Out of the Dustbin


1968 was a very good year for the Detroit Tigers, who won the World Series behind the improbable three victories of Mickey Lolich. It was also a good year for a mimeographed broadside born as a labor of love that now, more improbable than anything Lolich tossed up against the Cardinals, has lived to celebrate its 25th birthday.

That just about exhausts the good side of 1968. On nearly every other front, grimness abounded. Despite repeated alleged sightings of the light at the end of the tunnel, the United States found itself mired in the muck of Vietnam and didn't know how to get out. Mao's minions waved little red books, whipped themselves into the frenzy of the great Cultural Revolution, and swore implacable hostility to the paper tiger United States. The wall disfiguring the face of Berlin like an ugly scar had for the past seven years served its architects' objective as prison gate and site of impromptu executions.

In 1968 Soviet troops, fraternally accompanied by Warsaw Pact cronies, marched across the borders of Czechoslovakia to terminate with extreme prejudice Prague's experiment in Communism with a Human Face. Leonid Brezhnev explained to the world that peaceful coexistence was all well and good, but of course it could not in any way impugn the historical imperative that not one square inch of territory that had been liberated from capitalist imperialist oppression would ever be allowed to wander from the socialist fold.

At home, too, it was bad. A Kennedy and a King were gunned down by assassins, and American cities were put to the torch. People protested in the streets and parks outside the Democratic convention in Chicago and, for their troubles, had their heads broken by police night sticks. An economy overheated by competing tugs of guns and butter had begun to fibrillate. Lyndon Johnson's Great Society was grating badly, and a rehabilitated Richard Nixon, proclaiming a secret plan for ending the war, was making his second run for the presidency. He would be successful despite the presence in the race of a third-party candidate purveying populist rhetoric with a Southern twang.

How much difference has a quarter of a century made? Domestically, remarkably little. Police still crack heads open, and a great city burns. Citizens rendered grumpy by two years of economic despond toss out a tired administration and replace it with one brandishing a new set of promises. (The third candidate's cracker-barrel manner plays well on the tube but doesn't measure up in the vote column.) The gulf between black and white, rich and poor, the housed and the homeless grows. Or perhaps it shrinks, but not enough to put any social policy wonks out of business. And the amazing Richard Nixon, riding the crest of his latest resurrection, is the pundits' most quotable senior statesman.

But if within American borders the more things change the more they stay the same, it's quite otherwise on the international stage. Change has been nothing less than seismic. Communist Czechoslovakia is no more, Czechoslovakia is no more, the erstwhile Soviet oppressor is no more. Shards of the Berlin Wall are 10,000 souvenirs of freedom.

China has decided that to become rich is good, and even Vietnam is considering how market arrangements might lift its basket case of an economy out of the doldrums. Of the old guard only Fidel remains, but his country is even grayer and more frayed than his beard. The Brezhnev doctrine is as defunct as its formulator; now it is liberal democracy whose march seems inevitable. Coining a phrase from Hegel, Francis Fukuyama has dubbed this denouement the "End of History."

Soviet totalitarianism's demise is good news, the very best news. The editors of REASON, a congenitally modest lot, decline to take all the credit for these glad tidings, but only a churl would complain if they do some basking during this month of anniversary celebration. The world during the next 25 years will almost certainly be a safer place, most likely a more prosperous place, and already it is a place orders of magnitude freer than was the case only a short while ago.

No one supposes that we have seen the last of petty despots; they will thrive in the future as they have in the past. But the essential point is that these despots are indeed petty. They are not the vanguard of a wave that threatens inch by inch to overtake free societies. The overtaking is now proceeding in the other direction, and it advances with breathtaking quickness. The happiest scenario one can envisage is that these next 25 years will be a mopping-up exercise, and that REASON will be there to keeps its readers apprised of the details.

In 1968 to be a pessimist about world freedom was to be a realist. (That is why Henry Kissinger's doleful Central European vocal inflections and hangdog countenance were even more appropriate to his times than were his policies.) Are 1993's realists, by way of contrast, the optimists? Perhaps. But before concluding that the great ideological wars that have been waged since the French Revolution have now been terminated, with liberal democracy and free-market economics the undisputed victor, it would be well to consider from where other challengers might emerge. Victories have a way of proving all too temporary.

Recall that during the 1930s it was the fascist dictatorships that seemed to be the tide of the future. While the Great Depression ravaged the democracies, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and Tojo flexed. 1945 put paid to their aspirations, and the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. But rather than moving into an era of peace and freedom, we immediately lurched into four decades of cold war. One formidable threat replaced by another: Might that not be the menu for the '90s and beyond?

Generals are notorious for preparing to fight the last war. That's foolish. But it is even more foolish to suppose that the war one has fought was the war to end all wars: It takes a celebrated statesman or an intellectual to entertain an idea that grand. (The sorry follow-up to World War I is largely attributable to the fact that Woodrow Wilson was both.) Pentagon brass who lobby to carry on as if the Cold War were still at its delicious peak merit little credence.

But neither do those who, itching to spend the "peace dividend" a hundred different ways, declare that the international order is now assured. Challenges to liberal democracy will almost certainly be less apocalyptic than they have been during the post–World War II era, but they may, nonetheless, be nasty. And, contrary to the "end of history" thesis, they are apt to be more blatant than those launched by the commissars. The ideological battles to come, I wish to suggest, will be waged at a level even deeper than those of the past. Explaining why that is so is my excuse for a brief excursion into political theory.

Although communism and liberalism have been sworn enemies for most of the preceding century, their fight has been internecine. Each is a child of the Enlightenment, and each professes a universalism grounded in reason and history, indeed in a history that is billed as rendering itself progressively more rational through becoming more universal. Both communism and liberalism present themselves as prescriptions not simply for this regime or that one, but potentially for all peoples and all states. The "potentially" indicates that not every society as it currently exists is ready to receive and to sustain the recommended political structure. Evolution from ignorance to awareness is required before the desirable culmination can be achieved. That is why history and reason are said to go hand in hand.

Early liberals contested the prerogatives of the crown in the name of the time-immemorial rights of Englishmen. But by the time these rebels found their philosophical spokesmen, the rights for which they struggled had been extended beyond the confines of the British Isles to all human beings. John Locke identified natural rights to life, liberty, and property as the birthright of all, knowable through the light of reason. American and French revolutionaries altered Locke's language at the margin but concurred.

Of course, theory didn't always comport with practice. Locke's eloquent defense of religious liberty was explicitly restricted to Protestants; Catholics and Jews need not apply. The same Thomas Jefferson who penned the Declaration trafficked in slaves, and the French revolutionaries who trumpeted the rights of man were less than attentive to the rights of the wretches carried off in tumbrels to the guillotine. The blessings of liberty were at first restricted to precious few.

But over time their scope widened. Religious freedom became more than the prerogative of Protestants, America commenced a century-long undertaking to extend the promise of liberty and equality to the slaves and the children of slaves, and liberals increasingly came to understand that the rights of man are the rights of women too. Nor was this the drift of happenstance or external compulsion; the theory's own logic of universalism led to its extension.

Communism also was born in opposition to particularist discrimination and exclusionary policy. By definition, claimed Marx, capitalism is predicated on the exploitation of one class by another.

Indeed, the history of humanity has been a continuing saga of exploitation and division, including the division of man from himself. Separate and unequal social classes are grounded in the material conditions of production and sustained through direct invocations of force and less direct but even more efficient institutional devices for inculcating false consciousness. These arrangements are stable in the short run but over the long term carry the seeds of their own destruction. Capitalism is rendered possible through appropriating the surplus value of labor, but this creates a proletariat ever more hard-pressed that is forged by its oppression into a potent instrument of revolution. Ultimately the constraining bonds are burst asunder and the expropriators are expropriated.

Marx presented his account as descriptive social science and was explicitly scornful of bourgeois moralizing. From its first telling, however, the story carried more power as moral drama than as predictive science. For what it anticipated is the overcoming of alienation and the oppression of man by man. Once a classless society has come into being it will no longer be the case that some will labor and others will batten on the fruits of their labor. All people will be equal in the relevant sense: the ability to lead a truly human life. Artificial divisions of wealth, sex, talent, and, eventually, nationality will have been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Family fights are often the most intense, and the clash between liberal and Marxian ideals was incendiary. But on the most fundamental theoretical level what they shared was greater than that which separated them. Each proclaimed an all-embracing universalism grounded on a premise of human equality. Each presented a theory explaining its own relatively late arrival on the political scene as well as an account of why the waning of ignorance would inevitably be its own waxing. Each extended its promises to humanity as a whole. Only with regard to the details did they take issue. The family resemblance explains, I think, why so many basically decent people supposed that the conflict could be brokered, why liberals themselves split into opposed camps of anti-communists and anti-anti-communists.

That is not to advocate some specious doctrine of moral equivalence. Communism shared with liberalism the rhetoric but not the reality of universalism. The readers of this magazine hardly need to be told that liberalism's success in bringing practice closer to theory was never approximated, never even attempted by communist regimes. Thus, which would ultimately prevail was no trivial matter. But because the deepest presuppositions of liberalism and Marxism were similar, it is premature to conclude that the demise of the latter signifies a world converging on consensus concerning fundamental principles. The great conflicts of the next quarter century are likely to be waged on the territory they held in common.

For a foretaste of post-communist Sturm und Drang, look toward the Balkans. There blood is being drained not in the service of some comprehensive, cosmopolitan ideal but because the blood in question happens to be Croatian or Serbian or Bosnian. The players are distinctively and ineradicably defined by nationality, and because that is so the game is necessarily one of exclusion. "Ethnic cleansing" isn't, as the commentators would have it, an aberration but rather the struggle's essence. Even if the methods were less sanguinary, the aim would be the same.

A Serbian (or "Greater Serbian") state is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people—but only if those people are Serbs. To be of some other ethnic background is necessarily to enjoy a lower status. Minorities at best enjoy toleration. Note, though, that this isn't "liberal toleration," in which each accords to all others elbow room to conduct their own preferred ways of life, subject only to the requirement that they similarly refrain from infringements. Liberal toleration is symmetrical, given by each and received by each. But the tolerance that one might hope for in a nationality-defined state is a gift bestowed by a superior on an inferior. And it is a gift that can easily be snatched away.

As the overworked folks at Rand McNally will testify, the process of comprehensive polities splintering into their component nationalities is well under way. The fissioning force (or fusion when, as with the two Germanies, a nation had been artificially divided from itself) seems to be irresistible. I don't mean to suggest that this is altogether a bad thing. By and large, the regimes that have expired were dreadful. Their demise was long overdue. But even if the successor states are more congenial, there will be bumps, some severe, along the way.

Most obviously, political restructuring will engender wrangling over who gets what. Even when a divorce is amicable, the parties may not see eye to eye concerning where the cutlery goes. If property settlements involve geographical boundaries, Black Sea battleships, or multibillion-dollar debts to foreign bankrollers, establishing appropriate terms will be especially tricky. And that's so in the best case, the one in which the parties are inclined to bargain rationally and coolly. If instead they view the breakup as an opportunity to consummate vendettas extending back to the Middle Ages, they will not only bloody each other's noses but also generate carnage and refugees that overflow onto neighbors. Hatreds will be contagious: Witness, for example, the current vicious outbreak of xenophobia in Germany. It is safe, therefore, to conclude that massaging trouble spots will be a growth industry during the next 25 years.

More subtle but potentially even further reaching is the fact that in an order of competing nationalisms the rights of individuals inevitably are subordinated to the claims of the collective. When private aspirations conflict with state imperatives, or even when they simply take another direction, people will be pressured to conform to the allegedly greater overarching good. To cite just one instance, elevating to a constitutional level the goal of nurturing French culture in an autonomous or independent Quebec will be bad news for anglophones and others who happen not to be wedded to a Gallic conception of the good life. Group rights and the obligations they impose are inherently illiberal. They are, however, likely to be in vogue over the next several decades in a world that increasingly honors the particular over the universal.

Recently de-Sovietized Eastern Europe and Asia may be the frontlines of the struggle for a free international order, but First World trends are also worrisome. Free-trade agreements increasingly take the form of clubs for the well-connected rather than, as with the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), domains open to all. As the Common Market evolves toward a United States of Europe it simultaneously embraces and repels. Constraints on economic activity and population movement are eliminated within the Lucky 12 nations but reappear as barriers proclaiming "Keep Out!" to non-members. Partly in self-defense the North American three establish their own free-trade (but not free migration) agreement.

It's not impossible that the process will work out well, that these various partnerships will extend themselves and eventually merge into one global free-trade zone. But the more likely scenario is competing blocs playing negative-sum games against each other. Last year Europe and America briefly bobbed and weaved over grain and white wine tariffs. Fortunately, they blinked before threats turned truly nasty. Next time—and there surely will be next times—the game may be played to a conclusion, as indeed it was in the 1920s, when the Smoot Hawley bill helped precipitate the stock market crash, a decade of economic depression and, ultimately, war. A world of haves jockeying for position while chanting "we've got ours" to hungry faces pressed against the window pane is a dubious prescription for peace or prosperity.

The epoch that ended when the Wall came down and the Soviet Union filed for bankruptcy witnessed the most sustained challenge ever launched against human aspirations for liberty, against the right of all individuals simply to be left alone to pursue their chosen ways of life. That assault, thankfully, has now been beaten back. The preceding remarks should not be interpreted as some kind of perverse longing for the "good old days" of the Cold War.

Rather, they are meant as a peek at new times, new foes. As fiercely waged as the challenge of communism was, it did not dispute but rather attempted to co-opt the liberal's ideal of universal equal rights—grotesquely transfigured, to be sure, into effective slavery for all. Now that ideal itself is under duress. We don't, for better or worse, find ourselves at the end of history but rather at the opening of a new chapter. How the narrative progresses and who gets to write it will have momentous global consequences. At any rate, there will be plenty to do for a not-so-modest-as-it-once-was journal dedicated to the cause of free minds and free markets.

Contributing Editor Loren E. Lomasky, a professor of philosophy at Bowling Green State University, is co-author (with Geoffrey Brennan) of Democracy and Decision: The Pure Theory of Electoral Preference (Cambridge University Press).