The Local Angle
Giving meaning to freedom
Twenty-five years ago, in May of 1968, where were you? Some days, I was in Northeast Thailand, along the banks of the Mekong River, where in the evenings I would sit on the porch of the little house where I stayed, drinking a beer and watching the flashes of bombs over the mountains that lined the eastern horizon, where the Ho Chi Minh Trail lay. Some days, I was in front of a typewriter in my office in Bangkok, writing the very first research report I ever got paid for, and deciding that there was this very interesting pattern about Thai villagers: They knew more about what they needed than the experts from the government knew.
What a crazy time to begin a libertarian magazine. The Goldwater debacle was just four years past. The only Republicans who could win were the Richard Nixons of the world—the same Richard Nixon who at about the time of his election was saying, "We are all Keynesians now." And to name the magazine REASON?! At a time when reason was next to a dirty word, the era of "turn on, tune in, drop out," of good vibrations and karma and LSD and the Greening of America? What a foolish, impossible venture.
And what an extraordinary change we have seen since. To me it is all the more extraordinary as we look at the current administration and see how far the orthodoxies of the '60s have fallen. Bill Clinton is the perfect embodiment of his party, just as George Bush was of his. George Bush hated ideas, all of them, and was threatened by them. Bill Clinton LOVES ideas—all of them. Neither man has the least idea of how to answer the question, "How should human beings live?" with anything except mush and platitudes. We do have an answer to that question, and if we cannot ultimately prevail against this kind of opposition, we won't have been trying hard enough.
And that brings me to what I want to talk about tonight: the coming revolution. This is the kind of audience I don't get to talk to very often. Let's face it, there aren't that many audiences like this one. There are probably more wild-eyed libertarian thoughts in this room tonight than in any room since Thomas Jefferson dined alone. In the settings where I usually speak, I consider it my duty to sound as reasonable as possible. But I see no need to do so tonight.
To those of you who were brought here by a date and didn't know what kind of crowd this was going to be, you've probably already gotten the idea. Most of the folks in this room don't just want to cut the capital-gains tax, they want to repeal the 16th Amendment. We don't think government wastes money; we think government is a waste of money. Anyway, if you haven't gotten out by this time it's too late. It's time to lock the doors and call the First Los Angeles Committee of Correspondence to order.
The question before the house is: How are we going to get from here to there? How do we move from a society which is a watered-down version of European social democracy and reconvert it to a Jeffersonian republic?
First thought: We aren't going to get there one step at a time. Or here's a better way of putting it: There will be intermediate steps, all right, but the point of them is not to put Jeffersonian democracy in place reform by reform, but rather to build toward the culmination, a broad and revolutionary shift of the conventional wisdom that makes possible a large number of huge reforms all at once.
I have a particular mechanism in mind: the paradigm shift. Many of you are familiar with the idea. It comes from Thomas Kuhn's seminal book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn's insight was that scientific revolutions occur all at once. At any given point in time, there is a reigning paradigm—Newtonian physics, let us say—which works pretty well. But as time goes on, anomalies are discovered. Things that the theory cannot explain. They accumulate. And then, just as the old paradigm is so full of weaknesses that it seems it must collapse, someone comes along—Albert Einstein, let's say—with a new paradigm that resolves the anomalies. The new paradigm rules utterly. There is no half-Newtonian, half-Einsteinian physics. And the shift happens almost instantaneously.
We have witnessed paradigm shifts in American politics in the past. Look at how scrupulously Franklin Roosevelt adhered to the old paradigm in his election campaign of 1932—he ran as a budget balancer, for heaven's sake—and at how drastically the reigning assumptions about the federal government had changed by 1936. Look at the politics of race and poverty at the end of 1963 when Kennedy was assassinated. Imagine saying to someone on November 21, 1963, that within three years it would be taken for granted that of course government should provide financial assistance to people who already had jobs, and of course government should require preferential treatment for blacks. Both things were close to unthinkable by even a good Northern liberal Democrat in November 1963—hard as that is to remember now.
Paradigm shifts happen. And that is the process by which we will reestablish the Jeffersonian republic. But how do we do it? How do you go about creating a revolutionary paradigm shift? There was a book that had an idea about that. It was published about 36 years ago now, written by a woman named Rand.
I think Ayn Rand had something poetically right about how the revolution would come about. In the book, she saw the actual collapse of the economy after the Prime Movers went on strike. The events we are living through are more complicated than that. Government regulates, expropriates, and taxes in every way she envisioned and a few she didn't. But the private market turns out to be so incredibly productive, given even half a chance, that the economy isn't collapsing. The government is collapsing instead, and this relates to Rand's fundamental insight: The revolution would become possible when the system was seen not to work. Not just by a few people like us. Not in small ways. Not in temporary ways. The revolution becomes possible when a broad cross-section of Americans sees that government is, in fact not in theory, the problem. The trick in arriving at that state of affairs is not to convince by logic, but to persuade by showing people reality.
That, I think, is the great ally that we have going for us—reality—and one that we fail to use nearly as effectively as we could. We talk about natural rights. We talk about spontaneous order. We talk about rent seeking. But too often it is all quite arid and doesn't sound like much of anything that an ordinary fellow might want to take up as his cause.
Let me give you an example of how we ought to be showing people reality. A few months ago, I was on a platform with David Boaz of the Cato Institute, whom many of you know, talking to an audience of the unconverted. David told a story. He had been shopping recently and had come out of the store to find that it was late and he had to walk several blocks back to his car, past darkened and shuttered stores, with hardly anyone around. This is Washington, D.C., we're talking about. And yet suddenly it struck him that he wasn't concerned, wasn't afraid of being jumped by a criminal. Why not? Because he was walking through a mall.
David asked the audience what they would have thought if he had begun by coming out in favor of privatized sidewalks. No doubt there would have been great merriment, much tittering. Silly libertarians. But that's what a mall is. Privatized sidewalks. And it works. That's reality. The streets of Washington, D.C., don't work after dark. That too is reality.
Over the last few decades, as the failures of the government multiplied, and without realizing what they were doing, Americans have built dual systems, operating side by side, and the comparisons are devastating. Private schools compared to public schools. Federal Express compared to the post office. An attendant on any airline, even the ones in Chapter 11, compared to an Amtrak conductor. The courtesy and competence of the voice on the phone when you call a corporation compared to the voice that answers at any government agency. The fries at McDonald's compared to the fries in any government cafeteria.
My buddy Ed Crane came back from the Soviet Union a few years ago, and I asked him what it was like. He said, "Well, imagine an entire country run by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles." What we have to do is talk less about theory, and more about the many Departments of Motor Vehicles that afflict us. Say to our friends: Just look around you. Ask yourself what works and what doesn't. What is beautiful and what is ugly. What is courteous and what is rude. What is tidy and what is slovenly. We aren't making this up. This is reality. Things that the government does tend to be ugly, rude, slovenly, and not work. Things that private organizations do when they're trying to make a buck tend to be attractive, courteous, tidy, and work. This is the way the world really is.
That's part of the reality we must help people see. Here is another part that is harder to explain. It is one that libertarians have often had a hard time talking about. It is about human beings living together.
Here is why explaining it is so hard. Suppose I say to my unconverted friends that human lives are richer, fuller, happier when they are lived in freedom.
It is an accurate statement. More profoundly accurate than just about any other single statement I can think of. But when we say that to a great many of our fellow citizens, their eyes glaze over. Freedom has become such a debauched word that it doesn't work very well any more. Here is what we have to try to say more clearly: Think about your own life. Think about the last thing that made you feel love, or loyalty, or pride. Think about the last time you looked up and asked, "Where did the time go?" because you had been so fully absorbed, so fully enjoying what you were doing. Think about what is most valuable to you, what defines your life.
The specific answers to those questions will be as unique as snowflakes—and as similar. They will be about things like family, friends, faith, loyalties, work, avocations, and those in turn will be centered on people who are close. I usually like to use Edmund Burke's phrase "little platoons" as the way of describing this point, but there is that other philosopher to consider, Richard Daley the Elder, late mayor of Chicago when Chicago was still "the city that works." Remember his remark that "all politics is local"? Life is local, lived in concert with other human beings immediately around us. And here comes the part that libertarians sometimes have had trouble with.
The fact is that libertarians have been uniformly the most generous, unselfish people I have ever met. Libertarians in their daily lives, or at least the ones I know, are intensely social, helpful, and—dare I say the word—compassionate. And yet when libertarians talk about freedom, they tend to make it sound as if they wanted a society of atomistic people each living on his own mountain top with big "Keep Out" signs on the electrified fence. We tend to focus on the ways in which freedom liberates the human spirit to fulfill its individuality, and neglect to remind people that freedom also liberates the human spirit to express its genius for companionship. But that is often the most magical, the most attractive part of freedom. I don't know about you, but when I pick up Atlas Shrugged, I usually end up rereading the part set in Galt's Gulch. And if you do too (as I bet many of you do), it's worth thinking about why.
We also need to be able to say to our unconverted friends that free people who are permitted to live life locally make good citizens. Let me tell you a story about one of our heroes, Karl Hess. I had picked up Karl for a visit to Antietam, and I wanted to stop at a bakery in the little town near his home. There was a space open right in front of the bakery, which unfortunately had a No Parking sign, but I was just going to hop out, pick up a couple of Danish, and be back in a sec while Karl waited in the car. But as I pulled into this illegal parking spot there was in Karl an almost imperceptible shifting of posture, of affect. I suddenly knew what it was. "I can park down the street," I told him, and as I went on he said quietly that he just sort of liked to obey the rules his neighbors had set. Now this is the guy who told the United States Internal Revenue Service to stuff it. Publicly. May I suggest that no one can question Karl's credentials as a defender of liberty. And may I also suggest that he had it precisely right. Relentlessly hostile to the government in Washington; gently and affectionately loyal to the agreements of his neighbors.
The left talks mournfully about the atomization of society and its alienation, the end of community. It's all the fault of capitalism and multinational corporations, they say. Nonsense. The problem is that the government destroys community. We have community-in-hiding all over this country, wherever people do not have large bureaucracies getting in the way of it.
The little town where I live is like that. There's nothing particularly sweet-natured about the people where I live. In fact, a lot of them are kind of cantankerous. Still, last month there was a barn raising. Not by quaint Amish people who drive horses and buggies but by a bunch of local contractors who provided materials at cost and a bunch of skilled craftsmen and unskilled friends who donated their labor, because a neighbor's barn had burned down. A few months before that, the Ruritan Club had a spaghetti dinner, a fundraiser, for a local child who had gotten cancer. It raised $5,000, from a town of 200 and the surrounding countryside.
This kind of thing happens all the time. Ordinary, rough-hewn, argumentative, self-interested people left to themselves under a rule of common law do very well, thank you, in taking care of themselves. It used to work in big-city neighborhoods as well as small towns. It could again. We have to make people see that part of reality too: Taking care of neighbors in trouble is not theory. That's the way people really do live their lives when they are given the chance.
That's the message we have to hammer home. Don't listen to our theories. Just look at the reality around you.
In the next few decades, we are going to have a chance to make these points better than ever before. An unprecedented opportunity for a fundamental realignment, a paradigm shift, will open up. And also an unprecedented risk that we will discard the ideal. And I use the pronoun we—people like the ones in this room—advisedly. Here is the way I see events playing out:
As many of you know, I am writing a book with Richard Herrnstein about the relationship of IQ to a variety of social issues. A few things stand out from the work we have done. Most of all: In the next few decades, everything is going to come up roses for people like the ones in this room—which is to say, the most talented and prosperous people. You will be glad to know that the market value of intelligence is skyrocketing. Technology is going to work in our behalf, expanding our options and our freedom, putting unprecedented resources at our command, enhancing our ability to do what we enjoy doing.
As the government and the legal system get ever more complex, we are the ones who will be best able to use the complexity to our advantage, exploiting the interstices of a system that will overwhelm people with fewer resources.
Perhaps most importantly, affluent people will become a pivotal political bloc. The affluent have always been influential, but several trends indicate that their influence is going to mushroom. For one thing, affluent people are getting a lot more numerous all the time. Right now, about 6 percent of American families have incomes higher than $100,000, about double what it was a decade ago (in constant dollars). That proportion is going to continue to grow. These people vote far out of proportion to other income groups. They contribute to political campaigns and influence government far out of proportion to other groups. We are looking at a fairly near-term future in which people who know they do not need the government to run their lives will constitute a large enough political force to move this country pretty much in whatever direction it wants. I know that I have not given you enough data in this brief sketch to convince many of you of that fact; you'll have to read the book. But for the time being, let's stipulate that I am right.
The question becomes, In such a situation, which direction will this political force take us? The too-familiar example is Latin America, where privilege has often turned into a concerted political effort to protect the mansions in the hills from the slums below. The contemporary United States, perhaps especially the city in which we meet, could begin to resemble that image all too closely. But it does not have to be.
Two centuries ago, a convocation of generally affluent and very smart men set out to decide how the nation should be governed, and they took another route. In the years to come, it may well be given to us, or perhaps to the younger members of the audience, to make such choices again. And when it happens, it must be we—we who now stand so far outside the mainstream—who hold the nation to its heritage. Understanding that the pleasures of liberty are not theoretical but real; that liberty is not a good to be enjoyed just by a few, but is the birthright that goes with being human, the tool through which we shape our lives. That freedom is indivisible and cannot truly be enjoyed except in a society of other free people. This was the Founders' cause and their magnificent achievement, which has since been so badly mangled and torn. This is the cause for which we too, once again, may have the opportunity—the obligation—to pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.
Charles Murray, the Bradley Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of Losing Ground and In Pursuit.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Local Angle".