Viewpoint: The Election

The case for pessimism


The optimistic view of the election has already been spread by those with a vested interest in optimism (Reagan supporters and Clark propagandists): the Reagan election will usher in the triumph of low taxes and a free market, while the 900,000 votes for Ed Clark demonstrate strong libertarian sentiment among the public. Optimism grounded in facts is exhilarating; but optimism in the face of the facts begins to sound like puffery and charlatanism. Since I founded the case for libertarian optimism in the mid-1970s, I have a moral obligation to be the first to announce its demise.

During the latter part of the '70s, the case for libertarian optimism seemed strong. The public was fed up with Big Government (Watergate), high taxes (Prop. 13 and the tax rebellion), inflation, and foreign interventionism (Vietnam) and realized that victimless crime laws are unenforceable (the spread of marijuana, pornography, prostitution). Conditions seemed ripe for a libertarian triumph, and the Libertarian Party began to grow at the polls.

In the last year or two, however, conditions and public opinion have experienced a sea change. On foreign policy, the lessons of Vietnam have been forgotten, and the militarists and war hawks of the Committee for the Present Danger and the CIA "B Team" have triumphed across the board, among Democrats as well as Republicans. The tax rebellion has not been stopped completely, but it has certainly slowed down: witness the thundering defeat in June 1980 of Prop. 9 ("Jarvis II") in California, which would have cut the state income tax in half. And, in the last year, we have seen the remarkable onslaught of the fundamentalist Moral Majority, yearning for the return of theocracy and the outlawing of all such "anti-family" actions as abortion, pornography, and homosexuality and calling for "bringing God back into the public schools." It was inevitable that the preceding advance of feminism, abortion options, and gay rights should have created a backlash, but no one anticipated its fervor and strength.

If we consider not simply the Reagan landslide but the remarkable Republican triumph in the Senate, we cannot comfortably interpret the election as merely a repudiation of the incredibly inept Jimmy Carter. The election was a resounding triumph for the Conservative Revolution, which consists of three basic parts: (a) tax cuts and more of a free market; (b) increased militarism and an ultra-hawkish foreign policy, ever seeking confrontation with an atheistic and literally "Satanic" Soviet Union; (c) a theocratic Moral Majority reinstallation of God and the family and a crushing of the infidel. Only part a can be considered in any sense libertarian; parts b and c are quite the opposite. And, furthermore, it already looks as if we are in for a chilling return to suppression of dissent and the "unleashing" of the FBI, CIA, and other intelligence agencies.

As for the Libertarian Party, as Uncle Walter Cronkite said contemptuously but accurately on election night, "it was nowhere." After an unprecedented hype and a highly expensive campaign, it managed to corral only one percent of the vote. It is nowhere near its goal of becoming a third major party, especially if the Anderson party continues, as it threatens to do. And Barry Commoner did better on his first try than the Libertarians did four years ago. In California, the LP slid backward alarmingly, with Clark getting only 1.7 percent of the vote, far from the 5.5 percent he gained in the race for governor two years before.

But may we not at least take comfort from the free-market part of the Conservative Revolution? No, because that part of the revolution has already been thoroughly betrayed, even before the Reagan administration took office. As soon as Reagan was nominated, and Bush picked for vice-president, the gutsier and more radical economic advisers, such as Arthur Laffer, were unceremoniously thrown overboard, and in poured the same old Nixon-Ford crew of moderate Keynesians who brought us the inflation, the moderation (and even the wage-price controls!) of the Nixon-Ford years. The Burnses, Shultzes, Greenspans, Walkers, Weidenbaums, etc., have seized control. There will be no free-market revolution, no end to inflation, no balanced budget—just marginal tinkering with the status quo, as usual.

Libertarians can only take comfort from the likelihood that the other two major parts of the revolution have also been betrayed. There are already signs that the Moral Majoritarians are being shunted aside and that, in foreign as well as economic affairs, the hard-nosed ideologues and militants are being discarded on behalf of the oleaginous moderates and acolytes of the status quo. In this case, the war hawks are being shoved aside for the "realistic" spokesmen for the Trilateralists and the Rockefeller World Empire.

Okay; so it's far better to have our foreign policy run by more Metternichian Rockefeller-Kissinger types than by some fanatic who has lived for the day when diabolic communism can be nuked out of existence. But it is scarcely an optimistic state of affairs when we have to rely on the Rockefeller power elite to save the cause of liberty. For the hard truth is that the masses are no longer with us; for the time being, at least, they are conservatives, with all that that implies.

So—the optimistic hype is over. The quick victory model which the hyperoptimists have foisted upon us is seen to be nothing but a snare and a delusion. If liberty is ever to triumph, there is no substitute for patient education, for sticking to principles, and for life-long commitment. Libertarians had better wake up to this fact of life.

Murray Rothbard is a professor of economics at Brooklyn Polytechnic institute of New York and the author of numerous articles and books on economics, history, and the libertarian movement.