Commentary

Let My Readers Go!

An Excerpt from The Politics of Freedom: Taking On The Left, The Right, And Threats To Our Civil Liberties by David Boaz.

The Politics Of Statism

For any friend of freedom, one of the most frustrating aspects of our current political system is the absence of political leaders challenging expansions of state power. It’s hard to find politicians, Republican or Democratic, who don’t support one or another aspect of the nanny state. Practically every member of Congress turns away when the problem of our unsustainable welfare state is mentioned. “It won’t go bankrupt before the next election, so it’s not my problem,” seems to be their attitude.

As for the wars on both terrorism and drugs, most politicians just want not to be labeled as “weak.” The Patriot Act passed the Senate with only one dissenting vote, even though few if any members of Congress had actually read the bill. Most Democrats, including all major presidential candidates, joined virtually all Republicans in voting for the authorization for war with Iraq.

[T]he United States has never been a perfectly libertarian society.”

It’s not that politicians couldn’t show a little courage once in a while. After all, gerrymandering and campaign finance regulations have given House members a reelection rate of over 98%. With so little to fear from the voters, they ought to be able to vote their consciences. But there aren’t many citizen-politicians these days; they all want to be part of a permanent ruling class, in office forever until they collect their congressional pensions, so they try to play it safe. All the talk about increased polarization between Democrats and Republicans just obscures the increasing agreement on most aspects of the welfare-warfare state, a sprawling federal government that promises to meet our every need, as long as we give it ever-increasing amounts of money, and keeps us embroiled in conflicts around the globe.

It’s no wonder that ever-larger numbers of Americans express disgust with the current political establishment, even though the election laws make it very difficult to organize and fund a new party, an independent campaign, or even an insurgency within the major parties.

The Good News About Freedom

It’s easy to get discouraged, to believe that we’re losing our freedom, year after year. Libertarians often quote Thomas Jefferson: “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.”

But let’s take a moment to think about some of the laws we don’t have any more: slavery and established churches. Segregation and sodomy laws. Sunday-closing laws, 90% income tax rates, wage and price controls. In many ways Americans are freer today than ever before.

Politicians don’t get much of the credit for that. They often tended to react, not to lead. Social change and a mass movement challenged segregation before Congress responded. Popular resentment over rising taxes led to Proposition 13 and then the election of Ronald Reagan. A court challenge struck down the last few sodomy laws, which had fallen into disuse anyway. Economists produced enough evidence on the costs of transportation, communications and financial regulation that Congress finally had to recognize it.

It’s certainly not time to rest on our laurels. But we should take pride in the freedom that we have wrested from government and remain optimistic about the future of freedom.

The Libertarian Vision

When I argue for a society that fully recognizes each person’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I’m often asked: Where’s an example of a successful libertarian society? The answer to that question is easy: The United States of America.

As I noted above, the United States has never been a perfectly libertarian society. But our Constitution and our national sense of life have guaranteed more freedom to more people than in any other society in history, and we have continued to extend the promises of the Declaration of Independence to more people.

More than any other country in the world, ours was formed by people who had left the despots of the Old World to find freedom in the new, and who then made a libertarian revolution. Americans tend to think of themselves as individuals, with equal rights and equal freedom. Our fundamental ideology is, in the words of the political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset, “antistatism, laissez-faire, individualism, populism and egalitarianism.” Some people don’t like that fact. Professors Cass Sunstein and Stephen Holmes complain that libertarian ideas are “astonishingly widespread in American culture.”

And indeed they are. My recent work with David Kirby found that in several different public opinion surveys, 15 to 20% of Americans give libertarian answers to a range of questions—answers that in combination distinguish them from both liberals and conservatives. But that figure seriously underestimates the prevalence of libertarian ideas.

Many American conservatives are fundamentally committed to small government and free enterprise. Many American liberals believe firmly in free speech, freedom of religion and the dignity of every individual. Both liberals and conservatives may be coming to better appreciate the value of the Constitution in restraining the powers of the federal government. The sharpening of the red-blue divide in the past decade causes liberals and conservatives to deepen their opposition to “the other team.” But it may obscure the number of Americans on both sides of the divide who are fundamentally libertarian in their attitudes.

As one measure of that, after the 2006 election, the Cato Institute commissioned Zogby International to ask poll respondents if they would describe themselves as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.” Fully 59% of the respondents said “yes.” That is, by 59 to 27%, poll respondents said they would describe themselves as “fiscally conservative and socially liberal.” When we asked the same question, but noted that such a combination of views is “known as libertarian,” a robust 44% of respondents still answered “yes.”

Part of the challenge for libertarians is to help those Americans understand that their fundamental political value is freedom. Instead of being frightened and distracted by politicians, they should recognize that the main issue in politics—in 2008 and beyond—is the freedom of the individual and the power of government.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of The Politics of Freedom: Taking on the Left, the Right, and Threats to Our Liberties.