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The Power of Indoctrination

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Yesterday, I saw a political yard sign that said “Keep Us Free. Elect Romney.” It exemplifies perfectly one of the major problems we face in this country: the fact that so many Americans honestly believe they live in a free society.

During our recent College Civil Liberties Tour, the issue of public schooling came up during the question and answer session. I said that libertarians favor abolishing public schooling in part because of the indoctrination that takes place there in the quest to mold the “good little citizen.” A student came up to me after one of our programs and said to me, “I can’t believe that you really want to abolish public schooling. How would people be educated? Are you saying that I’ve been indoctrinated?”

I hated to hurt her feelings but I responded truthfully, “Yes. And there is no doubt that people would be much better educated in an entirely free market in education.”

Public schooling, or more accurately, government schooling, is where Americans are indoctrinated as children into believing that the welfare-warfare state way of life constitutes freedom. From the first grade on up, the notion is drilled into their heads that they live in a free country and should be grateful for that. By the time that a person graduates high school, the indoctrination is almost always complete: Most high-school graduates have no doubts that Americans are free. And they carry that mindset all the way into adulthood and possibly even to the day they die.

That’s why average Americans are so shocked when they encounter libertarians, whose goal is to achieve a free society in America. To average Americans, that goal is obviously ridiculous. We already live in a free society, such Americans think. Libertarians’ quest to achieve freedom is just plain loony. And given their deep conviction that they live in a free country, it’s not surprising that such Americans feel that way when they encounter libertarians.

Once a child becomes convinced that he’s living in a free country, then all the characteristics of that society are absorbed within his mind under the concept of freedom. And anyone who questions such characteristics is considered to be questioning freedom or even hating America.

For example, consider Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, farm subsidies, public schooling, the drug war, economic regulations, paper money, Federal Reserve, income taxation, and foreign aid. To average Americans, these are all core elements of a free society. Why is that? Because, again, we “know” that we live in a free society. Since these are programs that are integral to the American way of life, they must be what a free society is all about.

Or consider the “emergency” powers that President George W. Bush assumed after the 9/11 attacks, such as the power to round up people, send them into concentration camps, torture them, and even execute them. President Obama expanded those powers to include the power to assassinate people, including Americans.

Most college students today were about 8-10 years old when the 9/11 attacks occurred. They have been raised during their entire teenage years under the aura of these extraordinary powers. For them, such powers are part of a free society. From the first grade, they have been indoctrinated with the notion that America is a free country and that the troops are in Iraq and Afghanistan to defend our freedoms. Since they’re convinced that they’re living in a free country, then it’s natural for them to conclude that a giant military establishment, hundreds of overseas military bases, invasions and occupations, sanctions and embargoes, and torture, indefinite detention, and assassination are what a free society is all about.

Thus, when they encounter libertarians who call for restoring a free society to our land through the dismantling of America’s warfare state and imperialist foreign policy, such Americans are befuddled and sometimes outraged. Don’t libertarians know that we already live in a free society? Don’t they know that the military and the CIA defend our freedoms with their overseas programs?

If you want to see an interesting expression on the face of an indoctrinated American, ask him how he feels about life in Cuba. He will tell you that Cubans are an example of a people who are not free. Say to him then, “But the core elements of life in Cuba are Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, income taxation, occupational licensure, regulation, paper money, a Federal Reserve, public schooling, arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention, and drug laws.”

The indoctrinated American will look at you in befuddlement. He “knows” that such programs are what America is all about. He also “knows” that America is a free country. He also “knows” that Cuba isn’t a free country. So how can such programs form the core of Cuba’s system as well as America’s?

Or ask the indoctrinated American how he feels about the fact that throughout the first 100 years of American history, there was no Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public schooling, drug war, paper money, Federal Reserve, standing army, military industrial complex, sanctions, embargoes, indefinite detention, torture, or assassination.

He will, once again, look at you with befuddlement. All his life, he’s been taught that America has always been a free country. How can a country be free without such programs and free with such programs?

I’m never too hard on the victims of indoctrination because I was once one of them. I attended public school and a state-supported college and law school. They did their job well. By the time I started practicing law, I too was convinced that I lived in a free society.

But like many other libertarians, I achieved a “breakthrough” to the reality that we’re not living in a free country. I realized that convincing myself of a lie doesn’t change reality. And I realized that even if I couldn’t change things, there was nonetheless a peace that came with understanding why life in America was so chaotic.

Most important, I came to comprehend the profound words of the great German thinker Johann von Geothe: “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” A corollary principle would be: The most effective indoctrination is when the person who’s been indoctrinated is convinced that he hasn’t been indoctrinated.

This post was written by:

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.