Times Change, Principles Don't
A libertarian must never tire of saying "I told you so." Nor is there a dearth of opportunities to do so. Before 9-11, for example, it was the libertarians who said that 1990s sanctions against Iraq and broader intervention in the Middle East would inspire terrorism. The libertarians also warned that FAA regulations weren't really making the airlines secure. The libertarians further saw that hundreds of billions spent on "defense" and "intelligence" weren't really providing either.
Thus was 9-11, two years ago, a big "I-told-you-so" moment for libertarians. The hijackers, seething in anger at US policy in the Gulf region and the Middle East, exploited a FAA-regulated system with plenty of loopholes for bad guys, to crash into a major financial center, and the US government, despite all its spending and promises, was powerless to stop it.
And yet, in this upside-down world, the big message after 9-11 was not that the government and its ways had failed us. Quite the opposite. We were told that the government would save us. It was libertarianism that failed.
Remember? Hillary Clinton, always exploiting the political moment, said of the efforts to cope on that awful day, "we saw government in action.… It was the elected officials who were leading and comforting." That's an odd way to describe running for their lives, prior to seizing power from their bureaucratic bunkers.
Vice President Dick Cheney said, "one of the things that's changed so much since September 11th is the extent to which people do trust the government, big shift, and value it, and have higher expectations for what we can do." The triumph of hope over experience!
George Will wrote that "Sept. 11 forcefully reminded Americans that their nation-state…is the source of their security.… Events since Sept. 11 have underscored the limits of libertarianism." He is speaking here of the same nation-state that stood by and did nothing as 19 guys with box cutters took down the twin towers.
Francis Fukuyama joined in to proclaim the "fall of the libertarians":
[9-11] was a reminder to Americans of why government exists, and why it has to tax citizens and spend money to promote collective interests. It was only the government, and not the market or individuals, that could be depended on to send firemen into buildings, or to fight terrorists, or to screen passengers at airports.
Albert Hunt of the Wall Street Journal typified this genre of commentary. "It's time to declare a moratorium on government-bashing," he wrote.
For a quarter-century, the dominant public culture has suggested government is more a problem than a solution.… But, as during previous catastrophes, America turns to government in crisis.… For the foreseeable future, the federal government is going to invest or spend more, regulate more and exercise more control over our lives… We will hear much less about the glories of privatization in areas like airport security.… Top Bush administration officials will have to dramatically alter their views on regulation.… Moreover, more muscular authority must be given to the new Office of Homeland Security…Tougher security measures at home are unavoidable.… But there is no real debate over expansion in general. Sept. 11 has underscored the centrality of government in our lives.
So it went, across the political spectrum. The idea was that the events of that day had somehow refuted all our slogans about cutting government, privatization, personal liberty, markets, and peace. Clearly, they said, it was excessive liberty that had led to this disaster. It was cuts in government, and too little foreign belligerence, that brought it on, while the public sector, from the New York firemen to the military bosses who exacted vengeance abroad, saved us.
Many soft libertarians believed it too, with the DC brand quickly signing up for the wars that followed while issuing weakly worded cautions against going too far in curtailing liberties. David Boaz even tried to put this spin on the largest explosion of government power in half a century:
The increased support for the federal government makes sense. Finally, the government is focused on its main purpose: the protection of the lives and property of Americans. People who had lost confidence in the government's attempts to run the trains or the post office or to provide everything under the sun can only be pleased to see it concentrating on protecting individual rights.
Or, perhaps they didn't really believe it, but they felt enough heat that they decided to make their ultimate loyalties to the central state known by denouncing the "extreme" versions of libertarianism. They assured everyone that libertarianism is not against government as such, just bad and abusive government.
The rest of us were told to hush up with our petty concerns about foreign entanglements, airport privatization, and what have you. We were told, above all, to stop our broad complaints about government in all its manifestations. 9-11 was said to have smashed Rothbardianism, a word that continues to rattle anyone on the public payroll who is in the know.
Why didn't we shut up? Because the libertarian critique of government is not contingent on or tied to time and place, one that can be abandoned when the moment seems to call for government action. The libertarian critique of government is foundational. It says that in all times and places, the coercive power of the state violates rights, and this compulsive rights-violator cannot and should not be trusted to guard our security.
Moreover, because government operates outside the ownership and trade matrixes of society, it lacks both the incentive and the means to carry out an efficient provision of any good or service. Finally, the libertarian critique warns against any grant of sovereign power to anyone, for once granted, it cannot be contained and it will be abused.
Now, these claims might strike many people as absolutist and extreme. So let's say that we alter each sentence with the proviso: "In nonemergency circumstances." Thus: freedom is great in nonemergency circumstances; property rights work best in nonemergency circumstances; the free market provides for society in most nonemergency circumstances; the government is wasteful and dangerous, unless there is an emergency.
What kind of incentive structure does such a proviso establish for the governing elites? Given that no government is liberal by nature (as Mises says), the emergency proviso gives government a plan of action on how best to take away freedom and accumulate power. It was clear immediately following the 9-11 attacks that this is precisely how DC saw the tragedy. The political establishment and the permanent government saw tragedy as the main chance to intimidate the public into surrendering its rights, property, and liberty in exchange for the promise of security — a security that sophisticated observers knew would not and could not be provided.
And yet in those dark days, our voices were in the minority, especially when warning of the dangers of war. The vengeful state had been unleashed and it was looking for blood wherever it could find it. Wars commenced in Afghanistan and Iraq, leading to unconscionable levels of destruction of life and property. Both countries are now in political chaos, poised between a foreign-imposed martial law and a religious fundamentalist takeover. The sympathy the United States had garnered from Europe, Asia, and Latin America after 9-11 quickly turned to hatred against our political elites, and it has yet to go away.
The US government didn't stop with wars. It violated the civil liberties of Americans and established enormous new bureaucracies. It trampled on the rights of states and localities. It turned flying into a massive police operation. It began a series of protectionist campaigns.
The Bush administration busted the budget and saddled the country with the largest deficit in history. Congress and the presidency engaged in a transparent logrolling whereby the warmongers gave the welfare statists what they want, in exchange for which the welfare statists gave the warmongers what they want. The rest of us watched freedom melt. We did what we could, in our writings and public advocacy, but the government tide was too high to hold back.
Two years later, the themes in the press say nothing about the successes of government. All the headlines are about failure. The American people expect more, not less, terrorism. We feel less, not more, secure. Incredibly, Bin Laden, whom the Bush administration blames for 9-11, is still on the loose. The United States has more enemies than ever. Let there be no illusions: the people the United States "liberated" in Iraq and Afghanistan despise us and want us out. The United States can't even provide water and power for the people in Iraq.
Government was given the run of things after 9-11, and what did we get? Wars, bureaucracy, debt, death, despotism, insecurity, and lots of confusing color-coded warnings from our DC masters that seem only designed to keep us ever-more dependent. Yes, government has behaved exactly as libertarianism predicted it would behave. It has abused the trust of the American people. And yet, at some level, government has benefited in the end. We have lost, they have gained.
But that moment is coming to an end, or already has. Many people have written off the miserable failure of the proposed tax increase in Alabama as a localized phenomenon, whereas in fact it points the way to a national trend. Bush is not likely to get his new suspensions of civil liberties passed. The neocons are fearful that they no longer hold enough political capital to start more wars. The public is fed up with the mess in Iraq. The much-vaunted advent of the American global empire is under fire. The propaganda no longer seems to be working.
In the real life that most of us live, the private sector is thriving. Technology gets better every day, thanks to private enterprise. The markets are giving us the security we demand, whether through private communities, private weapons, better alarm systems, and private security guards, or through better systems of information distribution and verification — again, thanks to private enterprise. Homeschooling is still on the rise. Contrary to Hillary Clinton, it is still our friends, family, and clergy who provide us comfort, not our political leaders, whom we trust less and less.
Americans are coming to their senses, and the libertarian theory of society and government is pointing the way. The times change, but the enduring principles that help us to interpret and understand the world do not. It remains true now, as then, as in the future, in saecula saeculorum, that government provides neither an effective nor a moral means for solving any human problem.
Just as Fukuyama was wrong about the "end of history," he is wrong that 9-11 means the "fall of libertarianism." Perhaps we will look back, with the right lessons in mind, and see that day as the last hurrah of the nation-state and the beginning of a renewed love of liberty and the peace, prosperity, and security it brings.
[This Mises Daily originally ran on September 11, 2003. It is included in Lew's collection, The Left, the Right, and the State.]