Franchising Freedom


Although Congress has refused to authorize continued government support for the Nicaraguan Contras, hardly anyone now disputes the true nature of the Sandinista regime.

The purely domestic aspects of Sandinista totalitarianism have been relatively well reported: censorship of the few nongovernment newspapers (all broadcast media being organs of the state), massive conscription and militarization, Cuba-style neighborhood defense committees, etc. In short, the Sandinista party—like communist parties in power everywhere—is gaining control of nearly every aspect of Nicaraguan life.

Some critics in this country still maintain that what is happening in Nicaragua is purely an internal matter. But the fact is—as symbolized by Daniel Ortega's obedient visit to Moscow right after the April vote on Contra aid—that Nicaragua has become the Western hemisphere's newest client for the Soviets' "franchise for totalitarianism."

The Soviets have taken a lesson from one of America's most successful business innovations. As perfected by chains like McDonald's, franchising succeeds by offering a would-be entrepreneur a proven package deal. As a McDonald's franchisee, one is guaranteed a territory and provided with a tested facility design, access to volume purchasing, proven operating manuals, pre-packaged advertising campaigns, and even coursework at Hamburger University in Illinois.

As Jack Wheeler points out in this issue (pages 36–44), the Soviets have perfected a similar package deal and offer it to would-be power seekers. The Soviets coordinate the whole operation, drawing on their subsidiaries for various components of the package. The Cubans provide military advisors (and troops, if required). The East Germans set up an internal security system, while Czechs and Bulgarians are brought in as technical advisors for development projects. North Koreans, Libyans, and even PLO members may be called upon, as well, for specialized assignments. The Soviets even provide an equivalent of Hamburger U.—Patrice Lumumba University—to which the franchisee can send aspiring employees.

In the worldwide competition between communism and freedom, the freedom side has no equivalent of the Soviet franchising system. So while would-be totalitarians have ready access to extensive, pre-packaged assistance, would-be leaders of free societies are at a tremendous disadvantage. The ideas of freedom are powerful, to be sure. But as mom-and-pop hamburger stand operators have discovered, it's hard to compete with a well-financed franchise operation, even with a better product to offer.

It is understandable that many friends of freedom look to the US government to provide an alternative franchise. But is this really the job of a free society's limited government? Is it, in fact, the government's proper role to use our tax money to "bear any burden, pay any price" to battle the forces of evil all around the globe? Those of us who denounce Big Government when it embarks on other "good works"—foreign aid abroad and the welfare state at home—cannot consistently support one kind of tax-funded do-gooding while opposing others.

The only possible justification for government involvement in such battles is if doing so contributes legitimately to the defense of the United States. On this score, it seems pretty clear that US government aid to freedom fighters in Asia and Africa does not qualify. Nicaragua, on the other hand, because it is so close to our borders, is at least a grey area. Soviet air and naval bases, should they be established in Nicaragua, would tangibly increase the Soviet military threat to this country. But such bases do not now exist, and legitimate arguments can be waged over how imminent such a threat must be before action can be taken.

There is also the practical question of the competence of government aid. Detailed investigative articles in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal last winter revealed the heavy-handed ways in which the CIA waded into Nicaragua—the harbor-mining fiasco and the operations-manual gaffe being just two examples. Can we really expect a multibillion-dollar bureaucracy to be adept at providing a pro-freedom franchise operation?

Seen in this light, the cutoff of government aid to the Contras may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. It has already stimulated a major increase in private, voluntary activity to aid the beleaguered freedom fighters. There are dozens of organizations active in these efforts, ranging from charitable groups aiding Miskito Indian refugees to others providing boots, materiel, and even volunteers to train and fight with the Contra forces.

This country has a long tradition of private, voluntary assistance to revolutionary groups. Our own revolution probably would not have succeeded without the aid of foreigners such as Lafayette and Beaumarchais, Kosciusko, and von Steuben. Mark Twain and other Americans aided the abortive 1905 Russian revolt. During World War I Eddie Rickenbacker and other American volunteers formed the Lafayette Escadrille, flying planes for France. And thousands of American leftists volunteered for the American Lincoln Brigade, which fought against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War.

A few short-sighted members of Congress, opposed to today's Contras, wish to strengthen the 1794 Neutrality Act to prohibit such activities. It would be far more consistent with both our ideals and our history to abolish this restriction on individual freedom, to permit the flourishing of private, voluntary efforts—including military assistance. Whether such a change would lead to the development of a pro-freedom, private franchising operation is not certain. But by removing the threat of prosecution, it would lead to a great expansion of creative activity in the cause of freedom.