Mere Optimism Is Not a Good Substitute for Sound Theory and Far-reaching Evidence

As elderly people get older they tend toward feeble-mindedness. Not in every case, of course, but as a general rule applicable to any given cohort. I am acutely aware of this tendency whenever I express an opinion or explain a conclusion: I may simply be losing my grip. Moreover, older people tend to become stuck in their ways. So they may often fail to see how the world is changing, not to mention why it is changing as it is.

With the foregoing declarations as my preface, you may wish to disregard what I now have to say, which is—if you’ve decided to stick with me—that I find many people’s outlooks, especially my fellow libertarians’ outlooks, touchingly sweet, innocent, and cheerful. Oh, they complain bitterly about all sorts of injustice and destruction, especially the instances perpetrated by the people who fancy themselves fit to rule the rest of us, but nevertheless my fellow libertarians, the younger ones in particular, tend to see the future as turning out much for the better. For them the present is akin to the situation that Wordsworth described more than two centuries ago:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,

But to be young was very heaven!

They believe that truth will triumph over lies, that peace rather than war will recommend itself to the public and its leaders, that the miracles of the market will ultimately displace the chaos and impoverishment of government’s central planning and haphazard intervention—in sum, that truth, beauty, and goodness will win in the contest with mendacity, ugliness, and evil. They almost always believe that technological change is working to move the world closer to a sweet, cooperative anarchy than to an Orwellian nightmare of omnipresent surveillance, manipulation, and control, and they have almost limitless confidence that the advent of the Internet changes everything insofar as the campaign for liberty is concerned. This outlook is so hopeful, so filled with good cheer, so uplifting, and so congenial to carrying on the struggle for a better world that it would take a nasty fellow indeed to quarrel with it or point out its deficiencies. And, to be sure, these hopeful optimists do have some facts on their side.

Unfortunately, however, they also seem to have a tendency to jump to pro-freedom prophecies that rest more on wishful thinking than on documented, accurately weighted facts viewed as a whole and without rose-colored lenses. In particular, they seem unable to appreciate the vast scope and deep embeddedness of currently established politico-economic institutions. Participatory fascism, the sort of regime that freedom lovers are up against nearly everywhere, is not simply a matter of a central bank, a cabal of big bankers, and a handful of opportunistic political puppets whose strings these so-called banksters pull; nor is it simply the military-industrial-congressional complex and its assorted cheerleaders and hangers-on; nor is it simply a gaggle of foolish and arrogant regulators at the SEC, EPA, FDA, and hundreds of other such agencies; nor is it simply the NSA, FBI, and a dozen other superlatively well-funded federal spy agencies in cahoots with thousands of police departments in each state and local jurisdiction across the USA; nor is it simply a host of privilege-dispensing ministries such as the Commerce, Agriculture, Labor, Transportation, and Housing and Urban Development departments, among scores of similar others; nor is it simply the prison-industrial complex that feeds millions of people annually, disproportionately young black men, into a system of incarceration, convict labor, and ruined lives for political and financial profit, regardless of whether the prisoners have really wronged anyone; nor is it simply the medical-insurance-old people’s complex in which millions of affluent providers reap fortunes by irradiating and poking needles into old people and carving up their organs for as long as their bodies can stand the high-priced treatments and the reimbursements keep rolling in, while documenting everything with a nearly infinite assortment of filled-out forms and thereby supporting a big chunk of the IT industry; and so on.

What do the freedom-loving libertarians with their cheerful view of the future imagine will happen to all of these well-connected, powerful, and rich elements of the politico-economic status quo when the great day of revolution that they confidently expect finally dawns? Where will all of these exploiters, abusers, rent reapers, and grateful recipients of state handouts and privileges go? If, for example, the Fed should be abolished tomorrow, does one fancy that all the activities and actors I have just mentioned—and countless others not mentioned here—would merely evaporate without a whimper or a trace? Do the optimistic libertarians actually suppose that the government is incapable of, for example, simply printing and issuing fiat money directly from the Treasury, as it did previously on various occasions?

I ask these questions not to spoil anyone’s day, but only because I have lived long enough to earn the right to my skepticism. Time and again, I have personally witnessed the triumph of lies over truth, of injustice over justice, of savagery over civility, of reaction and hatred over genuine progress, harmony, and love. So, perhaps I am too old to appreciate all the resplendent things that my fellow, younger libertarians proclaim to be harbingers of a glorious future. Or perhaps I have simply lived too long, and thereby seen too much.

Don’t get me wrong, however: to be blessed with a hopeful, optimistic outlook is surely a fine piece of luck. But such an outlook is not a good substitute for a broad, well-informed appreciation of what is at stake in the struggle between the state and those who prefer a less fraudulent and destructive and more peaceful and cooperative arrangement for the production of law and order.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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