Friends of Freedom, Do Not Despair

By Richard M. Ebeling

Friends of freedom can easily become despondent when they look at what appear to be the ideological and political trends that fill the media day in and day out. Government spending keeps growing, national debts pile up, and regulations and redistributions seem to be narrowing the arenas of market and personal freedoms of choice. Anti-liberal demagogues abound, seemingly everywhere. But we need to remember that we have seen this several times before in modern times, and liberty has not been crushed out of existence.  

One indication of the fears and concerns about a free society was recently expressed on the August 31, 2019, cover of the Economist magazine. The theme was “Democracy’s Enemy Within.” The rise of nationalist populism, the editors explained, threatens to undermine essential elements and institutions of a free society. They used the government of Viktor Orban in Hungary as an example. Elected in an open and free election several years ago, Prime Minister Orban has used his power to weaken the institutional bulwarks meant to limit and divide the centers of political authority so the danger of one-party rule or even outright dictatorship is made difficult to establish.

Illiberal Democracy and Dictators’ False Hopes

But by using his majority in the Hungarian parliament, Viktor Orban has been able to change the court system and the electoral process, manipulate the media, and narrow any opposition to him and his ruling Fidesz Party. His modification of the democratic process and the political and social institutions of the country has enabled him to declare that what he is making is an “illiberal democracy.” He uses this phrase in the most positive light. Other countries, the Economist fears, have been taking similar directions, and this is no less so in the established democracies of the West. The Economist is concerned where this all may lead. 

Drawing upon a number of opinion polls in a variety of countries, including France and the United States, the Economist points out that many people have become cynical and critical of the political systems under which they live. Many citizens consider politics to be corrupt and controlled by powerful interest groups using the government for their own purposes at the expense of the rest of the society. This, the editors say, easily plays into the hands of those pursuing political power in directions undermining a free, democratic society.

On the other hand, in the September/October 2019 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, Yascha Mounk, a professor at John Hopkins University, focuses on “The Dictator’s Last Stand: Why the New Autocrats Are Weaker Than They Look.” He says, yes, by a number of prominent measurements and indicators free, democratic societies seem to have been on the wane for some years now. But he is less pessimistic that this implies an irreversible trend when looking to the future. 

He uses the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, as an example. He, too, rose to power first as prime minister of Turkey in a free democratic election back in 2003, offering a populist platform against a corrupt political establishment. And, he, too, was soon changing the political rules of the game to solidify his power and that of his Justice and Development Party, including his own ascendency to the presidency of the country and prolonging his stay in office. 

But his very basis of legitimacy, Professor Mounk argues, has set the stage for a growing opposition that his institutional changes were meant to stop by concentrating power into his own hands. By promising so much and by ending up practicing so many of the very corrupt and power-plundering policies that he originally ran against, those who at first supported him now increasingly view him and his government as not much different than what he rose to power attacking. The recent victory of an opposition candidate for the mayoral position in Istanbul, and in other places around the country, as well, shows how unstable this type of democratic authoritarianism can be, the author argues. 

Nationalist and “Progressive” Trends in America

Such trends seem to abound in the United States. A “reality show” master of demagoguery sits in the White House pandering to many of the nativist sentiments in people as he rails against “alien” immigrants invading America and Chinese goods attacking American industry and employment, and insists that he has wartime-like powers, if necessary, to command where in the world American businessmen may invest and ply their trades. The words “liberty” and “limited government” seem to never pass his lips; no, he is more concerned with making America “great again” through the use of the coercive powers of government to tell people where they should do business here at home and abroad, what goods they should buy and at what price (through tariff intervention), and the type of jobs they should work at in different parts of the country. 

Matching his own penchant for a version of a planned economy are the “progressives” and democratic socialists in the Democratic Party who are determined to bring about a transformation of American society through the fiscal madness of a tidal wave of government spending increases and a mountain of rising taxes accompanied by even larger budget deficits that would result in an even higher national debt than Trump’s spending plans would bring about.

In addition, our politically correct identity warriors on “the left” want to remake America according to their notions of social class, race, and gender classification and conflict. They would like to bury in an unmarked grave the remnants and residues of what remains of the ideas and institutions of a free society based on individual liberty and rights, free markets, impartial rule of law, and constitutionally limited government. Theirs is the promise of the new tribalism that thinks of you as one insignificant element in a greater collective that determines and dictates your future and fortunes. 

The future seems a potentially dark place for those who are concerned with and who value human liberty as understood in the principles of the American Declaration of Independence. But… the past or the present does not dictate what has to follow. 

False Hopes for the 20th Century

Consider some of the false political forecasting of earlier times. At the beginning of the 20th century, many people were confident that the next hundred years would see nothing but more of what had been experienced during the prior hundred years. The 19th century, greatly influenced by classical liberal ideas, had seen more respect for individual rights and freedom of choice in personal affairs and in the marketplace of goods and ideas. The liberation of people from government control and regulation has resulted in a century of rising standards of living and improved quality of life for a growing number of people wherever freer markets had been set loose, such as in Great Britain and the United States. 

The noted journalist and author Norman Angell (1875-1967) gained international attention with his 1910 work, The Great Illusion, in which he made the case that wars had become too costly for nations to indulge in. First, there was the cost in terms of money for standing armies and armament rivalries with competing countries that could never make war “pay.” Second, the world was increasingly a tightly woven network of international trade and investment; the cost of tearing apart these commercial binds that interconnected people around the globe made any extensive war too high a price to pay for national fame and glory. 

But less than a decade and a half into the 20th century and only four years after the publication of Angell’s book, World War I shattered his own illusion that such a “great war” was unimaginable. In fact, in 1921, he wrote a sequel to The Great Illusion with the title The Fruits of Victory, in which he analyzed the political, social, and economic destruction that the war had left in its wake throughout Europe — the very type of costly destruction that he had argued in 1910 made such a war “impossible.” 

Postwar Totalitarianism and Fears of an End to Freedom

Fast foreword to the mid-1930s, and what did the political landscape look like? Rather than World War I having made the world “safe for democracy,” the prewar autocracies of Central and Eastern Europe had been replaced with totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, of which Soviet Russia, fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany were the most dangerous and abhorrent. 

The classical liberal and free market thinkers were in deep despair, if you read many of their most candid words at the time. For instance, the highly regarded British historian George P. Gooch (1873-1968) lamented in 1934 that it was now clear that that freer and more prosperous liberal world before 1914 had all been a “fool’s paradise” that easily dissolved away under the pressure of war and the totalitarian promises of a better world. He and many other friends of freedom felt that they were living in the twilight of liberty and facing the darkness of permanent collectivist tyranny. 

Fear That Freedom Could Not Win Over Communism

Again, fast forward, to 1945. Two of the totalitarian regimes were in physical and human rubble of their own making; the danger of what Wilhelm Röpke called “brown” totalitarianism was destroyed as a result of the very war the “browns” tragically brought about. But now ominously leaving its shadow over the eastern half of Europe was the “red” totalitarianism of the Soviet Union, and it soon was spreading over vast areas of Asia through the communist conquest of China by the end of the 1940s. 

Socialist revolutionary ideas increased their grip over the minds of power-lusters and utopian intellectuals not only in the “third world,” but in the West as well. The power of these ideas is partly indicated by the fact that until well after the death of Soviet tyrant Joseph Stalin in 1953, virtually all those who we now know spied for Moscow in Great Britain and the United States beginning in the 1920s — up into the highest echelons of both governments — never took money for their stealing and sharing of diplomatic and military secrets with the Soviet Union. They did it out of ideological commitment to bring the bright, beautiful Soviet socialist future to their own lands. Only beginning in the 1960s and 1970s did you see such spying done mostly for money and not for “the cause.”

Once more, friends of freedom were often in despair about the future of a free society in the face of the military power and ideological influence of the Soviet Union. “The West” had lost its philosophical moorings, while the socialists knew clearly what they wanted and why. Jean-Francois Revel (1924-2006), a well-known French social critic, published How Democracies Perish in the mid-1980s. He did not say the West was doomed to defeat at the hands of the communists, but he argued that “the left” had a vision about the collectivist society they wanted and were determined to do all that they could to bring it about. 

Those in the West — Great Britain, France, West Germany, and the United States — who were supposed to be the defenders of freedom against totalitarianism neither knew what they were defending nor had any willingness to put up the needed resistance to defeat the intellectual appeal of socialism in the struggle of ideas. The end to freedom around the world was near — that was the unspoken conclusion a reader could easily come to from Revel’s book.

Soviet Socialism Ended Rather Than Conquered 

Now, a short fast forward to 1989 and 1991. First the Berlin War was torn down and the “captive nations” of Eastern Europe were freed from nearly 45 years of Soviet control. And two years later, the Soviet Union disappeared from the political map of the world. The communist threat that hovered over the world during the years of the Cold War evaporated into thin air. And the revealed secrets of “Soviet power” showed that it was a hollowed-out giant that was neither the military threat nor the economic rival that the mainstream political pundits and government “experts” insisted was the case for decades. 

And within the Soviet Union itself, the intellectual appeal of and belief in Marxist ideology had died very much earlier than 1991. Anyone who traveled to the Soviet Union in its last years soon discovered that the only place where they could still find real and true believing Marxists anymore was in academic circles in the United States and Western Europe. People who lived in the “workers’ paradise” knew it was a human nightmare. 

The Claimed Triumph of Democratic Capitalism

This was followed by the forecasting euphoria of those who were sure that the only ideological system left standing was “democratic capitalism” — whatever precisely that meant. Liberal democracy would spread to those parts of the world in which the light of liberty had been denied. Freedom, peace, and prosperity were the destiny of mankind as the new 21st century approached everyone in the world.

What a difference a few years can make — from China being considered a showcase of what a little bit of free market opportunity could do for humanity, even if the regime nominally remained communist, to now being portrayed as the new global threat to freedom as it challenges America for the leadership role of the world. The government in Beijing successfully knows how to “plan” market development and directions to overtake the United States, or so a growing number of voices can be heard to say. It wants to play at gunboat diplomacy against neighbors in the South China Sea, and in its Road and Belt program to envelop a good part of the world into the economic orbit of China can be seen a new global communist imperialism at work. 

Once more the end to freedom, democracy, and liberal institutions is prophesied. Illiberal democracy, market authoritarianism, and populist and nationalist dictatorships are seen as the next future for mankind. And, you know what? It could be true. Maybe the classical liberal, market-based epoch of personal freedom, private enterprise, free trade, and restrained government was nothing more than a blip on the chart of the history of humankind. 

The older tyrannies that dominated most of human history before the Enlightenment and the revolutionary 18th- and 19th-century ideas of liberty may be eclipsed by new forms of tyranny for a long time, looking to the remainder of the 21st century and beyond. 

Predicting the Political Future: An Impossible Task

But what the history of even the last century or so shows is that predicting the future, including the political future of a country or the world is a highly uncertain and, indeed, impossible activity. The British economist John Jewkes (1902-88), in an article titled “The Economist and Public Policy” (1953), pointed out that those who claimed that economists could predict the future were “dragging their subject down to the level of astrology.” He emphasized, “There is nothing in history to suggest that the expected will normally happen.” 

The primary reason for this, Jewkes argued, is the creativity of the human mind. New ideas, new inventions, new and previously unimagined ways of people finding ways of doing desired things meant that the notion of predicting the course of human events is beyond the human capacity. In addition, it is often common to talk about the “economic future” or the “political future” or the “cultural future,” and so on. But, in fact, there is only “the future,” which is always the composite of all the various facets of the human circumstance interacting over and through time. 

Every one of the broad predictions concerning the future that I have mentioned was offered by informed, knowledgeable, intelligent individuals who attempted to look ahead and trace out the shape of things to come. And many others in society held views similar to theirs. At the beginning of the 20th century, many classical liberals were hopeful of a free and prosperous future, though there were others, also, who had forebodings about the already-developing strength of collectivist and especially socialist ideas in the world in which they were living. But very few imagined the form or timing or destructive consequences of World War I. 

Some Friends of Freedom Giving in to Collectivist Policies

For the rest of the 20th century, friends of freedom spoke of the power of the idea of freedom even in a world of ideological adversity; but it is also clear that for many of them this was keeping up intellectual appearances, when in fact a good number were doubtful about the final outcome of the battle between the more open liberal society and its totalitarian competitors from the 1920s to the 1990s. 

Now, once again, too many friends of freedom see ideological and political enemies everywhere, and see doom ahead for liberty. Plus, some of them, in the name of fighting “terrorism,” or matching the international “threat” of a rising China, or holding off the possible American demographic patterns of the future, think that the United States needs more, well, collectivism to fight collectivist threats at home and abroad. 

They lack, in my view, sufficient confidence in their own ideas of freedom and appreciation of the history of the more fully collectivist systems over the last 100 years. Look! There is a threat of an economically strong and competing China. Well, we clearly need to stop importing their goods, and start telling American businessmen where they should do business. And this not only from conservatives and Republicans, but even a few libertarians, in the name of keeping a free America!

There are terrorists everywhere, especially in the Middle East, who just “hate us for who we are.” So to protect America and our freedom we better restrict immigration, surveil citizens, and restrict their freedom of movement, as well as weakening or taking away their full right to bear arms. 

The world may or may not be facing a serious environmental hazard from “climate change.” But even some friends of freedom have joined the voices calling for raising fossil fuel prices through a version of a carbon “sin tax” to punish people for using an energy source of their own peaceful choice of which the critics disapprove. 

The more radical advocates of changing the world through one central plan after another have proposed a Green New Deal that would see the imposition of a comprehensive government central plan on everyone in the country and the world. Not too many friends of freedom have caved in on this one — yet! 

But if any form of it ends up being made into imposed legislation, conservatives and Republicans, and, no doubt, some libertarians, at think tanks will try to figure out ways for it to cost less and be run in a more “business-like” manner, rather than calling for its full and unequivocal abolition. So let us limit its damage and make it work better. Why, because whether we say so explicitly or not, the trend toward more collectivism is taken to be “inevitable” and unstoppable. 

Collectivism’s Failures and Making the Case for Freedom

But it is not. The totalitarian variations on the collectivist theme saw their demise. Let me suggest that even if Hitler had not started World War II in Europe and invaded Poland 80 years ago this September in partnership with Stalin, the Nazi “economic miracle” that impressed so many in the 1930s and led them to believe that Hitler knew how to save Germany from the Great Depression (through Keynesian-style fiscal policies, along with four-year central plans after 1936) would have shown its inherent contradictions and inconsistences as all other forms of socialist planning eventually have. 

The Soviet-style centrally planned economies all came to an end, not through a war like the one that ended national socialism in Germany, but through the inherent and irreparable unworkability of a centrally planned economy, just as the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises explained nearly 100 years ago in 1920. 

But what is facing America today is not a totalitarianism of the type and forms experienced in the 20th century but the incremental eating away of freedom through various government interventions and redistributions, some may reply. And this collectivist gradualism has a more invidious opponent. It was easy to make the contrast between freedom and tyranny when you could point to West Berlin and East Berlin, or, as one still can today, South Korea and North Korea. 

But the challenge has not been the end of all freedom all at once, but one more intervention or regulation here, and one more distributive program expanded or introduced there — the loss of freedom, in other words, through a thousand government interventionist cuts. And almost always they have been offered as reasonable trade-offs between more economic security or social justice against the reduction of some amount of a greedy and wealthy businessman’s decision-making and income, or the selfish actions by those not as “enlightened” as the “progressive” reformer. 

Every one of these programs does a number of inescapable things: the programs cost more and more money; and they become increasingly corrupt and heavy-handed, as they demonstrably fail in solving the problems for which the intervention or redistribution was justified as necessary and reasonable to begin with. 

Having Confidence in Freedom to Fight to Win It

We often point to the weight of increasing taxes, price inflation, and a growing burdensome debt that helped bring about the weakening and end to the Roman Empire. We explain the fiscal extravagance of the French royal court that set the stage for the French Revolution in 1789. We today draw attention to a country like Venezuela where well-intentioned socialism has created a disaster of an economy and a violent political struggle to end that country’s experiment with political paternalism for power and plunder. 

Every extension of the interventionist-welfare state carries with it the seeds of its own fiscal and corrupt destruction, when looking to the future. Every experiment with socialist planning ends with economic stagnation, political tyranny, and social chaos. That means that the future does not belong and is not guaranteed to the enemies of freedom. 

That future can belong to the friends of freedom. But a starting point must be to not view the seeming trends of the present to imply an inescapable direction that must be followed in the future. The last 100 years has shown how false such forecasting can be. We must have the confidence that freedom is both good in itself and need not be compromised in the face of asserted collectivist dangers abroad or the challenges to liberty here at home. Freedom may triumph, but only if we do not surrender by fatalistically giving in to those who wish to reduce or end liberty. 

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Richard M. Ebeling

Richard M. Ebeling, an AIER Senior Fellow, is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel, in Charleston, South Carolina. Ebeling lived on AIER's campus from 2008 to 2009. He is the author of For a New Liberalism (AIER, 2019)