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Recovering Our Bearings


CHRISTMASTIME ALWAYS PROVIDES a good time both for reflection and for looking forward. While we usually do this as individuals and families, this year is an especially good time to do so as a nation. How did America start, how has it changed over the years, and where are we heading?

Our country began as the most radical political experiment in history. With the big exceptions of slavery and tariffs and with many minor exceptions, American citizens were free to engage in any business or occupation without government permission; to enter into mutually beneficial exchanges with anyone in the world; to accumulate unlimited amounts of wealth (no income tax); to ingest any substance, no matter how harmful; to travel without a passport or other government identification; to speak, publish, and read anything they wanted; to educate their children in a free-market manner; and to worship or not to worship. Moreover, they were guaranteed fundamental principles of due process of law whenever the federal government accused them of a crime.

What’s important to note is that federal officials were prohibited from doing anything against the exercise of those rights. That is, even if 70 percent of the American people demanded that Congress tax the rich to give to the poor, the Congress could not do so. The reason it could not do so is that the Constitution, the document that brought the federal government into existence, did not permit public officials to interfere with the exercise of any of these fundamental rights.

Today, a cursory examination of American life reveals that that radical political experiment has ceased. Under what has become known as the socialistic welfare state and the regulated society, government at both the federal and state level controls entry into businesses and occupations (occupational licensure) and people’s ability to enter into trades with others (immigration controls; employment contracts with foreigners); maintains total control over people’s income (the progressive income tax); controls where people travel (passports; travel to Cuba); regulates what people ingest (the FDA and the war on drugs); forces parents to subject their children to a government-approved “education” (public schooling); distributes welfare, both foreign and domestic; and regulates what people read and publish.

There are three important aspects to all this. First, by adopting an entirely different way of life, Americans abandoned the principles of their Founders and ancestors. Second, the system under which Americans now live is founded on immoral premises. Third, Americans are in denial not only with respect to what they have done but also with respect to the consequences of what they have done.

That inability to confront reality is, in my opinion, a major cause of much of the weird, aberrant behavior in American society — for example, the senseless shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. When people are living a life of delusion — of unreality — how can it not have severe psychological consequences? How can it not have the same consequences for their children, who day after day are required to attend government-approved schools where government employees pound into their heads such bromides as, “You are free. You live in a free society. This is freedom,” when in fact they live in a society in which there is progressive income taxation, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, foreign aid, and compulsory government-run school systems; travel and trade restrictions; and wars on poverty, drugs, wealth, guns, immigrants, and illiteracy — in other words, all the things that our Founders and ancestors rejected as violations of freedom.

Confronting reality

If we are ever to regain a free and healthy society, it is imperative that libertarians continue speaking the truth, with the initial goal of cracking through the thick wall that surrounds the minds of ordinary Americans, a wall that prevents them from seeing the truth and the reality of their society and their government.

Once Americans are able to accept the reality that the nation in which they live now has a different type of government than originally designed, then the debate can begin as to which way of life is freer and better. But as long as Americans think they’re free, they will continue to embrace their way of life, continue to criticize those of us who question it, and continue to be mystified about why there is so much weird and aberrant behavior in our society.

A mutated form of government

The U.S. government is now a deformed, alien-like mutation of what our Founding Fathers brought into existence.

For example, after the September 11 attacks, financial assistance to the families of the World Trade Center victims came from two sources — the government sector and the private sector. Our ancestors would have been horrified that government was providing such assistance, but since government welfare is now an established part of American life, modern-day Americans didn’t bat an eyelash at it. Our ancestors would have immediately recognized the fundamental evil and immorality of using coercion (the IRS) to take money from one person to give it to another. That’s why they stood firmly against welfare-state programs for more than 100 years. That’s also why much of America — churches, museums, universities, opera houses — was built with private money that had come from the willing hearts of individuals.

Tragically, Americans of today draw no distinction whatsoever between government money and private money. If the IRS taxes people and HUD gives the money to the victims, everybody in America is considered saintly, caring, and compassionate. So what if the income tax and the IRS are founded on force, the thinking goes — God and government can coexist side by side in a joint effort to help the poor and needy.

Another big problem is that all too many Americans have come to view their government as their daddy — a daddy who takes care of them from the day they’re born to the day they die. This is a daddy who has schooled them and schools their children (public schooling), gives them money if they’re poor or out of work (unemployment compensation), helps cover their health-care bills (Medicare and Medicaid), guarantees they will have an adequate allowance (income-tax deductions), ensures that they won’t become drug abusers (the war on drugs), and takes care of their retirement (Social Security).

What more could a child-adult expect from a daddy?

But not only has the paternalistic welfare state significantly reduced the freedom of the American people (that is, in the way that our ancestors viewed freedom), it also has greatly diminished the sense of toughness, independence, and self-reliance that characterized our ancestors.

A good example of people’s denial of reality, their viewing their “daddy’s” care as “freedom,” and the resulting diminution in rugged individualism can be seen in the war on terrorism.

Terrorism is acts of violence committed against noncombatants in order to influence a change in government policy. After the 1993 terrorist bombings of the World Trade Center, the terrorists publicly declared their reasons for the bombing: the permanent stationing of troops in Saudi Arabia; the embargo and blockade of Iraq that has, according to UN officials, caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children; and U.S. foreign economic and military welfare for the state of Israel. Later Osama bin Laden reemphasized those three reasons for declaring war against the U.S. government and the American people.

Yet immediately after the September 11 attacks, the U.S. government announced that the attacks were actually motivated by terrorists’ hatred of freedom, democracy, and capitalism rather than anger and hatred arising out of U.S. government intervention overseas.

Many Americans immediately and without question accepted the version of events provided by their daddy. Why? Why not accept at face value what the terrorists had said were their reasons for the attacks?

Suppose someone had asked why Timothy McVeigh attacked the federal building in Oklahoma City. The truthful answer would be, “Because he was angry and hateful over what the U.S. government had done to American citizens at Waco.” A false answer would have been, “Because he hated freedom, democracy, and capitalism.”

One reason that the truth is important is that it usually enables people to arrive at better solutions to problems. For example, when the terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in 1993, if people had concluded that the attack was motivated by hatred for freedom, democracy, and capitalism, they would have immediately rejected abandoning those values. But if they had concluded that the 1993 attacks were motivated by anger and hatred for a particular U.S. government foreign policy, they might well have concluded that an alteration of that policy would be wise, even as they were incarcerating the 1993 terrorists for life.

Thus, like physicians, one must get the diagnosis right in order to get the prescription right. To return to the McVeigh example, if people concluded that McVeigh had been motivated by a hatred for freedom, democracy, and capitalism, they would have been less willing to call for a closer, renewed investigation into the government’s conduct at Waco. By openly acknowledging McVeigh’s self-proclaimed motivations, people could call for a renewed investigation into Waco, not as a defense of McVeigh, but as a way to defuse future McVeighs and prevent future Wacos.

September 11 motivations

Thus, truth is important, not only morally but also pragmatically. Today, for example, if people arrive at the conclusion that the 2001 WTC attacks were motivated by U.S. foreign policy, they have the ability to alter that policy. They might not choose to do so, believing that the continuation of that policy is important, but at least they would know that by failing to do so they were again risking more terrorist attacks against the American people. Either way, isn’t it better to deal with truth and reality in an attempt to come up with a right prescription than to simply blindly accept a wrong diagnosis?

Why were U.S. government officials so hasty to arrive at their conclusion that the September 11 terrorists were motivated by hatred for freedom, democracy, and capitalism, especially after U.S. officials themselves called bin Laden a “freedom fighter” throughout the 1980s?

I suggest that the answer is twofold: First, that would mean that they would have to justify why they didn’t change their foreign interventionist policies after the 1993 attacks on the World Trade Center. Second, they would have to justify why the policies are sufficiently important to continue putting Americans at risk from more terrorist acts in the future.

Indeed, U.S. officials know that if the American people were to begin to focus on the philosophy of foreign aid and foreign intervention that has guided our nation for the past 100 years or so (a philosophy that our ancestors expressly rejected), they might begin to reflect on that philosophy and reevaluate it, perhaps even begin to abandon it in favor of America’s founding principles.

Therefore, since the last thing that U.S. government officials want is to have the American people questioning its foreign-empire paradigm, it is not surprising that their immediate position regarding the terrorists was that they were motivated by hatred for freedom, democracy, and capitalism rather than by anger and hatred arising out of U.S. foreign interventionism.

What is disappointing, however, is not that government officials act in their own self-interests by adopting such a position, but rather that the American people accepted so readily the government’s version of the terrorist motivations — hook, line, and sinker.

The common justification for accepting the government position is that terrorists would lie while U.S. government officials would not. Oh? Since when do U.S. government officials not lie? After all, they themselves admit that they will lie if it’s in the interests of national security. But they also lie and mislead in many other instances, even in official federal court proceedings, such as in the federal trial of Randy Weaver, where they knowingly and deliberately engaged in perjury, destruction of official documents, and obstruction of justice.

Now, it’s true that terrorists lie also but there’s one big potential flaw in claiming that the terrorists are lying about motives for their terrorism. If the purpose of terrorism is to influence a change in government policy, then why would a terrorist lie about his motives? If he wants his terrorism to achieve its goal, doesn’t he have to ensure that people know the reason that the terrorism is being committed?

The American people are extremely reluctant to confront the reality of U.S. government policy not only because they view government as their daddy (the daddy who has taken care of them all their lives), but also because they know that it is a daddy whom they do not want to antagonize. For everyone recognizes that while their daddy is good to them by providing them welfare, schooling, health care, retirement, allowance, and protection from drugs and immigrants, he has become so strong in the process that he has the potential to be dangerously abusive, as American citizens learned at Waco.

In other words, Americans don’t like to admit it, but they have a very deep-seated, terrifying fear of their own government and its ability to do harm to them. At the same time, they pretend that this all-powerful government is the same limited government of their ancestors, which lacked the power (or the tax revenues) to do hardly any harm at all to the citizenry.

Even more tragically, the plaintive cry of the American people has become, “Please, please, do anything to protect us from the terrorists — take away our freedom, tax us any amount you want — just protect us from the terrorists.” Gone is the fierce love of liberty and the tough, rugged individualism that characterized our ancestors, which would have motivated them to respond in a totally different way: “We don’t like being threatened by terrorists, but you government officials had better recognize an important thing: Don’t even think about taking one iota of our liberty away from us in your attempt to fight them. Don’t even think about going down that road. It’s true that we might get killed by terrorists, but at least we’ll die as free men and free women rather than as terrified child-adults shivering in fear and begging their daddy to take their liberty away from them in the attempt to protect and take care of them.”

That’s not to say that the American people are not brave and courageous about opposing enemies in foreign lands. They have shown great courage and fortitude through their eagerness and willingness to send U.S. servicemen into battle against the enemy, but at the same time they have expressed an eagerness and willingness to surrender the hard-fought liberties of their ancestors to their public officials in the hope of being protected from the terrorists.

Skewed morality

The socialistic welfare state has produced a citizen who is in total denial of the mutated, aberrant, and alien-like form of government that now rules over him and whose policies have bred terrorists all over the world — a citizen who lives in so much fear of terrorists that he’s willing to surrender his liberties to his own government, who is terribly fearful to ask his daddy to stop breeding more terrorists with his foreign policy, and who will do anything to avoid questioning his daddy’s conduct of the war.

For example, consider the formal partnership that the U.S. government entered into with the Northern Alliance, which is nothing more than an evil gang of murderers and rapists. (Internet search terms: “Northern Alliance and rape”) Hardly anyone has questioned the moral implications of such a partnership.

After all, the partnership was not necessary — the U.S. government had more than sufficient troops and firepower to declare to the Northern Alliance, “Listen up, you murderers and rapists of the Northern Alliance. The U.S military is coming through to fulfill our mission. Stay out of our way.”

By choosing instead to enter into the partnership with these “evil ones,” the U.S. government placed the American people in a fascinating moral quandary, a quandary that left them condemning and criticizing the evil and immoral acts of the Taliban but at the same time remaining silent about the evil and immoral acts of the new partnership.

Equally important, the American people have chosen to turn a blind eye to the fact that as a result of the partnership, the U.S. government now shares legal and moral culpability for the evil and immoral acts of its partner.

The situation was similar in World War II, when the U.S. government entered into a formal partnership with Joseph Stalin, one of the most evil men in history, rather than conduct the war independently of him. The result was that both the U.S. government and the American people had their moral compass greatly skewed by having to remain silent on a host of atrocities committed by the Soviet Union, including the rapes of German women and the cold-blooded execution of thousands of Polish officers (Internet search term: Katyn Forest), not to mention the U.S. government’s complicity in the murder of a million innocent people after the war had ended (Internet search term: Operation Keelhaul).

These are the kinds of things that the American people are still unable to face about their own government. It is just too painful for them to do so. Waving their flags, they want to continue believing that their government is the same kind of government our ancestors established rather than the weird, aberrant, mutant, alien-like socialistic and paternalistic government Americans have permitted it to become. And that denial has had enormous consequences, especially moral and psychological consequences.

Throughout the Cold War, the Russians didn’t want to confront the reality of what had happened to their nation and their government. Gradually, however, ordinary Russians began listening to the voices of their dissidents and considering their perspectives. While that undoubtedly was a difficult process, the Russian people are much better off for it. The sooner the American people follow their example, the better off our nation and the world will be.

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.