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Optimism and Concern in Contemporary America

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I was about fifteen years old, in the mid-1960s, when I became interested in free-market, libertarian ideas. I was initially influenced by Henry Hazlitt, who at that time still had a weekly column in Newsweek . I found his book Economics in One Lesson in a used bookstore, and after reading it, I decided that I wanted to become an economist.

I discovered The Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, and started reading its monthly publication, The Freeman . I met two people who told me about Ayn Rand, and I soon devoured her novels and nonfiction works. I also subscribed to The Objectivist . I learned about the Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich A. Hayek from The Freeman and Rand’s Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal . I read Murray Rothbard’s The Libertarian Forum . There were the conservative publications, like National Review and Human Events , as well.

But there was not much else at that time.

As an enthusiastic free-market teenager, I took great pride in reading “everything” that was published on “the right.” This wasn’t very difficult, given the few magazines being published and the mere handful of “right thinking” books printed each year, most of which were available from the Conservative Book Club (I received my copy of Mises’s Human Action as a free bonus for joining the club). The only publishing houses supplying fairly consistent conservative, libertarian, or “revisionist” history books were Henry Regnery Co., Devin-Adair, and Arlington House. A few good books occasionally appeared from the University of Chicago Press, like Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom and Hayek’s works.

But that was about it. After all, this was the era of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the emerging Age of Aquarius (taking my cue from Ayn Rand, I always tried to keep my mind “in focus” and hated the mind-bending, hippie culture). The dominant political ideology of the time, especially following Barry Goldwater’s defeat in 1964, was New Dealism to the nth power. The government issued declarations of war on one social problem after another: the war on poverty, the war on illiteracy, the war on drugs, the war against racial discrimination, the war for decent housing for the poor, the war against communists in Vietnam. Activist government seemed to have an endless number of enemies that only it could fight in the name of a better, fairer, more just and decent society.

And a lot of Americans supported these wars. To oppose them-to be an ideological noninterventionist who believed that they were morally wrong, economically harmful, and politically dangerous-was to be out-of-step with the times. To hold such a noninterventionist position was to be outside of legitimate political and public-policy discourse. You were insensitive, uncaring, closed-minded, out-of-date, selfish, racist, greedy, ignorant, and stupid. And these were the kinder descriptions! Furthermore, opponents would often say to me that they simply could not understand how “a serious young person like yourself” could believe in such ideas as unregulated free markets, unrestricted freedom of association, and market-generated inequalities of income.

I often felt very alone intellectually. And I think many others who held similar views felt the same way.

Thirty years later, however, lot of things have changed. The Soviet socialist experience-which was always being thrown at me as an example of a fairer, more just, and more equal society, in which selfishness and profit no longer guided men’s behavior-is now gone.

The enthusiasm and idealism of remaking American society through coercive redistribution of wealth, regulatory control of corporations and businesses, and socially engineered class and race relations are now also a thing of the past.

A growing number of people are cynical and suspicious of government intervention, taxation, redistribution, and control. They view them as rigged games used by powerful special interests to get something for themselves at the expense of others. They no longer are taken in as easily by the line that people are poor or deprived because “society” has not given them a fair deal. They increasingly resent government telling them how to live, what they can do with their property, and with whom they can freely associate or do business.

There are now more and more books and magazines explaining to people why the interventionist-welfare state is a failure. Moreover, free-market think tanks, at both the state and national levels, produce unending pages of insightful critical commentaries on existing and proposed statist policies. And, of course, for the last six years, there has been Freedom Daily !

When I was in my teens in the 1960s, I would proudly boast that I was reading “everything” from “our side” of the ideological fence. But that is no longer possible for anyone-there is just too much being produced by conservative and libertarian organizations for anyone to stay fully abreast of it all. Equally important, those who write from conservative or libertarian perspectives are now “respectable,” in the sense that they are published by and even sought out by the mainstream publishing houses, who then advertise their books in all the mainstream outlets. Their books now appear in the bookstores in shopping malls across the land. This is not even to mention conservative and libertarian talk radio shows, which reach millions of listeners every day.

In many ways, this is, intellectually, the best of times in the 20th century since before the First World War-since before the dark clouds of collectivism in its various forms descended on humanity in full force. Who now believes in commissars or Führers? Who now believes in utopian dreams of remaking man and society through political power? Who can now say with a straight face that governments can abolish poverty or remove prejudices from men’s hearts and minds by just passing well-intentioned laws that are then enforced by a vast army of supposedly well-meaning bureaucrats? Who now believes that politics is anything more than a redistributive feeding trough where those with enough power and influence use the state to obtain from others what they cannot acquire through voluntary exchange and unhampered market competition? Collectivism-thank God!-is, finally, morally bankrupt in the minds of millions.

But while collectivism has lost its moral high ground, its poison still ravages the world. And having entered the psychological and political bloodstream of American society, this poison is eating away at the moral and economic fiber of America. This makes these last years of the 20th century among the most dangerous of times.

After decades of welfare-state policies, in which government has classified people and bestowed innumerable benefits or burdens on the basis of various group identifications, people now find it difficult to break out of the collectivist mind-set. They sense that something is not right, but they have lost the ability to articulate the reason for their dissatisfaction. They do not comprehend that the only antidote to the collectivist disease is the philosophy of political individualism-individual rights respected and protected under the law.

Pragmatically, this is made more difficult by the fact that so many people are now so dependent upon the government for privileges and benefits that they cannot often imagine how they would survive, or at least get by comfortably, without the state’s providing them with Social Security, unemployment compensation, Medicare or Medicaid, subsidized education, government contracts, tariff and regulatory protections from foreign and domestic competition, and various affirmative-action quotas. Whether it be the national government or the state governments, it is presumed that “somebody” has to provide these “safety nets,” protections, and guarantees; otherwise, people’s incomes, lives, and well-being would be threatened beyond repair.

This is also reinforced by the fact that the government educational system has for decades been destroying the historical memory of what America’s original political principles and traditions were all about. The government educational establishment in America has succeeded with this far more than even the government educational system in the former Soviet Union.

In Soviet Russia, parents, students, and teachers all knew-to one degree or another-that what was taught were lies and deceptions that served as the ideological rationale for an oppressive system. In America, the vast majority of teachers, students, and parents believe: that capitalism is destroying the environment; that America is an inherently racist society; that parents are the enemies and abusers of children and that children must become informers on their mothers and fathers; and that without enlightened government intervening everywhere in the society, oppression, bigotry, and poverty would reign across the land.

If the poison of collectivism is to be removed from the body of American society, we who have resisted the infection-we who believe in liberty-must not be hesitant in defending our philosophy-uncompromisingly and completely.

The problem is not that federal welfare programs have become too costly and too distant from the people, requiring that they be transferred to the administration of the state governments. The problem is the very idea of government dependency by the people, at any level of government. The problem is failure to appreciate and understand that individuals should take personal responsibility for their problems, in voluntary association and exchange with others in the free marketplace.

The problem is not that affirmative action programs have become engines for reverse discrimination and the source for undeserved income and employment for some-though this may very well be true. The problem is that government should not be in the business of telling anyone with whom he is or is not to associate, either in the social arena or in the marketplace. Freedom and the free society mean that each man, as long as he acts peacefully and nonfraudulently, has the right to make whatever friendships and circle of human relationships he desires, whether or not we may think the basis upon which he does so is wise or stupid.

The problem is not “the environment,” whose natural balance and human survivability may be threatened if judicious government does not rein in the greed of land developers, industrial polluters, and forest cutters. The problem is that land, rivers, lakes, oceans, and the air space above people’s property have not been privatized, with boundaries carefully delineated and property rights protected by the police and the courts, as should be the case in a society of individual rights and liberty. In such a social order of comprehensive property rights, each individual would gain the benefits and bear the costs, depending upon whether or not he properly economized and maintained that which he owned. In a world of changing supply and demand conditions, the market-i.e., consumers-would ultimately determine the value and use of resources.

These are the principles and premises that must be understood and defended against the continuing disease of collectivism in this post-socialist world. Every premise, every hidden assumption, every new rationale for state encroachment on liberty and property must be confronted head-on. The enemies of liberty must not be allowed to set the terms of the debate or specify the issues to be discussed.

And most important, the minds of America’s young must be recaptured-and this means the abolition of all state schooling. For as long as the state has the power to indoctrinate each new generation of Americans, the political and cultural collectivization of America will continue.

These are the battle grounds for winning liberty for ourselves and our children in the next century. It is what The Future of Freedom Foundation is all about.

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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).