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The Future of Freedom-Retrospect and Prospects, Part 2

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In spite of the demise of totalitarian collectivism, the world is still enveloped by the ideology of socialism. When Ludwig von Mises began his treatise Socialism in 1922 with the observation: “Socialism is the watchword of the day. The socialist idea dominates the modern spirit. . . . When history comes to tell our story it will write above the chapter ‘The Epoch of Socialism,'” he captured the essence of the 20th century.

How different the 19th century was in comparison! Then, the watchword of the day was “liberty.” Just listen to two voices from that era: “Freedom!” declared Madame de Stael in 1819. “Let us repeat its name with . . . vigor . . . for everything we love, everything we honor, is contained in it. . . . [I]t is in the soul . . . that the principles of liberty are rooted: they make the heart beat, like love and friendship; they originate in nature; they ennoble the character.”

“Liberty is not a placard to be read at the corner of the street,” insisted Felicite de Lamannais in 1858:

It is a living force to be felt within and around us, the protecting genius of the domestic hearth, the guarantee of social rights, and the first of those rights. . . . Liberty will shine upon you when you can say, from the bottom of your heart: “We want to be free”; when, to gain freedom, you are ready to sacrifice all and to suffer all. . . . The force that puts you in possession of liberty is not the ferocious violence of robbers and brigands, of injustice, vengeance and cruelty; but a strong, inflexible will, a calm and generous courage.

And what did these 19th-century friends of freedom mean by “liberty”? Here is how Guiseppe Mazzini described its meaning in 1858:

You must have liberty in all that is indispensable to the moral and material aliment of life: personal liberty, liberty of locomotion, liberty of religious faith; liberty of opinion upon all subjects, liberty of expressing that opinion through the Press, or by any other peaceful means; liberty of association in order to render that opinion fruitful by cultivation and contact with the thoughts and opinions of others; liberty of labor, and of trade and commerce with its produce; all these are things which may not be taken from you . . . without your having a right to protest. . . . Without liberty there is no true Morality, because if there be not free choice between good and evil . . . there can be no responsibility. Without liberty there is no true Society. . . . Liberty is sacred, as the individual, of whose life it is the reflex, is sacred. Where liberty is not, life is reduced to a mere organic function, and when man allows the violation of his liberty, he is false to his own nature, and rebels against the decree of God.

These are all-powerful words. Twentieth-century socialism, however, submerged them under the demagoguery of economic equality and social security. Liberty was sacrificed on the altar of political paternalism. To the melody of “revolutionary liberation” and the lyrics of “social justice,” the world went off in search of utopian collectivism.

But when utopia was reached, all that was discovered were mountains of dead bodies on islands of slave-labor and concentration camps in an ocean of brutal tyranny; then proponents of this brave new world insisted that this was not the land they were in search of.

A wrong turn had been made, the utopians said, and they retreated and took refuge on the shores of the welfare state. With a new burst of enthusiasm, the utopians settled down to create the revised vision of democratic paternalism and the redistributive state.

But now even the welfare state has turned into a false utopia. The ideal of distributive justice has matured into the politics of democratic plunder. And the vision of social justice has created the era of democratized privilege (see “Democratized Privilege: The New Mercantilism,” Freedom Daily , February 1991; and “Producer Interests vs. the Public Interest: The Origin of Democratized Privilege,” Freedom Daily , March 1991). All around the globe, wherever the welfare state has been planted and taken root, it has produced political corruption and moral decay. At the same time, the welfare state has subjugated more and more corners of human life to the controlling and manipulating hand of government. As Wilhelm Rpke explained almost forty years ago:

The modern welfare state, in the dimensions to which it has grown or threatens to grow, is most probably the principle form of the subjugation of people to the state in the non-communist world. . . . It causes the power of the state to assume giant proportions “until [in the words of de Tocqueville] each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious working animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

The welfare state is finally approaching its end. Financially, the welfare state is bankrupt. In August 1994, The Washington Post , in a two-part feature piece on the Western European economies, pointed out:

Around the continent this summer there are signs of the beginnings of a significant change in the ways Europeans are employed and in the long vacations, free health care, and other social benefits their governments have long helped to finance. In France, Italy and even Scandinavia, governments are trimming welfare programs and demanding workers share more of the cost. Across the continent, a number of governments are selling off government-owned businesses to private investors, a process that has cost thousands of workers their once-secure jobs. . . . Today’s European governments, and the voters who elect them, are scaling back their post-war systems reluctantly largely because they cannot afford to do otherwise. . . . Some specialists argue that the scale of any reform will continue to be circumscribed. “I see a lot of tinkering around the edges,” says Betty Duskin, a pensions specialist for the Organization of Economically Developed Countries. “These systems are so popular in Europe that nobody is seriously thinking of dismantling them. I see a lot of muddling through in the hope of an eventual economic recovery.”

People in both Europe and the United States have come to believe that life is impossible without the protection of the welfare state. What was taken for granted by millions of people on both sides of the Atlantic in the 19th century that there is no greater personal and social good than for each individual to be free to plan for and design his own life, free from both the malevolent and benevolent state is viewed as shocking and something to be feared in our own time. This is the ultimate legacy and continuing stranglehold of socialism on the 20th century.

As the resources at the disposal of the state reach their limit, governments and their constituents reluctantly trim around the edges of the welfare state, hoping for a miracle to occur to bring back a time when a bountiful horn-of-plenty could be drawn upon to feed the insatiable appetite of the redistributive state. But that horn-of-plenty is reaching its end. As Ludwig von Mises pointed out long ago:

An essential point of the social philosophy of interventionism is the existence of an inexhaustible fund which can be squeezed forever. . . . Interventionism aims at confiscating the “surplus” of one part of the population and at giving it to the other part. . . . The whole system of interventionism collapses when this fountain is drained off: The Santa Claus principle liquidates itself.

In all of the major welfare states, there is very little left to squeeze without threatening a dramatic decline in production and standards of living, due to the negative effect that even higher taxes and more burdensome government budget deficits would have on the remaining incentives to work, save, and invest. It is the implicit realization of this that has caused these welfare states to cut programs and stiffen eligibility requirements for feeding at the redistributive trough.

The welfare state is also ideologically bankrupt. But neither politicians nor most intellectuals, neither the mass media nor the general public will admit this. The welfare state persists due to political pragmatism and philosophical inertia. Pragmatically persisting in the illusion of welfare-statist largess serves the interests of the politicians, bureaucrats, and special-interest groups who feed at that redistributive trough. For most intellectuals and many in the mass media, it protects their utopian fantasy that good men who have political power can still socially engineer us into a better world. And for the general public taught in public schools and by collectivist ideologues that free markets, self-help, and voluntarist associations will not protect the poor, the sick, the elderly, and the unfortunate the myth of welfarist security protects most people from having to take back the responsibility for their own lives that the state has usurped.

Philosophically, the legacy of socialism persists in America, Europe, and around the world as the welfare-interventionist state because of two things: First, few understand anymore why individual liberty is important and how a truly free society would function. Second, many who understand the harmful effects of the welfare-interventionist state are fearful of being branded an “extremist” and a “dreamer” who fails to appreciate the boundaries of the politically possible and the socially acceptable.

Misunderstanding and ignorance can be overcome through reflection, reading, and experience. But the fight for freedom will not be won unless each of us is willing to make the uncompromising case for liberty, not out of stubbornness or dogmatism, but because we come to realize that human freedom personal freedom, political freedom, economic freedom is indivisible and essential for any meaningful life. We must say to ourselves, as de Lamannais told us over a century ago, that “we want to be free,” with that desire for freedom becoming “a living force to be felt within us and around us.” And we must cultivate a “calm and generous courage” to fight for it.

The future of freedom depends upon it for ourselves, our children, and the generations to come.

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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).