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Freedom’s Greatest Challenge

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At the end of January, President Bush delivered his State of the Union address before the Congress. Two leading themes ran through his speech: the demise of communism and the bright future for America in the post-communist world.

The President spoke forcefully of the desire for freedom that had never died in the hearts and minds of the people in eastern Europe. After forty-five years of Soviet domination, the half of Europe that had been kept locked behind the iron curtain is now reestablishing two of the pillars of a free society: representative government and a market-oriented economy. Socialism is dead, and from the grave, the spirit of free enterprise is rising to take its place.

President Bush then turned his attention to the future of America. He had little patience for those who claimed that America’s time had passed. America still had much greatness to come. And how would that greatness be assured? The President mentioned the creativity of American private enterprise. But America’s greatness, prosperity, and humanity, according to President Bush, would only be assured by increased government spending on education; government programs to clean up the environment; government support and assistance for the homeless, the handicapped, and the working mother; more Federal dollars for the government’s space program; and continued government involvement in the health-care business. Indeed, it was difficult to discover a major “social issue” discussed in his speech in which the President did not say or at least suggest that the solution required additional government spending or intervention. Having forcefully hailed the demise of socialism abroad, the President’s message was that America’s greatness would be assured by more, or at least continued, socialism at home.

The tragedy is that hardly anyone seems to see the paradox or the contradiction in the President’s words. As Eastern Europe climbs out from under the planned economy and the all-inclusive welfare state, forms of both are either called for or accepted by people from all across the political spectrum in the United States. From the left, the criticism, as always, is that a stone-hearted Republican Administration is unwilling to spend more. But the same types of criticisms are heard in the business community as well. Fearful of meeting Japanese competition in the “high-tech” arena, for example, many corporate leaders in “Silicon Valley” are begging for a government-business “partnership” to assure U.S. world leadership.

But even if portions of the business community allow narrow profit considerations to lead them to forfeit their position as spokesmen for the free economy, one would at least expect it from intellectuals on the right. Unfortunately, no such luck. In a December 1989 issue of National Review, Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation published an insightful analysis of governmental intervention into the medical industry entitled, “Freeing Health Care.” After an excellent summary of how government health programs have created most of the problems about which people complain with respect to health care, he offered the “conservative” solution: In addition to some changes in the tax code that would give incentives and health-care deductions for individuals, Mr. Butler said that “there would be a legal requirement on heads of households to obtain basic health insurance to protect the family at least from catastrophic medical costs, with help if necessary from the government.” In Mr. Butler’s eyes, government imposition of “an obligation to buy at least a minimum package” of health insurance by every American is “freeing health care” from the dead hand of the State.

In the premier January-February issue of The American Enterprise, Norman Ornstein and Mark Schnitt of the American Enterprise Institute offered an incisive analysis of “The New World of Interest Politics.” The organizations that represent special-interest groups in Washington, they explained, no longer really represent those groups; these organizations have taken on a life of their own, creating special interest points-of-view rather than reflecting them. And what conclusion did the authors ask intellectuals in such organizations to face up to? “[W]e live in a time of comfortable consensus, when the vast majority of Americans agree on our goals as a society but differ only on the specific policies to achieve them. We are not going to significantly expand or contract domestic spending, taxation, civil liberties, or social services this year or the next.” Since their article appeared in a journal that is more likely to be read by conservatives, their message was clear: the welfare state and the interventionist state are here to stay; Americans like it that way. And if conservatives, as well as those on the left, are to be listened to by the “consensus,” they must present their proposals within those constraints.

The friends of liberty face two hurdles in winning the case for freedom in contemporary America: those people who know better and those who don’t. Writing during the height of the Second World War, when the victory of Nazi collectivism in Europe still seemed a strong possibility, the German economist Wilhelm Roepke spoke of the “fatalistic pessimism” that could easily grip the lover of freedom and cause him to surrender to what appeared to be the “inevitable.” But he said that to oppose “the insect state” of collectivism was “no more than our simple duty” to which we had to give our “unbending will and courage.”

In contemporary America, most conservative intellectuals, it seems, have surrendered to this “fatalistic pessimism.” The enemy in America has not been the “total state,” which is easily recognized and opposed. Rather, it has been the creeping and well-meaning (and therefore more dangerous) collectivism about which Alexis de Tocqueville warned in the 1830s:

” [I]t provides for their [the people’s] security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principle concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritance: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living? … it circumscribes the [human] will within a narrower range and gradually robs a man of all uses of himself.”

This is a much more difficult opponent than the over-arching state because, to quote Roepke again, “It is more of an infection than an invasion … a creeping paralysis of our innermost faith, of our convictions and the institution of society.” Conservative intellectuals have concluded that the type of individual freedom that Americans used to know is gone forever. They have conceded that the “infection” is irreversible. Their fight is over the management of the paternalistic state and the guardianship of its cost efficiency.

The problem lovers of liberty face with the general population is that most people no longer have any sense of what freedom really means. After fifty years of a “new deal,” a “fair deal,” a “new frontier” and a “great society,” most people now honestly believe that American freedom includes Social Security, guaranteed medical care, government subsidies, rent controls, regulatory agencies and business-government partnerships. That is the tragic “consensus” to which Omstein and Schmitt referred.

At the same time, however, many people sense that something is wrong in the system. While people turn to government when it benefits their own narrow interests, few really believe that the State can either “deliver the goods” or provide the promised government security in the long run. And they still have a wistful nostalgia and respect for the “can-do,” self-reliant, and creative individual.

This makes the job for freedom’s defenders easier with the general public than with the intellectuals who know better. The former need only be shown what freedom really means and why the paternalistic state cannot provide either liberty or security. This is not to say that it is an easy task. The collectivist siren that calls all to the shores of the welfare state plays an enchanting melody. But liberty’s symphony is enchanting too, offering men individual diversity in a setting of spontaneous, social harmony.

With those who know better, the task is much more difficult. Having been shipwrecked for so long on the welfare state’s shores, they believe there is no escape. And they have gone native. In their hearts they know where life is better, but they are afraid to speak of it, fearful of being considered irrelevant dreamers.

But all conceptions of human freedom were once dreams. All that is needed is that “unbending will and courage” of which Roepke spoke. The vision of a world of truly free men and free markets, one in which all forms of socialism and interventionism have been repealed (and not merely tinkered with), is too important not to try.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).