Primary Jitters


Although I still track what happens on the political front, check in with some of the stump speeches just to be sure there isn't some good news that will surprise me, the process, I must admit, is frightening me.

For someone who came to the USA very hopeful about citizenship in a free society, this is a big disappointment. It is also of great concern that despite all the proliferation of organizations championing bona fide liberty around the country and the world-'indeed, despite my having been instrumental in starting up and sustaining a few such organizations'-the evidence seems to be that matters are getting worse, not better. As Milton Friedman mentioned recently, it looks like concern about freedom is nearly completely absent from mainstream politics now, even while some free institutions have gotten a boost in places around the globe-'for example, privatization, open borders, and so forth. In the past, at least, when von Mises and von Hayek were doing all their major work, talk about freedom, an interest in understanding and championing it, seemed to be more popular, an element of mainstream politics.

What is so scary to me is that many citizens of the United States of America carry on quite enthusiastically with the electoral process despite the fact that what's offered to them betrays all the greatest, most distinctive principles of their country. Just to focus on the most obvious thing, none of the candidates, not one, is concerned with individual liberty, with the violation of individual rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness on innumerable fronts. Even their anti-Bush lambastes tends to get bogged down in minutia, not focus on how Ashcroft & Co. are changing this country into fortress America.

To the contrary, candidates openly, unabashedly make promises that clearly involve such violations and no one in mainstream America seems to care. Then there is the constant refrain about how they will never, never serve special interests when, in fact'-and blatantly obvious fact at that'-all they do is cater to special interests everywhere they address the public. If it isn't about the worries of older people, then candidates pitch their Santa Claus routine to those in various professions, such as farmers, educators, artists, steel workers, or to people with various specific concerns (say, about the environment, employment, medical problems, issues about transportation). Or they seek out ordinary human fears about strong competition from newly emerging markets abroad, terrorism, the possibility of poverty or lack of medical insurance, and stress these, evidently hoping there will be enough voters out there who will be spurred to support them and completely forget just how much dangerous power it would take for a politician to even attempt to address these fears.

The bottom line for me is that it doesn't really look like most Americans give a damn about the steady erosion of their liberties and the virtually unstoppable growth of state power in their lives. Of course, since there are market forces afoot in all this-'even while the relevance of them is being either ignored or out and out denied'-the quasi-intellectual voices in the public forums feed the general disinterest in liberty perfectly, by echoing the lack of concern with basic principles while focusing on trivial details. Even the best of the programs on TV, such as Charlie Rose's interviews, or essays in magazines like The New Republic, Commentary or National Review, systematically ignore the basics and keep focusing on such trivia as which demographic group is being appeased more effectively by what candidate, who is pleasing blacks, Hispanics, college students or the elderly more, or who is running closer to God this year!

Of course, we have been warned about this-'as in Jefferson's famous statement about the tendency of government to gain power and liberty to diminish, Lord Acton's insight about the corrupting influence of power, and Ludwig von Mises' thesis about where all those small steps toward government's planning of our lives will ultimately lead. I recall including an essay by Friedman in my very first edited book, The Libertarian Alternative (Nelson Hall, 1974), which argued that freedom lasts but a brief period in various stages of humanity's history, after which varieties of coercive regimes return for long spells. I had hoped, along with Friedman, to alert folks about this record so as to resist its repetition, but I doubt the effort has done much good.

My main reaction to all this is to persist in doing what I can to balance out the pathetic lack of the bulk of the public's interest in the free society, with the message that such neglect will have disastrous consequences and amounts to a gross breach of human morality. Perhaps the sheer massive reality of people's getting things wrong naturally overwhelms any serious prospect of right answers triumphing over the long haul.

Still, I hope that this isn't so-'although, judging by the rhetoric of the Democratic primaries and the sorry spectacle of candidates running and winning who have no commitment to anything truly important in the political sphere, I have to pause at times and ask myself whether there really is a chance to make things better.

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Tibor R. Machan's picture
Columns on STR: 70

Tibor Machan is a professor of business ethics and Western Civilization at Chapman University in Orange, Calif., and recent author of Neither Left Nor Right: Selected Columns (Hoover Institution Press, 2004).  He is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.