For us true liberals and libertarians, these days are among the darkest we’ve encountered in a couple of generations. “Conservative nationalism” is fast rising on the political right, “democratic socialism” is increasingly popular on the political left, and the only attraction of policy positions in the middle is that these aren’t at one or the other of the political extremes.
Any friend of freedom searching for reasons to despair will easily find many.
But despair is unnecessary.
In the 1930s Things Were Worse
While I can’t say with certainty how today’s intellectual atmosphere compares with that of the 1930s, I do know that that depressed decade fostered widespread enthusiasm among intellectuals for socialism — a socialism not prettied up with adjectives such as “democratic.” Indeed, it wasn’t difficult to find in these United States prominent apologists for Stalin and fans of Mussolini.
Of course this growth of a more statist attitude — a growth rooted in the Progressive myths that became fashionable 30 years earlier — did saddle us with the New Deal, if not with full-fledged socialism. Yet for all of the many affronts to liberty unleashed by FDR (and his successors in the White House), America remained a (largely) free society with private property rights (largely) secure and markets (largely) open and competitive — and, importantly, entrepreneurs still highly innovative.
By the late 1970s there had arisen in many quarters a palpable aversion to big government. Milton Friedman was a celebrated public intellectual whose columns and books were widely read and discussed. He even had a popular television series in 1980: Free to Choose — broadcast by PBS!
Deregulation began, not on the watch of President Reagan, but on that of President Carter. Ted Kennedy, of all people, helped to lead the successful move in Congress to deregulate interstate airline travel — a move that resulted in the actual closure in 1985 of a government agency (the Civil Aeronautics Board).
In the 10 years from 1977 through 1986, not only were commercial airlines deregulated, so too were banking, trucking, and telecommunications. Also deregulated were energy markets. And under the influence of market-friendly scholars such as Yale Brozen, Ronald Coase, Harold Demsetz, and Aaron Director, antitrust interventions were dialed down significantly.
The bipartisan 1986 tax reform reduced the number of federal income tax brackets from 15 to 4, and reduced the top marginal tax rate from 50 to 33 percent.
Admittedly, in classical-liberal and libertarian eyes this deregulation and tax cutting did not go far enough. Nor has all of it lasted. And the gains that remain must be weighed against new intrusions that have since then been imposed on Americans, not least of which is the cancerous growth of discretionary executive power and the bloating of “entitlements.”
But the failure to make markets even freer should not mask this fact: ideas were effective in increasing the public’s willingness to embrace markets.
If ideas were effective back then, they can be effective again.
This optimistic claim about the potential effectiveness of pro-freedom ideas is easy today to dismiss. With the GOP having all but completely abandoned even the pretense of being the party of free markets and liberty — and with the Democrats having moved so far left that the likes of Joe Biden and (gasp!) Nancy Pelosi have become that party’s voices of reason — any hope for restoring genuine liberalism and freer markets does seem especially dim.
I, though, take comfort not only in the successful revival in the past of pro-freedom ideas; I take comfort also in the counsel of two insightful men.
“We’re All Part of the Equilibrium”
The first is Jose Pinera. Twenty years ago, over a lunch that he and I shared, I expressed pessimism about the task of spreading the ideas of liberty. With a sympathetic smile, Jose said, “My friend, you talk as if we must persuade great numbers of people both to adopt our understanding and ideals, and to do so rather completely. But you’re wrong.”
Pointing to a fork that he’d carefully balanced upon an extended index finger, Jose continued: “While it would be nice to instill in everyone a commitment to freedom equal to that of Milton Friedman, all we must do to make the world more free is to move some people closer to our position.”
I looked at his fork quizzically.
“Think of this fork as the ideological spectrum, with people standing on it, arrayed from the tip of the pronged end to the tip of the handle end. Our task is to tilt this fork more in one direction, say, to move the pronged end downward relative to the handle end” — Jose explained, pointing to the fork’s prongs. “To achieve this outcome, we don’t need to convince everyone standing on the handle to leap over completely to the prongs. Instead, all we must do is to convince some people on the handle end of the fork to move inward along the handle in the direction of the prongs. Even if no one is persuaded to come over fully to our side of the fork, we achieve real victories simply by persuading more people to move closer toward our side. By doing so, the balance will tilt in favor of liberty.”
Immediately upon seeing Jose’s demonstration, I felt relief. Each person persuaded to be even slightly less prone to endorse statism is someone who moves ideologically in a direction more favorable to freedom. Freedom’s prospects are thereby improved. And of course, persuading some people to be slightly less prone to endorse statism is a task much more doable than persuading everyone to fully embrace the ideas and ideals of scholars such as Friedman and Hayek.
The second insightful person whose counsel gives me comfort is the late economist Robert Tollison, a long-ago colleague of mine at George Mason University. One day, Bob and I were having a water-cooler conversation with Pete Boettke, who was then a graduate student at GMU. Pete expressed doubt that the work of any one scholar, except for that of a few greats such as James Buchanan and Ludwig von Mises, will ever have any effect at improving the world.
In his soft South Carolina accent, Bob replied: “Pete, take heart. We’re all part of the equilibrium.”
This expression was Bob’s economist way of saying that each person’s contribution to the world’s stock of ideas affects the existing ideological balance. Seeing the effects of any individual’s work is typically difficult. But every contribution, no matter how small, tilts the “fork” of ideology in the desired direction of that work’s author. If Pete didn’t publish some article about the perils of socialism, or if, say, George Selgin didn’t deliver an insightful lecture on the danger of central banking, the world would be a bit more inclined toward socialism and central banking.
The individual effects in these, as in most, cases are too small to detect. But Bob wisely insisted that these effects are nevertheless real. The world would be a tiny bit less free and the economy faintly less productive without each of the many, mostly small, contributions to classical-liberal scholarship and to the sharing of liberal ideas with the public.
In short, even if the state of the world at the moment appears to be hopeless, it would be even worse without the efforts of the many stalwart champions of liberty — and it would be truly hopeless only if those stalwarts lose all hope and give up.
I, for one, will not give up.