Ghent, Belgium. No, things aren't too bright in Belgium either, libertarianwise. In fact, to tell you a little secret, I have decided to stop whatever efforts I was engaged in to spread the message, for the simplest of all reasons: they appear useless. No doubt you will want a justification for so extremely pessimistic a position, and that's exactly what most of this column will be devoted to: a survey of what's wrong with Belgium, ideologically speaking.
Just as La Palice used to say, speaking about I don't know whom, that five minutes before he died he was still alive, I could say the reason people here reject libertarianism is because they don't accept it. For some reason or other they seem to be immune to it.
Ayn Rand has been translated but not widely read. Heinlein has been translated AND read, but if any of his fans have started demanding the repeal of minimum wage laws and the end of artificial credit expansion, I still haven't heard of it. Milton Friedman is widely known among professional economists for his views on the rather technical problem of foreign exchange rates. Nobody speaks about his calls for the repeal of a lot of state interventions in the economy.
It would be easy to blame everything on an establishment conspiracy, but this would hardly be truthful. Lots of letters of mine have been published in left-wing periodicals (I mention one of them later on) and a few months ago I even had the occasion to talk about libertarianism on national (and state-owned) radio. The radio commentator, who didn't sympathize with my theories at all, nevertheless clearly mentioned my name and address. The public response was overwhelming: nothing.
A last example to convince the most skeptical: a new political pressure group was to be formed recently and I decided to join. They didn't have a clearcut program yet so they might prove influenceable. Finally, since most of them, considered individually, were hard-line socialists, they chose a marxist program. Although my libertarian (more precisely: anarcho-capitalist) ideas were well-known, I was warmly invited to stay and be present at every meeting. Finally I was the one to feel embarrassed and I stopped going to the meetings.
All this proves that, to put it mildly, you shouldn't expect things to change for the better. Indeed there is some possibility that in the not too distant future things may take a rather sharp turn for the worse. I would no longer exclude the possibility that a few decades from now Belgium (and, indeed, some other Western European countries) may be under some kind of communist or revolutionary socialist rule. This isn't too difficult to accept if you think, as I happen to do myself, that political trends are determined, in the long run, by the intellectuals. Among this group there is already a clear majority for positions that used to be called extreme left wing until a few years ago, but are simply considered "progressive" now. On campus, for example, the only organized resistance to the "progressives" comes from a group of rather confused populist-conservative tough guys with ill-defined ideas (say somewhere between George Wallace and Scoop Jackson), who spend half their time arguing against "murder of the unborn life" (i.e. abortion).
Among the population at large, the same trend towards radical socialism can easily be recognized. The Socialist Party has adopted a more extreme program than it used to do, thereby emulating its French rather than its German sister party. The same goes for the unions, who now openly condone workers' seizure of factories. And can you imagine your biggest national radio and TV publication being run by hard-line marxists? Well, here that's exactly what happens.
In some countries the drift towards economic collectivism may be more or less compensated by an increase in social freedom or civil liberties, but not in Belgium. Opening a local newsweekly at random, I find, besides the usual news of "pornographic" books and films being seized and drugs intercepted, the following items:
• Journalists made a formal protest after the offices of one of their members had been searched by four police officers. One officer had visited the journalist's agency three weeks earlier asking to see photographs he had taken during a demonstration by municipal workers last May. When the journalist refused, the officer returned with a search warrant and three colleagues and searched the premises for six hours.
• A 25-year-old Irishman was arrested at the edge of a military airfield a few months ago. Police claimed that he was a spy, alleging that he was caught taking photographs of aircraft and recording conversations between pilots and air traffic control. At the time, an important SHAPE exercise was taking place. The Irishman says that he is an innocent aircraft spotter, but the police consider that the charges against him are sufficiently serious to warrant his detention while their inquiries continue. Those inquiries will probably take another two or three months. In the meantime, having made an extensive search of his house in Holland, the authorities now proudly display a total of two photographs taken about four years ago…in Germany.
And since we're covering news items, here are a few more. Like every self-respecting semi-collectivist nation we have our inflation, our wage-and-price controls (the unions have just demanded that they be extended until the end of the year) and our unemployment. The remarkable thing about the latter is that, with unemployment on the rise, the government has judged it wise to increase the unemployment compensations up to a point where it is possible to live quite comfortably with them. The consequence is that many young people, on leaving school, do everything possible NOT to find work. I even know some who switched from day to evening school in order to be eligible for the unemployment compensation.
In the meantime, inflation is running at 13 percent and the announced national budget for 1976 is 17 percent higher than 1975's original budget, which in turn has had to be adjusted upwards by almost five percent in the course of this year.
But in case you might worry: I have been active in some kind of a book project. It cost me about a hundred dollars, but as a brilliant result no fewer than three people agreed to buy books. A little calculating shows that, at that rate, I only need to spend three hundred million dollars and EVERYONE in Belgium will have read at least one libertarian book. And some may even be persuaded by it. Doesn't that make your libertarian heart beat faster?
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Foreign Correspondent: Pessimistic Prognostications".