Ten Years After


Since this issue marks REASON's 10th year of publishing, it seems appropriate to review the events of the past decade. REASON was founded in order to popularize certain ideas—rationality, individualism, liberty—in an era in which they had fallen increasingly into disfavor. How far have we come in 10 years? Is America any better off for 10 years of effort by REASON and our intellectual allies?

It's easy to sink into pessimism. The past decade has, after all, witnessed a tremendous growth in the magnitude of the federal budget, to the half trillion dollar level. Large budget deficits are accepted as a matter of course. The role of the State has continued to grow, with several very powerful new federal agencies coming into being—EPA, OSHA, and the Department of Energy among the worst. The inflationary bias built into the economy has ratcheted upward, to the point where 6-7 percent annual inflation now seems to be accepted as "normal."

These facts are undeniable, but focusing on them alone gives us a very misleading picture. All of the above reflect simply the ongoing momentum of the juggernaut set in motion in previous decades, the logical consequences of a philosophy of collectivism. To understand what's really going on, you have to look at what the new ideas are, where the initiatives are coming from. And it is here that a libertarian trend is unmistakable.

Consider the past decade's progress in the area of civil liberties. That ultimate expression of State coercion—the draft—has been abolished. Ten states, encompassing one-third of the US population, have abolished criminal penalties for marijuana possession. Laetrile has been decriminalized in 14 states. Laws restricting sexual activity between consenting adults have been struck down or repealed in most of the states where they were still on the books. "Protective" legislation discriminating against women has been abolished in many states, even without passage of the still-uncertain Equal Rights Amendment.

Significant initiatives have occurred in the realm of economic freedom, as well. Deregulation—a word unheard of in 1968—has become a vital part of the political lexicon. The case for airline deregulation has been made so persuasively that the CAB itself is turning handsprings to introduce price competition while Congress is about to pass legislation significantly reducing the agency's control. Cargo airlines have already been deregulated. Trucking deregulation is on the horizon, and removal of subsidies to barge operators is imminent. The entire Communications Act of 1934—the basis for FCC regulation—is being reviewed, and talk of radio deregulation is in the air. Significant new competition in telephone service has been permitted by the FCC in the past decade. Some form of natural gas price deregulation will probably have been enacted by the time you read this.

Studies showing the harmful effects of state licensing laws and bans on advertising are having an effect. Anti-competitive restrictions are being overturned in state after state, and sometimes by the Supreme Court. Price advertising has come to the professions—engineering, law, medicine, dentistry—offering new choices and services to consumers. Some licensing boards have already been abolished (e.g., in Colorado) thanks to sunset laws, and proposals to extend licensing to new fields are being defeated (e.g. in Louisiana).

We have also seen the restoration of the right of individuals to own gold, and more recently, to insert enforceable gold clauses into contracts. Economist Art Laffer's influential studies of international monetary affairs suggest strongly that a new gold standard may be the only effective way to combat inflation.

Advocates of freedom—libertarians and free-market economists—have been influential in accomplishing all of these changes. Aiding them in this task has been a growing public (and intellectual) disenchantment with the State as the universal problem solver. The Vietnam War, the failure of Great Society programs, the Watergate affair—all have contributed to shattering the myth of the benevolent State. As a result, political candidates—from Jimmy Carter to Jerry Brown to Ronald Reagan—all find they must run against government, at least rhetorically, if they hope to win.

This anti-government mood is more than just a fad; it extends deep into the grass roots. Serious state tax limitation efforts are under way in Massachusetts, Michigan, and California. Some 23 states have passed the National Taxpayers Union resolution to amend the Constitution to require a balanced federal budget. The "tax revolt" movement opposing the income tax continues to grow.

In Washington the anti-government mood has gone beyond rhetoric, as witness the recent defeat of the consumer protection agency proposal, the continued failure of national health insurance proposals, and the blunting of most of Carter's energy package. Liberal columnist David Broder recently pointed out that Carter's 1978 budget "marks the first time in this century that a newly elected Democratic President has failed to ask for major funds for a single significant new domestic welfare program." As Broder sees it, public "fear of a meddlesome, bureaucratic big government" lies behind the rejection of further statism by Congress.

Outside the political realm, have our ideas of freedom and individualism had much effect? Again, there are many encouraging trends. The past decade has seen numerous media breakthroughs—Karl Hess in Playboy, Murray Rothbard in Ramparts and the New York Times, REASON articles reprinted in the Congressional Record and major newspapers. Two free-market economists have been honored with Nobel Prizes—F.A. Hayek in 1974 and Milton Friedman in 1976. Philosopher Robert Nozick set the intellectual community buzzing with his pathbreaking Anarchy, State and Utopia, winning a National Book Award in the process.

In the personal realm, individualism has made a come-back, so much so that Tom Wolfe calls the 1970's the "me decade" and Peter Marin puts it down as the "new narcissism." But despite some inevitable faddishness, the new emphasis on individual fulfillment and rational self-interest bodes well for the future. In psychology the trend is exemplified in Nathaniel Branden's popular books and intensives. In the self-help field, the success of books by Robert Ringer and Harry Browne—both clearly pro-self interest and anti-State—is very encouraging.

We have, in short, a social and political environment in 1978 vastly more hospitable to our ideas than anyone could have imagined in 1968. And it is we—the advocates of the individual, of liberty, of rationality—who are taking the initiative, rather than the apostles of statism and collectivism. How much progress we can make in the next decade no one can predict. But if the momentum of our ideas continues to accelerate as it has since 1968, the America of REASON's 20th anniversary will be a far better place than that of its 10th.