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Hornberger's Blog is a daily libertarian blog written by Jacob G. Hornberger, founder and president of FFF.
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The Liberal and Conservative Box


Liberals who have operated under the quaint notion that the welfare state is only for the benefit of the poor, needy, and disadvantaged have had a rude awakening during the past week. With the bailouts of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, and undoubtedly more to come, liberals have learned that the welfare state exists for the sake of big powerful corporations too. All those billions of dollars sure could have purchased lots of food stamps, uh? But hey, with all the financial losses those big companies have suffered, why can’t we call them poor, needy, and disadvantaged too?

We continue to hear liberals prattle on about how the financial crisis is due to the evils of “unfettered capitalism.” Unfortunately, they’re not the only ones. Conservative leader John McCain has announced that if elected, he intends to fire Chris Cox, the head of the SEC. His crime? According to conservative McCain, Cox hasn’t sufficiently regulated the markets.

Notice something important here: Neither conservatives nor liberals question the very notion of the SEC. They both wholeheartedly subscribe to the idea that a government agency needs to exist to regulate the financial markets.

Notice something else important here: The SEC stretches all the way back to the Franklin Roosevelt regime and, therefore, has been in existence for more than 70 years. Yet, when things go wrong, where do conservatives and liberals place the blame? Not on the paradigm of a regulated and controlled economy, which Americans have had since the 1930s, but the “free market,” which Americans haven’t had since the 1930s. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, the “free” in “free market” means free of government regulation.

To understand the malady that afflicts conservatives and liberals, as compared to libertarians, think in terms of two giant boxes. One box is labeled “Socialism and Interventionism.” In that box are all the liberals and conservatives. Their system entails using the federal government to take money from people in order to give it to other people. That is what the welfare state is all about. That is what socialism is all about. Their system also entails using the federal government to regulate private economic activity. That’s what interventionism is all about.

Within the Socialist-Interventionist box, there is sometimes more socialism and more interventionism. Sometimes there is less of both. When there is less socialism and interventionism, that’s what conservatives and liberals call “free enterprise” or “unfettered capitalism.” When there’s more socialism and interventionism, that’s what they call “saving free enterprise.” Neither of them will ever call their system socialism and interventionism because in their mind, America is a “free-enterprise” country and that’s all there is to it. Even today, they are convinced that Roosevelt’s socialist and interventionist system didn’t abandon free enterprise (that is, enterprise free of government control) but rather “saved free enterprise” with its welfare and regulations.

The other box is labeled “Libertarianism.” In this box, there is an absence (not a reform) of such government programs as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, income taxation, welfare, economic regulations, trade restrictions, drug laws, foreign wars, empire, immigration controls, a central bank, public (i.e., government) schooling, legal-tender laws, and paper money. That’s what libertarians mean by the terms “free enterprise” or “free markets.” It’s a way of life in which economic activity is free of coercive redistribution of wealth and government control of economic activity. It’s a way of life in which people are free to make their own economic decisions and bear the responsibility for those decisions.

Is it surprising that conservatives and liberals are so spooked by libertarianism? In their box, the libertarian paradigm just doesn’t fit, precisely because it is an entirely different paradigm from socialism and interventionism. The liberal and conservative box is based on the existence of those programs, and there are incessant battles within the box over who is going to get to run them.

When along comes a libertarian and says, “I favor the repeal, not the reform, of all those government programs,” conservatives and liberals become befuddled, confused, and sometimes even angry. Their entire world-view is being shattered by libertarians because their paradigm of “free enterprise” is based on the existence, not the absence, of those programs. Dealing with a libertarian causes liberals and conservatives no small amount of discomfort and dis-ease because it makes them confront their life of the lie and their life of unreality.

Is it any wonder both conservatives and liberals sometimes wish that libertarians would just go away and leave them alone?

This post was written by:

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.