Viewpoint: One for the Road


Times change. George McGovern used to dislike Richard Nixon. When I started writing for REASON, Washington Senators were primarily baseball players. And nobody who lived in a good neighborhood bought a Japanese car. Remember? They all looked funny, and the tail lights fell off.

My thinking about freedom has changed as well—I used to approach it as a moralist. I still believe that freedom is a moral issue, but I have come to a much richer understanding of why everyone does not feel as I do.

Thirteen years and a thousand or so books later, I even have a bit of perspective on why I came to take an interest in liberty. Something made me rambunctious. And it wasn't only me; of the dozen or so boys who took turns as crucifers and singing off key in the Christ Church choir, four or five later became "libertarians."

It was rural Maryland in the 1950s. Maybe there wasn't enough fluoride in the water. Maybe we were spoiled—or not spoiled enough. In any event, something led us to an impractically boundless faith in ourselves. That faith wasn't a doctrine but a disposition. We were Dr. Spock babies, sassy, bright, and licentious; the first generation to whom television made everything simultaneous. Our grandfathers had to train for months and cross an ocean, then spend more months in the trenches to create a cliché: "How are you going to keep them down on the farm once they've seen Paree?" It came to us instantly, right into the living room.

We didn't know it then, but we were viewing the world from the height of the American empire. At the supper table, my parents would inveigle me to eat my vegetables by saying, "Think of the starving children in Europe." Our economy was powerful, bountiful, and rich; richer in relative terms than it ever was before or perhaps ever will be again. Under the circumstances, it was easy for us to have confidence, to assume that anything was possible so long as no one stopped us or stood in our way. Perhaps that's why we became enthusiasts for freedom.

There was a peculiar element in our optimism, a kind of preternatural perception that would come much later to the actuaries and the editorial boards of great newspapers. We somehow sensed that our own prospects as individuals exceeded the common prospects for the economy and the world. We were launching our boats on what turned out to be a receding tide. But that could only have been an intuition then, not knowledge. It would be years later before the plumbings and soundings were available to prove by statistics that the economy had seen its high-water mark. Under the circumstances, we had what can only be described as a cunning distrust of the government; it and it alone had the potential to squelch our potential to live ever so much more wisely and agreeably than our parents were living.

Of course, there was more to the making of the prelibertarian disposition. We did tend to take a sporting interest in ideas. A well-wrought argument could be, at times, as curious and exciting as a properly hit fastball. Crack. Where that enthusiasm combined with an entrepreneurial disposition, at least in my limited circle, we gradually grew up to be libertarians.

The ideas that suited us came from the forgotten fringe of economic theory, from Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, and the other Austrian School economists. They showed more rigorously than others how the determinism of laissez-faire would make the world a better place—if the doctrine were only allowed to work. And the doctrine was determinist. With laissez-faire, it wasn't merely anything that might happen, willy-nilly. The highest satisfaction of individual desires harmonizing in the market was the inevitable, logical consequence.

What we did not see—or, to speak less grandly, what I did not see—was that the very determinism that made laissez-faire desirable also made it practically impossible in a conventional political context. The preference of individuals for more over less, their willingness to spend resources where the prospect exists for gain, their general reluctance to "internalize" costs that spill over onto others, all point to a growing and greedy government.

This is the reason I am not a Libertarian with a capital L—not a Libertarian Party enthusiast. The plan for a moralistic reconstruction of freedom at the ballot box is about as doomed as any hope of restoring the czar in Russia. So long as the rewards for infringing freedom continue to exceed the costs to those who make the decisions, there is only one result to be expected. Less freedom. All we can realistically hope for are movements at the margin, to raise the costs of political pillaging or reduce the rewards. I can imagine such movements taking one of three forms: constitutional change to alter the rules of the game, a haphazard and unintended shift in market structure that alters incentives to make political boondoggling less rewarding, or a conscious effort to achieve the same thing through non-constitutional rule changes.

What am I talking about? Just drawing a conclusion from the arithmetic of relational incentives. Industries where there are many competitors usually do not impinge so much upon freedom as those where there are but a few. Where economies of scale are limited, there tend to be many competitors and less unionization. Where industries are footloose, as weaving was at the takeoff stage of the Industrial Revolution, and computer-based output is now, unionization is minimal and consequently the political damage that can be done by unions and even industry groups is minimal. By the same token, political authorities must be restrained in imposing costs on people who are footloose enough to walk away from them. If we are lucky, some of the structural changes occurring in the economy now will undermine the relational incentives that have driven government to grow. If we are not lucky, the next step will have to be to find and implement changes in the rules to alter incentives more decisively.

The question is whether the changes that matter will be meandering, as history has tended to be, or whether someone working to liberate humankind can conceive and implement action as revolutionary in its impact as the silicon chip. I pick that example with caution, because it is still to be shown what effect economic decentralization will have in diminishing the constituency of the social-democratic state.

I have been telling you things like this for years. Because I have always imagined you to be supernaturally reasonable—as a reader of REASON. Someone who cares about the same things I do and is also easy to talk to. Yack. Yack. In fact, you may have picked up this issue in a mental ward or in the research department of some labor union.

But I prefer to think better of you, as a writer so often does of his audience. I've felt like a pen pal sending missives to a distant bar frequented by people he doesn't quite know but somehow likes. In this simile, I used to think of REASON's editor Bob Poole as the bartender, reading aloud on a Tuesday night columns I wrote. Most of the listeners were regulars, the hard core. But there were others, too: passers-by, snared by a particularly clever invitation in the mail and perhaps likely to regret it.

Over the years, I've written something to offend almost everyone—from the woman who kept mailing plaintive requests that I stop "tuning in on her psychically" (she didn't like my piece on the occult), to fans of Social Security. I even ticked off some people by saying that Gladys Knight and the Pips were prophetic with their sad song for Jimmy Carter: "He's taking that midnight train for Georgia, and he ain't coming back."

While I have been whistling tunes, the world has changed. Bob Poole is now too busy to read aloud in bars on Tuesday nights, and the new editor has decided to open this column to an array of writers.

So this is the last of my regular egocentric monologues. Good bye.

Jim Davidson is founder and chairman of the National Taxpayers Union and the author of The Squeeze.