Sunday, 2 January 2011

The Task Confronting Libertarians

Towards the end of his 1969 book 'Man versus the Welfare State', Henry Hazlitt includes a chapter entitled 'The Task Confronting Libertarians', setting out an answer to the question he was often being asked; 'what can we do about it?' - 'it' being the inexorable drift towards statism, socialism, welfarism and interventionism. That battle continues to this day, so here are some extracts from that chapter. For more detail, please read all of it here.

'This task has become tremendous, and seems to grow greater every day. A few nations that have already gone completely Communist, like Soviet Russia and its satellites, try, as a result of sad experience, to draw back a little from complete centralization, and experiment with one or two quasi-capitalist techniques; but the world's prevailing drift—in more than 100 out of the 111 or so nations and mini-nations that are now members of the International Monetary Fund—is in the direction of increasing socialism and controls. The task of the tiny minority that is trying to combat this socialistic drift seems nearly hopeless. The war must be fought on a thousand fronts, and the true libertarians are grossly outnumbered on practically all these fronts.

In a thousand fields the welfarists, statists, socialists, and interventionists are daily driving for more restrictions on individual liberty; and the libertarians must combat them. But few of us individually have the time, energy, and special knowledge in more than a handful of subjects to be able to do this. One of our gravest problems is that we find ourselves confronting the armies of bureaucrats who already control us, and who have a vested interest in keeping and expanding the controls they were hired to enforce...'

'And even if there weren't whole armies of government economists, statisticians, and administrators to answer him, the lone disinterested critic, who hopes to have his criticism heard and respected by other disinterested and thoughtful people, finds himself compelled to keep up with appalling mountains of detail...'

'Yet how can the individual economist, student of government, journalist, or anyone interested in defending or preserving liberty, hope to keep abreast of this Niagara of decisions, regulations, and administrative laws? He may sometimes consider himself lucky to be able to master in many months the facts concerning one of these decisions...'

'We libertarians have our work cut out for us. In order to indicate further the dimensions of this work, it is not merely the organized bureaucracy that the libertarian has to answer; it is the individual private zealots. A day never passes without some ardent reformer or group of reformers suggesting some new government intervention, some new statist scheme to fill some alleged "need" or relieve some alleged distress. They accompany their scheme by elaborate statistics that supposedly prove the need or the distress that they want the taxpayers to relieve. So it comes about that the reputed "experts" on relief, unemployment insurance, Social Security, Medicare, subsidized housing, foreign aid, and the like are precisely the people who are advocating more relief, unemployment insurance, Social Security, Medicare, subsidized housing, foreign aid, and all the rest. Let us come to some of the lessons we must draw from all this...'

'Is there any single principle or point on which libertarians could most effectively concentrate? Let us look, and we may end by finding not one but several. One simple truth that could be endlessly reiterated, and effectively applied to nine-tenths of the statist proposals now being put forward or enacted in such profusion, is that the government has nothing to give to anybody that it doesn't first take from somebody else. In other words, all its relief and subsidy schemes are merely ways of robbing Peter to support Paul. Thus, it can be pointed out (as we did in Chapter 16) that the modern Welfare State is merely a complicated arrangement by which nobody pays for the education of his own children, but everybody pays for the education of everybody else's children; by which nobody pays his own medical bills, but everybody pays everybody else's medical bills; by which nobody provides for his own old-age security, but everybody pays for everybody else's old-age security; and so on. As noted before, Bastiat exposed the illusive character of all these welfare schemes more than a century ago in his aphorism: "The State is the great fiction by which everybody tries to live at the expense of everybody else."'

'I have one last word. In whatever field he specializes, or on whatever principle or issue he elects to take his stand, the libertarian must take a stand. He cannot afford to do or say nothing. I have only to remind him of the eloquent call to battle on the final page of Ludwig von Mises's great book, Socialism, written 35 years ago:'

"Everyone carries a part of society on his shoulders; no one is relieved of his share of responsibility by others. And no one can find a safe way out for himself if society is sweepingtoward destruction. Therefore everyone, in his own interests, must thrust himself vigorously into the intellectual battle. None can stand aside with unconcern; the interests of everyone hang on the result. Whether he chooses or not, every man is drawn into the great historical struggle, the decisive battle into which our epoch has plunged us."

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