Americans alive today have grown up in what libertarians term a welfare-warfare state. It is a system in which the primary purpose of the federal government is to take care of people and keep them safe and secure. This type of governmental system is also sometimes referred to as a paternalistic state, given that the federal government essentially plays the role of a parent in relation to his children.
In a welfare state, the government forcibly takes money from people to whom it belongs and gives it to people to whom it does not belong. The idea is that when the government takes money from people who have it and gives it to those who need it, it reflects how good, caring, and compassionate people are in society. This forcible seizure and redistribution of wealth is a variant of socialism.
The crown jewels of American socialism are Social Security and Medicare. But there are countless other programs in which the government seizes people’s wealth and gives it to other people. Examples are farm subsidies, education grants, corporate bailouts, foreign aid, food stamps, and business subsidies.
Another feature of American socialism involves central planning. In this type of socialism the government centrally plans certain peaceful activities. Examples abound but among the most prominent are the Federal Reserve System, public (i.e., government) schooling, and immigration controls.
A third aspect of American socialism is that the government owns and operates businesses and enterprises within the economy. Examples are Amtrak, Radio Martí, and the Postal Service.
Another aspect of the paternalistic state is a centrally managed and government-regulated economy. Examples are minimum-wage laws, economic regulations, trade wars, immigration controls, interest-rate manipulations, the drug war, sanctions, embargoes, and a presidentially managed economy.
On the warfare-state side of things, most of today’s Americans were born and raised under a national-security-state type of governmental structure. It consists of a vast and permanent military-intelligence establishment. This side of the federal government is empowered to wield and exercise omnipotent, non-reviewable, totalitarian-like powers, such as the power to conduct state-sponsored assassinations, establish massive secret surveillance schemes, and initiate coups, invasions, and occupations around the world. In the United States, the national-security part of the federal government consists of the Pentagon, the CIA, the NSA, and, to a certain extent, the FBI.
There are two important things to understand about the welfare-warfare-state system: One, it has destroyed the freedom of the American people. Two, it hasn’t worked; instead, it has been characterized by crises, chaos, death, suffering, conflict, violence, and impoverishment.
Why is a welfare state destructive of freedom? Because it is based on the use of force. That’s what taxation is — the forcible collection of money from people. The primary engine for this collection is the Internal Revenue Service, one of the most tyrannical, oppressive, and feared agencies in U.S. history. If someone fails or refuses to pay his taxes, the IRS targets him with levies, liens, garnishments, and attachments, all without having to secure judicial approval. Federal officials will also target tax resisters with arrest, prosecution, incarceration, and fine. There is nothing voluntary about paying taxes.
Thus, the welfare state is ultimately based on forced charity, which, of course, is not charity at all. Genuine charity comes from the willing heart of the individual. That’s what care and compassion are all about — the voluntary choice to help another person in need.
Suppose, for example, that John accosts Peter at an ATM. Holding a gun to Peter’s head, John demands that he withdraw $10,000 from his account. Peter complies and hands over the money. John takes the money to the poorest part of town and gives it all to the homeless and to people needing urgent medical treatment.
Is John a good and caring person for what he has done? His giving of the money to the needy suggests that he might well be. But most people would agree that John is also a robber and should be arrested, prosecuted, and punished for his crime and made to repay the money he took from Peter.
Suppose John persuades Congress to impose a tax on Peter totaling $10,000. Under compulsion, Peter pays the money to the U.S. Treasury, which then hands it over to the Social Security and Medicare agencies, which then give the money to seniors or helps them to pay for needed medical procedures.
Is Peter now a good and caring person? Is John? How about the IRS agents? The members of Congress? The president? The bureaucrats working for the Social Security and Medicare departments? The U.S. Treasury?
The answer is: None of the above. What has happened here is no different from what happens when John robs Peter at the ATM. Force has been employed to take money from a person to whom it rightfully belongs to give it to another person.
Thus, there is no way that anyone can be considered to be genuinely free who lives in a welfare state. Freedom necessarily entails the right to keep everything you own and do whatever you want with it — save, spend, invest, donate, or hoard it.
Other forms of compulsion
Among the premier examples of central planning are the Federal Reserve, immigration controls, and public schooling, all of which are characterized by perpetual crises and chaos. Operating since 1913, the Fed destroyed the gold-coin, silver-coin standard established by the Constitution and which was the nation’s official money for the 140 years of U.S. history after 1793. America’s system of immigration controls centrally plans the movements of millions of people in a complex labor market and has produced a never-ending crisis that entails death and suffering, and a massive police state to enforce it. Public schooling is a classic socialist system, one that involves central planning, compulsory funding (i.e., taxation), compulsory attendance, and government schoolteachers, textbooks, and curricula.
There is no way to reconcile these socialist programs with a free society. A free society is one that has a free-market monetary system, borders that are open to the free movements of goods, services, and people, and a free-market educational system in which there is a separation of school and state.
Two other examples of a government-regulated society are the minimum wage and the drug war. The minimum wage interferes with the freedom of people to enter into agreements with respect to wages. It inevitably causes unemployment by setting the wage higher than what employers are willing and able to pay in the marketplace. The drug war punishes people for ingesting substances that have not been approved by the government.
In a genuinely free society, people are free to enter into any mutually agreeable wage relationships they desire. And they are free to ingest anything they want, no matter how harmful or destructive it might be.
Government-owned enterprises are also anathema to a free society. Private ownership of property is the bedrock of a free society. Socialist enterprises violate that principle and inevitably need subsidies, which the government takes by force (i.e., taxation) from the citizenry.
The principle is the same with the national-security-state form of governmental structure. The Constitution called into existence a type of governmental system known as a limited-government republic. Under that type of governmental system, the powers of the government were extremely limited. The Framers understood that the main threat to freedom lies with one’s own government. Thus, by restricting governmental powers, first with the Constitution and then later with the Bill of Rights, the goal was to protect the freedom of the American people from being destroyed by the federal government.
That concept of limited powers was tossed out the window when the federal government was converted to a national-security state after World War II. That was when a vast military establishment became a permanent part of American life. It was also when the CIA and the NSA came into existence. That’s when the federal government acquired the powers of state-sponsored assassinations, coups, undeclared wars, massive secret surveillance, sanctions, and other totalitarian-like powers that are customarily associated with dictatorial regimes.
As with the welfare state, there is no way to reconcile a national-security state with a free society. North Korea is a national-security state. So are Russia, China, Cuba, Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. And post–World War II United States.
What liberty looks like
It stands to reason that the only way to achieve freedom in America lies in dismantling all of those infringements on freedom.
That obviously is not an easy task. Once people become hooked on socialism, interventionism, regulation, militarism, and empire, it is extremely difficult to persuade them to kick the habit. Their fear of freedom becomes palpable in that they become convinced that freedom will mean that people will be dying in the streets; everyone will go on drugs; the entire world will immigrate to the United States to get on welfare; everyone will go uneducated; the rich will oppress the poor; and terrorists, Muslims, communists, Russians, and other scary creatures will come to get them. They want their government to watch over them from cradle to grave, taking care of them, watching over them, and keeping them safe from the vicissitudes of life and the scary monsters roaming the world.
People want a government “safety net” in case they fall off the high wire of liberty. But what they don’t realize is that the safety net destroys their liberty. The problem is aggravated by the fact that many Americans honestly believe that all this welfarism and warfarism is freedom. The plight of such Americans can be summed up in the words of Johann Goethe: None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.
Therefore, achieving freedom entails showing people that they are not, in fact, free. It also entails identifying the infringements on freedom. Finally, it entails a dismantling of those infringements.
A critical mass
Is that an easy task? Of course not. It is an extremely difficult task. But it is not an impossible one, as even some libertarians have convinced themselves it is.
After all, consider the fact that 19th-century Americans lived under a system without the following: income taxation and the IRS, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, SBA loans, corporate bailouts, a drug war, immigration controls, the Federal Reserve, fiat (i.e., paper) money, and public-schooling systems; the Pentagon, military-industrial complex, CIA, NSA, and FBI; foreign military bases, state-sponsored assassinations, torture, coups, and other parts of today’s welfare-warfare-state way of life.
That’s not to say, of course, that 19th-century America was a libertarian paradise. It wasn’t. There were slavery, land grants to the railroads, canal building, government-business partnerships or “crony capitalism,” and other infringements on liberty.
But the fact is that 19th-century Americans proved to us that it is possible to achieve critically important aspects of liberty.
What is ultimately needed, therefore, is a critical mass of people in America who understand what genuine freedom is and for whom freedom is among their top priorities. Once that critical mass is reached, there will be a gigantic transformation of American society, one toward liberty.
Unfortunately, there are libertarians who have given up any hope for a free society. They take the position that the welfare-warfare-state way of life has become too ingrained in Americans and has become a permanent feature of American life. They say that it’s impossible to garner a critical mass of people who understand what freedom is and who consider it to be critically important.
Such libertarians say that it’s time for libertarians to make peace with the loss of liberty in our nation and to come to accept it and embrace it. Such libertarians have, consequently, chosen to devote their lives to reforming, not dismantling, America’s welfare-warfare-state programs.
This hopelessness is seen in what they say about Social Security. Rather than making the case for repeal, some libertarians have come up with reform plans that involve a mixture of socialism and economic fascism. Their plans enable young people to opt out of the government’s Social Security program and force them to save money in a government-approved retirement account. But under such reform plans, they will also continue to be taxed to fund people’s Social Security payments for the next 30-40 years, when the last Social Security recipient has died.
That means that under their reform plans, freedom is delayed by 30-40 years. It could even be longer because it is entirely conceivable that younger people, upon reaching retirement age, will say that they put their money into the Social Security “fund” and, therefore, that they have the right to get it back, just as their parents and grandparents did.
I personally have no interest in achieving liberty 30-40 years from now. I want freedom now, which necessarily entails a dismantling of all infringements on liberty, including socialist programs such as Social Security. As far as I’m concerned, if all that we libertarians accomplish is a reform of American socialism, we will have accomplished nothing when it comes to freedom. Oh sure, reform might (or might not) improve the lives of the serfs living on the welfare-warfare-state plantation, but it won’t be freedom.
Imagine life in 1850 America. One group of libertarians says, “Slavery is here to stay. It’s too deeply embedded in American life. Americans are never going to give it up. It’s in the Constitution. We don’t want to tilt at windmills. We have to be credible and go for what’s possible. We have to make peace with slavery and devote our lives to reforming it: fewer lashings, shorter work hours, better food and health care.”
Undoubtedly, the slaves would be appreciative. But it wouldn’t have been freedom, and the slaves would have known it. To achieve freedom, it was necessary to dismantle, not reform, the structure of slavery.
It’s no different with the welfare-warfare-serfdom society under which we live. If we are to live lives of freedom before we pass from this earth, all infringements on liberty must necessarily be dismantled, not reformed.
Consider health care, which has been in perpetual crisis for decades. That’s because of Medicare and Medicaid, two socialist programs that destroyed what was the finest health-care system in history. Libertarian reformers say we need to accept the permanent existence of health-care socialism and simply try to reform it with, say, health-savings accounts.
That’s not for me. I want freedom. That means dismantling, not reforming, Medicare and Medicaid and, in a larger sense, separating health care entirely from the state.
Drug laws. Libertarian reformers say legalize only marijuana, not other drugs. But that’s not freedom. Freedom entails the right to ingest whatever you want, no matter how harmful or destructive.
Immigration controls. Libertarian reformers say that we just need to leave the entire socialist immigration system intact, along with the massive police state it has spawned in the American Southwest. They just want federal immigration planners to let in more immigrants. The operative word is “let.” Freedom and “let” are opposites. Freedom entails the right to cross political borders without seeking a bureaucrat’s permission.
The national-security state. Libertarian reformers want to reform the NSA and its surveillance schemes. They want to rein in the CIA. They want to reduce military spending. But they want to leave the entire national-security apparatus intact. But freedom and a national-security state are opposites. Genuine freedom entails a dismantling of the national-security establishment and the restoration of a limited-government republic.
To reach the critical mass that is necessary for a transformation to a free society requires making the case for a free society. If all that people hear is the case for reform, they won’t have any reason to think at the higher level of freedom. When they hear the case for liberty, they might still reject it. But it’s also possible that many of them will decide to join up with us libertarians, bringing us ever closer to a society that rejects the morass of socialism, interventionism, regulation, militarism, and empire, and embrace a society based on liberty, peace, prosperity, and harmony with the people of the world.
This article was originally published in the April 2020 edition of Future of Freedom.