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Living the Life of a Lie, Part 3


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The greatest myth that has emerged out of the end of the Cold War is that a philosophy of freedom has triumphed over an ideology of totalitarianism. The post-World War II period was, in fact, merely a conflict between differing forms of the statist ideal. On both sides of the Iron Curtain, the dominant idea was that men could not be left free to make their own choices and that the duty of the state was to supervise and oversee their affairs.

On the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain, the face of the state was cruel and clear: in practically every aspect of his life, the individual was made to conform to and obey the demands and commands of the state. Electoral campaigns were known to be a charade; political participation was a blatant farce in which one-party rule was the hallmark of a “people’s democracy.” The “worker’s paradise” was a slave society in which the state was the single employer, the sole source of public information, and the only provider of the goods and services desired by people for their everyday needs and luxuries. Human rights in Soviet-style society meant the right to parrot the official slogans of the Party line, wait on endless lines to buy the meager goods sold in the state stores, and receive “free” education, housing and medical care as rationed by the government on the basis of the individual’s ideological purity, class and ethnic background, and political connections. The lie of the Soviet life was impossible to hide, and, as a result, was all the more morally degrading and spiritually humiliating.

On the West’s side of the Iron Curtain, the face of the state was masked and soothing: the individual had all the outer appearance of a free existence. Competing political parties have campaigned for his vote in open, fair and honest elections. People have possessed real protections for many of their civil liberties and have retained a range of discretionary autonomy to live their lives as they have chosen. And the state, rather than appearing as the oppressor of humanity and the manipulator of life, has worn the smile of benevolent care and concern; the government is viewed as the generous helping hand to assist the indigent and unfortunate; and the umpire of social justice and economic fairness. The lie of Western life was well hidden, and it enabled people to live a life of deception, a deception that, for many, is reality after two generations.

But the fact remains that the implicit and predominant ideology in the West was the same as the one on the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain. In his 1949 volume, The Socialist Tragedy, Ivor Thomas, British M.P., asked what was the difference between socialists and communists. He began by first making clear what ideas socialists and communists held in common. First, they both possessed a dislike and distrust of a market economy. Private ownership and control of the means of production were viewed as an institutional arrangement that gave unfair advantage to the capitalists at the expense of the workers and resulted in production guided purely by its profitability with no concern for the social necessity or desirability of what was produced.

Second, they both believed that income was unfairly distributed among various groups in society, with an excess being received by those who own and control the means of production. As a consequence, many in the society were deprived of the financial means to live better lives, while others were able to satisfy superfluous and non-essential wants and desires. Third, the market economy was unplanned and chaotic; with each individual acting on his own as producer and consumer under no centrally planned coordination, waste, inefficiency and unnecessary fluctuations in production and employment were inevitable. Hence, government was expected to guide, regulate and plan the economic processes of society.

So, where was the difference between the socialist and the communist, Mr. Thomas asked? Merely a matter of tactics, he explained. Communists desired to achieve their goal of a state-managed economic and social order through violent revolution and immediate transformation of the entire society. On the other hand, socialists desired to attain the same state-managed economic and social order through peaceful electoral processes and an incremental legislative transformation of society.

Whether the proponents of the socialist path called their program socialism, social democracy, liberalism, progressivism, the Swedish “third-way,” or the welfare state, during the past half century, the end result has been the same — an increasing undermining of the sanctity of private property, an expanding compulsory redistribution of wealth, a growing spider’s web of governmental regulations over private enterprise, and state direction of economic activity through either nationalized industries, government-business partnerships, or subsidies and tax incentives to induce private business into those activities and locations desired by the state.

And regardless of the political label under which this gradual transformation of Western economic and social life has been brought about, the journey has led to one end. As economist Melchior Palyi expressed it in his book, Compulsory Medical Care and the Welfare State (1949), “In democracies the Welfare State is the beginning and the Police State the end. The two merge sooner or later. . . .” Why? Because inevitably wherever the state superimposes itself on the affairs of men, compulsion and command replace the peaceful and voluntary relationships that are the hallmark of the truly free society. For if men do not obey, the state applies its police power to ensure that they do so.

In the first half of the 19th century, the French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville already understood the dangers from this incremental form of the statist ideal: the state, he explained in Democracy in America, “covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and energetic characters cannot penetrate. . . . [Government] provides for [people’s] security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principle concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances. . . . [P]eople . . . [are] reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious sheep, of which the government is the shepherd. I have always thought that servitude of the regular, quiet, and gentle kind which I have just described might be combined more easily than is commonly believed with some of the outward forms of freedom, and it might even establish itself under the wings of the sovereignty of the people.”

In the 20th century, is this not what America and the West have increasingly come to look like? And does not the task of reversing the process seem practically impossible? Indeed, many who understand the value and superiority of a free society have concluded that the attainment of real liberty is utopian; the best that can be hoped for is either to fight a rearguard action to delay the inevitable or to participate in the statist program and make it more efficient or less oppressive in its implementation.

The believers and potential defenders of freedom, however, must learn from the lessons taught by those who opposed statism on the other side of the Iron Curtain. When those like the Czech dissident Vaclav Havel decided to oppose Soviet power the task, also, looked utopian. What could win against the power of the Communist State, with its web of informers, network of secret police, and the ability to eliminate all opposition in the black hole of the prison camps?

What, therefore, must the friends of freedom do?

First, their focus must be on the long-run. In the short run, statist trends will run their course. Intellectual currents and social beliefs and prejudices rarely change overnight. Numerous frustrations, disappointments and defeats will be experienced by freedom’s defenders in the continuing war of ideas. But the statist direction is not inevitable. Inevitability is an implicit surrender to the Marxian myth that history will follow a predetermined path from which there is no escape. Socialism triumphed because men came to accept its vision of the world and believed that its arrival was desirable as well as unstoppable. As the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises forcefully explained, trends in human history can and have changed. It all depends upon our will to resist and the persuasiveness of our ideas.

Second, the case for freedom must be uncompromising. None of the statist premises and arguments must be conceded in the debate. The fear of being considered beyond the pale of reasonable discourse by taking “extreme” positions must be fought. Almost every idea that has triumphed in society and finally come to be accepted by many as “obvious” or “reasonable” was originally considered outlandish, utopian and unattainable. However, making an uncompromising case for liberty does not mean dogmatism. There is a discovery procedure in the competition of ideas for freedom, in which only trial and error will sort out the best arguments for liberty, the most successful avenues and methods for attracting listeners, as well as an entrepreneurial alertness to changing opportunities that different friends of freedom will grasp, depending upon their comparative abilities and interests.

And, third, the case for liberty must be both moral and practical. The case for liberty is ultimately more than the outcome of a cost-benefit analysis. Few people in history have fought for freedom merely for the anticipated opportunity to buy milk for two cents a gallon less in a free market. What aroused millions to stand up for freedom in the 18th and 19th centuries was the idea of the moral rights of man. At the same time, the free society must be shown to have the capacity to work — work in the sense that it not only gives individual men freedom, but the social order of voluntary exchange produces a prosperity and a degree of opportunity for self improvement that none of the variations on the statist theme can offer in comparison.

If freedom can muster enough friends for this task, the Socialist lie can be defeated. But the truth will not prevail and “the prevailing trend toward.the servile state will certainly not be reversed,” as Ludwig von Mises once expressed it, “if nobody has the courage to attack its underlying dogmas.”

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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).