As 2011 draws to a close, I wonder: Is freedom winning? Did America become freer this year? Less free? How about the rest of the world?
I’m a pessimist. I fear Thomas Jefferson was right when he said, “The natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground.” That’s what’s happened. Bush and Obama doubled spending and increased regulation. Government’s intrusiveness is always more, never less. The state grows, and freedom declines.
But there were bright spots. We don’t yet know what will become of what people call the Arab Spring. But this year, for the first time in my life, there was hope that masses of people in the Middle East will embrace liberalism — in the original sense of people being left alone to pursue their own lives.
Another possible bright spot: President Obama declared the war in Iraq over. I don’t believe it because 17,000 embassy personnel remain, but at least he’s saying it, and troops have left. Some will also leave Afghanistan. But I’m confused. Obama was elected partly because he promised to end the wars. But then he almost tripled the number of American soldiers in Afghanistan, from 35,000 to 100,000.
I’m pessimistic about America going bankrupt, like Greece, thanks to ballooning spending on entitlements like Medicare. But terms of debate can change quickly. This spring, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan presented a timid plan that would have slowed the growth of government slightly. Even Republicans went bonkers. Newt Gingrich called it “right-wing social engineering.”
But now, just seven months later, the country’s in a different place. Newt’s apologized. Speaker John Boehner and other Republicans praise Ryan’s plan. The Republican Study Committee wants to go further. Now Ryan agrees that his plan was “mild.” Today he says he’d go farther.
Maybe attitudes changed because Americans watched the video of riots in Greece and realized what can happen when the money runs out. Maybe Standard and Poor’s downgrading of the government’s credit rating mattered. Maybe attitudes changed simply because the deficit numbers are so ugly that even the establishment has to acknowledge it.
But also, attitudes changed because we libertarians won the battle of ideas. Now every Republican presidential candidate — not just Ron Paul — talks about free enterprise.
Alec Baldwin told Occupy Wall Street demonstrators, “You can’t not have strong capital markets in this country or the country’s going to go down the tubes.”
Wow. Even left-wing celebrities defend “strong capital markets”? The world is moving toward limited government and free enterprise. We libertarians have won!
What am I talking about? We haven’t won. Even Republicans want to grow government. When the Super Committee failed to reach its super conclusion and thereby put us on automatic pilot to a trillion dollars in spending cuts, Republicans screamed about draconian damage to the military. But the automatic cuts are really just cuts in the rate of increase. Spending will still go up, just at a slightly slower rate. Why is this even controversial?
I fear that much of the country is in agreement with the Wall Street protestors who love free stuff from government — free health care, free college education, free lunch. Elderly Americans want no cuts to Medicare. Even after the Solyndra scandal, 62 percent of Americans say America should continue to invest in clean-energy jobs. Don’t they think about what that money would be producing if left in the hands of free, entrepreneurial individuals? No.
Lots of Americans oppose free trade and free markets. It takes some knowledge to realize that the seeming chaos masks underlying order. The benefits of freedom are not intuitive, and when you go against people’s intuition, they get upset.
The benefits of freedom are largely “unseen,” as the 19th century French liberal Frederic Bastiat put it. He meant that rising living standards and labor-saving inventions don’t appear to flow from freedom. But they do.
It’s one of the ironies of life that people need not understand freedom for it to work, and because of this, there is the perennial danger that they will give it up without realizing the disastrous consequences that follow.
We freedom-lovers have a lot more work to do.