The Future Is Not Hopeless

by Harry Browne

December 30, 2004          

The future of liberty in America can seem pretty dark sometimes.

Our outlook isnít helped by the many pessimistic statements that are uttered ó even by libertarians frequently. Here are some of them.

"Americans have chosen security over liberty, and thereís nothing we can do about it."

"People are too apathetic; they can't be reached."

"George Bush has been a terrible President, and yet America has just reelected him."

"Americans are sheep, theyíll fall for any leader, and they're too stupid to understand what's good for them."

And on and on and on.

The Other Side

I call those statements The Clichťs of Libertarianism, because I don't believe they're realistic.

I love opera and operetta. If you have no interest in such things, should I say youíre apathetic?

Of course not. People decide for themselves what interests them. And given the difficulty of making ends meet in a high-tax society, itís not surprising that some people pay little attention when we talk about the future of America ó and focus instead on the need to feed their families and send their children to college. That's not apathy; it's self-interest.

The personal tasks facing them are difficult and all-consuming. Taxes and big government may be the reasons the tasks are so difficult, but most people donít make the connection. Itís our job to awaken their interest and help them connect the dots, so they can see how much better their lives would be without big government.

It's also a careless clichť that the American people have chosen security over liberty. If that's so, I must have slept through that election. When, in your lifetime, have Americans been given a clear-cut, honest choice between security and liberty?

Notice, too, that America didnít reelect George Bush. Only about 30% of the eligible voters chose him in the recent election, and 40% of those eligible didnít vote at all.

In other words, I've seen no evidence that the American people are hopelessly addicted to big government.

Certainly, thereís much work to be done to turn things around. But we should recognize that every human being wants to make his own choices (even if he wants only to choose whose advice heíll take). If we can appeal to that desire for self-choice, we have a chance to make America a free country again.

The People Speak

But you donít have to take my word that thereís a tremendous market for liberty.

Unreported and unpublicized, the leading polling companies have regularly asked people what they think of government.

You might be surprised by the results . . . 

55% favor smaller government with fewer services, as opposed to a larger government with many services.

Los Angeles Times poll, September 2003
(This figure has been pretty much consistent in Times polls since 1993.)

50% favor smaller government with fewer services.

ABC News / Washington Post poll, June 20, 2004
(This response is the lowest in the eight years this poll has been taken)

64% prefer smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes.

Rasmussen poll, February 16, 2004
[the link to the webpage has been broken]

31% have a great deal of confidence in the Presidency. 29% have a great deal of confidence in the Supreme Court. 13% have a great deal of confidence in Congress.

Harris Poll, February 2004

65% believe that government is the biggest threat to the country in the future (compared with 22% who think big business is the biggest threat and 7% who named big labor).

Gallup Poll, October 2000

27% trust the government to do whatís right most of the time.

Newsweek poll, October 9-10, 2003

This disdain for government isnít even a recent development. Back in the mid-1990s, I collected these figures . . . 

73% believe "the federal government is much too large and has too much power."

Luntz Research Companies, November 9, 1994.

67% believe "big government is the biggest threat to the country in the future."

The Roper Center for Readerís Digest in 1994

63% think "government regulation of business usually does more harm than good."

The Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press, July 27, 1994

Only 22% "trust the government in Washington to do what is right most of the time."

CBS News and The New York Times, November 1, 1994

60% want a strong third party to provide a true alternative to what theyíre getting now.

The Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press, June 24, 1993

Tempering the Results

Yes, I realize that many of the people participating in these polls would cling desperately to their favorite federal programs. But, most likely, thatís only because theyíre not offered something better.

Very few people realize how much theyíre paying out of their own pockets for programs they think are bargains. Itís our job to show them what they could have if we reduced the federal government to just its constitutional functions ó facilitating the repeal of all federal income taxes, including the Social Security tax. Talk about offering benefits!

Itís our job to describe a better life, a better way, a better America for them. Yes, we should point out whatís wrong with foreign wars and domestic boondoggles, but we also should paint a positive picture of the kind of small-government future thatís possible for them, their children, and their grandchildren.

Can We Win?

Iím not a cheerleader. Iím not trying to tell you weíll win ó rah rah ó if we just do a few simple things.

The task ahead is a very difficult one. But it isnít an impossible one. Every individual wants to be free to make his own decisions. And we libertarians are the ones who are offering him the opportunity to do so.

While victory isnít assured, it is possible.

Out of Nowhere

How will we win?

I donít know.

One of the many wonders of the marketplace is that you donít have to know the way that many things are accomplished in order to benefit from them. You rely for much of what you enjoy on people who have talents, skills, connections, knowledge, and other resources that you donít happen to have ó and who sometimes operate in ways that are mysterious to you. All you have to do is to perform services that you do best to earn the money to have access to their incomprehensible achievements.

And, also mysteriously, many unexpected events occur in the marketplace. Things that can't possibly happen suddenly happen. In 1975, when America was in the worst financial shape since 1929, a new bull market in stocks suddenly arose from the ashes.

It Can Happen

The best example of such events occurred in my lifetime.

I remember the beginning of the Cold War in the late 1940s. The titanic face-off between the U.S. and Soviet governments continued through my teen years into adulthood, and on into middle age. And all the while the world cowered before the possibility that some miscalculation could set off a nuclear war.

Despite the danger, both governments benefited so much from the war ó using the danger as an excuse to oppress their subjects in many ways ó that I didnít see how the war would ever end. Like the perpetual war in George Orwellís 1984, I expected the Cold War to outlive me.

And then something occurred ó a miracle! ó that was completely inexplicable to me at the time. In August 1989 the Hungarian government opened its borders, allowing East German tourists to escape into Austria.

When word got back to East Germany, the trickle of escapees became a tidal wave. And three months later the Berlin Wall came down.

A year later the Soviet Union fell apart. The Cold War was over.

The impossible had happened.

(It was only later that I discovered that Mikhail Gorbachevís economy measures had caused Soviet troops to withdraw from the satellite countries, with a warning that the Soviets wouldnít help the satellite governments put down any rebellion. The Hungarian government was already liberalizing in many ways, living standards there were rising, and the government no longer saw a reason to prevent people from moving freely in and out of the country.)

The Reality

The fact that something isnít impossible doesnít mean it will happen. And I canít promise you anything.

But this I know:

1. The desire to control oneís own life is as basic a human instinct as is the will to live and the urge to procreate.

2. Only by organizing society along libertarian principles can the desire to control oneís own life be satisfied widely and securely. Unfortunately, most people donít recognize fully how big government limits their personal control.

3. But when people are shown the benefits to them personally of smaller government, most of them come around to the libertarian position over time.

4. Because we have so much more to offer, it would take far less in resources to build an avalanche of public opinion that could force politicians to reduce government, despite their fondest wishes to increase it ó far less in resources than it takes to maintain fidelity to big government.

5. There are people in this country who could profit greatly from smaller government and who have the resources to go a long way toward creating that avalanche of public opinion. They simply lack a few pieces of the intellectual puzzle, and so havenít yet recognized either the need to bring about smaller government or the power they have to make it happen.

6. There already are enough libertarians to be able to reach such people and, over time, move them far enough in our direction to finally nudge them over the line to action.

How will they be reached? What message will touch them most and move them to action?

I can't say. But I wouldn't dare interfere with anyone who is trying to enlist more people in our cause.

Are You the One?

E.B. White, the author of childrenís books, once said (slightly paraphrased):

As long as there is one honest man, as long as there is one upright woman, the future is not hopeless, because the contagion may spread.

If youíre that honest man or that upright woman, the future isnít hopeless, because your example may inspire others.

If you speak up when you have the chance ó calling into radio shows, writing letters to the editor, participating in Internet forums, just talking with friends or business associates without sacrificing your position ó the future isnít hopeless, because you never know who will hear or read your words.

You may say just the right thing to finally bring around someone whoís close to crossing the line to active libertarianism ó someone with far more resources, far more talent, far more skills, or far more influence than you have ó someone who has the ability to multiply your efforts a hundred or a thousand times over, just because of who he is.

No, you canít change America all by yourself. Neither can you do so just by wishing for it.

But you might be the one who inspires one or more people who can make an enormous difference.

Are you that honest man, that upright woman?

If you are, the future is not hopeless.