“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
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:
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
# # # # #
(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.)