For libertarians, things are obviously moving in a very bad direction. The welfare state continues to expand. Government spending is out of control, with the federal government incurring ever-increasing amounts of debt. The Federal Reserve is inflating a new bubble. The feds continue to wage their decades-long war on drugs. The Cold War-era national security state, which continues to play the dominant role within the federal governmental structure, continues to foment perpetual crises and chaos. Military invasions, occupations, assassinations, support of dictatorships, bombings, and other foreign interventions are now the norm for the United States. The federal government wields the totalitarian-like power to round up people, incarcerate them without trial, torture them, and assassinate them. The war on immigrants continues unabated, including against refugees who are fleeing the violence and chaos unleashed by U.S. intervention abroad.
Thus, it’s easy to conclude that the prospects for liberty in the coming year are bleaker than ever. It’s easy to just say, “What’s the point? Freedom is lost! Might as well just give up.”
That would be the biggest mistake that libertarians could ever make.
Ideas on liberty matter. They have the power to bring about a sudden shift in society. That’s precisely why totalitarian dictatorships shut down the dissemination of ideas on liberty. They know that such ideas are capable of bringing a shift in people’s thinking, even to the point of bringing down a regime with omnipotent powers over the citizenry.
Some libertarians claim that the situation is hopeless because, they say, as long as we have government, we will never be able to achieve the free society. They hold that government is like a cancer, one that continues to metastasize until it suppresses freedom entirely.
That’s pure nonsense. Government is not some cancerous blob that grows on its own. Its growth is a direct reflection of how people perceive the role of government in society. If a critical mass of people believe that it is the responsibility of government to take care of people, then government will grow in terms of its welfare functions. If a critical mass of people believe that the Cold War-era national security establishment, empire, and foreign interventionism are necessary to their freedom and safety, then government’s warfare-state functions will grow.
Consider segregation. There was once a time in U.S. history when segregation was an established part of governmental systems at the state level. If government was truly a cancerous blob, we would still have segregation today and to a much larger extent. But we don’t. Segregation has disappeared. That’s because a critical mass of people opposing segregation came into existence and, through the power of ideas, influenced a critical mass of people into ending segregation.
The United States once had Prohibition. It came to an end, thanks to the power of ideas on liberty to bring about a shift in people’s thinking and, consequently, a shift in the direction of government and society.
Ideas can work in a negative way as well. Americans once lived in a society with no income tax, Social Security, Medicare, welfare, minimum-wage laws, drug laws, immigration controls, Federal Reserve, fiat (i.e., paper) money, and a standing army. Through the power of ideas, progressives were able to convince Americans to abandon their philosophy of liberty and limited government in favor of a welfare-warfare state.
Can we achieve the free society in 2016? Maybe, maybe not. But one thing is for sure: If we don’t fight for the free society — if we just give up — or if we settle for just reforming the welfare-warfare state, then the possibility of achieving our goal drops to near zero. The best — perhaps only — chance of bringing about a monumental shift toward libertarianism is by continuing to advocate for libertarianism.
We can never know for sure how close we are to achieving the critical mass of people that is necessary for bringing about the shift. But my hunch is that we are closer than anyone can ever imagine. Keep in mind that libertarians have been advancing libertarianism for decades. Those of us living today are in the later stages of the “long run” that libertarians were thinking of when they were advocating libertarianism in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. And there is no doubt that there are hundreds of thousands of more libertarians today than there were decades ago.
After Adam Smith’s famous book The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, people said that a society based on free trade and free markets could never come into existence owing to the heavy, centuries-old role of the state in economic affairs. Yet, in the middle part of the 1800s, two Englishmen — Richard Cobden and John Bright — led a movement that brought free trade and free markets to England.
Today, we see the drug war crumbling before our eyes. In what amounts to a public confession of wronging, public officials are now releasing thousands of drug-war victims from U.S. jails. Some states have legalized marijuana, deliberately thumbing their noses at the feds whose drug laws still apply to such states. Countless people from all walks of life, including judges, prosecutors, and law-enforcement personnel, are now calling for an end to the drug war. The drug-war’s days are clearly numbered. That shows us the power of ideas to bring a shift in people’s thinking and a shift in society. We’ve just got to keep pushing to bring it to an end. We can do the same with both the welfare state and the warfare state.
We’ve got to keep challenging people to think about the following question: What should be the role of government in a free society? If we can get enough people to begin thinking about that question, then we have a good chance of bringing the free, prosperous, peaceful, and harmonious society into existence within the near term. We just have to keep spreading ideas on liberty.
If you have not yet made an end-of-year donation to FFF, I hope you will do so. We need your support to spread ideas on liberty in the coming year.