By any objective standard, the freedom movement has, over the past fifty years – if not the entire history of mankind – been an utter and complete failure. More than fifty years after the publication of seminal works clinching the case against State control, the power of the State continues to grow. State control remains either complete or rapidly growing in education, health care, child care, power generation, media, industry and many other sectors. Libertarian candidates are virtually invisible in the political arena, and during the countless conversations I have had with countless non-Libertarians over the past twenty years, I have yet to meet one who is even vaguely familiar with basic concepts of freedom, such as the evils of taxation, the liberty of the free market, or the violent nature of government power.
Not only have we utterly failed, but we have failed so completely that we have put liberty at terrible risk. The cancerous growth of State power has made our task all the more difficult – and our inability to even slow down the growth of that power ensures that, unless we radically change our position, we will helplessly follow society into the general slide towards dictatorship.
What has gone so wrong? Why have ideas which are true, logical and proven by history had so little effect on society? Why have we lost so completely?
To view my answer within a context we are all familiar with, let’s look at the last major success in the limitation of state power, which was the abolition of slavery – not in America, which was the result of a corrupt civil war – but in the rest of the Western world.
Abolitionists did not condemn slavery because of its economic inefficiency, or by arguing that agriculture survived quite nicely before the introduction of slaves, or by making the case that slavery should be ameliorated, or reformed, or its evils reduced to some lesser degree.
Instead, abolitionists won over the hearts and minds of mankind by thundering, over and over, that slavery was a moral evil that had to be ended regardless of effects. They did not discuss costs and benefits. They did not say that the slave-owners should exercise less control over their slaves. They did not argue that slavery be should reduced to some prior historical level. No, they simply and passionately stated, over and over, for years and years, that it was an absolute moral evil to treat people as property. They did not consider slavery an institution which could be changed for the better. It could only be abolished utterly. For over a hundred years, they refused to give a single inch regarding the utter moral evil of slavery.
And they won.
That is a positive example. Let’s look at a negative one. Soldiers have always been relatively easy to recruit – and even when they have not, the imposition of the draft has easily made up for the lack of volunteers. In the First World War, it could be said that, due to nearly a hundred years of peace in Western Europe, the boy-soldiers who flocked to the Front knew nothing about the real conditions of combat. However, since the rise of "war-nography," or graphic novels, movies and documentaries about war, no young man can claim ignorance about the violence, madness and confusion of combat.
Yet still, young people sign up for the military. Why? There are a number of economic factors, of course, but they can be solved less radically. The real answer is simple: because soldiers are seen as moral. Soldiers are considered noble, brave, heroic and the highest specimens of manhood. We think ‘Marine’, we think: tough, disciplined, honourable, committed to serving the country. Flags, salutes and bugles rise at their funerals. Even now, given the fraud of Iraq, the sentimental fantasy about ‘supporting our troops’ trumps any criticism of their deployment. This position is morally squalid. The military is little more than a mentally-destroyed pack of thugs willing to murder anyone their leader points at. It is the Mafia in uniform – especially in America, which has friendly neighbours to the north and south, and oceans to the east and west. Yet young men still flock to the military because it is so highly respected. If soldiers were shunned in any decent society – just as KKK members are – the lie would finally be exposed, and millions of people the world over would be spared murder and maiming.
Thus on the positive side, we have a social movement – abolitionism – which succeeded by unflinchingly, persistently and passionately condemning the absolute evil of slavery. On the negative side, we have young men willing to give up their limbs, minds and lives because society tells them that being a soldier is the highest moral good.
These two examples – and there are many more – illustrate one basic point.
As advocates of freedom, we have failed because we have argued from the head, rather than from the heart. To generalize broadly, we have argued for economics and efficiency, rather than morality and integrity. We have argued that the government should be limited, or restrained, or reformed, because it doesn’t deliver on its promises, or is inefficient, or is self-serving, or other such drab and lifeless reasons. This is the same as arguing that slavery should be reduced somewhat because it is economically inefficient. It is not a call to arms. It is an invitation to yawn.
If we continue to take this analytical, abstract and bloodless approach, the cause of freedom is hopeless. We are doomed to lives of futility and rejection. The sums of our days will be ashes, bitterness, futility and resentment. If we do not look at our own spectacular failures – and compare them with the few successful moral improvements in history – then we are condemned to repeat them until society finally collapses under the growing weight of the State.
What does this mean in action?
After decades of interesting but largely futile discussions, I no longer argue from any other perspective than moral absolutism. I ask that people clarify their relationship to violence. If they say that they are against violence, I point out that the State is nothing but violence. If they then support the State, I point out their contradiction. If they continue in their support of violence, then I end the conversation with the strongest possible moral condemnations. I say that I will be happy to discuss the matter further, but until they reject violence, then they have the same appearance to me that a KKK member has to a black man, or a Nazi has to a Jew.
This shocks people. It really does. And herein lies the greatest power we have as fighters for freedom:
People will do anything to believe that they are good.
Men will die and kill for the State, if they believe that a good man fights for his country. People will surrender more than half their income to the State, if they believe that the State is helping the poor, housing the homeless, healing the sick, or other such nonsense. They will cheer blank-eyed murderers if they are convinced that a good person "supports the troops." They will give up their liberties if they believe that doing so is "patriotic."
The lesson – and our potential salvation – is that morality rules the world. Whoever controls morality controls the hearts, minds and future of mankind. Morality is the invisible physics that rules all our fundamental choices. Why do thousands of Muslims kneel together? Because they believe that they are good for doing so. Why do parents still herd their children into the vicious pens of government-run schools? Because they believe that education is essential, and without the State, poor people would be a trapped, ignorant underclass. Why do they support spiraling taxes and murderous waiting times in state-run health care systems? Because they don’t want poor people dying in the streets.
Our enemies, the statists, know this well. Look at their language. ‘The Patriot Act.’ Who doesn’t want to be a patriot? Social Security. Health and Welfare. Who wants to be against those things? Medicare. Who’s against medical care?
Staring at their pillaged paychecks and property taxes, people hate the State in their hearts, but they feel guilty for it, because the State owns the moral discourse (which is, incidentally, why the State had to take control of the schools first). As they say, once a Catholic, always a Catholic. The same is true for morality. Once a statist, always a statist. We can fight all we want, but if we don’t utterly condemn the morality of the statist argument, we will always lose.
We have so much to learn from our enemies, from those who have successfully controlled the public discourse for the past century. Look at the invasion of Iraq. It was presented in purely moral terms. Hussein is evil. You don’t approve of him, do you? He wants to kill us. You don’t want Americans to die, do you? Remember 9-11. You don’t want that to happen again, do you? Therefore, let slip the dogs of war!
There can be only one answer. Not ‘less State’ – just as the answer to slavery was not ‘less slavery’ – but no State. We have to accept that reform is impossible, because the lessons of the past and present are too clear. The State can never be diminished. No matter how it is restrained, it always grows cancerously until it devours the society it rules. We must provide a real option. We must be absolute in our condemnation of violence and the brutality of State power. We must oppose the very idea of the State, or we have lost before we even begin.
It is time for us to confidently assert the moral truth about the State. It is time for us to forget about educating people about capitalism, economics and political theory. We can’t anyway, since it’s impossible to compete with twenty-odd years of State propaganda. We can’t appeal to a citizen’s self-interest, because as wars graphically teach us, people consistently act against their self-interest for the sake of moral approval.
There is only one solution. We must take aim at the only soft belly the Leviathan possesses. We must reclaim the language. We must take back the moral core of the debate.
We need to explicitly state that our cause is a moral cause. That we are fighting as the civil-rights leaders fought. As the anti-slavery crusaders fought. Not for incremental gains. Not to educate our enemies or sway the undecided with statistics and economics – but to end the State, the greatest moral evil in the history of the world. With our words, our moral certainty, we rise to do battle with the State itself, which slaughters the helpless by the hundreds of millions. Our enemies are not self-interested politicians, or smarmy leftists, or smug right-wingers, or manipulative statists, but the ‘moral’ underpinnings of the most evil scourge that mankind has ever faced. Our enemy is a murderous social institution that does more killing, maiming and soul-destroying than slavery ever did. The beast we face slays, diminishes and throttles us from the cradle to the grave, and preys on us with the guns and clubs of soldiers, police and prison guards. We rail against leaders who care for us only to the degree that a farmer cares for his livestock, and who no more think of freeing us than a farmer thinks of liberating his cows.
How does this work in practice? I can give you a typical example, based on my own experiences.
Me: All education must be completely privatized.
Person: That would be terrible! The poor would be completely uneducated.
Me: Do you believe that a poor person has the right to rob another person at gunpoint?
Me: Then, even if the poor would be uneducated, must people be robbed at gunpoint to provide them an education?
Person: That’s not what happens!
Me: What happens to you if you don’t pay your property taxes to the State? They come and take you away. And if you resist, they shoot you.
Person: I’m happy to pay my taxes.
Me: That doesn’t matter. You may be happy to be a slave, but you have no right to enforce slavery on me.
Person: I don’t agree.
Me: But you do agree that State education is funded by violence.
Person: (Usually after additional clarification.) Yes.
Me: So then you believe that the State must shoot me if I don’t support your scheme.
Person. (Usually after additional hedging). I guess I do.
Me: Now, imagine that I am a black man in the South. If you were to tell me that you approve of lynching, how do you think I would feel about you?
Person: Pretty bad, I guess.
Me: Then you understand me when I say: you are advocating my murder. Do you still approve of State education?
Person: Yeah, I guess I do.
Me: Then I will not talk to you as if you were a reasonable or moral person. In this matter, you are utterly corrupt and contemptible, and we are just enemies.
I then end the conversation and walk away. I do not talk to that person again. If he wishes to reopen the conversation with me, I ask him if he still advocates my murder. If he says "no," I am happy to talk with him. If he says "yes," then I turn on my heels and walk away once more.
I have lost friendships over this. I have lost family members. But really – what does that matter? We are talking about freedom here – the most precious gift that makes life worth living. We are talking about war and peace and liberty. Do I really want anyone in my life who is so corrupt that they are happy to see me threatened with violence?
This is my solution. It is time for us to get angry, get motivated, and get busy. We have to get over the idea that educating people will save us. A lack of knowledge is not the problem. After a century of explosive State growth, the fall of totalitarianism in Russia, Germany, Japan, Italy, endless newspaper articles detailing government corruption, rising debt, falling services and unjust wars, the time is long past for people to begin questioning the moral nature of the State. A man in 1940 may be forgiven for thinking that smoking is harmless – today, he is simply a fool. Hayek and Rand were writing far in advance of history in the 1940s. By now, the evidence has been in for decades, and anyone who continues to believe in the virtue of the State is a self-blinded dupe. We have not failed because people don’t have the knowledge. We have failed because people still believe in the morality of the State. We offer a difference in degree, not in kind. It is not education that we must pursue, but moral praise and condemnation.
We must draw the line, and refuse to step across. The time for action is now, because the hour is growing late. If we do not change our course – and fast – liberty will not survive another generation. If we act, we shall all play a part the salvation of civilization, in freeing people’s necks from the tightening noose of the State. We shall save the soldiers from the shrapnel, the children from hunger, the old from poverty, foreigners from our bombs, the young from ignorance, and civil society from a slow slide into totalitarian savagery.
But if we do not act – or if we continue to act as we have always acted – then we shall have done nothing to avert the worst catastrophe that society can suffer. Collapse, despotism, slaughter, starvation, the end of all that is noble and good in the human spirit. A new dark age. History is unequivocal in this matter. States grow until they destroy civil society. Without strenuous action, we cannot escape. We shall fall into the chasm, as all prior societies have fallen before us.
If we do not act, an evil darkness will descend upon our children as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow. And after the decades or centuries that shall pass before that darkness is finally overthrown, future historians shall look back upon us and loathe us for our failures. And we shall have no defense against their judgments, because we lack nothing to save the world except the will to constantly condemn the bottomless evil of the State.