Allow me to ask my readers, few as they might be, a simple question. What is the biggest threat to freedom today? Or, perhaps, to word it slightly differently, what is the single thing that imposes the biggest impediment to any efforts at reducing the size of government?
I suppose, if I am completely honest, the most accurate answer is indifference. That is, the simple fact that the public is not convinced there is anything wrong with large government. Or, to elaborate a bit, the combination of well hidden costs and general affluence have managed to keep us from considering the cost of government unduly burdensome compared to what we believe to be the benefits. That many of those benefits are illusory is irrelevant, so long as the public at large considers government sufficiently beneficial to justify what they perceive to be the cost, they are unlikely to look for any significant changes.
However, that is a large problem, and one that will take a long time, and lots of slow, patient work to resolve. So, let us look instead at the second biggest impediment. And that would be, strangely enough, those who claim to be freedom's friends, the libertarians, conservatives and others who raise their voices the loudest in proclaiming they defend freedom.
Obviously, such a claim requires a bit of explanation.
As I said above, the public by and large believes government is mostly worthwhile, it does what it is supposed to, and they are content. Some may differ over exactly how big government should be, they may ask for it to grow faster or slower, they may disagree with specific steps, but for the most part, the public is not unhappy with big government. It is familiar, it has been this way for generations, and things seem to them, for the most part, to be going well. In addition, they have learned, from school, from the media, from academic experts and others that big government is right and proper, that the era of supposed laissez faire were disasters1, and so they see no alternatives but our version of big government and the even more intrusive governments of much of the rest of the world. And so, from their perspective, what they endorse in the US actually is smaller government, and, compared to many, it is.
I say all of this because it helps explain why I think so many defenders of freedom end up doing just the opposite. You see, to change such a mindset, to bring about real change, takes time, a lot of time, and patience. You need to slowly and patiently show why the beliefs held for so long are wrong, why things could be better than they are, why the supposed benefits of government are not true. But doing so takes a lot of time, a lot of slow, tedious effort, none of which is glamorous, and none of which bears immediate fruit. However, that is how historic changes take place2. We often miss it, because we see the sudden change, the revolution, and don't realize there were decades of history behind it. For example, many somehow imagine the Communist victory in the Russian revolution was a sudden, self-contained event, and not the fruit of generations of Russian revolutionary activity, not to mention Communist theorizing going back to well before the uprisings of 1848. And so we imagine history is made up on long calm stretches, punctuated by sudden explosions of change, rather than what it truly is, a constant struggle between competing ideas, with changes serving only to mark the point when one has finally achieved sufficient dominance.
But I am getting a bit far from my point.
To be brief, most people see the current situation, the government as it is, as satisfactory, and thus are not inclined to change. In addition, while they may be open to modest criticism, claims that the state is a secret tyranny, or that we are less free than the citizens of China or Cuba are likely to be met by nothing but laughter. And that is where the modern defenders of freedom hurt their cause, as well as the cause of more temperate champions of minimal government. Thanks to the excessive fear of government, and over the top claims, modern libertarians cause the cause of minimal government to be associated in the minds of the public with conspiracy theories, claims of government assassination and so on.
For those who recall the 1980's, there is a slightly different example which may help clarify. Actually two.
First, there was the close connection between the libertarians of the 1980s and the drug legalization movement. For whatever reason, many libertarians, if not a majority, at least a segment loud enough to seem a majority, decided that drug legalization would make a good cause to illustrate libertarian principles. And thus, in the minds of the public, libertarianism became associated with drug legalization. Now, I am a proponent of drug legalization, probably to a degree beyond many, as I promote not only legalizing all drugs, but doing away with prescriptions as well -- an area oddly overlooked by many proponents of legalization -- however, I also recognize that many -- even a number of those who use illegal drugs -- do not favor legalization, for any number of reasons. And, harmful as drug laws may be, the issue is sufficiently emotional that many are not open to argument. Thus, as a cause to introduce individuals to libertarianism, it is a loser. In the end, rather than aiding either drug legalization or libertarianism, it ended up making the public at large view all libertarians as secret stoners, interested in freedom only so they could get high. It was about as bad a PR move as one could imagine.
A second example is even more on point, as it is a good parallel for many issues today. Among not only those claiming to champion liberty, but also among conservatives who dislike the president, there is a tendency to grab each revelation and turn it into as serious a threat to liberty as possible. Each leak shows not just government excess, but according to these individuals, it shows a plot to strip us of all our liberties. In fact, they often argue, we are already so far gone that we have to act now, or else!
All of which should sound familiar, as it was at one time the rallying cry of the other end of the spectrum, among the radicals of the 1960s and 1970s who claimed "Amerikkka" was plotting to exterminate minorities and radicals, was removing all our freedoms and so on. Unlike today, however, they actually had a slightly better audience for their claims. Granted, the majority of Americans were still relatively happy with things, but there were issues such as Vietnam and race relations, followed by oil embargoes and inflation, that created a great deal more dissent than our present issues do. However, despite a slightly more receptive audience, the end was predictable. As the radicals became more and more accepted into the mainstream of the left, the public became ever more wary about the political left, giving the Republicans their first real gains in decades. Why? Because the claims of the radicals, and later of the left as a whole, seemed extreme and absurd, and thus those presenting the message were seen as being extreme and absurd as well.
And that is why I say the supposed supporters of freedom are themselves an impediment to freedom. Instead of explaining why they think things have gone wrong, why we need change and so on,t hey shout out that the end is nigh and thus poison the well not just for themselves, but also for the rest of us who would take a more measured approach. And in the end they do a great disservice to freedom.
Some would argue that the end is nigh, and thus there is no time for persuasion, but I disagree. First, because I do not believe we are as far gone as they claim. True we have lost many freedoms, and government continues to grow, but I do not agree we are the slaves they imagine. We are not doing well, but the end is not here. However, that is a secondary issue. More important is the simple fact that, whether the end is here or not, people do not believe so, and so no amount of shouting or extreme claims will reach most people. We have but two choices, a gradual approach, or shouting and alienating the majority. And so, whether the end is here or not, we have no choice but gradual education3.
Which, once again, is the problem with those who feel the need to shout. It may make them feel good to be the lone voice in the wilderness, might give them a thrill to be the unsung genius who saw it all before everyone, but in terms of real change, that will come from a host of unknown and unrecognized workers who make a lot of little changes. And it will come about despite, not because of, those shouting about the end of the world.
1. See "Child Labor and the Industrial Revolution", "Mistaken Perceptions of the Industrial Age" and "Rethinking the Scopes Trial".
2. See "Catastrophic Thinking, The Political, Economic and Social Impact of Seeing History in the Superlative" and "All Life in a Day, or, How Our Mistaken View of History Distorts Our Understanding of Events".
3. I suppose there is the possibility of violence being used to force people to "be free" despite their inclinations, but that is such a self-contradictory proposition I hesitate to even consider it. And, in any case, if we cannot gather enough support to even form a decent third party, what is the chance of those who support minimal government gathering a viable army? The degree of public indifference suggests revolution is a remote possibility at best.
Before someone puts forth a straw man argument, arguing that I suggest ignoring scandals or losses of freedom, I am saying nothing of the kind. We should continue to point out these things, but deal with them realistically. Point out that they infringe upon our freedom, not that they will destroy the last shred of liberty. We should continue to hold the government responsible for its actions, but do so in a reasonable, measured way, rather than decry each and every incident as the breaking of the seventh seal. Unfortunately, in today's political climate, it seems reasonable and measured is becoming an ever more unreasonable expectation.