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Living the Life of the Lie, Part 2

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In 1949, John T. Flynn published a book entitled The Road Ahead: America’s Creeping Revolution. In it he explained that “modern socialism means the assumption by the State of the responsibility and authority for the control of the entire economic system. This does not mean,” Flynn pointed out, “that the State will take over every farm, shop, mine and factory.” Rather, “the economic system may be kept in private hands to be operated according to plans made by the State and carried out under the supervision and compulsion of the vast and numerous government bureaus. This is the type of socialism with which America is now threatened.” And, Flynn warned, “it is being promoted in America by organizations that never pronounce in public the word socialism.”

But more than ten years before the appearance of Flynn’s book, Garet Garrett observed in his 1938 essay, “The Revolution Was,” that “there are those who still think they are holding the pass against a revolution that may be coming up the road. But they are gazing in the wrong direction, the revolution is behind us.” The socialist revolution triumphed in America much earlier. Its victory parade was held in the spring of 1933, during the first one hundred days of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. But the battles leading to that victory were won even earlier during the Progressive era — when regulatory agencies began to impose their controls over industry and trade; when the Federal Reserve System was established and governmental monetary central-planning was formally introduced; and when the income-tax amendment to the Constitution gave the state the authority, in principle, to lay claim to the entire wealth of every American and gave the Internal Revenue Service the power to examine and search through any corner of every American’s personal affairs.

What had been promised to Americans to bring this revolution about? Garet Garrett explained the answer in his 1953 book, The People’s Pottage:

“To begin with, the government would redistribute the national wealth in an equitable manner. Then its planners would plan production and distribution in perfect balance, and thus no more boom or bust; the government then would see to it that everybody had always enough money to buy a decent living, and beyond that it would provide for the widows and orphans, the sick and disabled, the indigent and the old. To perform these miracles it would require more freedom for itself — that is, freedom to interfere in the lives of people for their own good. . . . And if it be said that this increase in the government’s own sphere of freedom meant a curtailment of the individual’s freedom, it came to this — that the individual was asked to surrender only the freedom to starve and what he received in return was the freedom from want. Was that not a good bargain?”

As a consequence, Garrett lamented, “A time came when the only people who had ever been free began to ask: What is freedom?”

Believing They Are Free

Americans are living a life of the lie. They are adamant that they are free. They believe that as a people and as individuals, they are masters of their own fate. They elect their own legislative representatives. They freely express their various and sundry points of view. They choose their own careers and plan their own lives. They come and go as they please and answer to no one but themselves. They freely buy what satisfies their fancies and freely contribute to the causes that touch their hearts. They believe they are free people in a free society, freely going about their own affairs, responsible for their own actions, and picking up the full tab for what they want.

But the truth remains — Americans are living a life of the lie. The lie is that they do not have the freedom which they claim to have. They neither live as free men, and what is even worse, nor do they want to. Their political freedom consists in the periodic election and reelection of rulers who command and constrain their liberty, who see no bounds to their right to tax the wealth of the citizenry, who impose an infinite variety of rules and regulations over people’s lives, and who corruptly manipulate the political process for their personal ends and those of the special interests whose electoral coalitions put them into office. “At present,” said Herbert Spencer at the turn of this century, “that which we boast of as political freedom consists in the ability to choose a despot or a group of oligarchs, and after long misbehavior has produced dissatisfaction, to choose another despot or group of oligarchs: having meanwhile been made subject to laws sundry of which are repugnant.”

The False Freedom

In the new world of politically correct newspeak, Americans are free to say whatever they want — as long as it does not offend any ethnic, gender or racial group. They can pursue any career they choose — as long as they have been certified or licensed and have successfully passed inspection by an army of state regulators. They may come and go as they please — as long as they have been approved for a government-issued international passport, declared whether they are carrying more than $10,000 in currency, reported all taxable or forbidden items they wish to bring into the country, and not attempted to visit any foreign lands declared off limits by the state. They may buy whatever satisfies their fancy — as long as it has been manufactured, packaged and priced according to government standards of safety, quality and fairness, or as long as it has not been produced by a foreign supplier who exceeds his import quota or who offers to sell it below the state-mandated “fair-market price.”

Americans are free to go about their own affairs — as long as they send their children to government schools or to private schools approved by the state; as long as they don’t attempt to employ in a business too many of a particular ethnic, gender or racial group; as long as they don’t attempt to plan fully for their own old age rather than pay into a bankrupt social-security system; as long as they don’t pay an employee less than the governmentally mandated minimum wage; as long as they don’t attempt to construct on their own property a home or a business in violation of zoning and building ordinances; that is, just as long as they don’t try to live their lives outside the permissible edicts of the state.

And Americans freely take responsibility for their actions and pay their own way — except when they want the state to guarantee them a job or a “living wage”; except when they want the state to protect their industry or profession from competition either at home or from abroad; except when they want the state to subsidize their children’s education or their favorite art or the preservation of some wildlife area or the medical research into the cure of some hated disease or illness; or except when they want the state to ban some books, movies or peaceful acts between consenting adults rather than trying to change the behavior of their fellow men through peaceful persuasion or by personal example.

The Life of the Lie

Americans are living a life of the lie because the vast majority of them know the corruption of the political process but choose to participate in it because they too want a portion of the spoils. Americans are living a life of the lie because the vast majority of them insist in public that they believe in free enterprise with privileges and favors for none but then try to use the state for their own purposes in their particular industries and occupations. Americans are living a life of the lie because the vast majority of them speak of the importance of self-responsibility and carrying one’s own weight but search for every conceivable way to use the tax system and the regulatory process to shift the expense of what they want onto the financial shoulders of others and to politically manipulate market outcomes to save themselves from having to match their rivals openly in the competition for consumer business. Americans are living a life of the lie because the vast majority of them say they believe in freedom of speech and expression but then actively campaign for the suppression of choices and actions of which they personally disapprove or passively accept restrictions on individual freedom in these areas of life. Americans are living a life of the lie because they espouse ideas and support policies that have created socialism and that continue to extend socialism’s grip on every corner of American society.

As is wont to happen when lies are repeated and lived long enough, the distinction between truth and lies becomes increasingly blurred. Compulsory redistribution of wealth becomes “a right to an entitlement.” Restrictions on competition and exchange become “fair trade.” Limits on freedom of speech become “linguistic sensitivity.” Controls on the production and pricing of goods and services become “securing the general welfare.”

And, finally, as Garet Garrett said, a time came when Americans, who had once been the freest people, asked, What is freedom? Only when Americans regain that understanding of what freedom is and is not, will their life of the lie come to an end.

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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).