Friday, October 10, 2008

The Naked Emperors — The Mystery Guest

I've written over the past two weeks about some of the actors who bear varying degrees of guilt for the present situation and/or who are or will soon be charged with taking action to cure it. But there is one central character who bears more of both guilt and responsibility that I've not yet mentioned: the American people.

Naturally, it's difficult, and to some it may seem unfair, to lay blame on those now suffering for actions taken by the government, who are most immediately responsible for the mess. But it is inescapable that in a democracy and a relatively free country still, the voting public gets the government it votes in.

I recognize, of course, that the majority of each state elects its representatives. As such, there are a great many — almost all of my meager audience, I'm sure — who have protested every step of the way against the increasing encroachment on their freedom.

Yet, only a small percentage pay much attention to the daily events that will foreseeably affect their long-term futures. That, for example, is precisely how a creature like Barney Frank can get away with dismissing any concerns about the growing problems with Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae that were seen as far back as 2003.

Fewer still exert much effort to educate themselves about the more fundamental ideas that so strongly influences those daily events. The names of Mises and Hazlitt are unknown to the majority. Very few have read the Constitution carefully or spent time understanding its meaning. They pay little attention to Supreme Court arguments. The study of history is considered a pastime for dullards or those with an interest in battles.

The result, predictably, is that America gets the government it allows, in the main. Also predictably, apart from the tiny population of Objectivists, a few of the more rational libertarians, and an unknown percentage of conservatives, the electorate trusts political power more than individual freedom, especially when times are uncertain. There are, in the midst of this crisis caused by government policies, dozens of conservative pundits, for example, still pushing for the Feds to come to the rescue.

And those exceptional individuals bear some of the blame for having singly failed to persuade their fellow citizens not to vote all of us into ever-encroaching slavery. It is not enough to try. Our future depends on succeeding.

It has now been 50 years since the second renaissance of the freedom movement. Yet in all that time, despite some bright signs along the way and, indeed, some pointing to a better future, the trend has been a bad mixture. Those who see farther than the rest have not succeeded in explaining what they see in ways that compel others to agree.

Only one major piece of legislation birthed during the first three and a half decades of the 20th century has been significantly modified. Tax rates have been lowered here and there, sometimes to great effect. But none of the basic ground rules of the mixed economy has changed for the better. As a result, little of the renewed acceleration of the 1970s toward a Fascist-variety socialism has been slowed. The limited pushback of the 1980s and 1990s has now stalled or reversed.

Can the situation be much improved? Yes. But it will require a radical re-thinking of the methods used to date to advance individual freedom. It will require somehow reaching those who have not yet been reached, to change their minds, or form young ones better.

From where those new, more effective methods will come to persuade others that freedom is good and practical, I do not yet know. But find them we must, or circumstances will get much worse. Ideas drive history, over the long haul. But, it is not enough to just have the right ideas, they must be communicated correctly, and accepted by those exposed to them.

How to accomplish that remains one of the most important outstanding questions of our day. There are many, many people who are aware of what it takes to sustain a free country. Several of them are well-known in the public sphere. But it has not proved to be enough. Not yet, anyway.

It will soon have to be enough, or we face a dire future.

We stand at the precipice, as Germany did in 1932, and it is too soon to tell whether the country will draw back — as Reagan managed to help it do in the 1980s — and let a relatively free market dig our way out of the disaster, or goose-step ahead into the abyss, or, perhaps, even jump over into a still brighter future of more freedom than we have ever known.

Clearly, if we rely chiefly on either of the two presidential candidates, decreasing freedom is all we can expect, albeit with the younger one rushing us faster toward Fascist slavery than the other.

Neither is Hitler, to be sure, and Americans are still far from the Reich-worshiping Germans of the Weimar Republic. But the people are concerned and uncertain, unsure how to proceed. A populace who has not yet adequately learned how to value and protect freedom is all but destined to lose it, given the current climate.

Fortunately, "all but" is not "certainly" and we have several advantages the Germans never did.

Wealth is one. Despite the government doing its very best over the past year and more to impoverish everyone equally, America still has a huge quantity of capital. The amounts of money in the bond markets, money market funds, etc. — not to mention gold, silver, property, and thousands of other assets — is staggering. To even the well-to-do of the 1920s, the wealth of average Americans today would appear astounding.

History, is another. Contemporary Americans exist in a culture long-imbued with the idea that freedom is good. They are now facing an onslaught of pundits across the political spectrum, with rare exceptions, trying very hard to persuade them that it is impractical, even harmful. But there is ample historical evidence to the contrary, if people will but look with independent eyes.

Philosophy is yet one more, and the most important. The ideas needed to sustain and even grow a free society are now more developed and better articulated than at any time in history. Locke and a handful of other great thinkers before him gave birth to the philosophy we now use to defend our rights. Those following him have honed it. Mises and other pro-free market economists provided numerous superb practical arguments. Rand generated a moral code that undergirds and combines with them to create an unassailable position.

Yet, there is another stage of intellectual evolution required to create the new revolution we need to protect and expand freedom. A new understanding of how to advocate and apply those ideas has yet to be fully sculpted. The second tier of idea creators and communicators — intellectual activists, columnists, bloggers, and others — have not yet fully discovered how to reach the general populace in terms that will show them how their well-being depends on those ideas.

That task, difficult as it may be, is paramount. Just as one example, we have seen yet again just recently that a determined minority in Congress can kill a bad bill. But those temporarily brave souls couldn't sustain their opposition in the face of millions of voices tugging them in two directions.

On the one hand, many of them no doubt genuinely believed that the bill was dubious at best, at worst a disaster in the making. Yet, they caved. A slew of pork drove some. But, I remain of the view that the majority of those who wanted to vote no honestly believed (as honest as a politician can believe) that the bill was a practical necessity and that its benefits outweighed the dangers. Showing them a better way is mandatory.

But teaching them that freedom is precious, and is most needed when times are toughest, requires first teaching the larger group of voters to whom they are beholden. People often cry out for leadership in Congress, but politicians are almost never leaders, almost always followers.

Leadership, a concept of mixed-value itself since those who need it are more likely to follow power-lusters, must come from those who can generate and communicate effectively new ideas.

Notice, for example, how Newt Gingrich breathed into life two recent phenomena: the Drill Here, Drill Now movement and what opposition to the bailout bill there initially was, however briefly. While not an intellectual leader I'd support in general, he did succeed in lighting a fire that blazed for a while and created beneficial heat.

Someone, or some multiple individuals, who can succeed in sparking a similar conflagration for freedom more broadly, will be imperative if the Republic is to survive this latest crisis.

Freedom works. Freedom is good; freedom creates prosperity; freedom is essential to having a just society. But convincing the majority of our fellow citizens of that — indeed, explaining what that actually means in practice — and neutralizing those who know it already but want to kill freedom precisely because of its virtues, remains an incomplete program.

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