The political powers that be are not popular. A recent poll from YouGov showed that most Americans are tired of political partisanship and believe that they are not well represented. Yet, while the political establishment is widely viewed with suspicion and frustration, a majority still believes that most people are not capable of making good decisions about political issues. It seems that many would rather entrust legislative concerns to incompetent and corrupt officials rather than risk the results of increased choice and personal responsibility. Unfortunately for libertarians, it looks like most people conform to what the Roman historian Sallust remarked on over two millennia ago, “Few men desire liberty; most men wish only for a just master.” We are in a situation now where not only are liberty and just masters are hard to find, but government intrusion is normalized.
Standard public choice economics explains why the political machine is inept and corrupt. What is harder to explain is why people remain so hesitant to embrace even a little more personal responsibility and freedom. Institutions that are now embedded in the political and economic establishment, such as the departments of education, health, and transport, were all formed well within living memory. Americans were winning Nobel Prizes, healing the sick, and travelling on roads before these departments, yet there is not a libertarian who has not had to endure baffling questions such as, “Then who would make the roads/heal the sick/educate our children?”
What the situation in Europe shows us is how quickly moronic government measures become part of the cultural landscape. Government-issued ID cards in France are now perfectly accepted as normal. In the UK the National Health Service, the seventh largest employer in the world, is practically a national institution that enjoys an almost religious level of faith and devotion. Even in the midst of the worst financial crisis in decades there continue to be demonstrations demanding free education and an expansion of welfare and public pensions. Recent elections in France and Greece reflect the delusion that is taking hold in much of Europe, namely that growth in the middle of a recession is possible without austerity.
Thankfully, the U.S is not as culturally wedded to government as Europe. But this is not a historical inevitability. How best to convince people to desire liberty I am not entirely sure, but I do think it a more worthwhile pursuit than seeking out ‘just masters’. Politicians like Ron Paul do good work, and he in particular has done well to move libertarianism into mainstream politcs. However, we will need more than legislative agendas to quell the popular urge to be slaves.