Few people can really understand what life is like in a totalitarian state unless they have lived there or have had the opportunity to visit such a society for an extended period of time. For most Americans it seems like an impenetrable world that is not easily comprehended. How can you imagine living in a society with virtually none of the freedoms that the citizens of the United States simply take for granted?
Yes, as classical liberals and libertarians often argue, modern America is far from being a truly free society. The interventionist-welfare state intrudes into many facets of everyday life. Taxes take anywhere from 25 percent to more than 50 percent of what many average Americans earn annually.
Government regulations oversee, restrict, command, or prohibit nearly every form and type of production throughout the United States economy. In some instances, it sets minimum or maximum prices at which people may buy and sell goods and services. The surveillance state increasingly watches and records almost everything we do, as well as where we do it and with whom. The security state can read whatever we write or otherwise communicate to others on our phones and computers.
Taking losses of freedom for granted
People seem to be able to get used to almost anything after a while. Consequently, many Americans do not appreciate the degrees to which their liberty has been curtailed. For instance, I remember entering any airport and not going through any of the security checks or personal intrusions that are now taken for granted as a fact of life. You rarely showed your ID, and you could freely go to any of the gates to greet someone arriving off the plane, or wish anyone goodbye as he was leaving.
You could go onto the roof of many airport terminals and watch the planes landing and taking off, and see them up close through a coin-operated telescope. Oh, and people could go up to any airport ticket counter to check in and be smoking a cigar, with no one’s reminding them that they were subject to a fine or even arrest if they did not extinguish their cigar. Most people showed common courtesy if anyone objected to the smoker’s lighting up, and often the smoker would first ask if anyone around him minded if he smoked. People normally did not need the state to tell them how to act around others. Polite conduct without political coercion. What an idea!
Most Americans probably are not familiar with the Haskell Free Library and Opera House. Its distinction is that it sits right on the U.S.-Canadian international border between Derby Line, Vermont, and Rock Island, Quebec. It was built in 1904, with the intention of symbolically representing the freedom and neighborliness of the citizens of the two countries. The building has two entrances, one on the American and the other on the Canadian side. People for nearly a century just entered the library from either entrance, and ignored the line on the floor marking which side was U.S. and which side was Canadian political jurisdiction. The seats in the adjacent opera house also straddle the border between the two countries.
But especially since 9/11 and America’s intensified security state, things are no longer so simple. Americans merely walk through the doorway on their side of the international border. Canadians face checkpoints and surveillance cameras to get into the library from their side of the border. Indeed, the once-free movement between the two towns in general, which used to be almost unrestricted with people working on one side and living on the other, has become far more complicated now that Uncle Sam has to know about anyone who comes from the Canadian side wanting to check out a library book. To paraphrase Robert Frost, good government border fences do not make for easy-going neighborly neighbors.
Both of these may seem like trivial examples, mere nuisances in a changing world of more dangerous “bad people.” But both represent instances of reduced degrees of personal freedom and interaction with others with the long, armed arm of Uncle Sam reducing some of the liberty of everyday life within the United States and between it and the country just to the north of it.
Accepting loss of freedom in Lithuania
The adaptability of people to the social and political environment in which they live seems, often, to know no bounds. In January 1991, I was on one of my first visits to Lithuania, one of the Eastern European “captive nations” annexed by Stalin during the Second World War. The Soviet military was putting on a public show of strength on the streets of Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, as a psychological warning to those Lithuanians who were determined to regain the national independence that had been taken away from them in June 1940 as part of Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 to divide up Eastern Europe between the two totalitarian regimes if war broke out.
Walking through a part of Vilnius with a Lithuanian friend who was showing me around the city, I angrily asked how he could be so calm when in one of the buildings we were passing were Soviet army tanks revving their engines in anticipation of being sent into the streets to crush people’s desire to be free.
He said this was all new to me, since I had never grown up and lived in a country occupied and controlled by an invading power, as the Lithuanians had experienced for more than half a century. Generations had then lived under Soviet power, and they took it for granted, like seeing a neighbor walk his dog in the morning, or standing in line for hours at government retail stores hoping to purchase some of the essentials of everyday life. You know the tanks are there and what they can do, but when you’ve lived with it your whole life, it’s like background noise that you hardly notice as you go about your daily activities. It is just there.
That the tanks were there and what they could do became raised to everyone’s consciousness in Vilnius the following week, when the Soviet military used force in an attempt to crush the freedom movement by killing 13 people in one night, with three of the victims being run over by tanks, and arresting many of those Lithuanians who were most vocal and defiant against continuing Soviet control of their country.
Taking for granted government’s spending our money
Another instance of not fully appreciating the impact of government intervention in society is the degree to which various persons and groups benefit from favors, privileges, protections, and subsidies supplied by those in political authority. In the federal fiscal year that ended on September 30, 2019, Uncle Sam spent more than $4.2 trillion, of which around one trillion was borrowed money.
Every one of those federally spent dollars went for something and into someone’s pocket. The more than 2.7 million civilian employees who directly work for the federal government in one capacity or another, and the additional 1.3 million people serving in the U.S. military, received some of that money.
Then there are all those who supply goods and services to the various government departments, bureaus, and agencies, with everything from paper clips to photocopying ink cartridges. And there are the Department of Defense
contractors supplying the military hardware used by American armed forces at home and abroad.
For instance, the Defense Department spent around $940 billion; the Department of Education spent more than $156 billion; for federally funded health-care programs, more than $1.52 trillion was spent; on Social Security and related pension programs, more than $1.1 trillion was spent; and the interest paid on the national debt of more than $22.6 trillion, came close to $395 billion. And that is just naming a few of all the bureaucratic entities through which that more than $4.2 trillion was spent.
That is, by the way, not counting all that was spent by state and local governments in the same timeframe. The two, combined, came to nearly $4 trillion of more government spending, for a total take by all levels of government of more than $8 trillion. With an estimated $20.5 trillion Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for 2019, that means that federal, state, and local government, together spent 40 percent of the total output produced in the United States; with Uncle Sam taking 20 percent by himself.
Every dollar of sales revenue earned by a business from producing and supplying something bought by Uncle Sam, and every dollar of income received from a government transfer program or a salary paid for participating in the production of something purchased by the government, was a dollar that did not come from producing and supplying something directly demanded and bought freely in the marketplace by the consuming public.
Those government-supplied dollars represent political privileges and favors redistributed from one part of the U.S. population to another. But wait, it might be said, unless you’re an anarchist, doesn’t the government, at every level, need to spend some taxed dollars to protect each individual citizen’s right to the life, liberty, and honestly owned property? Let’s agree to that.
Let us suppose that if all levels of government were limited to the protection of people’s liberty as usually understood in the Declaration of Independence and in the strictly enumerated functions laid out in the U.S. Constitution, it would come to, say, 10 percent of what government spends today, or about $820 billion.
Too low? Let’s suppose a limited government would spend 25 percent of what government spends today in the United States. That would equal around $2 trillion dollars rather than the $8 trillion spent now; and for the federal government alone it would be only a bit over $1 trillion. What a difference a limited government can make in freeing up dollars to be earned through consumer-oriented and market-directed production rather than satisfying the political wants of those spending other people’s tax dollars!
But we don’t think about it in that way, unfortunately. We have gotten so used to government’s spending these huge sums, and people’s just taking it for granted that profits and salaries earned in a political way are as reasonable and just as any other dollar earned on the market, that we lose sight of the politically driven and determined distribution of income in American society.
Not having everyday freedoms of choice is clearer under socialism.
The nature of government privilege and favoritism was much more stark for the average person under the system of socialist central planning in the Soviet Union. Without any functioning form of a market economy, other than in some highly limited consumer items that the regime tolerated, everything was produced by the state; everyone was employed by the state; nothing could be acquired or bought other than from the state, in the Soviet workers’ paradise.
Power and privilege determined every person’s access to anything wanted, needed, or desired in the planned society. When New York Times correspondent Hedrick Smith returned to the United States after reporting in the Soviet Union from 1971 to 1974, he wrote a highly acclaimed book on his experiences there, The Russians (1976).
He began the book with an account of Soviet-style privilege. Not far from the Kremlin in Moscow was a building designated “The Bureau of Passes.” This was a euphemism for one of the most important places of Soviet privilege in the country. Chauffeured cars waited near the entrance, motors idling, while the elite of Soviet society — the Party higher-ups and their family members — had the “passes” to obtain all the food and related delicacies that no ordinary Soviet citizen could hope to find in any of the dreary, dirty, and dilapidated government retail stores where the Soviet segment of the “workers of the world” waited in long lines to do their daily shopping.
Smith explained that there was an
entire network of such stores [serving] the upper crust of Soviet society — the bosses or what one Soviet journalist irreverently called, “Our Communist nobility.” These stores insulate the Soviet aristocracy from the chronic shortages, endless waiting in line, rude service, and other daily harassments that plague ordinary citizens.
Here the politically anointed can obtain rare Russian delicacies like caviar, smoked salmon, the best canned sturgeon, export brands of vodka or unusual vintages of Georgian and Moldavian wines, choice meat, fresh fruits, and vegetables in winter that are rarely available elsewhere.
Smith went on to explain that the elites could also obtain foreign foods and other specialties imported into the country by the planning agencies, but which rarely or never reached the government stores where “the people” did their shopping.
How did one get access to the “special stores” with their select “passes” of entrance? The “classless society” of Soviet socialism was stratified into an intricate and complex network of power, position, and status within the Communist Party, within the decision-making structures of socialist management of state industries and agriculture, general ideologically determined social-class position, and then down the scale to the simple factory employee or a collective-farm worker.
This stratified system determined where and how one lived; the education he received and the places of work to which he was assigned throughout his working life; the access he might have not just to food stores, but to medical treatment and pharmaceuticals that could determine whether he or a family member lived or died; when and where he might be allowed to take his vacation; and, most certainly, whether the Party and the secret police would ever permit him to travel outside of the boundaries of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, even to a neighboring communist country in Eastern Europe.
Boris Yeltsin, the Russian Communist Party leader of the Russian Federation within the Soviet Union summarized the nature of the Soviet system of privilege in his book, Against the Grain (1990):
The Kremlin ration, a special allocation of normally unobtainable products, is paid for by the top echelon at half its normal price, and it consists of the highest-quality foods. In Moscow, a total of 40,000 people enjoy the privilege of these special rations, in various categories of quantities and quality. There are whole sections of GUM — the huge department store that faces the Kremlin across Red Square — closed to the public and specially reserved for the highest of the elite, while for officials a rung or two lower on the ladder there are other special shops. All are called “special”: special workshops, special dry cleaners, special polyclinics, special hospitals, special houses, and special services. What a cynical use of the word!
The promised “classless society” of material and social equality was in fact the most granulated system of hierarchical privilege and power imaginable. Bribery, corruption, connections, and favoritism permeated the entire fabric of Soviet socialist society, and indeed was the essence of it.
Market versus government income
Since in the United States most of what we buy and sell is through market transactions, albeit ones heavily influenced or controlled by government, we find it far more difficult to see and distinguish whether anyone’s position and status in society is the result of serving our fellow men though the transactions of the private marketplace or from serving the interests and purposes of those in government who determine how much and for what all the tax dollars that pass through their hands ends up being spent.
How much of the distribution of income in society, therefore, is market-based rather than politically determined? If we could disentangle that to any degree of measured nicety, we could have a better idea whether those in the higher income brackets have honestly earned what they have on the basis of more or less free exchange, and how much was due to dealings and connections with those in politics and the bureaucracies who spend their tax-funded budgets.
Market-based profit and income earnings versus politically based profit and income earnings would be a basis and benchmark for the classical liberal and libertarian to evaluate the “justice” of what people have rightly earned in society. The problem is that in the “real world,” in the interventionist-welfare state, profits earned and incomes received are often a jumbled mix of markets and politics, though there are some sectors and industries and particular companies that may be said to predominantly receive their “income share” far more from the state than the private marketplace.
All of this creates a tendency to consider any source of income and profits to be as legitimate as any other, and then simply distinguish between the rich and everyone else, with no thought of how the income has been earned. That easily leads to the typical attitude of Progressives and “democratic socialists,” and the like, that it does not matter how someone has earned his wealth and income, only that it is more than someone else’s.
Bastiat’s “legalized plunder”
As a consequence, completely lost in all this is Frédéric Bastiat’s useful notion of “legalized plunder,” that is, income received through government spending and “entitlement” transfers that are taken from others without their consent through taxes having nothing to do with needed funds to protect people’s liberty.
That is what makes the loss of freedom and what it entails far more difficult for people to understand and appreciate in a “mixed economy” society with political democracy, than in a society with comprehensive socialist central planning in a totalitarian state.
People may end up taking many things for granted, even in a collectivist dictatorship in which the government controls and commands everything. But it remains clearer what the problems are and who is causing them in the Total State. It is more of a challenge in our democratic interventionist-welfare states to see as clearly through the political and ideological fog.
But regardless of the difficulties, it is the task of friends of freedom to devise ways to get our fellow citizens to comprehend the nature and workings of the world they live in, before it incrementally develops into a far more centrally planned, all-controlling state, at which point reversing course can be politically more challenging and costly.