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The Fall of Libertarianism or the Failure of Interventionism? A Reply to Francis Fukuyama


FRANCIS FUKUYAMA gained international recognition in 1989 when he published an article in The National Interest entitled “The End of Man.” He offered a “Hegelian” conception of the evolution and direction of human history. In short, he argued that human society was following a dialectical trajectory of development that would end with the triumph of liberal democracy around the globe. The imminent collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and the yearning for “democracy” and “liberal” society in those parts of the world seemed to suggest that Western European and North American-style liberal democratic society would now triumph all over the world. Even in Third World countries, the appeal of liberal democracy seemed to be on the increase.

Unfortunately for Fukuyama, however, there are no “laws” of human evolution and development discernible or discoverable with any of the scientific certainty or exactitude that we find in such fields as physics or chemistry. Men make history; history — in the Hegelian sense — does not make men. There is no “idea” that is the purpose of “history” and towards the complete purity of which men in their actions and institutions are propelled independent of their wills and wishes.

It must have seemed to many people in the 18th and early 19th centuries that all the social currents and political trends were “moving” humanity in the direction of the free, classical-liberal order. Tyranny and despotism must have appeared as atavistic residues of the far less enlightened past. “After all my good fellow,” they probably often said to each other, “this is the 19th century! Reason and science will continue to guide us more and more in the direction of the civil and humane society while continuing to expand our material standards of living.”

How forlornly the older generation in the early decades of the 20th century must have looked at the world around them in comparison with the world of their youth. Now approaching the end of their lives, what they saw was the emerging epoch of totalitarianism in its various communist, fascist, and National Socialist forms, instead of the expected era of freedom and prosperity. Many in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, were certain that the end of freedom had arrived and that a new dark age of tyranny and brutality would be the fate of mankind. George Orwell feared and opposed the rise of Big Brother, but in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four the anti-hero Winston Smith is brainwashed and hails Big Brother at the end of the story. There could be no escape from the Total State.

Who among us really expected to see the end of Soviet communism in our lifetime and to see its demise come so rapidly and with so little loss of human life in the process? And what would have been the turn of “history” if in 1985, the Communist Party leadership had chosen as party leader not Gorbachev but instead the Leningrad “hardliner” Romanov? The “trajectory” of history might have followed a different course for the remainder of the 20th century.

Now there is one “superpower” that increasingly is portrayed — at least within the United States — as the defender and champion of the new era of freedom and democracy around the world. And the presumption is — again within the United States — that the world will be a better place with America pursuing its “destiny” as guardian of all that is good and right around the globe. And how unenlightened and narrow-minded, how “unpatriotic” and backward those few in America who do not see this necessary role for the United States in the postcommunist world.

The global policeman

Francis Fukuyama is clearly persuaded that “history” requires America to wear the mantle of global policeman if the evolution towards global liberal democracy is to be fulfilled. Those who oppose this historical necessity eliminate themselves from the realm of reasonable discourse concerning the direction of American public policy. Thus on the opinion page of the May 2, 2002, edition of the Wall Street Journal, Fukuyama entitles his op-ed “The Fall of the Libertarians.”

He writes, “The great free-market revolution that began with the coming to power of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan at the close of the 1970s has finally reached its Thermidor, or point of reversal.” That revolution was guided by “a simple idea of liberty, to wit, that the modern welfare state had grown too large, and that individuals were excessively regulated.” The fall of Soviet communism seemed to demonstrate the correctness of this revolution.

But beginning with the Republican-dominated Congress under the leadership of Newt Gingrich in 1994, “Mr. Reagan’s classical liberalism began to evolve into libertarianism, an ideology hostile to the state in all its manifestations.” Fukuyama argues, “Libertarianism is a far more radical dogma whose limitations are becoming increasingly clear,” especially in two areas of public concern: foreign policy and biotechnology.

He asserts, “The hostility of libertarians to big government extended to U.S. involvement in the world…. Libertarians saw no larger meaning in America’s global role, no reason to promote democracy and freedom abroad.” But the tragic events of September 11, 2001, were a “reminder to Americans of why government exists, and why it has to tax citizens and spend money to promote collective interests. It was only the government, and not the market or individuals, that could be depended on to send firemen into buildings, or to fight terrorists, or to screen passengers at airports.”

And, finally, Americans met this attack on those symbols of American power — the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon — “with flags and patriotism, rather than the yellow ribbons of individual victimization.”

Both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were influenced by some classical-liberal thinkers — F.A. Hayek in Thatcher’s case — but neither of them was a classical liberal. They were conservatives who believed that the state had an interventionist role in various corners of social and economic life and who wholeheartedly went about following a very active interventionist foreign policy. Nor was Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract with America” a classical-liberal or libertarian program. It was a convoluted combination of social conservative ideas mixed with some market-oriented proposals in the areas of taxation and regulation.

Fukuyama’s purpose is clearly to try to draw a line between legitimate and reasonable libertarianism — “classical liberalism” — and “radical” and therefore “beyond the pale” libertarianism. Reasonable libertarians are those who see the wisdom and necessity for various forms of domestic and foreign interventionism. Radical and illegitimate libertarians are those who disagree with those types of interventionism and therefore have now suffered a “fall.” In essence, according to Fukuyama, the legitimate “classical-liberal” libertarians are those who support or at least acquiesce in America’s becoming a “benevolent” global empire.

Empire and intervention

Throughout a good part of both the 19th and 20th centuries, many of the leading classical liberals were opponents of empire. In mid-19th-century Great Britain, they included Richard Cobden and John Bright, the leaders of the free-trade movement that ended mercantilism in the British Empire, and Herbert Spencer, who warned at the end of the 19th century of the dangers from aggressive and militaristic “benevolent” imperialism.

In the United States, such 20th-century classical liberals and libertarians as Albert Jay Nock, Frank Chodorov, F.A. “Baldy” Harper, Leonard Read, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard were highly critical of America’s foreign interventionism around the world. And in the postWorld War II era, Robert Taft — “Mr. Republican” — was a critic of America’s increasing involvement in various parts of the world through foreign alliances and military engagements.

The critics of foreign interventionism and empire emphasized, each in his own way, that empire carried costs that were highly dangerous to liberty. First, empire meant having to man the numerous global ramparts of the imperial domain. Large numbers of young men would have to be either recruited or inducted into the armed forces to serve as the guards and guardians to hold off and repel the “enemies.” Wars, skirmishes, and battles would have to be fought and many of the country’s youth would have to be sacrificed for the cause of this empire.

Second, empires required armaments, equipment, and all the other essentials of combat and war-preparedness. The citizens and subjects of the empire would have to be burdened with the taxes and future taxes occasioned by government borrowing to pay the expenses that were unavoidable from such global political and military outreach and presence. Resources and wealth that might otherwise have been available and used for private peaceful endeavors, including the investment and capital formation that are the source of future growth and rising standards of living, would have to be forgone.

And, third, empire would mean a greater insecurity that would most likely entail the loss of freedom at home, even when the rationale for the empire was preserving liberty domestically and around the world. Political and military interventionism in foreign lands inevitably create enemies abroad as American involvement in other countries puts the United States and its citizens in harm’s way.

Those marked by the American government as “terrorists” or “enemies of democracy” would now view America as their enemy, as the government took sides in the conflicts and civil wars in other parts of the world. As both a precaution and in response to violent acts by targeted “opponents of freedom,” there would be encroachments on the citizenry’s personal and civil liberties and their economic freedom. Once lost or reduced, such freedoms would be difficult to regain. The entire process would inevitably open the door to abuse and corruption by those who possessed the political and police powers within the United States.

But what about Fukuyama’s accusations that only government could provide the firemen who risked or lost their lives in the World Trade Towers or that only government can fight terrorism or screen passengers at airports?

The firemen who ran into the burning towers demonstrated great personal courage and heroism. But long before there were government fire departments in the United States, local communities did (and sometimes still do) provide this social service on the basis of voluntary association. Alexis de Tocqueville emphasized in Democracy in America in the 1830s the spirit of voluntarism, listing, among other examples, the volunteer fire departments around the country. Firemen then and now have performed heroic acts, not because they are or are not government employees but because of an individual sense of duty and responsibility. They deserve our appreciation and thanks, but not because they may work for the government.

If the government’s war on terrorism up to this point were to be judged, it would have to be viewed as an overall major failure rather than a success. Did the government prevent the bombing of the military barracks in Saudi Arabia? Did it prevent the bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania? Did it prevent the bombing of the USS Cole in the port of Aden in Yemen? Did it prevent the plane hijackings and the resulting deaths of thousands of Americans in the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon? Has it found the perpetrators of the anthrax scare? Has it captured even the majority of the senior leadership of the terrorist organizations in Afghanistan? Has it succeeded in breaking the terrorist networks, even with its extra-legal interrogation techniques in Afghanistan and Cuba?

The presence of military personnel at airports and the nationalization of airport security facilities might make some people feel safer, but that does not mean that airport safety is any better than before. Given the history of bureaucratic “efficiency” in general, the public should now be more concerned.

Could the private sector provide better security at airports? Without a doubt, yes. If planes are hijacked or destroyed with loss of passenger lives, the airlines have the most to lose from increased fear of flying. Thus, just the profit motive alone (including caring about the well-being of their customers) would motivate airlines to devise ways of increasing airport security in a way that would be most safe and least intrusive to their customers.

Contrary to Fukuyama’s suggestion, neither classical liberalism nor libertarianism has failed or fallen, for the simple reason that they have had nothing to do with making public policy through most of the 20th and now into the 21st century. It has been the interventionist state, at home and in foreign affairs, that has created the world we live in, and thus it is the interventionist state that has failed. Its fall would open the door to freedom, peace, and prosperity in America and around the world.

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).