Skip to comments.Freedom imperilled - On democratic despotism.
Posted on 12/12/2008 9:36:19 PM PST by neverdem
“It is seldom,” David Hume wrote, “that liberty of any kind is lost all at once.” That admonitory sentence furnishes one of the epigraphs for Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, first published in 1943. How is freedom faring in the United States today? Peter Robinson, a scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, provided a melancholy précis in “The Loss of Individual Liberty,” a column that appeared in Forbes last month. Mr. Robinson recalled a dinner he shared with Milton Friedman several years ago. He complimented the venerable economist on his role in transforming the intellectual landscape, especially in fostering widespread appreciation of the inextricable connection between free markets and individual liberty. Friedman refused the compliment. “We may have won the intellectual battle,” he said, “but in practical politics, it’s difficult to see that we’ve had any effect at all.” Even a few years ago, it would have been easy to react as did Mr. Robinson at the time: to think that Friedman was responding with false modesty. After all, had not the power of the free market been demonstrated beyond cavil in America’s triumph over the Soviet Union, its unparalleled prosperity, its culture of political freedom?
That, as Mr. Robinson puts it, was then. Now, today, we have witnessed an expansion of government into every corner of economic and social life that has been as sudden as it has been extraordinary. Having just lived through a presidential election in which the winning candidate cheerfully admitted that his goal was “to spread the wealth around,” we might think Mr. Robinson, a well-known conservative, was making a partisan point. He wasn’t. Over the last several years, he observes, we have witnessed, under a Republican administration, a prescription drug program that “represents the biggest expansion of the welfare state since the Great Society.” At the same time, Congress sharply increased domestic spending and passed “the biggest farm bill in history, a massive transfer of resources to the 2 percent of the population still engaged in agriculture.”
That’s not all. In the campaign that just ended, the Republican candidate was an architect of legislation—the McCain-Feingold Act—that is perhaps the most serious challenge to political free speech in the United States in our lifetime. And what have we to look forward to? Mr. Robinson reminds us that the President-elect has plans to federalize health insurance, a preliminary move toward the nationalization of health care, an industry that accounts for some 17 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. And let’s not forget the promised “tax credits,” i.e., direct cash payments from the Federal government that would, as Daniel Henninger noted in The Wall Street Journal, “place some 48 percent of Americans … out of the income tax system.” Were this to happen, Mr. Robinson notes, it would “fundamentally alter the nature of citizenship itself. Almost half of all Americans would, in effect, have been made the recipients of a vast new entitlement. As that proportion grows, the nation would approach a tipping point.”
Some years ago, the literary critic Paul Fussell began an essay by recalling an advertising slogan for Teacher’s Scotch. “In life, experience is the great teacher. In Scotch, Teacher’s is the great experience.” Clever, but we wonder whether the first sentence is true. Is experience the great teacher? The thing to bear in mind, Mr. Robinson suggests, is that
All that the nation’s founders understood two centuries ago about the imperative of limited government, all that we learned from the long struggle between collectivism and free markets during our own time—all this could soon simply evanesce.
We are being asked to unlearn what we know, to surrender the virtues that can only be acquired in conditions of freedom, and to become a lesser people than we are. The land of the free and the home of the brave could soon be transformed into the land of the dependent and the home of the infantilized.
Tocqueville famously warned about that infantilization in the celebrated paragraphs about “democratic despotism” in Democracy in America, that “tutelary” despotism which “extends its arms over society as a whole [and] covers its surface with a network of small, complicated, painstaking, uniform rules through which the most original minds and the most vigorous souls cannot clear a way to surpass the crowd.” As our masters in Washington debate over which industries are to be the recipients of the taxpayers’ largesse, it is worth remembering Tocqueville’s warning with Friedrich Hayek’s admonition that “Economic control is not merely control of a sector of human life which can be separated from the rest; it is the control of the means for all our ends. And whoever has sole control of the means must also determine which ends are to be served, which values are to be rated higher and which lower—in short, what men should believe and strive for.” It is a commonplace to observe that freedom is difficult to achieve but easy, oh-so-easy, to lose. As Hume saw, it is generally not lost all at once, but step by step: government program by government program, regulation by regulation, entitlement by entitlement, until finally, as Tocqueville put it, we find ourselves “nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.”
nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd.
I believe that is known in the modern age as ‘Europe’. The loss of freedom seems to be galloping in the past few years and I very much doubt Obama’s administration will slow it down. This may in fact be the curtain call for individual responsibility and the final triumph of the welfare state.
The question is, how do you reverse these trends? Is that sort of reversal even possible with an electorate with whom the majority pays for nothing in return for the largesse of others?
OK, so how does “Sharia Finance” work? Let’s say I want to borrow $1,000 from a Sharia bank. How do they make their money and what do I repay them?
Thanks for the link.
Welcome to the Dark Ages!
> Welcome to the Dark Ages!
Well, I’m not so sure. Our Western systems have stuffed up rather badly, prompting the US Gummint to shovel in squillions to keep everything afloat. These past few months have certainly been nothing to brag about.
Perhaps Sharia Finance works better. I would be interested in knowing more.
It is a disgrace!
It doesn’t look good for the U.S., does it?
The problem is not you borrowing money. It's the fact that, from what I understand, they give each other loans. The interest, if there is any, is not listed on the loan and they buy up interests in the local economy. It's sort of like an Islamic mafia.
Since FDR beat the supremes into submission they found social security, progressive income taxes, agricultural supports, and the assignment of legislative power from Congress to unelected central planning boards to all be Constitutional. Without these, there could not be a federal leviathan powerful enough to threaten our freedom.
Rather than serve as a check, the Supreme Court for 70+ years served as handmaiden to the deep erosion of our liberties.
I get tired of having to remind everyone that the income tax was originally sold to the American public on the theory that it would only apply to the richest one percent. Taking people out of the taxable pool only returns us to that original vision.
Save for later.
The good news is, such a system is ultimately unsustainable and will eventually collapse. But this could take a long time, as the Soviet Union demonstrated. Of course, many people will be so morally and mentally wrecked that they will not function well in a relatively free society, should the old order be overthrown or collapse. So the bad news is, a society may go from one form of despotism to another rather than from despotism to freedom.
And I think the coming American (and Western European) despotism will offer people the illusion of freedom while taking away important rights. This is a refinement from the old fascist and communist systems. We see it already in that pornography or senseless violence are celebrated as important expressions of freedom of speech, but serious political, religious, moral and even scientific speech is increasingly censored. The average, dumbed-down person thinks he is free because he can watch all manner of vulgar entertainment. Most intellectuals are believers in despotism and look forward to being high priests and commissars in the new order - see how hostile they are to competing ideas. The decadent, despotic Roman Empire lumbered along for hundreds of years and that part of the world did not see much progress until one thousand years after the collapse of the old Roman system. The West is probably facing a similar fate again.
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