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TGIF: The Year That Was


The year coming to an end has hardly been a banner one in the cause of liberty. Once again, high points are tough to find, but low points abound. In mainstream public discussion, freedom counted for nothing, if it wasn’t ridiculed outright. The presidential election saw the marginalizing (again) of the only figure in the race — Ron Paul — who talked about individual liberty, peace, and the need to roll back government power in virtually all spheres. These were precisely the things that made him an oddity for media pundits and his rivals. As someone quipped, Paul was considered crazy because only he opposed an unprovoked war against Iran. How’s that for a commentary on our time?

From liberty’s standpoint, the race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney couldn’t have been more repugnant — a cynical contest between two variations of American corporatism fighting over the rate at which government power should grow. In matters of war the differences were nonexistent. Both candidates embraced murder by remote control, due process be damned; indefinite detention, without charge, by the military; and intervention anywhere and everywhere without even a façade of congressional oversight (not that such oversight would improve things). All “responsible” observers now see the presidency as the seat occupied by the de facto world emperor. Hardly anyone batted an eye when Obama, fresh from electoral victory, decreed who is and is not the “legitimate” opposition to the current Syrian government — as though (1) this is any business of his and (2) it will make any difference on the ground.

The American rulers’ delusions of grandeur are inversely proportional to the objective power of the empire. Their Hellfire missiles can still destroy, but the empire can build nothing worthwhile. Predator drones kill innocent children in the Muslim world, even as Obama hypocritically expresses grief over school shootings. Glorification of all things military did not let up in 2012. People curious about what cultural influences encourage mass violence might want to look into that.

The Sequestration Euphemism

On the domestic side, the two divisions of the uniparty system went through the motions of fighting about something important when in fact government spending will rise no matter which side prevails. “Sequestration” is a euphemism for “cruel hoax.” Government spending is a good measure of the burden of government, and when spending rises, we can be sure that taxes in some form will also rise. The money has to come from somewhere. The combat over what to do about tax rates distracts from that unalterable fact. If government doesn’t take the money openly, it will take it covertly. Borrowing removes loanable funds from the private sector while adding to the future burden of government. The Federal Reserve’s money creation threatens to steal our purchasing power. When the government spends, the politicians and their cronies gain; the rest of us lose.

The economy muddles along in its largely jobless not-quite-recovery, while virtually all policymakers, having learned nothing from the housing and financial debacle, seek to put things back as they were just before the 2008 collapse. It’s hard to believe that in the 21st century, people still think that government can interfere with the price system — which includes interest rates — without causing harmful results for the general welfare. Human action generates prices and is in turn guided by prices. When government policy distorts interest rates — which is what the Fed openly tries to do — people are misled to do things that have bad unintended consequences, things they would not do in the absence of the distortions.

Respect for the price system is respect for human liberty and social cooperation. We are the economy the usurpers seek to control.

The persecution of people who make, sell, and use disapproved drugs continued in 2012 (despite relative bright spots with marijuana in two states), helping to make the United States home to the largest prison population on earth. The burden falls disproportionately on poor members of minority groups, so for most of the population, it’s no urgent matter. People without government papers still live in fear of the immigration Gestapo.

A Reason Not to Despair

All that said, it would be a mistake to sink into despair. Important and encouraging things are going on out of the view of most of the news media, which are preoccupied serving the propaganda needs of the ruling elite. Throughout the country and the rest of the world, the broad, multifaceted libertarian movement is busier than ever on a variety of fronts: from student activism, to educational activities for the lay public, to theoretical development, to the generation of alternatives to government services. The amount, intensity, and sophistication of these activities are greater than ever, and this is a cause for joy even if they won’t bear fruit in the short term. A stream of important libertarian books from prominent publishers is now in progress, bearing the names of Gary Chartier (Anarchy and Legal Order), Michael Huemer (The Problem of Political Authority), Peter Leeson, and Edward Stringham (the last two are forthcoming). These books will influence younger generations for many years to come, and the ideas will filter down to the popular level.

It’s been a long time since analysis of the ruling class, corporatism, and militarism has been so prominent a part of the libertarian movement. One would have to go back to the 19th century to find this much interest in the true essence of the predatory state.

Those who are pessimistic because success seems too far into the future should appreciate also that our struggle is as rewarding as success will be. What could be more satisfying than teaching the world about liberty, justice, and their natural home, the free market?

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.