Audio Clips

03 June 2011

There Is Hope

Stefano Mugnaini wrote a great article at the Mises Institute. I tend to be pretty cynical about the future of freedom and so I collect essays like this one because it offers me hope. They are particularly potent when they come from fellow cynics.

Like many liberty-minded people, I tend to be a bit pessimistic. I find myself doubting that the great mass of Americans can be convinced, awakened, or converted to a genuine love of human liberty. Every day that passes brings another outrage: a child molested by the TSA, a private business seized by regulators, or an innocent individual imprisoned for crimes defined by nothing more than the whim of this legislature or that. And the outcry, if present, is subdued and muted, except in a few pockets of protest.

My malaise risked transformation into something more severe as I watched the shameful celebrations and media gloating after the bin Laden assassination. Then comfort came from an unlikely source.

I found myself on a televised opinion panel for "likely Republican primary voters." The experience alternated between horribly frustrating and incredibly amusing, as you might expect it would. In the end, however, my adventure in Neocon Land was strangely enlightening, and even a little bit encouraging. If nothing else, it provided an opportunity to learn to tie, and to sport, my brand new Mises-crest bow tie.

I suppose I was chosen for the panel on account of being a member of some email list that I had signed up for on my journey toward libertarianism. (It took me some time, several wars, and a heavy dose of Austrian economics to realize that conservatism was not consistent with my beliefs or the nature of human freedom.)

This particular gathering was organized for the purpose of gauging reactions to the Republican presidential debate in Greenville, SC, on May 5th. As I anticipated, there was a tremendous level of ignorance in the room. These were not well-informed political junkies; they appeared to be jingoistic, anti-immigrant neoconservatives of the most stereotypical sort. I walked into a discussion about the brilliance of Donald Trump's imperialist and protectionist policy suggestions — which, shockingly, gave way to a conversation about the evil illegal immigrants who, apparently, are taking all the jobs and committing all the crimes. This set the tone for the night. The consensus was that the path to prosperity is simple: build a border fence, shoot anyone who approaches it, take all the oil in Iraq, and levy heavy tariffs on Chinese exports.

What about this was encouraging, you ask? Nothing so far. The rest of the night went similarly. The questions asked throughout the session were shallow and leading. The pollster told us when to respond to the Republican debate we were watching, and he implied strongly what form the responses should take.

Ron Paul was jeered by this committee of 29 because he suggested that the war on drugs was a waste of time; but everyone got a kick out of his rhetorical question: "How many people here would use heroin if it were legal?" Gary Johnson was similarly derided when he suggested that immigrants, even of the illegal type, put more into the economy than they extract. I think the woman behind me actually started hissing at that point. Trump was hailed as a genius for his 25 percent China-tariff idea, and as a bold, brave figure when he condemned them for manipulating their currency, as if the United States were a bastion of sound, legitimate monetary policy. When Paul brought up the crazy notion that the Federal Reserve might have something to do with the economic collapse of 2008 and the subsequent price inflation and stagnation, blank stares won the day. I innocently asked one of my neighbors if he had heard of the Austrian theory of the business cycle. He angrily responded, "I know what a business is!"

I left the event dejected and thoroughly disgusted. But after a few days in this state, a thought occurred to me, and my initial misgivings gave way to a ray of hope. The members of the group that gathered that night, though woefully uninformed and generically partisan, were also eminently teachable. They genuinely cared about the consequences of the course pursued by the federal government. They were impressionable and surprisingly receptive to ideas unlike their own.

The most vocal proponent of protectionism in the room eventually conceded that tariffs are destructive, rather than constructive. He accepted my rough paraphrase of Human Action: All that a tariff can achieve is to divert production from those locations in which the output per unit of input is higher to locations in which it is lower. A tariff does not increase production; it curtails it.

Our discussion of the immigrant question yielded similar fruit. There was universal agreement on the importance of a free market, but limited understanding of what that actually means. But therein is the source of my hope.

Statism and interventionism are not, for most, the result of careful consideration of all the alternatives. They are merely a knee-jerk reaction to events, arising more from herd instinct than careful analysis — simplistic patriotism from those who haven't the time or inclination to read Nock or Rothbard. This is why I see political action and involvement as essential, even to the most ardent anarchist. We probably won't win what we desire at the ballot box. But, as Jacob Huebert brilliantly pointed out, that is not the only result of the electoral process. There is a great multitude that honestly desires peace, freedom, and the preservation of individual rights. They are groping for the truth about the economy and the nature of the state; but they search in vain because they don't know where to look. We can show them.

Take, for example, the tea party. My experience with members of this movement is that they are not antiliberty, though some of their views would qualify as such. They are just at a different place in their journey. Fiscal issues have awakened many of them, if not yet fully. But, as Thoreau famously wrote in Walden,

The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?

I walked out of my adventure in Neocon Land as downhearted as I have been in a long time, but I have come to see the true import of the gathering in the lesson it taught me: most people tend to gravitate toward liberty — they just have not heard it properly defined.

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