There is one way — and only one way — to achieve the free society: by strictly hewing to libertarian principles.
While compromising libertarian principles might seem to be a more palatable and more practical way to achieve freedom, nothing could be further from the truth.
In response to our end-of-year letter seeking people’s financial support for The Future of Freedom Foundation, a person wrote me and told me that he has no reservations whatsoever about compromising libertarian principles and embracing reform measures. He told me, therefore, that he had no intention of donating to The Future of Freedom Foundation.
My response to him was very simple: If it is reform of the welfare-warfare state that you want for your life, then go for it. But just don’t pretend that by supporting reform, you are achieving the free society. After all, if all that you’re fighting for is reform, then the most you’re going to get is reform.
The only way to actually achieve the free society is through the methodology embraced by FFF — that is, by rejecting compromise and reform and calling for a dismantling of the welfare-warfare state apparatus that is infringing on freedom.
Are Americans free under a welfare-warfare state way of life?
Most libertarians have arrived at the same answer with respect to the welfare state: Americans have definitely lost their freedom under the welfare-state way of life.
This belief with respect to freedom is one of the things that distinguish us from conservatives. Conservatives often say that Americans are in the process of losing their freedom. Libertarians hold that Americans lost their freedom a long time ago. We point to Goethe’s words to describe conservatives and, for that matter, most modern-day Americans: “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.”
This point was reflected in this year’s anniversary celebration of Friedrich Hayek’s famous book The Road to Serfdom, which suggested that the United States (and Britain) was on the road to serfdom. As they celebrated the book, conservatives emphasized what Hayek said in the book — that we are indeed on the road to serfdom.
That’s ridiculous. The Road to Serfdom was published in 1944. While Hayek was referring primarily to central planning, the destination reflected in the title of his book — serfdom — came a long time ago, at the very least during the 1960s and arguably even earlier.
The ‘60s was the decade in which the U.S. government added Medicare and Medicaid to the lives of the American people, thereby fortifying the welfare-state revolution that had been set into motion during President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, when the socialistic program known as Social Security became a permanent feature of American life.
By the 1960s, mandatory charity and confiscatory redistribution of wealth had become a permanent feature of America’s governmental system and economic system.
It was also the decade in which the federal government was sending a large number of people into its penitentiaries for extremely long stretches of time for ingesting substances that U.S. officials didn’t approve of as part of the government’s “war on drugs.”
By the ’60s, the federal government’s national-security state apparatus — i.e., the military and the CIA — or what President Eisenhower had called the military-industrial complex — had become a permanent and fortified part of America’s governmental structure, along with militarism, invasions, coups, surveillance, assassinations, and torture, not to mention the secret U.S. hiring of Nazi holocaust officials and the government’s MKULTRA medical experimentation on unsuspecting innocent Americans.
It was also the decade in which U.S. presidents, both Democrat and Republican, seized American men and forcibly sent them thousands of miles away to kill and a die in a foreign war, a war that was waged without the constitutionally required congressional declaration of war.
That type of society is definitely not freedom, no matter how much conservatives might convince themselves that it is. That is what is called serfdom, a way of life in which the government holds the superior position of master while the citizen holds the subservient position of serf.
It stands to reason that any reform of the welfare state necessarily involves leaving the welfare-state apparatus intact and simply reforming it. Even if the reform improves the situation for the serfs, it still remains a reform of the apparatus that is depriving people of their freedom. The only thing that can bring people freedom is the dismantling of the apparatus that is depriving them of their freedom.
A Critical Mass of Uncompromising Libertarians
During the 25-year history of The Future of Freedom Foundation, there have been those who have taken us to task for our uncompromising approach to libertarianism. They have told us that our uncompromising message is irrelevant because, they say, most people will never embrace pure libertarianism.
What those critics fail to realize is that we don’t need most people to agree with us to achieve the free society. We just need a critical mass of libertarian purists — i.e., libertarians who don’t compromise libertarian principles — in order to achieve the free society that libertarians yearn for. And that critical mass can be significantly less than a majority of people in society. Some people even estimate that to bring a paradigm shift to a society might entail as few as 10 percent of the populace.
The founder of The Foundation for Economic Education, Leonard E. Read, was the person who convinced me of this phenomenon. When I was reading Read’s books back in the late 1970s, when I was in my late 20s, I was struck by a point that he repeatedly emphasized: that all great movements for liberty have been led by an infinitesimally small minority of people.
Read wasn’t referring to freedom advocates who advocate reform because, again, the most that the reformers can achieve is reform, which isn’t freedom.
Instead, the tiny minority of people to whom Read was referring were the purists — the no-compromisers — the relatively small number of people who hew strictly to principle in making the case for the free society, no matter what the cost.
Libertarian reformers often suggest it’s just not feasible to bring pure libertarian ideals into reality and, therefore, that we ought to settle for reforming the welfare-state, regulated-economy system.
But that’s clearly and obviously false, given the history of the United States. It is an established historical fact that notwithstanding the Civil War years of income taxation and legal-tender laws, our American ancestors lived for more than 100 years without the welfare state, regulatory programs, income-tax system, and fiat-money system under which Americans live today.
The Libertarian Debate Over 19th-Century America
Within this context, an interesting debate has taken place over the years within the libertarian movement over the extent to which 19th-century America was a genuinely free society.
For example, the November 2009 issue of Future of Freedom, FFF’s monthly journal, published an article I wrote entitled “Liberal Delusions About Freedom,” in which I pointed out how monumentally different life was in 19th-century America:
No income taxation (except during the Civil War), Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, economic regulations, licensure laws, drug laws, immigration controls, or coercive transfer programs, such as farm subsidies and education grants.
There was no federal department of labor, agriculture, commerce, education, energy, health and human services, or homeland security. There was no SEC, DEA, FEMA, OSHA, or EPA.
There was no Federal Reserve System and no paper money or legal-tender laws (except during the Cold War). People used gold and silver coins as money.
There were no foreign military bases and no involvement in foreign wars. The size of the military was small.
A few months later, Reason published an attack on my article entitled “Up from Slavery” by David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute. Boaz pointed out that while the 19th century might have been a “golden age of liberty” for white men, it certainly wasn’t so for women, who couldn’t vote and who held a secondary status under the law and certainly not for blacks, especially during the era of slavery. Nineteenth-century America was also characterized by corporatism — i.e., the combination of corporations and businesses and the state — as well as by various economic regulations at the state and local level.
Nonetheless, what Boaz could not deny was that 19th-century Americans had proven that you can have a society in which there is no income tax, IRS, drug laws, DEA, welfare, minimum-wage laws, immigration controls, public schooling, Federal Reserve, fiat money, and other major programs, laws, rules, departments, and agencies that have come to characterize the modern-day welfare state and regulated society.
So, why not advocate pure libertarian principles rather than compromise libertarian principles by advocating reform of the welfare-state, regulated-economy way of life? Why settle for reform?
In his article, Boaz took me to task for failing to mention the horrible exception of slavery in 19th-century American life. As I pointed out in my response to Boaz, my failure to mention slavery was an oversight. In all my other articles in which I have made this same point about 19th-century America, I have always done my best to point out the horrible exception to freedom that slavery was. But the fact was that I had failed to mention slavery in this particular article, albeit inadvertently, and so Boaz was entirely justified in pouncing and making his point.
Boaz is one of the most principled and courageous opponents of slavery in the libertarian movement. He has never failed to speak out against the horrors of slavery and has always emphasized how slavery violates the most fundamental principles of libertarianism.
But I think that Boaz would agree with me that it really isn’t too difficult to take a public and vocal stand against slavery today, given that the institution of slavery expired some 150 years ago. Not many people today are likely to get upset over articles and speeches condemning slavery. It would obviously have been much more difficult, in terms of public opinion, to have been openly calling for the abolition of slavery in, say, Alabama in 1835.
Today, the difficult position, in terms of public opinion, is one that calls for the abolition of welfare-state serfdom. As Boaz well knows, Americans do not want to hear calls for the abolition of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public (i.e., government) schooling, drug laws, immigration controls, food stamps, minimum-wage laws, economic regulations, public housing, welfare, foreign aid, or most other aspects of the welfare state.
The relevant question for libertarians today is: Notwithstanding the fact that slavery was obviously a much more egregious system than welfare-state serfdom, why shouldn’t libertarians take the same abolitionist stand against serfdom that should be taken against slavery? Shouldn’t libertarians be taking the same courageous and principled stand against welfare-state serfdom that Boaz takes against slavery?
Yet, that’s not what Boaz does. While taking a principled stand in favor of abolishing slavery, he trims his position on the welfare state by settling for reform, and, even worse, endorsing reform measures that are based on statism.
Consider, for example, public schooling, which, as I’m sure that Boaz would agree, is a good example of a socialistic system. A genuinely free educational system necessarily entails a total separation of school and state. That would mean the end of all government involvement in education. No more compulsory-attendance laws. No more school taxes. No more government schoolteachers, textbooks, and curricula. Education would be left entirely to families, entrepreneurs, and the free market.
I am convinced that if I were sitting next to David Boaz at a luncheon, he would tell me in private conversation that he understands the concept of separating school and state and that he agrees with it.
Yet why won’t Boaz publicly join up with us libertarian no-compromisers by calling for a dismantling of the state’s public-schooling system? Instead, he supports what are called school vouchers (see here and here), which by their very nature, leave the state’s involvement in education intact and, even worse, actually fortify it by encouraging private schools to become dependent on a government voucher dole and, equally bad, subject to state control and regulation.
Why does Boaz publicly embrace a statist reform plan for education rather than a separation of school and state?
School vouchers are nothing but a socialistic program in which the state takes money from one group of people and gives it to another group. School vouchers are no different in principle from food stamps, farm subsidies, corporate bailouts, corporate welfare, NPR, and other forms of socialism that Boaz, as a libertarian, would undoubtedly condemn.
So, why embrace educational socialism instead of freedom of education?
Milton Friedman on Vouchers
In our very first year of operation here at FFF, I raised this question in an article entitled “Letting Go of Socialism” in the November 1990 issue of our monthly journal Future of Freedom (then called Freedom Daily).
Milton Friedman, the Nobel Prize winning libertarian economist who came up with the idea of school vouchers, responded to my article in an article entitled “Say No to Intolerance” that was published in the July 1991 issue of Liberty magazine. Friedman wrote:
In the Future of Freedom Foundation’s Freedom Daily, for September 1990 — again, a group that is doing good work and is making an impact — Jacob Hornberger wrote, “What is the answer to socialism in public schools? Freedom.” Correct. But how do we get from here to there? Is that somebody else’s problem? Is that a purely practical problem that we can dismiss? The ultimate goal we would like to get to is a society in which people are responsible for themselves and for their children’s schooling. And in which you do not have a governmental system. But am I a statist, as I have been labeled by a number of libertarians, because some thirty years ago I suggested the use of educational vouchers as a way of easing the transition? Is that, and I quote Hornberger again, “simply a futile attempt to make socialism work more efficiently”? I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that you can simply say what the ideal is. This is what I mean by the utopian strand in libertarianism. You cannot simply describe the utopian solution, and leave it to somebody else how we get from here to there. That’s not only a practical problem. It’s a problem of the responsibilities that we have.
Friedman’s suggestion that libertarians had labeled him a statist for supporting vouchers was a red herring. The fact was that I never called him a statist. The most I did was simply imply the obvious — that he was a libertarian who was endorsing a socialist or statist program.
In his response, Friedman conceded that The Future of Freedom Foundation’s goal of ending all state involvement in education was the right one. He was suggesting, however, that a voucher scheme was the way to get there.
But that is patently ludicrous and fallacious. Keep in mind that vouchers are nothing more than another socialistic program, one in which government takes money from one group of people and gives it to another group of people.
So, are we going to get to freedom by embracing socialism? That’s ridiculous!
Failure or Success of Reform Measures
Let’s examine two possibilities regarding vouchers and, for that matter, every other reform measure that entails compromises of libertarian principles. Those two possibilities are failure and success.
Let’s assume that a libertarian reform scheme fails to improve the situation. People are going to blame the entire fiasco on libertarianism! They’re going to say that the “free market” has failed, when it is actually statism that has failed.
How in the world would that advance liberty? How would it get us to the free society? After the failure of what people have been told is libertarianism and “freedom and free enterprise,” people are going to turn to more socialism and interventionism.
Let’s consider the other alternative — that a libertarian statist reform plan succeeds in making the situation better.
People are going to be ecstatic that libertarians have figured out a way to keep the entire socialist apparatus, such as public schooling, intact and improved. People going to say “Thank you!” to those libertarians who saved their statist system and even made it work better.
There is no reasonable possibility that Boaz and other libertarians who support school vouchers (or any other statist reform scheme) are going to say: “Despite our success, we want to now propose the abolition of vouchers and the entire public-school system.” Instead, it is a virtual certainty that such libertarians would be basking in the praise that would be heaped upon them by statists and that they would immediately begin searching for more statist ways to save and improve the life of serfdom under which Americans are now living.
In suggesting that vouchers were a transition to educational liberty, Friedman could not have been more wrong. What he obviously did not consider was that there was a direct way to transition to educational liberty — by simply repealing compulsory-attendance laws and school taxes and closing down all the public schools. In other words, no socialistic reforms. Just dismantle the apparatus that is depriving people of their freedom!
Social Security Reform Measures
Another example: For many years now, under the rubric of “public-policy proposals,” Boaz has endorsed a statist reform plan for Social Security. The plan is based on the federal government’s forcing young people to place a percentage of their income into a range of government-approved investment vehicles. Young people would also be forced to continue paying taxes that would be used to fund seniors who are currently on Social Security.
Yet on close analysis, we see that Boaz’s Social Security reform plan is nothing more than a combination of interventionism and socialism.
Why interventionism? Because the federal government is ordering people to use their money in a certain government-approved way. That’s the very essence of interventionism.
[NOTE: The original version of this article stated that Boaz got the idea for his Social Security reform plan from Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet. On December 9, 2014, David Boaz wrote me to clarify that “Peter Ferrara and Cato and the Clark campaign and I were publishing books and articles on Social Security privatization before anyone ever heard of Jose Pinera or Chile and before Chile implemented its plan” and, therefore, that he did not get his plan either from Pinochet or from “the free-market economists who worked in his government.” My mistake, and I apologize for it.]
Boaz’s Social Security reform plan also involves socialism, which is what his continuation of Social Security payments to seniors is all about. As a socialistic program, Social Security, like school vouchers, entails the government’s forcibly taking money from one group of people and giving it to another group of people.
It shouldn’t shock anyone that the Social Security Administration prominently displays a bust of Otto von Bismarck, who was known as the “Iron Chancellor Germany,” on its website. It was Bismarck who introduced Social Security to Germany after having taken the idea from German socialists. Not surprisingly, Social Security was also a core program in National Socialist (Nazi) Germany.
Thus, the interventionist element of Boaz’s Social Security plan applies to younger people who are forced to put some of their savings into government-approved investment accounts. The socialistic element also applies to younger people, who are having their income confiscated by the state and forcibly redistributed to seniors under Boaz’s Social Security reform plan.
So here we have the spectacle of a libertarian embracing a Social Security reform plan that integrates interventionism and socialism.
Worst of all, it’s being proposed under the label of libertarianism!
That’s supposed to bring freedom to America? If so, why stop there? Why not embrace and support even more interventionism and socialism? Wouldn’t that bring us freedom even faster?
That’s what compromise of principle does. What could be more ludicrous than to think that the way to achieve freedom is by embracing socialism, interventionism, and statism?
What’s the real libertarian solution to Social Security? Well, not surprisingly, it doesn’t involve an endorsement of interventionism and socialism. It simply involves the immediate repeal of Social Security, just like the solution to public schooling is the immediate repeal of compulsory-attendance laws, school taxes, and other laws that establish governmental involvement in education.
It’s really no different with other “public-policy” reform proposals that Boaz endorses.
Other Reform Measures
Healthcare? Boaz endorses “health-savings accounts,” a scheme by which the government uses the federal income-tax code to manipulate people into depositing a part of their income into what amounts to medical IRAs.
But here we go again with interventionism. Why should the government be using an income-tax code to manipulate people into doing anything with their income? How is that consistent with freedom? Indeed, there shouldn’t even be an income tax! The 19th century may not have been “a golden age of liberty” for everyone, as Boaz suggested in his Reason article, but he cannot deny that our 19th-century Americans did not have income taxation for more than a century. Nineteenth-century Americans (except for blacks during slavery) kept everything they earned and were free to decide for themselves what to do with it. At the very least, that’s what genuine freedom is all about!
And it’s not as though Boaz doesn’t realize this. Not only is he the author of very profound books on libertarianism, he is also the author of a very insightful book review that showed the similarities between President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the interventionist and socialistic economic programs of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Boaz’s review, which is posted on Reason’s website, was entitled “Hitler, Mussolini, and Roosevelt: What FDR Had in Common With the Other Charismatic Collectivists of the 1930s.” The book he was reviewing is entitled Three New Deals: Reflections on Roosevelt’s America, Mussolini’s Italy, and Hitler’s Germany, 1933-1939 by Wolfgang Schivelbusch.
While I could be wrong, interestingly Boaz seems to take an uncompromising position on the federal government’s war on drugs. That is, he doesn’t settle for, say, some type of sentencing reform and I don’t think he limits his call for ending the drug war to marijuana. Again, I could be wrong, but I think he favors a complete dismantling, not a reform, of drug laws.
So, why not take the same position on the rest of the welfare-state, regulated-society way of life? Why not call for the dismantling of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, occupational licensure, public schooling, immigration controls, trade restrictions, Federal Reserve, fiat money, foreign aid, FDIC, farm subsidies, economic regulations, minimum-wage laws, antitrust laws, and all the rest of the welfare-state, regulatory apparatus that has brought us a life of serfdom?
Indeed, what message does it send to young people when libertarians are encouraging them to compromise libertarian principles and embrace interventionism and socialism as a purported way to win us the free society?
Imagine the potential impact on freedom if David Boaz and other notable and prominent libertarian reformers were to abandon the ranks of the reformers and join the ranks of us libertarian purists. They could even be the catalyst toward bringing us the critical mass that we need to achieve the free society now.
Reform vs. Freedom
Perhaps that person who wrote me last week saying that he doesn’t mind compromising libertarian principles and that he has no intention of sending a donation to FFF feels that libertarian reform plans will improve the plight of American serfs. I can sympathize with that sentiment. If even one slave on one plantation was able to escape to freedom, that was a good thing. If even one plantation didn’t put slaves under the lash, that was a good thing too.
But that’s still not freedom!
Today, there is no doubt that lower welfare-warfare state spending is better than higher welfare-warfare state spending. A lower income-tax rate is better than a higher income-tax rate. Lower inflation is preferable to higher inflation. Less regulation is better than more regulation.
But that’s still not freedom!
And what ultimately matters to us libertarians is freedom! That’s why we are in this movement — not for a better way of life as serfs but instead to live and die as free men and free women.
Integrity and Principles
I would be remiss if I failed to point out the personal damage to a person who compromises his principles for the sake of expediency or acceptance. One of the essays that had the most profound impact on me when I first discovered libertarianism was entitled “On That Day Began Lies” by Leonard E. Read, the man whose writings changed the course of my life. If you have never read Read’s essay, I cannot recommend it too highly.
The nearest that any person can get to right principles — truth — is that which his highest personal judgment dictates as right. Beyond that one cannot go or achieve. Truth, then, as nearly as any individual can express it, is in strict accordance with this inner, personal dictate of rightness.
The accurate representation of this inner, personal dictate is intellectual integrity. It is the expressing, living, acting of such truth as any given person is in possession of. Inaccurate representation of what one believes to be right is untruth. It is a lie. (Emphasis in original.)
At the same time that I received that email from the person that told me that he had no problems with compromise and reform and that FFF would not be receiving a donation from him, one of FFF’s longtime supporters posted a message on Facebook telling his friends that FFF’s uncompromising approach to freedom has played an enormous role in his life as a libertarian activist. He exhorted his friends to send us financial support to enable us to continue advancing our uncompromising message on liberty. That was extremely encouraging to me, especially since that is the way that I feel about the impact that Leonard Read had on my life.
Success and Influence
During the 25 years that FFF has been in existence, people have pointed out to me that the libertarian reformers far outnumber us libertarian purists. They have pointed out that abandoning our uncompromising perspectives and embracing moderate reform measures would enable FFF to become more successful and more influential.
What they have never been able to explain is why being successful and influential with the wrong message is a good thing.
But it is a fact that those of us who hew to principle are far fewer in number than those who endorse compromise and reform of the welfare-warfare state. But it is also true that the infinitesimally small minority of libertarians who will bring us the free society — the ones to whom Leonard Read referred — are those of us who hew to libertarian principles, not those who abandon them through compromise and reform. The future of freedom turns on us, not on them.
Finally, I should point out that when David Boaz published his attack on me on Reason’s website, Reason was kind enough to publish my response. I will take the same position here. If Boaz wishes to respond to this essay, we would be pleased to publish it here on FFF’s website.
Also, see my newest video message: “The Only Way to Achieve Freedom.”
NOTE: The original version of this article used the words “fascism” and “fascist” but upon reflection and consideration, I concluded that “interventionism” and “interventionist” would be better words to use. So I have substituted those words within the article.