Ten years ago, in the middle of the Vietnam war and the mushrooming of government programs under the Great Society War on Poverty, the least likely turn of events imaginable seemed to be the self-aware development of a libertarian movement. Today I would point to two elements which indicate the trend has turned. Small as it may seem, the word "libertarian" has increasingly come to be used to describe our political and philosophical point of view. Because of the confusion which surrounds the discussion of ideas in all but the most careful academic writings, the agreement on a labeling convention is exceptionally important.
The other trend element which I think will make a critical difference in the next 20 years is the growing middle class awareness that government is preying on them. The presidential campaign of Jimmy Carter was launched with an anti-Washington theme, and although we know this was phony now, it is important to remember that it worked at the time. The Moynihan-Packwood proposal for tuition tax credits is rocketing through Congress on a deeply felt middle-class response to rising taxation. Demographically, the middle-age segment of our society will soon outnumber both the elderly and youth cohorts of the population; this is the taxpaying segment.
Predictions of a libertarian victory in the near future are fanciful, and one problem the Libertarian Party in particular faces is the frank disbelief with which supposedly realistic business and community leaders respond. Considering the larger role which corporate political action committees are beginning to assume in campaign financing, I hope a financial link can be forged between some LP campaign and some corporations' public education programs. There is certainly a lot of corporate money spent these days on educating the public about the virtues of "free enterprise" (and most of it goes to waste.)
The deregulation movement has made massive strides in the past 10 years, and it will go quite a bit farther. There is a large residue of public confusion about deregulation, however, which centers on the difference between economic regulation and safety or health regulation. Although safety and health regulation need not be governmentally imposed, most people today have bought the idea that they must. Economic regulation, on the other hand, is a pure rip-off, and libertarians should be able to make some gains. I have always thought that a campaign might be successful to push for a constitutional amendment which says that anyone at any time should be able to lower prices or have free entry into an industry. With inflation beginning to accelerate again, a movement for a constitutional amendment might be timely.
Inflation is a great libertarian issue. Ludwig von Mises once wrote that during the 19th century, most people who voted for the classical liberals knew nothing about their program except that they supported the gold standard. We could do this again. The gold bug movement was fairly visible back in 1973-74, when the price trends (and the legal situation) made the libertarian position speculatively profitable, but the basis for a long-run pro-gold campaign would require more than that flash in the pan. The development of a gold trading underground economy would be a very significant political institution, both for anti-inflation and anti-taxation effects.
POLICY ANALYSIS GROUPS
Probably the most valuable development in the past 10 years has been the growth of several new policy analysis groups with a libertarian or quasi-libertarian orientation. The American Enterprise Institute, 1150 Seventeenth St., NW, Washington, DC 20036, has become one of the most significant policy analysis organizations in Washington. In economic and social policy, the AEI is generally libertarian—with due regard for "gradualism." Viewed as a defensive institution, the AEI can be relied upon to publish a number of authoritative studies whenever some antilibertarian Congressman or Senator comes up with a new idea.
Somewhat more distant from immediate policy, but possibly more significant in the long run for just that reason is the Law and Economics Center at the University of Miami School of Law, P.O. Box 248000, Coral Gables, FL 33124. In a very few years, the Law and Economics Center has already produced an important group of programs, from its regular degree-granting process to the publications of its faculty to its economics institutes for federal judges. Prof. F.A. Hayek wrote in the first volume of his Law, Legislation and Liberty that the economic ignorance of the legal profession has probably done more damage to the cause of liberty than any other social phenomenon. The Law and Economics Center, therefore, may correct more damage in the long run than any other policy analysis group.
The Center for Libertarian Studies, 200 Park Avenue South, Suite 911, New York, NY 10003, is actively pursuing some of the best academic work in libertarian theory today. Through its annual Libertarian Scholars Conference, the CLS brings together some of the most significant research of libertarians from around the world. The 1977 conference on "Crime and Punishment: Restitution, Retribution and Law" has been published as a book.
The Cato Institute, 1700 Montgomery Street, San Francisco, CA 94111, has initiated a number of programs in the past year, including Inquiry magazine, a campus-oriented action program, and a series of current events commentaries for radio presenting a three-way viewpoint: conservative, liberal, and libertarian. A central element in the Cato approach to furthering the libertarian movement is its low profile initiatives. Every libertarian in a position to comment on public policy could learn from this: all that is necessary to legitimize the libertarian approach is to elevate its policy perspective to a par with liberalism, and discuss both approaches as co-equal alternatives. The comparative advantage which statist liberalism has enjoyed in the past century has been its reformist zeal and its underlying ethical claims; I believe it is safe to say that these advantages have now passed to the libertarian movement.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Frontlines: Looking Ahead".