“Are we winning?”

That’s a query I hear almost every time I speak to an audience about liberty and the battle of ideas. Everyone wants to know if we should be upbeat or distraught about the course of events, as if the verdict should determine whether or not we continue the fight. So many friends of liberty are constantly putting a wet finger in the air, relying on the prevailing wind to tell them whether, when and how to proceed and even how to feel about it at any given moment.

Personally, I take a long-term, optimistic, even-tempered, and self-directed approach that doesn’t depend on the rest of the world. I figure that each and every one of us ought to do all in our power to advance the cause and then let the proverbial chips fall where they may, taking comfort in the fact that regardless of the outcome, we did our part on behalf of the solution and not the problem. Moreover, I remain supremely confident that, as Leonard Read of the Foundation for Economic Education once put it, “truth will out” and liberty will indeed triumph because it is right. Pessimism is a self-fulfilling opiate anyway, so I never let it enter my mind.

But this begs an even more important question, one posed to me on a recent occasion when I cited powerful intellectual trends as evidence that we are indeed winning. The question was, “How will we know when we’ve won?”

In the largest sense, “winning” means achieving a civil society in which people both preach and practice respect for life and property. It means we each mend our own ways and mind our own business. It means we rely upon voluntary association and individual compassion, not coercive arrangements and political redistribution. It means minimal government, and maximum self-reliance. And when we get there, the battle of ideas will still not be over because people, being less than perfect, can always unlearn the truths they’ve learned.

In a narrower and concrete sense, we’ll know we’ve won when very specific changes — in thought and policy — have come about. I’ve compiled a few here in a list that is by no means complete. Consider it nothing more than a beginning.

We’ll know we’ve won:

  • When “liberalism” once again is synonymous with liberty;

In his “History of Economic Thought,” Joseph Schumpeter noted that liberalism initially described the view of those who believed that “the best way of promoting economic development and general welfare is to remove fetters from the private enterprise economy and to leave it alone.” In today’s American parlance, it means quite the opposite. Schumpeter regarded it as “a supreme, if unintended, compliment” that “the enemies of the system of private enterprise have thought it wise to appropriate its label.”

Liberalism is too good a term to allow it to be the stolen booty of statists. Let’s re-take it, and let those who fight to preserve the failed big government status quo be known as the real “conservatives.” When that happens, we’ll have won much more than just the semantic high ground.

  • When what people do in the private sector is regarded as “public service”;

Government employment, even when the employee is running roughshod over the rights and property of others, wears the prestigious mantle of selfless service to humanity, a cut above what motivates people who don’t work for the government. But in many cases, a government worker’s genuine public service actually begins when he secures an honest living in the private sector — producing goods and providing services that improve the lives of others who patronize him because they choose to, not because they’re forced to.

Conquering diseases, inventing labor-saving devices, feeding and clothing millions, and countless other private, often profit-motivated activities are no less indicative of service to the public than just about anything the government does. The next time someone tells you they’re running for office or seeking a government job, ask them if this means they are planning to leave public service.

  • When an “entitlement” is a paycheck, not a welfare check;

My hat’s off to whoever it was who started the bad habit of calling government handouts “entitlements.” The term cleverly solidifies and perpetuates the very programs it labels — programs that take something of value from those who earned it and bestow it on those who didn’t earn it and may even value it less.

A paycheck for work performed is a genuine entitlement. A claim against that paycheck by those who would rather vote for a living than work for one is neither genuine nor something to which one is entitled in a free society. Let’s correct the thought patterns that allow the current misuse of the term to undergird the modern welfare state.

  • When citizens muster at least as much interest in a spending revolt as they often exhibit for a tax revolt;

Almost everyone favors lower taxes, at least for themselves, but that doesn’t necessarily mean everyone also favors less government spending. Sometimes, the same people who advocate lower taxes are in line for whatever they can slurp from the public trough.

It’s not enough to ask your congressman not to take from you. You must also demand that he not give you anything either, at least nothing that isn’t rightfully yours in the first place.

  • When government stops distributing its coercive powers to special interests;

Government isn’t the only outfit that employs legal and often unwarranted force against people. Others do it too, if government first grants them the power to do so.

The best example is today’s labor unions. With special privileges given them by government, they force millions into their ranks or into financially supporting causes with which they may object. The U. S. Supreme Court, recognizing this injustice, affirmed in its 1988 “Beck” decision the right of each and every worker not to be assessed a penny by his union for political activities without his consent. But almost no one at any level of government seems interested in enforcing that ruling.

We should work for the day when a citizen’s “Beck” rights are widely regarded to be as important as his “Miranda” rights.

  • When self-improvement is understood to be the indispensable first step to reforming the world.

If every person set about to make himself a model citizen, he would have a full-time, lifetime job on his hands. Many succumb, however, to the temptation to meddle in the affairs of others — the result being that even the best of intentions often ends up yielding conflict and harm.

The steady progress of mankind derives from the progress of individual men and women who, one at a time, decided to make the best of what God gave them. Be a model, not a burden, and watch how quickly you encourage others to be the same.

A pretty tall order, you say? Yes it is, and there are plenty of other benchmarks I could have added to this list to make the order even taller. Very few things that are worthwhile, however, are attained or retained easily. Winning the battle for liberty is among the most animating contests I can imagine, in part because the benchmarks along the way are as right as is the ultimate objective.

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(Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich. This essay originally appeared in the October 1997 issue of the Foundation for Economic Education’s monthly journal, Ideas on Liberty.)