Part 1 | Part 2
I believe that when it comes to liberty, principles and ideals are everything. It has been principles and ideals that have given us such grand and glorious achievements as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, habeas corpus, due process of law, and trial by jury.
I also believe that adherence to principle is key to achieving a free society. Abandoning principle for the sake of popularity, acceptance, or credibility will doom any chance we have for achieving freedom in our lifetime.
Imagine that you live in Alabama in 1858. You learn of a slavery-reform group that calls for better conditions for slaves on the plantations. The group calls for fewer lashings, shorter work hours, better food, and improved healthcare. Even though the organization is being criticized by plantation owners, you decide to join and support it. You want to see the slavery system reformed in positive ways. You are doing your best to make life better for the slaves as they live and work on the plantations. No doubt the slaves will appreciate what you are doing for them.
There is one big problem, however: Slavery reform would not be freedom. Achieving freedom would require the end, not the reform, of slavery.
Now, bring yourself back to the 21st century. We Americans live what can be called a life of serfdom under a welfare-warfare state, a type of governmental system in which the state is sovereign and the citizens are subordinate.
Conservatives and liberals and even many libertarians have devoted their lives, resources, and energies to reforming and improving the welfare-warfare state system. Welfare reform. Regulatory reform. Criminal-justice reform. Income-tax reform. Drug-war reform. Monetary reform. Social Security reform. Medicare reform. Foreign-policy reform. Education reform. Reform of the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA.
Such reforms, of course, might well improve the lives of American serfs, just as slavery reforms in Alabama might have improved the lives of the slaves. But it is important to recognize that a reformed serfdom is not freedom. If all that we libertarians do is succeed in reforming the serfdom system under which we live, the most we will have achieved is an improved way of life as serfs. We will not have achieved our freedom, which is what libertarianism is really all about. Freedom necessarily consists of dismantling every infringement on freedom. It requires the repeal, abolition, or end of every single government program, law, regulation, department, and agency that forms a part of the welfare-warfare state.
Are Americans free?
There are two critically important questions that I believe should be discussed and debated all across America, particularly in the context of the 2020 political races: What does it mean to be free? And what is the legitimate role of government in a free society?
Why are these two questions so critically important?
First, in order to achieve a genuinely free society, it is necessary for Americans to come to the realization that they are not genuinely free, no matter how much they might believe they are.
Second, once people realize that they aren’t free, then they have to make the choice whether they want to be free.
Third, if they want to be free, an understanding of the legitimate role of government in a free society becomes imperative.
The fact is that most Americans honestly believe that they are free. This is one of the major distinguishing characteristics between non-libertarians, including both conservatives and liberals (i.e., progressives), and libertarians. Non-libertarians are convinced that Americans are a free people and that they live in a free country. Libertarians know that that simply isn’t true.
I myself grew up thinking that I was free. Like most other children in the 1950s and 1960s, I was sent into the state’s public-schooling system. Most children who are sent into that system end up thinking the same thing that I did — that they live in a free country. That’s because one of the main purposes of the state’s educational system is to indoctrinate children into believing that they are free. When I was a public-school student for 12 years, everyone in class would be required to stand and recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which stated in part that America was a country where there was “liberty and justice for all.”
It wasn’t until I discovered libertarianism that I realized the deep and insidious nature of the lie with which I had been indoctrinated. Libertarianism enabled me to “break through” the years of indoctrination and see the truth. The same applies to every other libertarian.
Non-libertarians have not yet achieved that breakthrough. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, if a person is convinced he’s already free, he is not going to do anything to achieve a free society. The words of the 19th-century German thinker Johann von Goethe describe the plight of American non-libertarians: “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”
The mindset of modern-day Americans, including both conservatives and liberals, also explains their befuddlement over our libertarian goal of achieving a genuinely free society. As far as they are concerned, if one is already free, then what’s the point of striving to achieve a free society?
Let us examine particular aspects of America’s governmental system in order to demonstrate this phenomenon more clearly.
Social Security and the welfare state
Contrary to popular opinion, especially among seniors, Social Security is not a retirement program. There is no retirement fund into which seniors have “contributed” their money over their lifetime. There are no individual lockboxes at Fort Knox with the name of each senior on them that contain each person’s “contributions.”
In fact, no one makes any contributions at all. People pay taxes, just as people throughout history have paid taxes. The government uses those tax revenues in certain ways, for example to pay the expenses of running the government. Taxes are not contributions. They are forced exactions imposed by the government. And the government normally spends its tax revenues as soon as it receives them.
The idea of taxing the young to give money to seniors originated among German socialists at the end of the 1800s. American Progressives embraced the idea and made it their goal to have it adopted here in the United States. Social Security was adopted in the United States the 1930s.
Social Security is based on the concept of mandatory “charity.” Under this system, the state forcibly collects taxes in order to give the money to seniors, after deducting the necessary amount to cover its expenses to perform that service. The system in which the state takes money from people to whom it belongs in order to give it to others has come to be known as the “welfare state.” Based on the Marxian principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need,” Social Security is a variation of the socialist paradigm.
Medicare and Medicaid are based on the same principle — taking money from one group of people and using it to provide health-care services to another group of people. The same applies to farm subsidies, education grants, foreign aid, and every other welfare-state program.
It’s worth noting that the American people lived without income taxation and Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other welfare-state programs, departments, and agencies for more than a century. From the time the United States came into existence in the late 1700s until the welfare state was adopted in the 1930s, charity was voluntary. Our American ancestors believed that a system of voluntary charity was the only system that was compatible with the principles of a free society.
There is no way that one can reconcile a system based on mandatory “charity” with the principles of individual freedom. A genuinely free society is one in which people are free to keep everything they earn and decide for themselves what to do with it.
Thus, with its principle of coerced charity, the welfare state constitutes a massive infringement on freedom. Therefore, a necessary prerequisite for achieving a free society is lifting that infringement. Leaving Social Security intact necessarily defers that freedom.
Conservatives and liberals, needless to say, are both committed to preserving Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and most other welfare-state programs. They believe that people cannot be trusted with freedom. They are convinced that most young people would turn their backs on their parents and grandparents in a time of emergency or need. They say that young people simply cannot be trusted with the freedom to make that decision on their own. They say that they need to be forced to care for their loved ones. If Social Security and Medicare and other welfare-state programs were abolished today, they claim, there would be people dying in the streets tomorrow. Conservatives and liberals have no faith in freedom or a free people. Their system of state-mandated “charity” is based on a lack of faith in freedom, in themselves, in others, and even in God, who vested man with the gift of free will.
We libertarians believe otherwise. We believe that freedom necessarily entails the right to keep everything a person earns and decide for himself what to do with it — save, invest, donate, or spend. In a genuinely free society, no one is forced to share his money with anyone, including his parents, grandparents, the poor, or some foreign ruler. We also believe that people can be trusted with freedom and that a free people will respond positively to honoring their mother and father and helping others in need, all on a voluntary basis.
Many conservatives and liberals know that Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other welfare-state programs contradict the principles of a free society. They don’t care. They are willing to relinquish freedom for the “security” that comes with the dole society. Having a government “safety net” is more important to them than a genuinely free society, one in which there is no safety net, one in which everyone is free to keep his own money and decide what to do with it.
But there are still many non-libertarians who simply do not realize that the welfare state contradicts the principles of freedom. Remember: They are convinced that they are free even though they know that they live under a welfare-state system.
That’s why these two questions should be discussed and debated all across the country and are so critically important: What does it mean to be free, and what is the legitimate role of government in a free society? In order to want freedom, people have to first discover what we libertarians have discovered — that we are not free and that one of the reasons we are not free is that we live in a system based on mandatory “charity.”
Now, it is true that when non-libertarians discover that they are not free, they might well decide to join the ranks of conservatives and liberals and choose welfare-state security over freedom. But at least then they are making a conscious choice. And when people realize that they are faced with a choice, at least there exists the possibility that they will join up with us libertarians and choose freedom over security.
This is where methodology and principle come into play insofar as we libertarians are concerned.
When it comes to Social Security and Medicare, many libertarians have decided to settle for reform rather than stand firmly for repeal and abolition. Given that a free society necessarily entails lifting all infringements on liberty, libertarian reformers have effectively surrendered any hope for a free society in the near term. They have resigned themselves to doing their best to improve the lot of the serfs on the plantation. They have given up on achieving freedom.
One popular libertarian reform plan, for example, calls for replacing the current Social Security system with one based on mandatory retirement accounts. Under this plan, the state would require everyone to contribute a certain amount of money into a government-approved and government-regulated retirement account. The plan would be like a mandatory IRA or 401k program.
Would that type of Social Security system be better than the one that we have now? Maybe, maybe not. But notice something important: There would still be governmental force involved. People would not be free to decide for themselves whether to save for their retirement or not. That freedom of choice would be denied them. Such a plan would fall under the rubric of “economic fascism,” a system in which private ownership of property is allowed but only under strict government control or regulation. It is not a coincidence that proponents of this particular Social Security reform plan use as their model the Social Security program of Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet, a brutal and ruthless unelected military dictator.
Notice something else important: The adoption of a fascist Social Security program would necessarily mean that freedom would be deferred for a long time, at the very least for decades. That’s because the reform plan would inevitably remain in existence at least for the life span of today’s seniors.
There is something else to consider about such a plan: today’s seniors. Even if a fascist retirement plan were adopted, that would cover only young people today. What about today’s seniors? What would happen to them under such a plan? There is no way that libertarian proponents of a fascist retirement program would leave today’s seniors hanging. They know that to get their fascist plan adopted, they would have to show how today’s seniors would continue to be taken care of by the government.
Thus, a fascist Social Security plan would inevitably have to be a hybrid Social Security plan, one that maintains the old socialist system for today’s seniors and simultaneously adopts the fascist system for younger people. Let’s say that seniors live, on average, another 20 years. That necessarily means freedom is deferred for another two
decades. And then what if 20 years from now, people who are 40 today claim that they have a “right” to get back what they “put in.” Saying yes to them would mean another 20 years of freedom deferred. That means at least 40 more years before libertarians can achieve the free society. And then what if the second batch of 40-year-olds claims, “We put it in and so we have a right to get it back”? It means that freedom is deferred forever.
For those of us who want freedom now, neither a socialist nor fascist Social Security plan is satisfactory. The only thing that is consistent with freedom is the immediate repeal, not the reform, of Social Security as well as Medicare, Medicaid, education grants, farm subsidies, foreign aid, and every other welfare-state program.
Is such a goal attainable? If so, how do we achieve it?
This article was originally published in the July 2019 edition of Future of Freedom.