Libertarians, Power, and the Message of Freedom
People who believe in liberty are in a minority, and it is a minority that few of us really can comprehend, as for the most part, libertarians cannot grasp the real costs that they will be facing in the coming years. Those of us who have spoken out against the abuses committed by those in power no longer will be ignored by those who control the police and "justice" apparatus, and we will be on the radar screens of those who believe they have the power to silence us.
In response to the call for a boycott of Amazon because it gave in to pressure from Sen. Joe Lieberman, I had this post on Lew Rockwell’s blog. The post was a brief compilation of some of my thoughts, but as I read it again, I realized that we are dealing with a much, much bigger issue than the debate about whether or not we should try to punish Amazon because of its actions.
The economics department where I teach, Frostburg State University, shares office space with the political science department, and like so many other Poli Sci departments across the country, it is a repository for Democratic Party activists. These are the Progressives who believe that every regulatory agency and every government department is forever protecting us from those evil corporations that seek to impoverish all of us, make us eat poison, foul our waters and air, and turn our temperate climate into something akin to what is experienced in summer in the Mojave Desert.
They hardly are alone, and the political viewpoints, or should I say the political viewpoint, of the rest of the faculty pretty much mirror what I hear every day in conversation in our hallways. That is the reality of teaching in a secular state university, although I doubt that I would hear a much different set of values if I were on the faculty of, say, Calvin College, a Christian institution, in Michigan, except that the faculty at Calvin would "Christianize" the statism.
Likewise, if I were on the faculty at conservative Cedarville College, a Baptist institution in Ohio, I would hear a different version of statism, one that supported the police, prosecutors, and the U.S. wars overseas. Most people there actually believe that we have freedom of worship in this country because of those very soldiers fighting overseas. There might be a paean to free markets, but overall, the American state would be seen as fundamentally good and even exceptional.
Except for perhaps the faculty at Grove City College, a person with views like mine would be in a minority and a distinctive minority at that, and if a libertarian cannot coexist in such an atmosphere, I would recommend that person find another line of work. To be a libertarian – and especially a Christian libertarian – in an atmosphere where hardcore statism is the unofficial but dominant religion is to understand a bit what it is like to be a Christian in a land governed by the Muslim Shari'ah.
(This is something that Laurence Vance understands intimately, as more than any other Christian libertarian I have known, he has paid a real price for his stands against the U.S. military machine. He has been thrown out of a church, denied employment, and vilified by those who claim the same Christian beliefs as does he.)
Several years ago, a Muslim man said to me, "I have read the entire Qur'an and can find no guidance in it on how Muslims should live as a minority in a society. I have read the entire New Testament and can find no guidance in it on how Christians should live as a majority." He put his finger on a central difference between the two faiths. Muslim societies tend to unify religion, culture, law, and politics. Whereas U.S. courts debate the legality of nonsectarian prayers at football games and public monuments to the Ten Commandments, in the Middle East even the airlines broadcast the call to prayer five times a day. And in countries with a variety of religions, like Nigeria, as the Muslim population increases, they seek to impose the religious Shari'ah law on all citizens. (Emphasis author’s)
Indeed, much of the Christian political activism that we have seen (and often condemned) on behalf of both right and left falls into that attempt to turn Christianity into a force that either has a majority in government or has people governing as though Christians of the rulers’ own particular viewpoints were a majority in this country. We also know – and have documented – the damage that occurs when Christians take institutions of power and conclude that they are acting in the name of God even when following a "win at all costs" strategy that is decidedly non-Christian.
Since most libertarians don’t consider themselves to be Christians (and, indeed, most libertarians I know are hostile to the Christian faith), one might wonder where I am going with this piece. Indeed, to those who might think I am comparing apples with oranges, I say that the parallels between Christianity in hostile settings and libertarianism are closer than most people might think.
Libertarians believe that the state exercises power that violates the very ideal of liberty. Obviously, I do not include the "regime libertarians" in this mode, those who hold to a view that America is essentially a libertarian political entity and that actions taken by the American state abroad and even at home still fall into the libertarian sphere.
We now have a state that can criminalize anything and everything, and police, prosecutors, and the courts refuse to let truth intervene. We have a state that can seize anyone’s property, and even when the courts rule against it, still are able to ignore the rulings and crush anyone in the way. We have a state that can and will open fire upon women and children and burn out members of a religious sect that posed no threat to anyone, and then place the survivors on trial and imprison them.
We now have a state that incarcerates more people than any other nation on the face of the earth and also executes people who demonstrably are innocent. We now have a state that claims its law covers the entire globe, but agents of that same state do not have to obey the law. We now have a state whose agents can fashion a crime against anyone they choose and almost always find a compliant jury that will convict, even if the jurors don’t agree with the prosecution. We now have a state that literally is at war with everyone else on the planet.
As libertarians, we have to understand that this is the state we have, and we cannot reform it. Yes, some of its agents use the language of liberty, Americans celebrate the Fourth of July, even though the Declaration of Independence that we supposedly celebrate is seen not only as irrelevant by the representatives of the state, but actually dangerous and something that never can become part of public policy.
Our job as libertarians is not unlike the same thing faced by those First Century Christians, who operated in an atmosphere more hostile to their beliefs than anything we have faced in this country – at least to this point. We are interacting with people who believe that the highest good in a society is to control the apparatus that tries to control other people. We are interacting with people who either are in power and don’t want to give up that power, or people who want to be in a position of authority.
Furthermore, we are interacting with those who have no problem with the application of raw force against others, and not only do we wish to convince them that we can have a better society without the use of such force, but that they should be willing to give up their very desire to have such authority for themselves. I would like to say that this is daunting, but it is much more than that.
Once upon a time, ordinary Americans tended to prize their liberty, just as the intellectuals tended to despise it. (Henry David Thoreau and Lysander Spooner were exceptions, but most people of letters have favored the application of state power, and lots of it.) The intellectuals finally won their huge victories in 1913 and perhaps we should not be surprised that the cataclysm of World War I followed. (Indeed, the great Murray Rothbard wrote that World War I was the very fulfillment of American Progressive intellectuals.)
Today, those supposed guardians of liberty, American journalists, declare that any opposition to government coercion – and especially the outright sexual assault that is taking place in U.S. airports – not only is unwarranted but actually is dangerous and should be squelched by any means possible. We live in a time when the supposed guardians of our liberties – the mainstream media, which claims to be a "watchdog" of government – happily use mug shots and publicize the infamous guilt-affirming "perp walks" in a tag-team effort with prosecutors to destroy any vestiges of the protections given the accused that we inherited in Anglo-American law.
Thus, like the early Christians who were fed to lions, crucified, stoned to death, and imprisoned, we also seek to give a message that is antithetical to people in power today, or people who want to hold power. At the present time, the price we have paid is minimal.
For example, even though I hold libertarian (and Christian) worldviews, I still have been permitted to serve as the chair of the university committee that makes tenure and promotion recommendations. No one has tried to keep me from using Austrian Economics in the classroom, and no one has tried to stop my libertarian publishing.
However, we have no guarantee that this is going to be the state of affairs even a few years from now. The hostility toward any worldview of liberty is growing, and one does not even have to watch Bill O’Reilly or Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow or to read the New York Times to understand which way the currents of statism are flowing.
So, we are in a conundrum. We believe that governments should give up power, and that freedom of speech, freedom of enterprise, of owning private property, of entering into exchanges with others (including those exchanges which involve what some call "vices") will result in a better society.
Yet, others simply cannot see it. My colleagues where I work simply could not bear to live with a state of affairs in which government was not coercing money from others, regulating businesses, and promoting boondoggles like "green energy." To them, such things involve the very purpose of government, and our message of freedom of enterprise is as foreign to them as the message of worshiping Christ was to someone falling down before a statue of a Roman god in 100 A.D.
Likewise, those conservatives who believe that olive-clad soldiers or blue-clad police officers are "heroes" who are "protecting our freedoms" are not going to be convinced that policies of non-intervention abroad, free trade and exchange at home, and freedom to engage in activities that conservatives believe to be morally wrong can equate into a society that is anything but a place where only the most depraved would want to live. The task is even more difficult for Christian libertarians like Laurence Vance and others who interact with those people who have tied their very religious beliefs to the fortunes of the American state.
In the end, we often strike out at others and boycott this and that company which does not act according to our own ideals. We find ourselves helpless to influence those in power because at the heart of our message is the call for them to relinquish at least some of that power they believe they possess.
So, we wait. We wait for the American state to become even more coercive, and more bankrupt. We wait for the U.S. economy to buckle under to the unbearable burdens that the American state has created. We wait for the very expansion of the state that we despise.
As I noted earlier, few of us really have felt the full wrath of the state, but that is not because the state lacks power. I wrote in my earlier blog post:
This country now is governed by a regime that can fashion a "crime" against any of you. Have you ever failed to do EXACTLY what a TSA agent said to do, and to do it immediately? Have you ever asked a question that one of them did not like? Congratulations. You have "interfered with the duties of a federal officer," which is a felony punishable by up to 20 years in federal prison. If you were not prosecuted, it is because the authorities at the time did not see any benefit to making an example of you.
It is that easy, my friends. Today, federal prosecutors target whom they will, and then they decide later how to find a "crime" that fits the political situation. On the sidelines, there are plenty of cheerleaders, whether at Fox News of MSNBC or on the Daily Kos or Michelle Malkin or wherever, depending on who is targeted, indicted, and ultimately convicted.
In a nutshell, we are trying to present a message that people who are governing us really would be better off if they were to cease their governing activities. That clearly does not wash.
Ours is not a governing philosophy, just as the Muslim speaking to Philip Yancey understood that Christianity is not a religion compatible with the exercise of raw political force. Ours is a philosophy that says lording it over others is not something we should want to do, and it is a real threat to those whose highest ideal is to make others bend to their will.
I have no doubt that many of us who hold to such a set of beliefs will face real difficulties in the future. People who might tolerate us now will not do so as their own rule becomes increasingly insecure, and as new measures of deadly coercion result in chaos and death. Nonetheless, we have a way of thinking and living worth having and worth proclaiming, even if others don’t wish to listen. That does not make us wrong; it just makes us more vulnerable to those who believe we are wrong.
December 6, 2010
William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He also is a consultant with American Economic Services. Visit his blog.
Copyright © 2010 by LewRockwell.com. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.