Has Freedom Finally Arrived? No, We’ll Have to Bring It!

The New York Times wonders if the libertarian moment has arrived. Unfortunately, there’ve been false starts before. 

Ronald Reagan’s election seemed the harbinger of a new freedom wave. His rhetoric was great, but actual accomplishments lagged far behind. 

So, too, with the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress.  Alas, the GOP in office behaved little different than many Democrats. 

Since then there’s been even less to celebrate—in America, at least. George W. Bush was an avid proponent of “compassionate,” big-government conservatism. Federa outlays rose faster than under his Democratic predecessor. Barack Obama has continued Uncle Sam’s bailout tradition, promoting corporate welfare, pushing through a massive “stimulus” bill for the bank accounts of federal contractors, and seizing control of what remained private in the health care system.

Over the last half century, members of both parties took a welfare state that was of modest size despite the excesses of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal and put it on a fiscally unsustainable basis as part of the misnamed “Great Society.” Economist Lawrence Kotlikoff figures government’s total unfunded liability at around $220 trillion. 

The national government has done no better with international issues. Trillions went for misnamed “foreign aid” that subsidized collectivism and autocracy. Trade liberalization faces determined resistance and often is blocked by countries that would gain great benefits from global commerce.

Even worse has been foreign policy. The joy people felt from the collapse of the Berlin Wall a quarter century ago has been forgotten. 

The defense budget has turned into a new form of foreign aid for America’s populous and prosperous allies. The United States has been constantly at war, repeatedly proving that the Pentagon is no better at social engineering than is any other government agency. 

Americans across the political spectrum agree that something is wrong, that the status quo is no good. But they disagree on the remedy.

However, the answer shouldn’t be that hard to discern. The definition of insanity, runs the old adage, is to keep doing the same thing while expecting different results. 

By that definition, Washington policymakers are insane. The economy is slowing, people are falling behind economically, freedoms are being lost, and security fears are rising? No problem. Roll out the usual failed nostrums.

We know what the effect of these policies will be. All we have to do is look around the world and see what has happened.

It is this reality, not new personalities or generations, that is creating a libertarian moment. The 20th century killed off communism and fascism as serious alternatives. The chief competitor to this systems was not laissez-faire capitalism, as some suggested, but highly regulated and monumentally expensive welfare states. They were freer and more prosperous than their geopolitical antagonists—even a little capitalism goes a long way—but the erosion of liberty and prosperity has been constant. 

Perhaps more debilitating was the corrosive effect on the foundational principles of a free society, such as independence, self-reliance, responsibility, accountability, and more. This assault in America continues with, for instance, the federal government turning health care into another massive entitlement, highlighted by pervasive regulation and income redistribution. 

The obvious—and only—alternative to more government, which has failed so badly, is less government. Lower tax rates and rationalize complex tax systems. Cut the wasteful looting and pillaging that is a hallmark of today’s transfer society. Repeal unnecessary and relax unnecessarily stringent regulations, while making legitimate rules more market-friendly. Model liberty, prosperity, tolerance, and peace for others, allowing individual Americans going abroad to be America’s best ambassadors.

Has the libertarian moment arrived? The tyranny of the status quo, as Milton Friedman termed it, remains omnipresent and powerful. As a result, I point out in the Freeman, “the libertarian moment will not ‘arrive.’  It will have to be brought forward by those committed to a better and freer America.”