This January 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of The Future of Freedom Foundation’s monthly publication, Future of Freedom, which at its beginning was called Freedom Daily. Three decades means a total of 360 issues, containing even more hundreds of articles. Virtually every important policy issue, foreign and domestic, was written about as those months and years went by.
The world in the 1990s
Looking back, it might have seemed strange to some that a new organization dedicated to individual liberty and free markets was being established at that time. After all, in 1990, communism seemed to be crumbling all around the world. The Eastern European captive nations forced into the political and military orbit of the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War were regaining their national independence and introducing democratic governments. They all were declaring their intention of reintroducing rights to private property in the means of production and dismantling their socialist central-planning systems and replacing them with market-based supply and demand.
This was all symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, a structure that more than most other things during the Cold War years caught the essence of a totalitarian system closing off all those under its control from the free movement of ideas and people. Then at the end of 1991, the Soviet Union literally disappeared from the map of the world, with the successor states of the internal Soviet Empire announcing, one after the other, an intention of joining the West in transforming their nations into democratic market economies.
Yes, China was still a communist one-party system, with the Party authorities showing their willingness to use brutal force against all dissenters, as seen on television across the globe in June 1989, when the Chinese army stormed Tiananmen Square in Beijing and killed hundreds if not thousands of students and others calling for democratic reforms. But China had introduced market-type reforms, and with growing economic prosperity, it was hoped that this would also lead to political change as well.
Some even declared that it was “the end of history,” with all the “isms” other than “democratic capitalism” having fallen by the wayside. Peace, freedom, and representative governments were now the future everywhere for all time. “Capitalism” had triumphed over socialist central planning; democracy had won over tyranny.
Freedom slipping away in America
At home, it was not so clear that freedom was spreading its wings. President George H.W. Bush was soon “liberating” Kuwait and invading Iraq. Government spending continued to increase, and the interventionist-welfare state was still in place and being as intrusive as ever.
But on the other hand, divided government during the Clinton presidency seemed to rein in the growth of government. In fact, for two or three years there were even federal government budget surpluses. Was the end to the Keynesian deficit-spending mindset finally upon us?
All the while in the 1990s, those writing for The Future of Freedom Foundation, most especially its founder and president, Jacob G. Hornberger, and others including me, not only argued but insisted that freedom was far from being restored or secured from the invasive hands of Uncle Sam.
Month after month, those at FFF insisted that minor slowdowns in the rate of government spending, moderate declines in the number of government regulations, a few cuts in taxes, and new and continuing foreign interventions in various parts of the world (such as the U.S. bombing of Serbia, the landing of special forces in Somalia, and the destruction of a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan to distract from Bill Clinton’s legal problems) did not suggest that America was moving into a real and meaningful rebirth of liberty.
The fact is, the hydra-headed monster of Big Government was still moving across the land. In spite of the collapse of Soviet communism, the underlying political philosophy that had created that ideological leviathan, as well as all other forms of collectivism in the 20th century, had not been defeated and had not disappeared from the stage of human history.
The surveillance state
All of that became clear as the new century made its appearance on that world stage. Rather than receding from the international scene, foreign interventions by the U.S. government only expanded in size and scope following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Trade Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
Insisting that those attacks were due to those Islamic fanatics’ “hating us for who we are,” George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan to root out the planners and initiators of the attacks, and then, two years later, directed the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of its government because of an asserted threat of nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. The president and his policy advisors were determined to remake the Middle East in America’s “democratic” image, whether or not the peoples in that part of the world wanted to be so transformed and with little regard for the financial and human cost on all sides from the attempt to do so.
Accompanying that came a new era of government surveillance and intrusion into the everyday lives of, in principle, every person inside the United States based on the excessive fear that there was a fanatic terrorist under every bed. Personal liberty and freedom of association were threatened and cast aside on the presumption that America was, everywhere and at any time, the potential target of enemies around the world.
That America’s interventions in other parts of the world, and the misuses and abuses coming with U.S. military and diplomatic attempts to macro- and micro-manage lives and political activities in other countries, may be the source of the resentment and opposition and resistance to America as the self-declared policeman of the globe never seemed to enter the minds of the foreign-policy central planners in Washington, D.C.
Consistently since its inception in 1989, and especially after the 9/11 attacks, The Future of Freedom Foundation has been one of the few voices to challenge and criticize American foreign intervention. That has been done in FFF’s monthly articles and daily commentaries on its website and in speeches, conferences, and video presentations, as well as through a pair of important books, The Failure of America’s Foreign Wars (1995) and Liberty, Security, and the War on Terrorism (2003).
Interventionist-welfare state at home
At the same time, increased military spending to fight America’s foreign wars was joined by continuing growth in the domestic welfare state. The era of deficit spending, as some had believed or hoped, was far from over. Indeed, over the last two decades, it has become even worse. A national debt that came to around $5 trillion in 2000 now stands at about $22.5 trillion and will only get far worse over the next decade, according to all reasonable projections.
While military spending fed the cost of government that required the annual deficit borrowing during that time, the major culprits were the domestic entitlement programs — Social Security and Medicare, plus other health-care expenditures — that now eat up about 50 percent of everything that the federal government spends; and they are growing each year. The domestic welfare state is the real anaconda threatening to strangle the financial life out of the country.
On top of all that, there is now in the White House a president who seems to think in the crudest nationalist terms concerning America’s relationship with the rest of the world. Donald Trump perversely sees the world as a zero-sum game: if another country improves its economic circumstances as a result of its trading with America, it very likely means that the other country has somehow “taken advantage” of the United States and thus made the American people worse off.
That trade between people in different countries is a positive sum game in which all voluntary transactors are made better off, seems not to have any place in Trump’s thinking. Instead, he states that to set the world economically right and “make America great again,” he needs to bully other countries and dictate whom Americans trade with and on what terms through executive orders on tariffs and sanctions. Here is the new version of GOP government central planning.
Here, too, the Future of Freedom Foundation has stood, forthright, for individual freedom, unrestricted free markets, and limited government with secure civil liberties and impartial rule of law. In numerous articles, and published books, FFF has insisted, on the basis of logical argumentation and historical evidence, that Trump’s domestic policies are continuing to send the United States on roads to serfdom and financial ruin.
The new democratic socialism
With a presidential election year before us, what is offered by the Democrats as an alternative to Trump’s nationalism and mercantilism? In the frankest terms, a horror file of collectivist paternalism with calls for “democratic socialism” as a “progressive” way forward. If there is any meaning to the phrase “back to the future,” the candidates for the Democratic Party nomination for the presidency represent it in the extreme.
The American Left has always had a serious problem facing up to reality: the inescapability of scarcity; the need for trade-offs in a world in which we cannot get everything we want all the time and at the same time; the disincentives of taxes and regulation on work, savings, and investment; and most important, a fundamental resistance to simply leaving people alone to go about peacefully planning and directing their own lives for their own chosen purposes in voluntary association with others both in the marketplace and within the institutions of civil society.
The leading Democratic Party rivals for the nomination are almost cartoonish exaggerations of all the Left’s worse faults and foibles. They all promise the moon of more and more paternalistic goods in any amounts wanted, with little or no thought of how and by whom it will get paid, other than the usual blanket assurance that the money will come from “the rich,” the “one percent,” the “privileged white males” who are claimed to be abusing everyone else in society.
Government planning is the part of that “back to the future” in which almost all of the candidates live, a time warp in which the real-world experiences with central planning over the last one hundred years are treated as if they never occurred. They speak and act as if all we need to do is wish for the central planners to have all the knowledge, wisdom, and ability they will need to set the world right; it is captured in the proposal for a Green New Deal, with its comprehensive control of all of society.
Freedom and the origins of FFF
If we ask why we have these ideological and political trends over the last thirty years, in spite of the downfall of the Soviet Union, the failure of all forms of central planning, and the reality of government control of economic affairs that inescapably leads to the loss of many other freedoms, as well as the corruption that comes with the greater politicization of life, the answer comes down to the failure of a proper, thorough, and persuasive understanding of what freedom means, why it should be considered essential to human existence, and how without it neither social harmony nor economic prosperity is possible.
That is what motivated the founding of The Future of Freedom Foundation by Jacob Hornberger and the publishing of the first issue of Freedom Daily in January 1990. Jacob and I met in Dallas, Texas, in 1984. He was practicing law and I had recently taken up a teaching position at the University of Dallas. The chairman of the economics department, Samuel Bostaph, had been reading through the great works of economics in a tutorial with Jacob — Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Malthus, John Stuart Mill, Carl Menger, and Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk — and they had reached the point when they were to start reading through Ludwig von Mises’s Human Action (1949).
Bostaph suggested that Jacob should continue his tutorial with me by going though Mises’s Human Action, since I was known to be fairly familiar with Mises’s writings. However, after a few sessions together, our conversations often drifted away from the particular text of Mises’s work and more towards the nature of a free society and the values and institutions without which liberty may not be sustainable.
We also ended up exploring what might be the limits to government action, by which both of us understood the question of what areas beyond which government actions would be inconsistent with respecting the freedom of individuals and would hamper the free association that is the basis of collaborative cooperation among those living in a society of liberty.
Our conclusion was that, if government exists, any actions or intrusions by those in political authority beyond the protection of each person’s life, liberty, and honestly acquired property, inescapably involves an unjustifiable abridgement of one person’s freedom for the benefit of some other. In other words, we reached the conclusion that the more radical and consistent 19th-century classical liberals had been correct: a free society is one of economic and social laissez-faire.
A consistent laissez-faire liberalism
What the classical liberals of the past and too many friends of freedom today did not appreciate was that on purely economic grounds, many of the goods and services people presumed that government had to supply — infrastructure, central banking, roads and highways, any and all assistance to the poor and the needy, health-care and old-age planning — all could be far more effectively and efficiently provided through marketplace competition and private enterprise.
To turn to government in any of them or similar matters was to concede that government planning was superior to the outcomes to be expected from a self-interested pur-suit of profit in the competitive arena of supply and demand. Furthermore, history showed many instances in which such social problems had been handled and solved by the private sector in the past before government monopolized or crowded out private enterprise and voluntary associations.
However, whatever case could and should be made for the privatization of all such activities in the name of efficiency and prosperity, we agreed that there was a more fundamental and essential one: the moral case for individual liberty.
Natural rights and individual liberty
Does the individual possess a natural right to his liberty? Does the individual possess his rights to life, liberty, and honestly acquired property by the “pleasure” of those in political power — be it an absolute monarch or an unlimited democratic majority — or does the individual possess them from a higher source, be it a Creator who has breathed life into each person and given him liberty, or, instead, from a reasoned reflection on the nature of man, the world in which we all live, the requirements for a human being to survive and prosper, and the social conditions without which society would be reduced to master and slave relationships regardless of how that association may be called?
Of course, this conception of the natural rights of every human being, propounded by the British philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) and inspired by him, is found in the ideas of the American Founders as articulated in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. For all the shortcomings of the U.S. Constitution and criticisms that may be made about it, it was clear to us that its design and structure were meant to serve as the institutional constraint on government itself, so as to preserve the liberty of each and every individual.
The American idea of liberty has been slipping away.
That conception is the foundational basis of American society that has been slipping away, especially over the last one hundred years, from the early 20th-century Progressives through the New Dealers of the 1930s and the Great Society social engineers of the 1960s, to the identity-politics tribalists and central planners of our own time.
The problem has not only been those on the Left, but too many American conservatives as well, who have claimed to oppose government direction of economic
affairs, but who have, in reality, supported the growth of the interventionist-welfare state by conceding that government has social responsibilities that, however, should not be taken too far, and should be managed in cost-efficient business-like ways. And, worse, they have too often happily called for political paternalism when it has concerned matters of personal lifestyles and interpersonal relationships and actions of which they ethically disapprove.
And many, both on the political Left and in conservative circles, have accepted the notion of America’s paternalistic place in the world. The circumstances and rationales for foreign interventionism may be points of controversy among Progressives and conservatives, but both believe in and call for U.S. social engineering in other countries through financial, political, and military means. Both American servicemen and the citizens experiencing American intrusion into their own country’s affairs are considered expendable pawns, “collateral damage,” in the pursuit of the goals of the Washington foreign-policy planners.
For the last three decades, The Future of Freedom Foundation has stood for and articulated that consistent case for individual liberty and noninterventionism of all types, both at home and abroad. This, in my opinion, has been part of its uniqueness and importance in the battle of ideas.
But it can be asked, has The Future of Freedom Foundation made a difference in all that time? Has it been worth the generous support that friends of freedom have kindly given FFF in its endeavors for liberty? With the acceptance that I am clearly not an unbiased person, I strongly argue, “Yes.”
Every long-term advance in the march toward great liberty has required taking principled, consistent, and uncompromising stances to arouse the consciousness and win the support of members of society. Whether it has been ending slavery, or opening the world to free trade, or establishing a greater equality of individual rights for all before the law, it has been spearheaded by those who insisted that liberty was the goal and should not be compromised in any of its forms and facets. And such consistency, at the end of the day, has made the difference.
This is what The Future of Freedom Foundation has been, is, and always will be about. And in this, it has made a difference by holding up the idea and ideal of a truly free society for all to see and for none to ignore.
This article was originally published in the January 2020 edition of Future of Freedom.