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A Vision of a Free Society, Part 1

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If we abolish public schooling, then how will the poor be educated? If drug laws are repealed, won’t everyone go on drugs? If Social Security is abolished, won’t old people starve to death? If we don’t have Medicare and Medicaid, how would anyone afford decent medical care? If we don’t have licensing, won’t quacks be performing heart surgery? If we don’t have a Food and Drug Administration, won’t Safeway sell rotten food?

What would happen if all of the government operations that take money from one person and give it to another and that regulate peaceful behavior were abolished? What would a such a society look like?

This series of essays — “A Vision of a Free Society” — will be devoted to presenting the positive case for freedom. It will examine the workings of an unhampered market economy — one in which individuals are free to accumulate unlimited amounts of wealth; free to live their lives any way they want, so long as they do so peacefully; and free to dispose of their money any way they see fit.

Would there be chaos or harmony in such a society? Would there be prosperity or poverty? Would such a society be moral or immoral? Caring or selfish? How would it all work if government officials were not directing and restricting people’s lives and fortunes?

But before beginning this project, it is instructive to analyze the depth to which Americans are dependent on the modern-day, socialistic welfare state. The thought of abolishing, rather than simply reforming, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public schooling, and the like sends shivers down the spines of our fellow citizens. The mind-set of dependency on welfare-state programs is as pervasive as it is among the citizens of Cuba and North Korea, perhaps even more so, since Americans view these programs as “capitalism,” while the people in communist countries view them for what they really are — socialism.

Part of the problem is that most Americans living today have never seen a truly unhampered market economy. There are not many Americans alive today who lived before 1913 — before income taxation, a central bank, Social Security, economic regulations, Medicare, Medicaid, and so forth. When a person has grown up under a certain set of conditions — especially ones that have been described as “freedom” — the thought of abolishing those conditions is quite frightening.

It is not surprising that, given a choice, the average North Korean would never give up his Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and public schooling. It is also not surprising to me that the average American of today would not do so either.

The status quo appears safe and secure. Freedom appears risky and unpredictable, and this frightens people. They honestly feel more secure in the knowledge that government is there and “doing something” than in the vicissitudes of the market economy.

Let’s take a hypothetical example. Suppose during the New Deal that national, state, and local governments had begun extensive regulation of all restaurants in the country and that this regulation had continued through the present. It is not difficult to imagine the difficult task a libertarian would face in persuading his fellow Americans to repeal all of the restaurant legislation.

Average American : Are you joking? Are you honestly saying that the law requiring tipping should be repealed?

Libertarian : That’s exactly what I’m saying.

Average American : Why that’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. How would waiters and waitresses live if the law didn’t require people to leave at least 10 percent of the bill as a tip?

Libertarian : I believe that you could depend on most people to do the right thing — to leave a tip when the service warranted it.

Average American : You libertarians are utopians! People would never leave tips if they weren’t forced to. And certainly out-of-town tourists would have no incentive to do so. Why, under your idealistic system, there would no longer be waiters and waitresses because they’d all starve to death.

Libertarian : Well, how about repealing licensing of cooks?

Average American : You can’t really be serious. You would let just anyone be a cook in a public restaurant? Oh, great! Under your system, any mass murderer in the country could just walk into any restaurant, become the cook, and drop arsenic in everybody’s food.

Libertarian : I believe you could count on the market process to ferret this out. Restaurant owners would have an incentive to hire good chefs in order to attract more customers to their restaurants. The hiring of a bad chef would certainly not be in their interest. You really don’t need government to certify whether a person is a good cook or not.

Average American : Under your system of anarchy, no one in his right mind would ever walk into any restaurant whose cook had not been licensed by the government. Restaurants would simply go out of business.

Libertarian : How would you feel about abolishing government-owned restaurants for the poor?

Average American : What exactly do you have against the poor? Do you hate the poor? If you abolished government restaurants, where would the poor eat? You libertarians ought to be ashamed of yourselves.

Libertarian : Don’t you feel that the market process would generate restaurants for poor people?

Average American : Stop being so idealistic. If government didn’t own and operate restaurants for the indigent, people would be starving in the streets.

Libertarian : Would you at least agree that the national government’s Department of Restaurants should be abolished?

Average America : Look, I’m in favor of getting rid of the waste, fraud, and abuse in the Department of Restaurants. But there is no way I’d ever support abolishing the entire department.

Libertarian : Why?

Average American : Because there would be chaos if the government weren’t overseeing the operation of restaurants in America. How could we be certain that each restaurant would have the right types and amounts of food if the government weren’t directing how food was to be distributed to each restaurant? Some restaurants would end up with all of the bad food or the wrong food or, worst of all, no food at all. Moreover, imagine what would happen if the government weren’t directing where restaurants could be built. Why you’d probably have four different hamburger places competing at the same intersection. What a waste of resources that would be! The free market is fine — and I’m the biggest free-enterpriser you’d ever find — but you can’t leave the restaurant business to the laws of supply and demand.

Libertarian : Well, Republicans and Democrats are now talking about ending restaurant regulation and welfare as we know it . They want to return the whole thing to the state and local governments.

Average American : Well, I might be willing to support that. The state and local restaurant boards are closer to the people. And the citizenry gets to elect the local restaurant-board trustees. It’s really good to see that Democrats and Republicans are finally moving in a free-enterprise direction.

Libertarian : But wouldn’t a truly free-market approach entail abolishing all of the departments, agencies, and laws — national, state, and local?

Average American : The trouble with you libertarians is that you always want to throw the baby out with the bath water. There’s nothing wrong with government overseeing the restaurant business. We just have to work together — get better people in public office — elect Christians — restore morality and responsibility to America — and we’ll finally make the various departments of restaurants do a much better job in the future. Stop criticizing and start making it happen! We Americans are a can-do people. We can make anything work, even government ownership or control over the means of production, especially when we call it “free enterprise.”

Libertarian : Well, it seems like I’m having a tough time convincing you of the merits of libertarianism.

Average American : It’s just that you libertarians are so cold, cruel, and heartless. Forget your idealism and be practical. Look, why don’t you start with something easy — like ending public schools. It’s foolish to begin with something as important as food!

The problem we libertarians face in America, then, is multifaceted. It’s an economic problem because the regulated economy is so destructive to the economic well-being of society. It is political because the modern-day, socialistic welfare state and government-controlled economy cannot be repealed without the support of the majority of the citizenry. It is moral because of the political stealing that underlies the welfare state and the interference with free will that underlies the regulated society.

And it is psychological. While the proponents of central planning and control may debate endlessly about the merits of such socialist schemes as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public schooling, income taxation, and the like, there is one truth that is irrefutable: The American people are hooked on this junk and cannot let it go. And at the core of the addiction to this political heroin is a lack of faith in themselves and in each other.

Look at the faith that Americans have in bureaucrats and government agencies. They honestly believe that their food is safe because of government. That their planes are safe because of government. That lawyers and doctors are competent because of government. That their children are educated because of government. That the elderly are taken care of because of government. Their faith in the state — in bureaucrats and bureaucracies — is total and unwavering.

Yet ask them about abolishing the FDA, the FAA, licensing laws, public schooling, Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid. Their lack of faith in themselves, their friends, and their neighbors becomes immediately manifest. “Private people are malicious, selfish, and self-centered. They’ll let people starve the death — and especially their own parents. They’ll inject drugs into their children and certainly won’t get them educated. They’ll let quacks perform open-heart surgery. No, you can’t trust private people because they’re just not like our bureaucrats — they think only of themselves and hate everyone else.”

Ultimately, the American people must come to grips with their own internal doubts about themselves, their friends and neighbors, and their heritage of an unhampered market economy. As their faith in the state continues to wane in the face of increasing government failures, we can hope that Americans will begin to look inward in an attempt to resolve the doubts they have about themselves. As they raise their self-esteem, individuals will also begin to believe more in others, for when one thinks more highly of himself, he thinks more highly of others, as well.

As this process continues to unfold — and as our fellow Americans begin discovering their libertarian heritage — they will begin asking the questions that we libertarians have asked ourselves for decades. What would a free society look like? How would it work? How would the market process function? Who would benefit? Would the poor be left out? Can the free market really succeed?

The following series of essays will attempt to provide answers to these questions.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

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    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.