Liberty on the Horizon

A survey turns up some surprising data about who would like a libertarian government.


If you're wondering about the shape of the government in your future, some interesting clues can be gleaned from a recent study by the Center for Futures Research. Its aim was to shed light on what business-government relations might be like over the next decade (reported by James O'Toole in the Harvard Business Review, March-April 1979).

The Center based its study on a poll of 39 persons across several categories: executives of major corporations, editors of financial journals, union leaders, and leaders of popular environmental or consumer protection groups; economists and scholars were consulted separately, and their views were compared to those of the other groups. Each person was asked to judge four scenarios describing the implementation of "ideologies that political economists recognize as being in serious competition for the minds of Americans."

First on the list was libertarianism, described as "the most traditionally American." In a compass-point formation, libertarianism was opposed to egalitarianism, environmental-humanism to corporatism. These categories already distort the picture somewhat, for they assume that environmental humanism and libertarianism are mutually exclusive and that there may have to be trade-offs between "liberty and the quality of life."

Moreover, the two-column libertarian scenario begins with major antitrust actions to promote competition. The rest of the description, however, is largely familiar: deregulation of industry and an end to government subsidies, large cuts in the federal budget including an end to federal support for education (except for voucher and loan plans), cuts in income tax and the elimination of corporate taxes, the internalization of social costs of production, and the privatization of many public services (mail delivery, garbage collection, health insurance, pensions). The scenario also includes the extension of antitrust rules to unions, the elimination of a minimum wage, and the facilitation of private lawsuits against corporations on issues of environmental safety. More surprising to hard-core libertarians are the replacement of welfare by a negative income tax and the increase in full-disclosure laws and regulations for most corporate activities.

The four scenarios were judged for desirability rather than for likelihood, and their popularity was broken down among four groups: government officials, public-interest groups, business, and labor. Libertarianism was by far the most popular choice for the first three groups, while labor heavily preferred the egalitarian scenario (increased government controls, national planning, national health insurance, a national energy corporation, a national housing corporation, controls and tariffs on imports and exports, government approval before the use of any new technology, a public guarantee of jobs).

Grading zero for total undesirability and 100 for an ideal situation, business rated libertarianism 52.9, public-interest groups gave it 53.3, and government officials astonishingly rated it 66.1. For these three groups, libertarianism was the only scenario to score over 50. Labor, on the other hand, rated it 24.1, with a 74.1 grade for egalitarianism. When the averages were taken for a summary of all four groups, libertarianism had 51.9 out of 100, while corporatism in second place lagged more than 10 points behind; egalitarianism was on the bottom with a grade of 36.7.

(Corporatism was described as government support of the interests of the 200 largest international companies, with government promoting mergers, protecting US firms from foreign competition, and encouraging the export of American products. The scenario also has a national planning and federal banking structure for financial investments, a national pension system as a source of investment capital, voluntary codes of business ethics to replace regulations, and the right to strike being given up by the AFL-CIO in return for lifetime job security, automatic pay raises, and seats on the boards of large companies.)

Having indicated what they find desirable, the persons being polled were then asked to judge what is most likely to occur. The result was not any one of the four scenarios but rather a fifth, which can be summarily entitled "the status quo"—muddling along the present inconsistent path. It includes congressional planning goals but without the power of enforcement, a government guarantee of jobs, a national health plan, an indexed minimum wage, deregulation of some industries but increased regulation of others, and the replacement of environmental regulations by a system of charges and incentives. When rated for desirability, this scenario came in between libertarianism and corporatism with 44.9; libertarianism still had a healthy lead.

What is striking about these results is that the very people who will most influence the future business climate have desires more radical than their expectations. They favor deregulation but expect regulation to increase in some areas. They opt for privatization of public services but expect to see national health insurance and federal job guarantees. They would have the minimum wage abolished but expect it to continue. Each seems to be saying, "I like the libertarian ideas, but the others are probably inclined toward socialism."

If a study like this has any effect, perhaps it will be that the people who are now forging the economic future will realize that their radical ideals are in fact supported by a large part of society. So perhaps the future will be more libertarian after all. But promoters of libertarianism must also realize and tackle the problem of persuading labor that libertarianism is good for them, too.

Janet Smarr is an assistant professor of Italian language and literature at Yale University.