mankind, it is digging its own grave.

It has been digging for quite a while, and I do not pretend to know how much longer it can continue to dig before it topples headlong into the pit. Nor do I know whether the arrangements that take its place will be any better or freer; the world of tomorrow may prove to be even more hideous than the world of today. Yet, when the present system destroys itself, freedom will at least have a chance to be reestablished.

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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