Too many libertarians, especially of the “sky is falling” crowd (the ones who have been predicting major societal collapse for 40 years), are sure we are in End Times. Some previous age was America’s apex, from which we’ve long been in rapid decline. America has gone from being a pretty decent place to a near “police state.” When was this golden period? Not the Founder’s generation (ugh). Not the post-war 1950s or even the post-Civil War 1950s. The ’50s were better in some respects than the 2010s, but not in every respect. Yes, the police state is worse now but war is down. The draft is gone. Marijuana legalization is on the horizon (and marijuana is super-high quality now in states where it is quasi-legal). Gay marriage, unthinkable in the 50s and even 70s, is inevitable. Alcohol was legalized long ago and porn’s legal status seems not in doubt.
Air travel is cheaper and safer, and used more and more by the masses. Middle class people take Disney Cruises, vacations zip-lining in Costa Rica, or vacation in Turkey, Germany, Italy, Britain, Australia. Incomes are higher, houses are bigger, air-conditioning is more ubiquitous. Cell phones are cheap; everyone has one. Computers are powerful, inexpensive and portable, and we are all linked by one of the most amazing developments in all human history: the Internet. 3D printing is on the horizon, food is better and cheaper. Diversity is flourishing, as is tolerance: some people are vegetarians, vegans; no big deal. Meat eaters accommodate them when they invite them for dinner. Christians have Jewish and Hindu and atheist and Muslim friends; their kids all associate with a rainbow of colors of kids from all over the country or the world, with different ethnicities, religions, traditions, holidays—no one minds. A waiter from Alabama might good-naturedly tease his LSU-shirt wearing customers, but everyone laughs it off; they have their mild regional and college and geographical identities and alliances, but they are not serious or real. We don’t have soccer hooligans and stampedes at football games here. The era of private spacecraft is upon us too. Tie-died clothes and “peace” teeshirts, once derided as “hippie,” are now cool—college kids and soccer moms wear them. Some people have nose rings, multiple earrings. Tattoos. Nobody cares. That would have gotten you dirty looks or shunning in the ’50s. Mixed-race couples? Nobody bats an eye.
Food and restaurants are better than ever. There are amazing art museums all over. Movies and especially television are better than ever, and music is healthy and vibrant and proliferating. American universities are the best in the world, as is American technology and business and culture, as seen by the dominance of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Hollywood, and so on.
Libertarianism and free market economics (including Austrian) are on the rise; the numbers of intellectuals, students, etc. who are interested in these ideas today completely dwarfs numbers from even the 1980s, and even more so those of earlier generations.
The state is growing too, but it is also less powerful in some ways—cell phones and cell phone video cameras and the Internet and twitter and facebook and google have put state actions under increasing scrutiny. The threat of a truly major war is remote. And while the state does its usual song and dance of taking as much as it can get away with, the fact that the state taxes us and even regulates us (in some ways) more is, perversely, some kind of evidence that things are better. Why? The state is parasitical on its host: natural, civil society, the underlying free market economy operating beneath the fascist barnacles. The state is able to extract more from the host only because the host is bigger and richer now. And it is able to ratchet up “police state” type measures such as surveillance, airport security measures, only because it is dimly aware that its victims usually have no readily available alternative state to move to. If one could fairly easily move from the US to country X and have a similar standard of living, earn a similar amount of money, and have even better freedom and civil liberties and lower taxes, millions would do this. That this doesn’t happen is precisely because those living in the US have it so good—despite the state.
And yes, the U.S. is allegedly slipping on the economic freedom index, but this is partly because other places are getting more free all the time.
Moreover, the main tools that the state once used to control the economy are becoming more and more non-functioning, and everyone knows it. Fiscal policy is at an end. Monetary policy is not performing either. Regulatory policy is all about a battle between large corporations over who can screw their competition fastest. But in general, the old vision of the state as the master of all things is completely dead in the U.S.—on the left and the right. The energy is with technology, innovation, and the development of private nations within the nation. Technology has permitted smaller, nimble companies and entrepreneurs who don’t need big foundries or staffs, who outsource discrete tasks to other specialists and who outsource themselves without centralized direction, responding to the tugs of supply and demand. They regard the state as a drag, a nuisance, and hop around it like acrobats, focusing on making money, making things, and pleasing customers.
Making observations like these often infuriates libertarians, who in their monomaniacal obsession with the state let thinking about the state permeate everything they do. They think you are making light of state depredations, that you are even excusing or forgiving it, if you admit that it’s possible to live a good, flourishing life even in the presence of the state. They scoff at the suggestion that there are really no “better places” for most Americans to move to … even though they are still here, too. Yes, the state is terrible. Yes, private crime is terrible too. But they are just impediments to life, challenges. Just as natural disasters, wild animals, disease, and even the fundamental facts of scarcity (of resources, of time) are obstacles or challenges that any successful, rational human actor has to overcome to lead a happy life. In some circumstances it is not possible to succeed; here, private crime, or the state, has imposed too much damage. Think of young blacks raised in a culture of violence, ugliness, horrible role models, drugs and drug war violence, fatherless, and suffering from the ravages of the government educational system. Or think of Jews living in ghettos or even concentration camps in Hitler-era Germany. The state can snuff out life.
But tens, maybe hundreds of millions of Americans find ways to navigate and ignore the state. They avoid drugs, since that might send you to jail; they don’t care much, as they don’t want to do drugs anyway. They don’t evade taxes, since they would prefer to keep 62% of their $150k salary than go to prison. And the $93k net they are left with has more purchasing power than their dad’s or grandparent’s net salary from generations past. They go to their children’s plays; they have nice SUVs; they have nice friends and family members; some go to church, some give to charity or work to help the less fortunate. Some have friends all over the world on facebook, and pin their hobbies on Pinterest. Startups burst like popcorn onto the scene all the time; some fail, like Digg, others prosper, like Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, Apple.
Sure, more state-caused recessions are coming. But I am not persuaded that we know a huge collapse is coming (the kind “worse-is-better” libertarians too often pine for); Austrian economics tells us the state ought not to intervene in markets (if we want prosperity), but the future is uncertain (see my post Verstehen and the Role of Economics in Forecasting, or: If You’re so Rich, Why Aren’t You Smart?). For my part, since I believe in the power of freedom, free markets, and technology, I think it’s reasonable to predict that the economy and innovation will continue to increase, over time, in absolute terms, despite the state’s depredations. I could be wrong. It’s possible. But it seems to me that bugging out is not a viable solution. If doom is coming, doom is coming. For me, it’s not a reason to give up. Far from it; it’s a reason to try to be more successful—to acquire more money and power, to better withstand any coming statist calamities.
I do not believe in optimism for optimism’s sake. I am not a believer in the “power of positive thinking”; I’m a realist. Rothbard, I think, used to say the libertarian has to be a short-run pessimist and a long-run optimist. I suppose I agree: things look “bad” now from the point of view of libertarianism’s odds of success; and we can hope that the free market and freedom will ultimately somehow defeat the state, because they are more right, more productive, more powerful. I suppose. But this is strictly an activist perspective; it’s what someone focusing on libertarianism’s prospects would say. But the goal of each person is his own life. I am a personal optimist in the sense that I think I, myself, and many other people as well, can and will be able to live happy, successful, flourishing lives, despite the state. I view my libertarian involvement not as typical political activism; it is more of my own hobby, or avocation. Others have different interests outside their work and families. I am interested in libertarianism because I happen to like economics and political philosophy, and have a passionate, intense interest in justice and rightness. But as a person I am interested in more than this: in living a good and happy and successful life. So I view the state (and private crime) as evil, yes; and they are evil because of the barriers they put in the way of people who want to live happy lives. It does no good to complain about the possibility of hurricanes or a disease one has; the criminal actions of the state are voluntary, so complaining about the state (or, more particularly: voicing objections to, criticizing the state) might have some long-run or even short-run efficacy, but there is no guarantee. So the state, as with private crime, has to be regarded as a type of background danger in life that one has to figure out a way to defeat, evade, escape from, hide from, navigate around, or ignore. And I’m confident that, for at least tens of millions of Americans, this is possible. It’s a shame; it’s an unfortunate cost or drag needlessly imposed on civil society, the economy, and individual human lives; but there you have it. We can still recognize it, take it into account, and prosper despite the state.
The main benefit of doing this is one’s own personal gains. But a secondary benefit, for those of the libertarian avocation, is that you also become a more effective torch-bearer for liberty. As I discuss in Nock and Leonard Read on “One Improved Unit” and the Power of Attraction, if you focus on improving yourself, succeeding, flourishing, instead of trying to improve others (or futilely trying to change the state, instead of recognizing that it’s bad, and exists, and is there), then you generate more light, than heat; and light has the power to attract others.
As Leonard Read wrote in The Essence of Americanism:
I am not at this level but I am aware of it and know some of its imperatives. One imperative is the awareness that the higher the objective is, the more dignified the method must be. If we aspire to such a high objective as advancing individual liberty and the free market, we can resort to no lesser method than the power of attraction, the absolute opposite of using propaganda, indoctrination, and half truths. A good way to test how well one is doing on the objective we have in mind is to observe how many are seeking his counsel. If none, then one can draw his own conclusions!
The sole force that will turn indifference into acceptance is the power of attraction. And this can be achieved only if the eye is cast away from the remaking of others and toward the improvement of self. This effort demanded of each individual is not at all a sacrifice, but rather the best investment one can make in life’s highest purpose.
Well, where can we find such individuals? I think we will find them among those who love this country. I think we will find them in this room. I think that one of them is you.
See also Anthony Gregory’s The Golden Age of Freedom Is Still Ahead.
(Thanks to Jeff Tucker and Anthony Gregory for helpful comments on an earlier draft of this post.)
Update: A lot of discussion of this post on Facebook.
And Tim Sandefur says: “For once I agree with Stephan Kinsella.” For once? Well he has also agreed with me on IP—see his article “A Critique of Ayn Rand’s Theory of Intellectual Property Rights,” Journal of Ayn Rand Studies 9:1 (Fall 2007), pp. 139-61.