In fighting for the free society, people necessarily must determine what it means to be free. Freedom obviously has many different dimensions. Religious liberty entails the freedom to worship God or not, without state compulsion one way or the other. It means the right to read and publish whatever a person wants, even if what is published or read doesn’t meet with the approval of most others. It means the right to keep and bear arms, thereby enabling people to protect themselves from criminals and tyrants. A free society also entails long-established procedural guarantees that must be followed before government officials incarcerate or fine a person.
The libertarian concept of freedom is that people should be free to live their lives any way they choose, so long as their conduct is peaceful. That is, so long as people do not engage in conduct that infringes on the rights of others to live their lives the way they want, people should be free to do whatever they want, even if others consider it irresponsible, dangerous, or immoral.
That means that people do not have the right to murder, rape, steal, defraud, rob, or burglarize, because those acts infringe on the rights of others. But people do have the right to view pornography, ingest cocaine, commit adultery, and advocate satanic worship because those peaceful acts do not infringe on the rights of other people.
Thus, the test of a free society is not whether people are free to engage in responsible or morally correct behavior. The test of a free society is whether people have the right to engage in irresponsible or immoral behavior, so long as it is peaceful.
That leads us to a discussion of the primary differences between libertarians and nonlibertarians with respect to freedom and America’s modern-day governmental system, specifically what has become known as the welfare state and the warfare state.
The statist way
Nonlibertarians, or statists, believe that freedom entails a way of life in which the government is charged with the responsibility of taking care of people. That’s what the welfare state is all about. Social Security, which statists consider to be the crown jewel of the welfare state, is a governmental program that takes care of seniors by providing them with retirement pay through money that has been taken from people who are still working. Medicare provides seniors with free or deeply discounted health-care services. Medicaid does the same for poor people. Education grants help students get an education. Farm subsidies help farmers. Foreign aid helps faraway regimes. Under the welfare state, large segments of people receive welfare largess from the government.
The welfare state also encompasses what we call a regulated economy, one in which government controls and regulates economic activity. Minimum-wage laws come to mind. Or price controls during natural emergencies, such as hurricanes. Or insider-trading laws. Let’s face it: There is hardly any part of economic life that is not subject to some governmental regulation.
The welfare state also consists of immigration controls and trade restrictions, which punish people for seeking a better way of life through labor and which inflict economic harm on people for political purposes through such programs as sanctions, embargoes, and trade restrictions.
The welfare state also includes drug laws, which purport to take care of people by punishing them with incarceration and fines for ingesting substances that government officials think might be harmful to them.
The welfare state also consists of government-owned and government-operated enterprises, such as the Postal Service and the Federal Reserve System, both of which are monopolies. At the state and local level, governments own and run the educational system, which is a semi-monopoly.
The warfare state, which is also known as the national-security state, consists of the vast military establishment, headed by the Pentagon, an enormous string of foreign and domestic military bases, the CIA, and the NSA. Statists believe that a national-security state apparatus is part and parcel of a free society and that its existence is necessary to keep the nation safe and secure.
The warfare state also entails a massive assault on the procedural principles that are essential to a free society, such as due process of law, trial by jury, right to counsel, right to confront witnesses, and habeas corpus. It is characterized by torture, assassination, indefinite detention, secret prisons, and partnerships with dictatorial regimes.
The primary means of funding the welfare-warfare state is the federal income tax, which empowers the government to seize whatever portion of people’s income it wants, in order to pay for the ever-growing expenditures of the welfare-warfare state. The secondary means of funding is through debt and the Federal Reserve System, whose primary task is to finance the debt through inflationary increases in the money supply.
The libertarian way
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that libertarians hold a totally opposite position on all these welfare-warfare state issues
Libertarians hold that freedom necessarily entails keeping everything you earn and deciding what to do with it for yourself. That’s why we oppose the federal income tax and would repeal it.
We also would repeal, immediately, every single welfare-state program, including, of course, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. We believe that government has no more business in the charity business than it does in the religion business.
We would terminate every single economic regulation, including minimum-wage laws, price controls, insider-trading laws, immigration controls, and trade restrictions. That’s because we believe in free enterprise — that is, enterprise that is free of government control, interference, and regulation.
We would open the borders to the free movements of goods and people and lift all sanctions, embargoes, and trade restrictions.
We would legalize drugs — all drugs, including heroin, meth, cocaine, and marijuana, just as we would keep alcohol and tobacco legal. We hold that what a person ingests is no business of the government and that, in fact, government should be protecting the exercise of freedom, not infringing on it.
We would separate school and state, as our ancestors separated church and state. Government has no more legitimate role in education than it has in religion.
And we would dismantle, not reform, the national-security branch of the government. That would mean an end to the Pentagon, the vast military establishment, the empire of foreign and domestic military bases, the military-industrial complex, the CIA, and the NSA. We hold that a national-security governmental apparatus is totalitarian in nature and therefore antithetical to the principles of a free and secure society.
Thus, the big difference between libertarians and statists in our time concern those two areas: the welfare state and the warfare state. Statists want to keep the welfare state and the warfare state as part of America’s governmental structure. Libertarians want to rid our governmental structure of both the welfare state and the warfare state.
One of the criticisms that statists level at libertarians is that we are fighting for a utopia. Our philosophy is pie-in-the-sky, they tell us. It’s not capable of being achieved, they say. We are Don Quixotes, they claim. Better to just throw in the towel and become a reformer of the welfare-warfare state way of life, they counsel. Abandon your delusions of achieving a free society, they declaim, and join up with us statists to make the welfare-warfare state a better way of life for everyone.
Over the years, some libertarians have fallen for this line, which has caused them to give up trying to achieve a genuinely free society through the dismantling of the welfare-warfare state and to relegate themselves to becoming reformers of the welfare-warfare state way of life. Thus, they devote their efforts to reforming and modifying the serfdom system under which we live, much as there were people in the 19th century who devoted their lives to improving the lives of the slaves on the plantations.
Obviously that’s not all bad. I think we would all agree that any reform that makes life better for serfs or slaves is a positive thing. But we just need to be clear about something: It’s not freedom! And libertarianism is about freedom. It’s not about an improved way of life for serfs and slaves.
Are the statists right? Is the libertarian paradigm of economic liberty and a limited-government, constitutional republic impossible to achieve?
Well, it certainly wasn’t impossible for our American ancestors in the late 1800s. If we consider, say, the year 1890, we find a society which had the following characteristics: no federal income tax; no IRS; no Federal Reserve System; no fiat (paper) money; gold coins and silver coins as the official money of the country; no Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, or welfare; no immigration controls; very few economic regulations; no drug laws; no sanctions or embargoes; no gun control; no public-schooling systems; no enormous permanent military establishment; no Pentagon; no CIA; no NSA; no empire of foreign and domestic military bases; and no foreign aid.
That’s what it once meant to be an American. That’s what it once meant to be free.
Now, before anyone writes me (as they inevitably do whenever I point this out), I am not suggesting that the latter part of 19th-century America was a perfectly pure libertarian society. It wasn’t. There were government-business partnerships, land grants to the railroads, various economic regulations (including the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890), compulsory school-attendance laws in Massachusetts, and more.
I agree! But that’s not the point I am making. I’m not saying that America in 1890 was a libertarian paradise. What I’m saying is that those Americans proved that it’s possible to achieve a society without income taxation, a welfare state, or a warfare state.
So why not make that a minimal benchmark for freedom? If our ancestors could achieve it, then why can’t we? Then, once we achieve it, we can build on that minimal benchmark by expanding on what they accomplished.
How could we do that? One way is through constitutional amendments that enshrine libertarian principles permanently into the political system. That is, rather than simply repeal welfare programs and economic regulations, let’s think at a higher level — one that totally separates charity and the state and economy and the state.
Isn’t that what our ancestors did with religion? They didn’t settle for a reformed system of state churches. No, they instead enacted the First Amendment, which expressly prohibited the federal government from involving itself in religion. Why not do the same with respect to the welfare-warfare state? Indeed, why not go even further and apply the principles of economic liberty to the states?
Consider the following constitutional amendments:
“No law shall be enacted respecting the establishment of welfare or charity or abridging the free exercise thereof.”
“No law shall be enacted respecting the regulation of commerce or abridging the free exercise thereof.”
“No law shall be enacted respecting the establishment of education or abridging the free exercise thereof.”
“Taxation on income is prohibited.”
“Standing armies and intelligence agencies in times of peace are prohibited.”
If such amendments were to be enacted, it would obviously constitute a revolutionary transformation in American life, one that would bring our nation closer to a libertarian paradise than ever before in history. It would mean freedom for a long time and would serve as a model for the entire world.
One criticism that reformist libertarians level at purist libertarians is that there is no “button” to push that would automatically and immediately get rid of the welfare state and warfare state. But actually, there is. The “button” is called a constitutional amendment. At the moment that constitutional amendments that enshrine economic liberty into the Constitution became effective, the income tax and every welfare-state program would automatically go out of existence. The “button” would have been pushed.
Is it difficult to achieve the free society? Of course it is. If freedom were easy, everyone in history would have experienced what it’s really like to live the life of a free man or free woman. But while achieving freedom is difficult, it’s not impossible.
Imagine how socialists and imperialists must have felt in 1890. Here they were facing a society in which there was no income tax, no welfare state, and no warfare state. Their aim was to induce Americans to abandon that way of life and embrace a statist way of life. If anyone should have been discouraged over their prospects for success, it should have been statists in 1890.
Yet within a relatively short period of time, statists had achieved their goal. They had convinced Americans to abandon the principles of economic liberty and a constitutional republic and embrace the principles of socialism, interventionism, militarism, and imperialism in the form of the welfare-warfare state.
If they could do it in the wrong direction, why can’t we do it in the right direction? In fact, given the disastrous outcomes of the welfare-warfare state way of life, our job in finding people to join up with us has been made considerably easier.
The question is: How do we achieve freedom — by advocating reform of the welfare-warfare state or by standing squarely for dismantling infringements on freedom? We’ll examine that question in part 3.
This article was originally published in the June 2015 edition of Future of Freedom.