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The Future of Liberty: A Speech to the Ludwig von Mises Institute

Editor's Introduction: Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., standing self-consciously within the pro-freedom tradition of the Austrian School of Economics, is one of the leading proponents of individual freedom in our generation. While not endorsing his thesis or conclusions in every detail, we nonetheless applaud his and the Institute's work in pressing for greater personal freedom and individual responsibility. Rockwell's are prophetic words for the hour.

Ladies and gentlemen, the leviathan state, that monster devouring civilization in this century, is in the throes of death. This is not a wish or a prediction, but a conclusion drawn from a broad look at the trends of the last decade and a half, which, if we take the right steps, can continue on into the next century. What has happened around the world — nation states collapsing, markets outwitting planners, citizens rising up against government masters — can and is happening here at home.

It's not always obvious, because the direction of history can be obscure in times like these. We have become accustomed to a fast pace of change and skepticism towards civil government, as if these were normal features of life. So it's useful to take a step back, in order better to see the overall picture. To gain some perspective, I want to compare our present situation to fifty years ago, and fifty years in the future.

The Past and Freedom

In 1947, Keynesian economic theory was just coming into its own after the most costly war in human history. It had been a decade since the height of the New Deal, which was the central plan managing the country for years, and making a terrible mess of it.

"Why should the Russians have all the fun of remaking a world?" asked New Dealer Stuart Chase in 1932, and by 1947, everyone important seemed to agree with his sentiments. After the war, there were murmurings of political dissent; but they were quickly crushed by a new national project, namely winning the Cold War, an enterprise that cost trillions of dollars and four decades of public attention.

Fifty years ago, the political establishment — consisting of Northeastern elites and led by the self-named "Wise Men" — was at its zenith. Every important intellectual knew that central planning was our future. Most aspired to run the central plan. The creation of the full-blown entitlement state was still two decades away; but even this early, it was seen as an inevitability.

Social scientists were designing the order of the future. The age of the managerial class of scientific and public-spirited bureaucrats had been born. We had fought a war against militarism, imperialism, and national regimentation, only to fasten the same ideas ever more tightly on America.

Internationally, the foundational apparatus for a world state was being constructed by all the top minds in Britain and the U.S. World resources would be apportioned according to need, on the model of the Marshall Plan. There would be a world central bank issuing a world currency. There would be a global trade agency managing the flow of goods and services. Everybody important was behind the Bretton Woods agreement, a New Deal for the Western world. The United Nations would manage large issues like war and peace, and small issues like labor relations.

As for the media, they were kept and cartelized, reporting what they were told to report. The media had dutifully handed down press releases from the War Department and the White House for many years. They won Nobel Prizes for covering up the crimes of totalitarian murderers. By 1947, the media had become accustomed to their role as the fourth branch of government, and thought that this constituted journalistic integrity.

As for public opinion, people resented the intrusions of government, as they always have, but they considered the larger framework. In a year, we would be locked in a life-and-death struggle with the U.S.S.R., which only yesterday had been our gallant ally. In the post-war world, you never knew who your friends and enemies were, unless the government told you.

This much was clear, we were advised: if the good guys were going to win, it could only be through the power of civil government. And so, we pitted one totalitarian bureaucracy against another, and put the longing for freedom on hold. Meanwhile, the domestic state grew ever larger.

By the mid-Fifties, our ideological choices had been made for us. You could be a liberal like John Kenneth Galbraith and approve of the welfare-warfare state, or you could be a conservative like William F. Buckley and approve of the same welfare-warfare state. Or you could join Arthur Schlesinger in the vital center between these two extremes [!].

The rest of us had plenty to be outraged about, but who were we to complain? We had seen the awesome power of civil government at work in the war, and its mass destruction in Europe and Asia. Besides, in peacetime, this government was the motive and financial force behind spectacular accomplishments, like federal highways.

In the academy, the old order had been overthrown and civil government was in charge, thanks to the G.I. Bill. The intellectuals who still believed in classical liberalism — men like Mises and Hayek — had been relegated to the ghettoes of academic life. If people knew who they were, or cared what they said, it was only to display them as Neanderthals and foils for their own enlightened politics of central control.

In time, we would see wars within wars. The Cold War required that we win Korea, Lebanon, Haiti, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, and a series of other skirmishes whose drama was somewhat enhanced by the prospect of global nuclear annihilation.

We had to win the race to space, and at taxpayer expense. We also had to win the "war" on poverty, the "war" on illiteracy, the "war" on discrimination, the "war" on drugs, and the "war" on voter apathy — all waged at taxpayer expense, and all to the benefit of civil government and the detriment of our freedoms.

These days, we tend to look back affectionately at the 1950s, but in truth this was an age of allegiance to power. The civil religion, invented to unify the Northern states for the invasion of the South, and perfected to unify the nation for the invasion of Europe in World War I, had come to dominate real religion. Then, in the late 1960s, a generation assumed the task of dismantling what was left of the traditional structures of family and faith and private life. Freedom of association and contract were declared dead. Property rights were doled out by government. In the end, all that seemed permanent was the ruling class.

There wasn't much hope for us, it was widely believed, but if there was any, who doubted that it was in the gift of almighty civil government? These sentiments were confirmed as the state grew, as public faith in government grew, and as the ideological forces behind statism found ever-new justifications for interference in our lives.

The Recent Shift

But in the late 1980s, all that began to change, first slowly and then at the lightening speed that continues to this day. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that the way had been paved by crucial events in the 1970s, as Murray Rothbard pointed out at the time. The great monetary order designed in the aftermath of World War II unraveled, leading to a debilitating and confiscatory hyperinflation, as Henry Hazlitt had said it would.

Civil government mismanaged the economy on a scale we had not seen since the Great Depression, but the effects were contrary to everything Keynesian theory had predicted. Political corruption, real and imagined, became a mainstay of presidential politics. The "war" on poverty — and most every other "war" the government embarked on — failed to live up to its promise.

The backlash had begun, but not without a series of diversions. In retrospect, it is easy to see that the three great leaders of the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Mikhail Gorbachev were transitional figures. They did as much to advance the reconfiguration of our political loyalties as they did to forestall that reconfiguration.

Indeed, there is a close analogy among these leaders and their place in the history of our century. They were the last of the great statesmen, bestriding the world as living embodiments of the national or even international soul. Their public legitimacy depended on their claims to be fighting the corruptions of the past, while their power and status depended on the continuation of an inherently corrupt system.

Indeed, all three were products of the system they were presuming to reform. They didn't succeed in battling the postwar establishment — and indeed worked toward shoring it up — but they nonetheless increased the public desire for the very reforms they claimed to be bringing about. Their long-run effect was in convincing the public of their rhetorical ideals, which they did not actually work to achieve.

An even deeper contradiction lay at the heart of all three regimes. Despite protests to the contrary, they believed in some variant of the central evil of the century, the welfare-warfare state, a fact which is easily demonstrated by even casual study of their speeches.

They could not imagine a world fundamentally different from the one that had dominated the scene since 1947, a world of superpowers, diplomats, foreign-policy strategists, centrally managed industrial economies, and big events on the world stage. In short, a world where the national socialist principle prevailed: nations were collectivized and embodied in their heads of state. Thatcher, Reagan, and Gorbachev were praised for their vision, but their vision did not include a world that could somehow manage without important statesmen such as themselves.

They could not imagine, nor did they desire, social systems not organized on the principles of leadership and centralization. They could not foresee the kinds of societies now being created by default, depoliticized societies that no longer desire mega-leaders on the Thatcher-Reagan-Gorbachev model, societies where civil government and political leaders are widely seen as menaces to social peace and prosperity.

Indeed, Thatcher, who ultimately fell from power for raising taxes, has more recently become the United Kingdom's fiercest critic of the decentralization of British government.

In retrospect, we can see that the really important forces for social change in the last five decades were not politicians. They were not mainstream intellectuals. They were not public servants working in the permanent bureaucracy.

The really important figures behind social change were a small band of intellectuals who were never taken in by the claims that central planning would last forever. They continued to challenge the system of social and economic management at its very root.

They are the most important thinkers of our century, the Austrian School economists who dared repudiate and denounce the statism of their time, and reconstruct the social theory of freedom for our time and every time.

But they paid a heavy price. Ludwig von Mises, once Europe's most important monetary economist, was uprooted by the tragic events of the 1930s and eventually relegated to an unpaid post at New York University, where he taught a small group of friends and admirers in a basement classroom.

F.A. Hayek did better: he went to the University of Chicago, but was not allowed to teach in the economics department, as if to say that no real economist could reject central planning.

When Murray N. Rothbard entered graduate school, and eventually came across Mises's Human Action, he chose the pursuit of truth above the path to professional prominence. The author of world-historic works on economics, he was rewarded with an ill-paid job at a trade school in Brooklyn, and a windowless office the size of a coatroom for the first twenty years of his academic life. But it was a choice he made consciously, and indeed joyously; he chose the path of long-term change over short-term benefit.

As the Keynesian model began to break down in the 1970s, the writings of these men began to receive some attention. But for the most part, they and their followers remained outsiders and renegades, condemned because they refused to believe in a government-run society.

If it was the unworkability of central planning and socialism that led to their collapse, it was the ideas of the Austrians that allowed us to make sense of these developments, and point the way toward the future.

The Present and Freedom

And what a future it is! We are now living through a time when people's traditional political allegiances are being radically transformed. Americans are learning to love the state less, trust the state less, depend on the state less. They are turning to tangible relationships, and repudiating the lie that the state is an appropriate substitute for ties of family, religion, commerce, and community.

It is impossible to overestimate the impact that the end of the Cold War has had on the public perception of government. No longer is government what stands between us and our vaporization by a foreign foe. It is no longer seen as our defender, or the key to our security. The power elite no longer has a trump card it can pull out to say: "You might not like the power we have, but look what we are protecting you from."

The Cold War had become the bottom-line justification of the federal imperium; and though people debate about who should get the credit for ending it, in truth, no member of the ruling class sought its end. The crumbling of the old balance of power was a consequence of forces outside the control of the world managers. It was the beginning of the end of the old order of geopolitical central planning.

Today, we live in radically different times. No politician runs for public office in America by broadly defending civil government. If he did, he well knows he would lose. What's more, every politician feels he must pay obeisance to the idea of cutting civil government. He's usually lying, of course, but what matters here is the reversal of political culture this represents.

And much more than mere rhetoric has changed. The Gulf War was supposed to set a precedent for the US to become the perpetual world policeman, but it may in fact be the last large-scale military operation in our lifetime. Public resistance to foreign wars is stronger than at any time since the aftermath of World War I.

And consider this: all polls show that civil government jobs carry with them very low social status. Today, the most ambitious students do not aspire to become foreign service officers at the State Department, housing planners at HUD, or number crunchers for the Labor Department. These jobs are reserved for those willing to sacrifice social status for job security, or for those incapable of middle-class incomes outside civil government.

These positions are no longer something to aspire to, but something people accept after forgoing the fast lane of corporate life, or the risks of entrepreneurship. It's hard to overrate the significance of this trend: when the younger generation sees civil government as a haven for dregs and losers, we have taken the first crucial step towards changing the very structure of society.

In my lifetime, there was no more watched event than a Presidential news conference. Today the President can't find a network willing to carry one.

In my lifetime, when Senator so-and-so visited the Rotary Club or held a town meeting, it was a big deal, attended by one and all, with his remarks featured on the cover of the local press. Nowadays, town meetings are likely to be dominated by people who make demands that Senator so-and-so hasn't been briefed on, like why the Justice Department isn't prosecuting the Waco murderers, or investigating the claims that TWA Flight 800 was downed by friendly fire.

Old-time Congressional aides, who have flitted from office to office for three decades, express astonishment and frustration. Constituents are willing to believe civil government capable of any villainy, and unwilling to accept assurances to the contrary. These days, Senators look forward to the banquets and conferences of Beltway think tanks, so they can get a sympathetic hearing.

This turn of events is potentially lethal for the democratic socialist project, which requires our loyalty and confidence above all else. As la Boetie, Hume, Mises, and Rothbard argued, no government, no matter how tyrannical, can survive if the people withdraw their consent. And consent depends on trust. This is why the partisans of civil government power are so anxious to shore up public trust. Much of what goes on in Washington these days is designed to do just this.

This is the real impetus behind the astounding tax-abuse hearings on Capitol Hill. Don't think for a minute that this was the leaders' first choice on what to do with their time. But their internal polling shows respect for Congress near zero after both the 104th and 105th Congresses failed to achieve their stated goals and indeed betrayed their own principles with a series of egregious tax and spending increases.

Elections are just around the corner. All political analysts predict lower turnouts than we've ever seen, quite possibly the lowest in American history. What happens when the civil government holds an election and nobody comes?

Rather than risk finding out, these hearings are designed to shore up interest and support on an issue that is extremely important to every taxpayer. And make no mistake: there are consequences to hearings like this: the tax-collection agency is the teeth of leviathan, just as the central bank is its lifeblood. Undermine the authority of the official confiscators, and society is that much less governable.

Just as the largest and most powerful central governments in human history were not built up all at once, they are being torn down bit by bit, frequently in ways that surprise. But let's remember that the path toward dissolution is different in every political context.

In Romania, it happened in one sweep of mass emotion and the bullets that ripped through Ceausescu's chest. In the Soviet Union, the empire became financially unviable and politically unworkable, toppling like a house of cards. In China, we see a rare case of a top-down reform instigated by an elite that has lost faith in the old rationale for its power.

In Chile, the reform was undertaken by a military dictator. In Singapore, by an undemocratic ruling family. In Hong Kong, by colonial officials. In New Zealand, the reform has been led by labor governments. The same is true in Britain, where Tony Blair calls for a virtual dissolution of the old United Kingdom. In Italy, it is a response to the secessionist threat, issued by hard-bitten activists at ever-smaller levels of society.

In our own country, we see the fall of power in a different form: the dramatic decline of the Presidency itself, which means the decline of the executive state and all its works. We feel a tinge of embarrassment when we realize that the sitting President is better known for his peccadilloes than his policies. Personally, I can't imagine a better situation.

We don't need to bring back the fuhrer principle. The logic of dissolution requires that we lose faith in political leaders before we can regain faith in our ability to solve our own problems.

"I pledge allegiance . . ." begins the oath of fealty to government power. But the American founders did not write this oath; indeed, men like Jefferson or Mason or Randolph would have winced at hearing children made to recite the civic prayer of a socialist minister, by which we swear never to break up the consolidated central state established not by the framers, but by Lincoln, and affirm its munificence with liberty and justice.

True American patriotism is of a different sort. It is rooted in love of freedom, and rebellion against those who would encroach on our natural right to that freedom.

True American patriotism is rooted in the conviction that this is — and must always be — the sweet land of liberty, a land whose freedom is rooted in law, and whose law is rooted in the inalterable nature of man.

Our foundational loyalties must always be to the institutions our natural instincts tell us are important: not social workers but families, not the Union but the neighborhood, not the UN but the states, not federal projects but civic associations, not government bureaucracies but commercial relationships, not NATO, but the land of the free.

Yet the ruling class declares this true patriotism to be traitorous, and crowns as patriots the actual traitors to our heritage. This is just one of the reasons they’re being relegated to the margins of real history, which is increasingly not the history of federal officials, but the actions of people willing to challenge their pretensions to power.

The Future and Freedom

Let’s fast-forward fifty years, and imagine the story that will be told about our own times. Will it be about the Weld-Helms dispute over who will be ambassador to Mexico? Will it be about which party’s plan for national education reform prevails? Far from it. The policy elites of today and their day-to-day disputes will be named in the footnotes, if they are named at all. The truly significant people of our time do not exist within the government milieu. They have names like Bill Gates and Mother Teresa, a capitalist and a humanitarian seen to be doing great work outside politics, and therefore untainted by its corruptions. The ruling class is finding itself with no admirers, and without the protégés of old who aspired to j o in its ranks. What trends will the historians of the year 2047 say dominated our times?

First, as Murray Rothbard noted, the nation-state is decomposing into smaller units of civil government. The example of the Soviet Union comes first to mind. But we see the logic of devolution applying itself in the most unlikely places. In Canada, Italy, the United Kingdom, and right here at home, artificial unions are under strain, and historic loyalties are reasserting themselves, much to the shock of world planners.

In 1919, Ludwig von Mises said that the idea of secession could make democracy pro-liberty. He proposed, as a restraint on civil government, that “no people nor any part of a people shall be held in a political association it does not want.” Absurd, everyone said, but today, we see that the principle of voluntary association is tenable and just.

The second trend is this: the market economy is overrunning the dictates of central planners. This has created a vast and complex international structure of mutual benefit that operates largely outside civil government’s purview. It has accomplished technological feats no one could have imagined fifteen years ago, and done so in the industries that are least regulated by government.

Innovation and entrepreneurship proceed at a pace that baffles the regulators. Even the likes of Ira Magaziner is forced to concede this, as he did recently with regard to regulation and taxation of the Internet.

In the United States, if enterprise can still be called free, it is not because civil government lacks the will to strangle it. It is due to the enormous ability of market forces to outwit government, time and again. The growth of high-tech industries in particular has made the subversive act of evading government far less costly and risky. Thanks to increased speed of access, we no longer have to depend on official institutions for information. The claims of civil government can be checked against other sources, and by practically anyone.

The most promising sectors of the economy are those that, for all practical purposes, exist in a state of anarchy. Consider the rise of all-private communities, the private courts and arbitration system, the home-schooling movement, and the large and growing microprocessor-related industries. They are wreaking havoc on the plans of political elites. They are causing us to rethink all our assumptions about civil government and the private sector.

This is precisely the opposite of what centuries of celebrated intellectuals had hoped and worked for. They sought to abolish economic law and the market economy, circumscribe private life, scrap family and tradition, overthrow the natural elites, install a world state, and transform human nature at its very core.

Indeed, that last point was the crucial link to all the rest. But human nature is not to be undone. It will always triumph, and bury its undertakers—just as economic law continually reasserts itself against the designs of those who would repeal it, just as core loyalties that stem from human contact and contract will supersede the artificial allegiances manufactured by that ultimate artifice, the central state.

Leviathan is crumbling because its traditional ideological infrastructure no longer compels public confidence. That is why, on a daily basis, we see ever more excuses being manufactured to bolster its credentials.

We can tick them off as easily as we can read the daily papers: global warming, killer beef, kids without health care, the education crisis, the gap between rich and poor, discrimination, teen smoking, terrorism, the shortage of affordable housing, and on it goes, ad infinitum and ad nauseam.

Each of these pretenses for a power grab must be exposed and battled, even the ones that are so manifestly absurd as to deserve no comment. Many of them will be the basis of new laws, no doubt, and these new laws will create new victims to add to the multitudes of old victims of civil government.

These laws will also generate new and unexpected failures to add to the endless litany of civil government’s disaster that chronicles our century. In turn, it is our job to point to these victims and failures, and provide the rationale for explaining cause and effect.

If these visible signs of leviathan’s grip are everywhere, what will be the precise mechanism for loosening that grip? I t is impossible to know precisely. But we can know what will bring it about: the ideas that people hold about themselves and their relationship to the world around them.

There is no point in pretending that social change can occur without intellectuals. It is a reality that we cannot escape. Keynes knew it, and so did Marx, to the world’s detriment. Mises and Rothbard understood that if we surrender in the world of ideas, we have given up the entire battle.

In fifteen years of running the Mises Institute, I hear the same critiques of our work again and again. We’re told that our heads are in the clouds, that we toil away only to have our ideas buried in library stacks.

But we must meet the enemy on its own ground, which means the upper reaches of the academy, where ideas are born and shaped and reshaped. Citizen organizations are great, but they are not enough. Doing the hard work of liberty requires that the defenders of free markets be able to assume what Murray Rothbard called the mantle of science.

For the same reason, the vast majority of Institute resources go toward students, though some think we should be spending that money on lobbying in Washington.

But long-term change requires that good ideas influence every new generation of thinkers, not just the recent crop of politicos. We make no apologies for investing in education as our first priority. Every great body of ideas is the history of student-teacher relationships. In the Austrian School as any other, if those bonds were ever severed for lack of institutional support, the body of thought would lose its life.

Paradoxically, we are also told that our work is too accessible. But we make no apology for seeking to make economics interesting and understandable to people in all walks of life. Mises and Rothbard wrote great treatises on economics, published in small popular publications, and spoke in front of any group that was curious about what they had to say.

Economics in particular, Mises said, is the proper subject of study for every person. So at the Mises Institute, we seek to create a seamless web between academia and popular culture, so as to influence the future in every possible way.

Another criticism I hear frequently: we take too radical a stance. But we make no apology for our desire to bring about change rather than merely to fit in. If it were our desire to seek status as an end in itself, we would approach matters very differently.

And if your desire were merely to fit in, you wouldn’t be here. But you are, because you share with us a vision, admittedly radical now, but mainstream tomorrow: namely to bring about a society where private life is held at a premium, and where no autocrat or despot, democratically elected or not, is allowed to run roughshod over the private pursuit of prosperity and security.

We seek, all of us, a society where politics means enforcement of the rule of law, where economic development is left to those who own and control real resources, and where owners can use their property without violent interference by parasites who neither produce nor create, but live off those who do so, without their consent.

We owe you—and all our supporters over the past fifteen years—everything for your backing of these endeavors. We are partners in a revolutionary intellectual movement, and in the price we all pay for the stance that we take in these last days of the century of government power.

But we can be confident—for ourselves, for our families, for our fellow Americans, and for the future of our civilization—that what we are doing is right.

I believe we can win. It is within our grasp. But even if not everything goes the way we plan or expect, we must remember the line from Virgil that Mises adopted as a boy, and never abandoned throughout the darkest hours of this darkest of centuries:

“Tu ne cede malis sed contra audentior ito”: “Do not give in to evil, but proceed ever more boldly against it.” Let that too be our motto, and let us keep to it no matter what the cost.


Topics: Government, Justice, Statism, World History, Culture , Economics

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama. He can be reached at www.LewRockwell.com.

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