On July 13, the Cato Institute published on its website libertarianism.org an article entitled “The Errors of Nostalgi-tarianism” by Steve Horwitz, a libertarian economics professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.
Horwitz’s article was a critique of a fundraising letter that I recently sent to supporters of The Future of Freedom Foundation requesting help with upgrading our website and with an outreach campaign that we are launching to find new libertarians.
On July 23, I sent a response to Horwitz’s article to an editor at Cato, requesting that they share it with the readers of libertarianism.org.
One of Cato’s associate editors informed me that they would not post my response because, he said, it did not “meet libertarianism.org’s editorial standards.” He informed me that they would be open to reconsidering their decision if I met three conditions: (1) I revise my response to their satisfaction; (2) I delete the section of my response that explains FFF’s methodology for advancing liberty; and (3) I shorten my response so that its number of words would approximately equal the number of words in the Horwitz critique.
I advised him that those conditions were unsatisfactory to me. Consequently, Cato chose not to share my response to the Horwitz article with the readers of libertarianism.org.
My response to Horwitz’s critique of my FFF fundraising letter appears below.
The Future of Freedom Foundation
In an article entitled The Errors of Nostalgi-tarianism,” which was recently published by the Cato Institute’s website libertarianism.org, Ball State University economics professor Steve Horwitz, criticized a fundraising letter that I recently sent out to supporters of The Future of Freedom Foundation seeking help with upgrading our website and with an outreach campaign to find new libertarians.
In his critique of my fundraising letter (which followed a similar critique on Horwitz’s Facebook page), Horwitz takes me to task for expressing nostalgia for the way things were in late 19th-century America. If I had actually said what he accused me of saying, I would agree with the points he makes. Unfortunately for Horwitz, however, the words I used did not say what he said they said.
Most of us are familiar with the term “straw man.” But just in case someone isn’t familiar with the term, the following is a common definition: “an intentionally misrepresented proposition that is set up because it is easier to defeat than an opponent’s real argument.”
The position that Horwitz wanted to attack was one that would have stated as follows: “I long for late 19th-century America because it was such a free society.”
That’s not what I said in my fundraising letter. Here is what I said (with italics added for emphasis):
My favorite period in U.S. history is the latter part of the 1800s. It wasn’t a pure, 100-percent libertarian society by any means, but it is the closest that mankind has ever come. Imagine: No income tax, IRS, drug laws, DEA, Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid; no farm subsidies, licensure, welfare, public schooling, gun control, immigration controls, Federal Reserve, paper money, minimum wage, or price controls; no military-industrial complex, CIA, NSA, TSA, FBI, Homeland Security, foreign aid, foreign wars, or foreign interventions.
Americans proved that it can be done. That is our baseline here at FFF. We want to restore those principles and build on them. We want America to lead the world to even greater heights of freedom and prosperity.
In both his Facebook critique and in his article on libertarianism.org, Horwitz omitted the second paragraph. Why did he do that? Because it didn’t fit with the narrative that he wanted to criticize. It was inconsistent with the straw man who he wished to target — i.e., the libertarian who expresses nostalgia for American life in the late 1800s without pointing out that there were violations of liberty during that era that libertarians do not endorse or condone.
Those two paragraphs in my fundraising letter point out two things:
First, my acknowledgement that 19th-century America was not a pure, 100-percent libertarian society. What does that mean? That means that I am stating that in 19th-century America, there were infringements on liberty that I am not endorsing.
Could I have detailed what such infringements were? Of course. I could have pointed to the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, the crony capitalism, the corrupt land grants to the railroads, tariffs, the denial of voting rights for women, and even one that Horwitz points out — the Comstock Law of 1873.
But let’s keep in mind an important thing: This was a two-page fundraising letter being sent to our supporters at FFF, not a 2,500-word article on libertarianism.org.
Second, by specifically enumerating libertarian policies in the late 19th century, I am conveying to the reader the aspects of that era that I consider positive. In fact, that’s where the second paragraph — the paragraph that Horwitz omitted in both his Facebook post and his libertarianism.org article — comes into play: I specifically say: “Americans proved that it can be done. That is our baseline here at FFF. We want to restore those principles and build on them. We want America to lead the world to even greater heights of freedom and prosperity.”
Does that sound like a libertarian who is expressing unconditional and unqualified nostalgia for late 19th-century America? Does it sound like a libertarian who is defending or even ignoring the infringements on liberty that existed during that time? Or does it sound like a libertarian who is acknowledging that there were, indeed, infringements on liberty and that we should take the positive freedom principles of that era, make them a baseline goal for today, and build on that baseline with the aim of leading the world to the freest society in history?
But let’s go to a more important point: Horwitz’s claim that today’s America is freer than 19th-century America. He couldn’t be more wrong, even factoring in the infringements on liberty during that time. Even given such infringements, it is impossible for any libertarian to reasonably and rationally argue that today’s Americans live in a freer society than Americans did in the late 19th-century.
Of course, when it comes to analyzing two different societies, we necessarily have to compare imperfect institutions. Given that human beings are imperfect, it would be impossible to expect any people to ever have a perfectly libertarian society. So, we are necessarily comparing imperfect systems — the imperfect society of late 19th-century America and the imperfect society of 21st-century America.
Moreover, it is certainly possible to have certain groups who are denied liberty in some particular way in Society 1 while those same groups enjoy the removal of such infringements in Society 2. Depending on the nature and extent of the infringement, it is entirely possible that such groups would choose to live in Society 2 even if Society 1 is in all other respects a pure libertarian society.
For example, suppose Society 1 is based on pure libertarian principles with one exception: slavery for blacks. Everyone, except blacks, is free to engage in economic enterprise without state interference, to accumulate unlimited amounts of wealth, and decide for himself what to do with it. Everyone, except blacks, is guaranteed civil liberties. Society 2 is based on socialist principles, where the state owns and operates everything and where everyone works for the state.
I think we can say with 100 percent certainty that blacks would choose to live in Society 2, notwithstanding the serfdom, poverty, and tyranny that comes with living in a socialist society. That’s because direct slavery is such an egregious infringement on liberty.
But suppose Society 1 is based on pure libertarian principles, with only one exception: Blacks are prohibited from sending information on contraceptives through the mail (i.e., the Comstock Law of 1873). Everyone, including blacks, has the right to engage in economic enterprise without state interference, accumulate unlimited amounts of wealth, and decide for himself what to do with his own money. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, due process of law, and the right to vote apply to everyone, including blacks.
Society 2 is a socialist society, one in which the state owns and operates everything and where people are jailed for criticizing the government. In Society 2, however, blacks and everyone else are free to send information on contraceptives through the mail.
Now what happens? My hunch is that most Americans, including blacks, would choose Society 1, notwithstanding the clear infringement on liberty and the clear violation of the rule of law that comes with the Comstock Law.
Which society would you choose? I would, without a doubt, choose Society 1 and work toward getting rid of the offending law. That is, I would make the positive principles of Society 1 my baseline and work toward expanding that baseline, which is precisely the point I was making in my 2-page fundraising letter to FFF’s supporters.
Let’s consider women, one of the groups that Horwitz used as an example to show how oppressive life was in late 19th-century America. Horwitz points to the fact that women were denied the right to vote and had their control over their property restricted as soon as they got married.
Fair enough. Those infringements did, in fact, exist. They were wrong. They were violations of libertarian principles.
Yet, consider this: millions of women were flooding into America throughout the 1800s and especially in the latter part of the century. In fact, when Ellis Island opened on January 1, 1892, the very first immigrant who was processed was an Irish girl named Annie Moore. According to a 2015 article entitled “New Beginnings: Immigrant Women and the American Experience” on the website of National Women’s History Museum,
Though Annie herself is remembered for being the first, her experiences in America were very much like those of millions of other women who chose to make a new home in a new country. Like those before and after, the women and girls who came through Ellis Island transformed America socially, politically, and economically. Women historically have accounted for almost fifty percent of immigrants and currently exceed that. Women’s motivations for migration have been varied and complex. Gender has influenced migrant women’s choices to immigrate as well as their opportunities and challenges upon arrival. Women immigrants have played a dynamic role in transforming America socially, politically, and economically.
What gives? Were all those immigrant women unaware that women in America were denied the right to vote? Did they not know that their control over their property was restricted if they got married? Did they not know that the Comstock Law of 1873 made it illegal for them to send information on contraceptives through the mail?
The fact is that none of these infringements on liberty mattered enough to them to keep them from coming to the United States, especially when compared to the imperfect societies they were fleeing. They were coming to a society in which there was no … well, permit me to again quote my fundraising letter:
No income tax, IRS, drug laws, DEA, Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid; no farm subsidies, licensure, welfare, public schooling, gun control, immigration controls, Federal Reserve, paper money, minimum wage, or price controls; no military-industrial complex, CIA, NSA, TSA, FBI, Homeland Security, foreign aid, foreign wars, or foreign interventions.
Those libertarian principles were not limited to “propertied white men.” They applied to everyone, including women, blacks, Jews, and people of Italian, German, Hispanic, and Irish descent.
First, everyone was free to engage in economic enterprise without state interference and to accumulate unlimited amounts of wealth. No state-imposed mandatory charity, including Social Security and Medicare, for anyone.
Second, everyone, not just “propertied white men,” enjoyed the economic and financial benefits that came with a gold-coin standard, as compared to the state plunder and looting that comes with fiat (i.e. paper) money and a Federal Reserve System.
Third, no one was subject to a state system of torture, assassination, mass surveillance, and indefinite detention, as Americans and others are today.
Fourth, contrary to what Horwitz asserts, no one was conscripted from the Civil War to World War I. While U.S. officials declared that men were subject to military duty in the Spanish-American War in 1898, no one was conscripted.
Women immigrants were fleeing Europe and Asia because they were rejecting statist societies in favor of the free-market, limited-government system in late 19th-century America, notwithstanding the fact that American women were being denied the right to vote, had their rights over property restricted upon marriage, and the Comstock Law of 1873 that made it illegal to send information about contraceptives through the mail.
Like their male counterparts, those immigrant women were voting with their feet. They were choosing America. And they just kept coming. Why? One reason is because they knew that they were living in the freest society in history, notwithstanding the exceptions. Another reason is that both women and men were doing fantastic economically. America’s vibrant free-market system enabled them to sustain their lives and the lives of their children through labor and, even better, enabled them to prosper, even get rich, which many of them did.
In fact, it was that astounding degree of economic prosperity that enabled women to fight for their rights in the late 1800s and into the 1900s. Consider this excerpt from a website of the U.S. House of Representatives entitled “The Women’s Rights Movement, 1848-1920”:
During the 1880s, the two wings of the women’s rights movement struggled to maintain momentum…. The turning point came in the late 1880s and early 1890s, when the nation experienced a surge of volunteerism among middle-class women — activists in progressive causes, members of women’s clubs and professional societies, temperance advocates, and participants in local civic and charity organizations.
Consider this excerpt from the website of the National Park Service entitled “Women’s Suffrage History Timeline”:
A Woman Suffrage Amendment is introduced in the United States Congress. The wording is unchanged in 1919, when the amendment finally passes both houses.
The NWSA and the AWSA are reunited as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) under the leadership of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. During this same year, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr found Hull House, a settlement house project in Chicago’s 19th Ward. Within one year, there are more than a hundred settlement houses–largely operated by women–throughout the United States. The settlement house movement and the Progressive campaign of which it was a part propelled thousands of college-educated white women and a number of women of color into lifetime careers in social work. It also made women an important voice to be reckoned with in American politics.
Ida B. Wells launches her nation-wide anti-lynching campaign after the murder of three black businessmen in Memphis, Tennessee.
Hannah Greenbaum Solomon founds the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) after a meeting of the Jewish Women’s Congress at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. In that same year, Colorado becomes the first state to adopt a state amendment enfranchising women.
In the late 1800s, the degree of economic prosperity was so enormous that in one 20-year period, real wages actually doubled. Not only that, there was also the greatest amount of voluntary charity that mankind had ever seen. And no, not because of an income-tax deduction. Remember: There was no income tax. When people were free to accumulate wealth, they donated to worthy causes because they wanted to. Among the beneficiaries of this unique way of life was the women’s rights movement.
Thanks to the wisdom of our American ancestors who demanded the enactment of the First Amendment, 19th-century women were free to protest in favor of their rights without fear of being jailed, like they would have been back in Europe.
When the Constitution called the federal government into existence, the result was the most unusual and freest society in history. No, not for blacks, who were enslaved. Everyone understands that, and the nation ultimately paid an enormous price for that abandonment of principle.
But what’s wrong with looking at the positive virtues of American society, acknowledging and condemning the negative (e.g., slavery), and thinking in terms of a trajectory toward freedom? America was a society in which most people weren’t being put in jail, tortured, and executed for their political beliefs and their religious beliefs. Most people also experienced the benefits of economic liberty.
That wasn’t the case in the European countries from which those immigrants were coming. In those countries, people were still being punished severely for speaking out against state injustices or for worshipping God in their own way. Their governments were conscripting their men to fight in their forever wars. And the citizenry was being plundered and looted by public officials, which kept most people in poverty, misery, and even early death.
With the end of the Civil War, there was obviously a lot of death, destruction, impoverishment, and suffering. But on the positive side, the Thirteenth Amendment was enacted, abolishing slavery once and for all. Also enacted was the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibited the states from denying anyone, including blacks and women, of life, liberty, and property without due process of law, a term that stretches back to Magna Carta in 1215. Moreover, the Fifteenth Amendment was enacted, guaranteeing blacks the right to vote.
Moreover, in the post-Civil War period, no one was being conscripted. No one was being jailed for his religious or political views (well, except possibly those who were caught sending information on contraceptives through the mail). No one could legally have his life, liberty, or property taken away from him by either the federal government or state and local governments without due process of law.
And everyone, not just “propertied white guys,” had the right of economic liberty — i.e., the right to freely engage in economic enterprise and accumulate unlimited amounts of wealth. That includes both women and blacks.
We have already seen what economic liberty did for women. What about blacks? Consider this excerpt from “Prosperous Blacks in the South, 1790-1880” by Loren Schweninger, professor emeritus of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro:
Free blacks and emancipated slaves also suffered during the war and its aftermath; but the comparative death rates, at least from what we know, paled by comparison. Moreover, with freedom came a new energy, a new enthusiasm for determining one’s own fate in life and acquiring an economic stake. Black leaders urged their people to become economically independent and self-sufficient. Although none of these conditions necessarily resulted in economic improvement, and the masses remained landless, in every section of the South enterprising blacks achieved a measure of prosperity by acquiring significant amounts of land and property. During the 1870s, these trends continued…. formerly free blacks and former slaves in the Upper South continued to gain entry into the most prosperous group of farmers, skilled artisans, and small business people. During the 1870s, despite the economic problems of the era, the most prosperous group continued to expand, especially in towns and cities.
Consider Sarah Breedlove (1867-1919), also known as Madam C.J. Walker, who became the first female self-made millionaire — yes, millionaire! — in post-Civil War America. She was black. She made her fortune selling beauty products. That’s because she was free to do so in 19th-century America under the principles of economic liberty, which, again, applied to everyone, not just “propertied white men.”
Moreover, in considering the trajectory of freedom and viewing the freedom glass as 90 percent full instead of 10 percent empty, consider this timeline of African American history in the 1880s from Wikipedia:
- In Strauder v. West Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that African Americans could not be excluded from juries.
- During the 1880s, African Americans in the South reach a peak of numbers in being elected and holding local offices, even while white Democrats are working to assert control at state level.
- April 11 – Spelman Seminary is founded as the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary.
- July 4 – Booker T. Washington opens the Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama.
- Lewis Latimer invented the first long-lasting filament for light bulbs and installed his lighting system in New York City, Philadelphia, and Canada. Later, he became one of the 28 members of Thomas Edison‘s Pioneers.
- A biracial populist coalition achieves power in Virginia (briefly). The legislature founds the first public college for African Americans, Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute, as well as the first mental hospital for African Americans, both near Petersburg, Virginia. The hospital was established in December 1869, at Howard’s Grove Hospital, a former Confederate unit, but is moved to a new campus in 1882.
- October 16 – In Civil Rights Cases, the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 as unconstitutional.
- Mark Twain‘s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is published, featuring the admirable African-American character Jim.
- Judy W. Reed, of Washington, D.C., and Sarah E. Goode, of Chicago, are the first African-American women inventors to receive patents. Signed with an “X”, Reed’s patent no. 305,474, granted September 23, 1884, is for a dough kneader and roller. Goode’s patent for a cabinet bed, patent no. 322,177, is issued on July 14, 1885. Goode, the owner of a Chicago furniture store, invented a folding bed that could be formed into a desk when not in use.
- Ida B. Wells sues the Chesapeake, Ohio & South Western Railroad Company for its use on segregated “Jim Crow” cars.
- Norris Wright Cuney becomes the chairman of the Texas Republican Party, the most powerful role held by any African American in the South during the 19th century.
- October 3 – The State Normal School for Colored Students, which would become Florida A&M University, is founded.
Horwitz rightly condemns the lynchings of African-Americans and the Jim Crow laws that were occurring in late 19th-century America. But what he fails to recognize is that much of the resentment toward blacks in the South was due not only to residual pre-Civil War bigotry but also because blacks were doing well economically and because the free market was breaking down racial barriers. Jim Crow laws were intended to impede the ability of blacks to do well economically and to mandate the separation of races by law. Such laws were an attack on the paradigm of economic liberty, not a part of it. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, if economic liberty in, say, Alabama was keeping blacks down and the races separated, why would it have been necessary to enact Jim Crow laws and laws requiring racial segregation?
Horwitz also asserts that sodomy laws were being used to target and oppress gays in late 19th-century America. The ACLU disputes the accuracy of that assertion: “For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, sodomy laws were used as secondary charges in cases of sexual assault, sex with children, public sex and sex with animals. Most of those cases involved heterosexual sex. Originally, sodomy laws were part of a larger body of law — derived from church law — designed to prevent nonprocreative sexuality anywhere, and any sexuality outside of marriage. In nine states, sodomy laws were explicitly rewritten so that they only applied to gay people. Kansas was the first state to do that in 1969.”
The late 19th century was when the progressives began their attacks against classical liberalism. Should we judge classical liberalism in the late 1800s by the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890? Or should we judge the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 as a beginning of the progressive attack on the paradigm of economic liberty? The fight over ideology extended into the battle over empire versus republic during the Spanish American War. Should we judge that war as something bad about the principles of economic liberty and limited government? Or should we judge it as a successful attack by progressives on the principles of economic liberty and limited government?
Notwithstanding the exceptions and violations of libertarian principles, were the late 1800s the “most dynamic, exciting, invention-filled, prosperous, charitable, and free society ever,” as I stated in my fundraising letter? Well, consider this timeline from Wikipedia:
- 1872: J.E.T. Woods and J. Clark invented Stainless steel. Harry Brearley was the first to commercialize it.
- 1873: Frederick Ransome invents the rotary kiln.
- 1873: Sir William Crookes, a chemist, invents the Crookes radiometer as the by-product of some chemical research.
- 1873: Zénobe Gramme invents the first commercial electrical generator, the Gramme machine.
- 1874: Gustave Trouvé invents the first metal detector.
- 1876: Nikolaus August Otto invents the Four-stroke cycle.
- 1876: Alexander Graham Bell has a patent granted for the telephone. However, other inventors before Bell had worked on the development of the telephone and the invention had several pioneers.
- 1877: Thomas Edison invents the first working phonograph.
- 1878: Henry Fleuss is granted a patent for the first practical rebreather.
- 1878: Lester Allan Pelton invents the Pelton wheel.
- 1879: Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison both patent a functional Incandescent light bulb. Some two dozen inventors had experimented with electric incandescent lighting over the first three-quarters of the 19th century but never came up with a practical design. Swan’s, which he had been working on his since the 1860s, had a low resistance so was only suited for small installations. Edison designed a high-resistance bulb as part of a large-scale commercial electric lighting utility.
- 1881: Nikolay Benardos presents carbon arc welding, the first practical arc welding 
- 1884: Hiram Maxim invents the recoil-operated Maxim gun, ushering in the age of semi- and fully automatic firearms.
- 1884: Paul Vieille invents Poudre B, the first smokeless powder for firearms.
- 1884: Sir Charles Parsons invents the modern steam turbine.
- 1885: John Kemp Starley invents the modern bicycle.
- 1886: Carl Gassner invents thezinc-carbon battery, the first dry cell battery, making portable electronics practical.
- 1886: Charles Martin Hall and independently Paul Héroult invent the Hall–Héroult process for economically producing aluminum in 1886.
- 1886: Karl Benz invents the first petrol or gasoline powered auto-mobile (car).
- 1887: Carl Josef Bayer invents the Bayer process for the production of alumina.
- 1887: James Blyth invents the first wind turbine used for generating electricity.
- 1887:John Stewart MacArthur, working in collaboration with brothers Dr. Robert and Dr. William Forrest develops the process of gold cyanidation.
- 1888: John J. Loud invents the ballpoint pen.
- 1888: Heinrich Hertz publishes a conclusive proof of James Clerk Maxwell‘s electromagnetic theory in experiments that also demonstrate the existence of radio waves. The effects of electromagnetic waves had been observed by many people before this but no usable theory explaining them existed until Maxwell.
- 1890s: Frédéric Swarts invents the first chlorofluorocarbons to be applied as refrigerant.
- 1891: Whitcomb Judson invents the zipper.
- 1892: Léon Bouly invents the cinematograph.
- 1893: Rudolf Diesel invents the diesel engine (although Herbert Akroyd Stuart had experimented with compression ignition before Diesel).
- 1895: Guglielmo Marconi invents a system of wireless communication using radio waves.
- 1895: Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen invented the first radiograph (xrays).
- 1898: Hans von Pechmann synthesizes polyethylene, now the most common plastic in the world.
- 1899: Waldemar Jungner invents the nickel–cadmium battery.
Would anyone, including Horwitz, really describe the society in which Americans live today as “dynamic, exciting, invention-filled, prosperous, charitable, and free,” given such things as income taxation, the IRS, the drug war, the DEA, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, public schooling, assassination, torture, indefinite detention, secret surveillance, denial of due process, denial of speedy trial, asset forfeiture, immigration controls, tariffs and trade wars, the national-security state, foreign wars, foreign aid, foreign interventions, coups, support of brutal dictatorships, the military-industrial complex, the CIA, the NSA, economic regulations, fiat (i.e., paper) money, the Federal Reserve, minimum-wage laws, occupational licensure, mass drug and alcohol addiction, growing suicide rates, mass killings, and other negative aspects of the welfare-warfare state way of life in which we live?
There are two things about Horwitz’s piece that are worth noting.
First, his point that it was a massive infringement on freedom that women were denied the right to vote. Why is that interesting? Because consider what Horwitz has written in another forum: “Voting, to me, is just not an effective path to social change.”
There is something else worth noting about Horwitz’s piece: His total silence about the drug war, the most racist government program since segregation, which the noted African-American scholar Michelle Alexander appropriately calls “the new Jim Crow.”
There is no denying that the drug war has been enforced disproportionately against black Americans. For that matter, women, both black and white, have suffered the consequences of this evil and immoral government program. Not only are blacks and women (both black and white) being forced to spend large portions of their lives in jail for doing nothing more than engaging in a peaceful, consensual activity, their felony convictions on release preclude them from voting.
Why doesn’t he even mention the new Jim Crow in his 2,500-word critique of my fundraising letter? Isn’t that something that we libertarians want African Americans to know about us libertarians — that we ardently oppose this modern-day Jim Crow, one in which blacks are being harassed, abused, humiliated, and even shot dead? In waxing eloquent about life for blacks in 21st-century America while remaining silent about the drug war, doesn’t Horwitz run the risk that people will conclude that we libertarians favor the war on drugs, like conservatives do?
After his libertarianism.org piece got published, he was invited to appear on a radio show hosted by a man named Walter Hudson. Not once during the show did Horwitz even mention, much less condemn, the drug war and its racist aspects. How does such silence advance libertarianism?
In fact, I can’t help but wonder why there is not even a hint of condemnation in Horwitz’s article (or during the radio show) of the U.S. national-security state, along with its formal, structuralized program of foreign interventionism, assassination, torture, indefinite detention, mass surveillance, and denial of due process. Aren’t such things worth condemning when one is talking about “freedom” and “limited government” in 21st-century America?
When talk-show host Hudson asked Horwitz what type of reaction he was getting to his article, he responded in part “mostly positive” while remaining totally silent about the critical response that I posted on FFF’s website and on his Facebook page. (My response to his Facebook post can be read here).
FFF’s methodology for advancing liberty
Horwitz fails to mention in his 2,500-word missive that he vehemently disagrees with FFF’s uncompromising methodology in advancing freedom, as reflected in my fundraising letter that he took the time to criticize. Horwitz is that part of the libertarian movement that advocates “reform” or “transitional” programs that purportedly advance liberty, the most popular being school vouchers. Here is what Horwitz has written:
Let’s open up the public schools to competition, especially in poorer areas. All of those things would enable folks to afford things the state now provides as well as not need welfare etc. Then … we work on reforming those programs by moving them over to voucher programs or a guaranteed income program. Then we work on phasing them out.
Just recently, a libertarian named Michael Munger weighed into this methodological debate with an article entitled “Directionalism vs. Destination,” in which he, like Horwitz, ardently defends school vouchers and other reforms that are supposedly intended to improve or “phase out” the state’s system of public schooling.
This debate over methodology is not new. It has been going on within the libertarian movement for even longer than the entire 28 years of FFF’s existence.
In fact, FFF became embroiled in it during our very first year of publication. In September 1990, I published an article entitled “Letting Go of Socialism” in which I criticized Milton Friedman’s support of school vouchers. Friedman responded to my article in a critical speech entitled “Say No to Intolerance” that was reprinted in Liberty magazine and then reprinted again just last year by the conservative Hoover Institution. In his speech, Friedman accused me (as well as Ludwig von Mises and Ayn Rand) of being too uncompromising. He also said the same thing that Horwitz, Munger, and other members of the libertarian reform-transition crowd claim: that vouchers are a simply a means of ultimately achieving the separation of school and state, which most every libertarian would acknowledge is the libertarian ideal when it comes to education.
But as I pointed out in 1990 and as FFF has pointed out ever since: Friedman was dead wrong and so are Horwitz, Munger, and other libertarians who endorse reform/transition programs.
Consider vouchers. What are they? They are nothing more than another socialistic welfare-state program. They are based on using the force of the state to take money from one person to whom it belongs and give it to another person to whom it does not belong. That is a direct violation of libertarian principles and, for that matter, moral principles.
Given that socialism is morally wrong, which is what libertarians believe, how can socialism ever be justified, even as a purported way to advance freedom? Moreover, how can anyone have respect for a movement that endorses socialism as a way to get to freedom? I certainly wouldn’t think much of a philosophy whose methodology is based on a violation of its own principles as a way to achieve its goals.
Moreover, school vouchers do not lead to a “phasing out” of state involvement in education. On the contrary, they do the exact opposite. They lead to even more involvement and entrenchment of the state in education. Private schools become dependent on the voucher money and on the expansion of student enrollment. New buildings are built. More teachers and administrators are hired. What are the chances that such schools or voucher recipients are suddenly going to be enthusiastic about bringing the voucher program to an end as part of “phasing out” state involvement in education? No chance at all, which is why vouchers have never ever led to a separation of school and state and never will.
In fact, almost 30 years after Friedman criticized me for FFF’s uncompromising approach to advancing liberty, voucher proponents today are notorious for not mentioning that the real libertarian goal is to end all state involvement in education. All too often today they remain silent about the goal and instead show people how vouchers will improve the public-school system through “choice” and “competition.”
In FFF’s second year of operation, one of our VIP donors telephoned me and asked me to send him an op-ed endorsing vouchers that he could circulate to newspapers in his state. I told him that I could not do that. He made it clear that if I didn’t do it, he would cancel his $1,000 annual donation to FFF. I have never for a moment regretted my decision to refuse his request even though he followed through and never sent us another donation. As Leonard Read used to point out, principles cannot be compromised; they can only be abandoned.
Making the case for school vouchers is different from making the case for the separation of school and state. When one makes the case for vouchers, he isn’t causing people to think at a higher level — a level that entails the separation of school and state. If people are not exposed to libertarian ideals, how do we expect them to be thinking about them and ultimately accepting them? Moreover, how can we expect non-libertarians to embrace libertarian principles if libertarians themselves are reluctant to openly embrace libertarian principles?
Imagine hypothetically that there are 100,000 libertarians in the country. Imagine that 95,000 of them are advocating vouchers. Imagine that only 5,000 of them are making the case for the complete separation of school and state.
Obviously, those 5,000 people, owing to the relatively small number, have a difficult task finding people to join up with them and help them achieve the separation of school and state.
Now, let’s reverse the numbers. 5,000 libertarians are calling for vouchers and 95,000 libertarians are making the case for the separation of school and state. Now, everything is different. We now have a much larger number of libertarians who are causing people to think about the ideal.
The principle is the same, of course, with every other libertarian issue. There are libertarians whose goal is to “privatize” Social Security, which means that people will be permitted to keep their own money but be forced to invest it in a government-approved retirement account. That’s economic fascism. Is fascism better than socialism? Maybe, maybe not. But one thing is for certain: it’s not freedom. Freedom necessarily entails the dismantling, repeal, and abolition of infringements on freedom.
The same with immigration controls. Some libertarians take the conservative approach by calling for more immigrants to be let in. In doing so, they implicitly assume the legitimacy of a system in which the government is engaging in socialist central planning. They are not making the case for open borders, i.e., the free movements of people across the borders. They are not causing people to question the legitimacy of immigration controls. They are not causing people to think at a higher level, at the level of freedom and free markets.
It might interest Horwitz to know that he isn’t the first libertarian to criticize a FFF fundraising letter. That happened during our very first year when we were struggling mightily to survive. A professional fundraising consultant for libertarian investment advisers offered to review my first fundraising letter before I sent it out. Like the letter that Horwitz criticized, it set forth FFFs uncompromising positions on libertarian issues.
The consultant told me that it was a terrible fundraising letter. He advised me to just couch the letter in terms of praising “free enterprise and free markets” and leave out our specific positions. That way, he said, people wouldn’t get turned off and would be more likely to send us money.
I rejected his advice and continued doing so for the next 28 years. The way I figured it was that I wanted people to know where FFF stood before they sent us a check. I didn’t want them to think later that they had been misled.
And I also wanted to find those libertarians who are attracted to ideals and principles and for whom adherence to principle is important. I figure that the best way to find such people is by setting forth our principles openly and directly.
One of the common critiques we have received over the years has been, “Jacob, you all are not being practical. Your principles and ideals might sound nice but they are pie-in-the-sky. Utopian. Impossible to achieve.”
Really? Then how does one explain that there was once a society in history that achieved the libertarian principles that I enumerated in my fundraising letter? And that’s one of the primary reasons I included that fact in my fundraising letter, the one that Horwitz criticized — to remind our supporters that our American ancestors actually did bring into existence a society where there was no income tax or IRS, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, immigration controls, public schooling, conscription, Pentagon, CIA, NSA, assassination, torture, indefinite detention, denial of due process of law, drug laws, DEA, minimum-wage laws, occupational licensure, foreign aid, foreign wars, foreign interventions, sanctions, embargoes, coups, and other violations of liberty and limited government. How can something be pie-in-the sky and utopian if people have achieved it in the past?
Can libertarian reform/transition plans conceivably improve the lot of American serfs under America’s welfare-warfare state way of life today? Perhaps. But here’s the thing: It’s not freedom! And freedom is what we libertarians are aiming for.
Why is strict adherence to principle so important? Because it has always been principles and ideals that have moved people to achieve the great heights of liberty that have been achieved in history. Freedom of speech. Freedom of religion. Freedom of the press. Habeas corpus. The right to keep and bear arms. Due process of law. Economic liberty. They all have been achieved by small numbers of people adhering to principle who have caused others to think at a higher level when it comes to liberty.