Many in the media and some among the voting public are focused, now, on the field of candidates who are offering themselves as the presidential nominees of the Republican and Democratic Parties.
Every few weeks those on the Republican side have been confronting each other in television news-bite talking sessions that are loosely called “debates.” The candidates lash out at each other with one-line zingers and frequent insults; they search for rhetoric-filled summaries of how each differs from the others on various “hot-topic” issues from immigration and foreign policy to getting government spending under control; at the same time they assure the viewers that each of them has the silver bullet to “create jobs,” make America strong, and restore the American dream.
Republican Contenders Begging to be Chosen
One presents himself as a loud-mouth boor; another as a born-again “saint”; another as a tough as nails business executive who knows how to cut other world leaders down to size; still others assertively say they have the hard won “experience” to do what is necessary since they have been a state governor or a senator in Congress – as if being a professional politician should be considered a positive employment recommendation!
This is often wrapped in accounts of the life stories of their families, their careers, and how qualified they are to “lead” the country back to “greatness.” Their voices often quiver with the desperate attempt to persuade the viewer-voters that they are really qualified to become president of the United States and “run the country.” Their faces sometimes pathetically cry out, “Please, please, pick me, pick me.”
How sad to see human beings so anxious to win and fearful of losing the chance to sit in that chair in the Oval Office of the White House. Watching some of them becomes uncomfortably embarrassing as they either grovel or arrogantly cling to the hope of becoming “history.”
Democratic Contenders Pursuing Power and Fantasies
The Democratic candidates offer a slightly different variation on this theme. With lies, deceptions, and corruption dripping in her wake, the leading Democratic hopeful acts with occasional false modesty that she has a “right” to win the race to the White House. After all, is she not a women and isn’t time for the female affirmative action quota to take the presidential oath of office? Besides, she “earned” it; didn’t she suffer the humiliation of that philandering and power-lusting husband of hers? This is national “pay-back” for those eight long years in the White House as First Lady. Plus, that power-lusting desire, after all, seems to run in this family.
Then there is the almost comical throwback to the 1970s notion of “socialism with a human face.” Babbling on about ‘fairness” and “social justice,” he lives in a la-la land of ideological fantasy and deep psychological denial about how reality works if you actually want freedom and prosperity. He lives in a dream world in which government control and command is made to seem to have nothing to do with the use of force without which his egalitarian utopia cannot be successfully imposed.
The Shallowness and Bias of Media Moderators
The moderators among the media at these “debates” show their own mindsets by the questions they ask, and the premises behind them. Sometimes they seem to be in group-therapy sessions in which some take pleasure in throwing ad hominem attack questions at others to trip them up and make them look stupid, foolish and small before everyone else.
The rest of the time the questions demonstrate a shallowness and ignorance about people, government, society and the economy. The underlying premise, however, in virtually all the questions is: How will you plan and regulate society better than the others to achieve “socially just” and desirable goals and purposes?
Every candidate is challenged and expected to explain how they will be a better social engineer and economic planner over the country, than his competitors. And, please be specific on how you plan to reshape society to fit the presumed “progressive” agenda of more and greater political paternalism over a growing number of people in society.
At the same time, the audiences at these events remind one of those period-piece movie spectaculars of the 1950s where the Roman gladiators are in the arena and the huge crowds cheer or boo depending upon whether their “favorite” has wounded his opponent or suffered a fatal blow themselves.
Unanswered Questions Concerning Liberty and Limited Government
The friend of freedom has little to be enthusiastic about in these “reality shows” of the presidential nominating campaigns. Not once, to my knowledge, has any one of the questioners asked the candidates: What do you understand as the meaning and importance of the traditional American conception of liberty? What do you consider the legitimate functions of the federal government under the Constitution?
Given your answers to the previous two questions, what departments, bureaus, and agencies of the federal government should be abolished? Which of them do you think should be retained or expanded? On what basis do you think that such retention and expansion can be justified?
What makes you and your rivals in this campaign think that they have sufficient knowledge, wisdom, and ability to intrusively micro-manage a wide variety of the personal, social and economic aspects of the citizenry’s everyday life?
What do you consider to be U.S. government’s constitutionally legitimate functions and duties in the area of foreign policy? Given your answer, do you think this justifies or enables the current level of American foreign political, economic, and military intervention in other parts of the world?
Taking Liberty Seriously is Not in Anyone’s Mind
A reason that such questions are not asked, in my view I very sadly suggest, is that it never enters anyone’s mind – either questioner or candidate – that such questions and their possible answers have any meaning.
Many years ago I once asked former Texas congressman, Ron Paul, what surprised him the most when he first entered the House of Representatives and interacted with his colleagues in that august institution?
Ron Paul replied the discovery that there were two arguments that if he made them in remarks in the well of the House, would result in almost all of the others laughing at him and not taking him seriously.
What were these two arguments? That some proposed piece of legislation was either immoral (in violating the individual rights of the American people) or was unconstitutional (in extending federal power and control beyond its legitimate functions under the law of the land), or both.
It is not surprising that in such a political environment such fundamental questions about the political order of America, and meaning and importance of individual liberty as the foundational principle of the society is not even brought up.
Our Age of Paternalism and Collectivism
We live in an age of political paternalism and social and economic collectivism. Yes, it is not of the extreme and brutal forms experienced under authoritarian and totalitarian regimes in other parts of the world over the last one hundred years.
It is a “kinder and gentler” collectivism and paternalism in that it wraps itself in democratic institutions and covers itself in the rhetoric of “freedom,” “justice,” “equality” and “fairness.”
And because of this it possesses a high degree of legitimacy among the American citizenry, whether on the political “conservative” or (modern) “liberal” side of the electoral contests. Most Americans want an “activist,” interventionist, redistributive, paternalistic state.
Now, it is certainly true that “conservatives” and “liberals” often seem to differ widely about what type of activism, interventionism, paternalism, and redistribution that they want and for what and for whose benefit.
But, nonetheless, there is little disagreement or dispute that the government should have these extra-constitutional powers and responsibilities. The “debates,” most of the time, are merely over for what these powers of the state should used, to what degree, and for whose advantage at the expense of others in society.
What is the friend of freedom, then, to do? Each of us, of course, must make our own personal choices as to whether or not to vote, and if so, which candidate (if any) seems less objectionable that the others from a relatively broad “freedom” point-of-view, given the options in first the primary elections and then in the general election in November 2016.
Freedom’s Future will Not be Decided in the Next Election
But more fundamentally we must accept the fact that “freedom” will not be won during the 2016 election year. The “politics” of the 2016 election reflects political and ideological currents of ideas that began decades ago, and which slowly but surely finally have come to dominate and, in fact, control the general “climate of opinion” in American society.
That’s why the questioners at the political “debates” ask the questions they do, and why those anxiously trying to win the brace-ring of the presidency answer the way they do. The questions and the answers reflect the American culture, context, and limits of political discourse at the present time.
The Goal of Changing the Long-Run Climate of Opinion
Our task as friends of freedom, therefore, is to take the long-view, to influence and eventually change the general climate of opinion so that, someday, questions actually relating to liberty and limited government will be at the forefront of such political debates, and the candidates will be expected to accordingly give appropriate and reasonable answers.
In the 1970s, Austrian economist and Nobel Prize winner, Friedrich A. Hayek, once argued that liberty loses because it has lost clear and well-defined principles:
A successful defense of freedom must therefore be dogmatic and make no concessions to expediency . . . Freedom will prevail only if it is accepted as a general principle whose application to particular instances requires no justification . . . People will not refrain from those restrictions on individual liberty that appear to them the simplest and most direct remedy of a recognized evil, if there does not prevail a strong belief in definite principles.
These principles are those upon which the American “experiment” in self-governance was founded. That the individual has an inherent and absolute right to his own life, liberty and honestly acquired property that serve as the means for his own pursuit of the personal happiness that may give meaning, value, and purpose to his own life.
And this must be explained in a way and in a context that persuasively shows that such a meaning to freedom is unattainable in a political setting in which the government takes command and control of people’s lives in small and great ways.
And that when such freedom prevails it also provides the most effective and efficacious means also to solve and advance many of those “social values” and concerns that well-meaning and benevolent people may reasonably be concerned with in a world of other human beings and a natural environment about which they may deeply care.
A Classical Liberal Utopian Ideal of a Free Society
Friedrich Hayek once went further than this. In a famous essay on “The Intellectuals and Socialism” (1949), he argued that the case for liberty has to be persuasively presented as a humane and ethical ideal that people of goodwill and moral concern could call their own.
Indeed, Hayek said that the friends of freedom must once again make the case and cause of liberty a “Utopia” worth believing in and fighting to attain. He did not mean “utopia” as a fantasy conception of a world that can never be, given the nature of man and the world we live.
He meant a good, moral, and appealing conception of a society in which the individual is secure in his individual rights and liberty, in which a society of human beings is grounded on the ethical ideal of mutual respect through relationships based on voluntary and peaceful consent, rather than brutality, tyranny and force.
A world in which the creative potentials of men and women are set free in the peaceful arena of competitive market association and trade that releases the human mind and body from political bondage and allows those minds to raise humanity from poverty into material, cultural, and social plenty.
A world in which each and every individual is respected and protected as a distinct and unique person, and as not the pawn in the purposes of others through political plundering by those in governmental power.
We must be able to offer a new [classical] liberal program which appeals to the imagination. We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage.
What we lack is a [classical] liberal Utopia, a program which seems neither a mere defense of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism which does not spare the sensibilities of the mighty (including trade unions), which is not too severely practical, and which does not confine itself to what appears today as politically possible.
We need intellectual leaders who are prepared to resist the blandishments of power and influence and who are willing to work for an ideal, however small may be the prospects of its early realization. They must be men who are willing to stick to principles and to fight for their full realization, however remote . . .
The main lesson which the true liberal must learn from the success of the socialists is that it was their courage to be Utopian which gained them support of the intellectuals and therefore an influence on public opinion which is daily making possible what only recently seemed utterly remote.
Unless we can make the philosophical foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task which challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark.
But if we can regain that belief in the power of ideas which was the mark of [classical] liberalism, the battle is not lost.
This is the horizon toward which we should direct our efforts, if our concern is with the long-term restoration of the idea and ideal of liberty in America. Otherwise, we will stumble from one short run-focused election cycle to another without the necessary change in the underlying ideas in the context of which political campaigning and voting is guided and determined.