Jack Douglass Myth of the Welfare State (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1989) should be on the reading list of every TLD reader. It was one of the formative texts for the print edition of the newsletter. Indeed, back in those days, when the editor toyed with the idea of creating a TLD reading list (and we may yet do it), Douglass book would have held a place of honor.
Re-reading it recently, I was struck by this passage on page 66: Most systems of statist ideas eventually prove highly illegitimate to most people, even when they have welcomed the ideas at first as a possible salvation from a failed ideology. And no matter how legitimate ideas are nominally in the abstract, generally because they fit some traditional ideals the failure of rulers to operate them in such a way as to deliver some minimally acceptable basket of welfare quickly erodes the legitimacy of the ideology and of the rulers using it.
Naturally enough, many of us will think most immediately of the Soviet Union and its collapse in 1991. But it occurs to me that Douglass observation applies in a way that many readers certainly the libertarians who favor a limited constitutional republic will find unsettling. I believe his observation applies very directly to the electoral history of the United States.
It has been observed many times that no matter who gets elected, most policies remain in place. Why, some have wondered, does it seem so difficult to return to the Constitution? On the face of it, it should not be such a difficult undertaking, at least if you believe in democratic elections as tools of change: just elect people who believe in it and Bob should be your uncle.
It may be replied that apparently constitutionalists have simply not been able to find enough such people to elect. Or perhaps they just keep electing people who become seduced by power and gradually abandon the original limited-government vision. It has recently been noted (by a friend in a message circulated by e-mail among a small group of like thinkers) that it is easy to come up with the names of Supreme Court justices who were thought to be conservative when appointed, but who gradually drifted leftward; could anyone, his wife had asked him, come up with the name of even one justice who was liberal when appointed and who lurches or even slightly tilts in the other direction? His response: After I finished laughing heartily, I had to confess that memory did not serve up any examples at least since 1920.
So much for justices. How about elected officials? I hazard to guess that readers will find it equally difficult.
I believe that it is not just that there are so few who are of such character as to hold true to the limited constitutional line. Rather, those who are thought to have such a character end up betraying their friends for reasons of their own.
I have argued that the idea of the limited constitutional government is a contradiction in terms, that it can be described, but it cannot be built. And that would go some way to explain why departures from the ideal cannot be reversed. But Douglass comment suggests to me an additional reason. I think it is because the ideal of limiting the state through a constitution or through law has itself proven highly illegitimate to most people, though they may not express the matter in those terms. And there is a good reason for that ideals appearing to be illegitimate: it has failed to deliver the goods.
That is, the ideal has failed to deliver what it promised: a limit on the state, a limit on the expansion of the states power. And once it became obvious to a large number of people (even if only inchoately) that constitutional limitations on government could not limit its expansion, the legitimacy of the idea as an operating myth became, well, inoperable. Or in the words of most people (who do not think philosophically), it doesnt work. There will always be people in government who want more power than the Constitution allows them, and they will always be numerous enough that they will get it.
The implications of this conclusion, if it is correct, are far-reaching. For one thing, those implications completely undermine the project of the Libertarian Party, which promises to deliver a thing limited constitutional government that most people have already concluded is not worth having. The Constitution of limited and separated powers failed to protect freedom when it was tried, for those in government very quickly found ways to circumvent and finally ignore its provisions. Having failed to deliver what it promised, it holds no attraction for most people. Not that they have thought all this through myths are not like that. Most people just dont believe it anymore.
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Another implication and perhaps a darker one is that the same may be said for the free market, only in this case, it was not the market that failed to deliver the goods (prosperity). What happened was that the state has been successful first in hindering it from delivering the goods and then in getting people to believe that the market had failed to deliver them.
The state, through its court intellectuals has been so successful in getting people to believe that the free market will leave some people behind, or (worse) that it is an instrument for exploiting the poor, that it seems virtually impossible for an intellect that has been lost to this myth to ever recover. There are always some (failures of the public school system, a friend once said) who will see through the court intellectuals disparagements of the market, but they are easily a minority.
It is not that people have studied economics and have read the wrong books. What they have embraced is a myth. Some of its components: Roosevelt got us out of the Depression; capitalism crushes the little guy; we need regulation to protect us from bank failures; without regulation big business will take over everything and become monopolies; and the libertarians favorite, Who will build the roads?
This last is particularly emblematic that what we are dealing with is a myth. While there may be texts in fifth-grade history books that sow some of the ideas mentioned above, does anyone believe that the question about roads is offered systematically in a single political philosophy text or treatise written before 1965? (I select the date arbitrarily, and I dare not select one much more recent. Heaven alone knows what twaddle appears in a textbook that teaches that the U.S. economy was built by illiterate slaves.)
But the propositions status as a state-building myth helps to explain why it is so hard to dislodge by reason. It was not set in place by reason. It is not a thing of reason. When reason takes aim at it, it is, as it were, taking aim at a reflection or a mirage, rather than the thing itself. It may be that the fact that this myth did not grow up grassroots-style, but was foisted on the American people by a core of dishonest politicians and their court intellectuals makes it somewhat vulnerable to actual reasoning. But the fact that so many generations have passed since that foisting was accomplished may render its origin irrelevant. That is an empirical question, and we shall have to see what the future holds.
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Sandbox libertarians graduates from Libertarianism 101 have been defending the FAT PIG (Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Paypal, Instagram, and Google) as private enterprises. Their claim is that since those businesses are privately owned, they are free to formulate their own policies and to act on them, and it is wrong for freedom-lovers to bring in the state to force them to behave in ways that would be more compliant with the idea of a nonpartisan platform.
I shall have more to say about that on another occasion, but here, I want to draw attention to an implication of that way of looking at things. If you really believe that the FAT PIG is a phenomenon of the free market, then it is foolish to expect there to exist one of the institutions that the Founders and Framers of the Constitution assumed would be in place to defend liberty, to wit, the Free Press.
They did not expect the government they designed to foster a free press. If anything, they expected it to attempt to stifle the press and so they put in place what they hoped would be obstacles to that stifling. They more or less assumed that if government had no power to stifle a free press, one would naturally flourish. That is, they expected that if government could be bound by a constitution, there would also be a free press.
Constitutional conservatives and and sandbox libertarian writers and thinkers all agree that we do not have a free press in this country, at least, not a free press as the Framers envisioned it. That what passes for a free press in America is not journalism at all, but a propaganda machine. The constitutional conservatives may rightly bemoan this state of affairs but the sandbox libertarians may not. After all, all news outlets except NPR are privately owned. Why should the Washington Post or the New York Times not be mouthpieces of the Democratic Part or Antifa if they wish to be? Do their owners not have the right to publish as they will? Who are libertarians to tell anyone what he should publish?
But why do we not have a hearty press that confronts the state? Can it be that the idea that without state obstructions, a free press would flourish is another myth that has failed? Another ideal that has failed to deliver the goods? Many would point to Watergate as an example that this country does have (or at least once had) a free press, as opposed to a Democratic Party lapdog press. But they are mistaken. The incidents that are gathered in the shorthand Watergate were reported almost univocally, dishonestly, and viciously. The investigations by which I mean the press reports, the court proceedings, and the congressional hearings can none of them be said to have investigated impartially those whose crimes brought Richard Nixon down. They sided with the serial perjuries of John Dean and Jeb Magruder and hailed John Sirico, though his conduct was completely contrary to all standards of judicial behavior and though he violated many of the canons governing courtroom protocols (e.g., on more than one occasion he met in secret with prosecutors).
No, if Watergate taught us anything, it is that this country does not have a free press that will defend liberty and seek the truth as best it can and print it courageously. What we had in the 1970s, and continue to have more and more blatantly, is a mouthpiece for Dark Suit governing elites, the Dark Lords of Power, as Kevin Cullinane used to call them. If the press and the FAT PIG are free-market entities, then we must view them as free-market adjuncts the Luca Brasis, if you will of the state.
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I wish that were the end of it, but it is not, for there is a drearier implication of my hypothesis:
The work of educational foundations favoring the constitutional limited republic, the free press, and perhaps even the free market is ... I hesitate to say doomed. Perhaps it is better to say that much of it is misguided. Their work must be re-configured to deal with myths. At present, they are configured on the assumption that people believe what they believe about the state and the economy because they have been taught to believe it, that they have reasoned themselves into affirmative-action programs, central-bank money manipulation, progressive taxation, and protection or subsidies for favored businesses.
The matter is a nut tougher than that to crack. The beliefs that favor limitations on liberty resist reason because they were not spread by reason. The beliefs that favor limitations on liberty have not been taught to the people who hold them, and so they cannot be untaught. Rather they have been instilled. It is not that reason is impotent against them. It is rather that the people who hold those beliefs have demonstrated a preference for the instilled over the taught.
The libertarian educational foundations attempt to address with reason a demonstrated preference against reason and, with reason, offer instead ideals that in the eyes of most people have been discredited, that failed to deliver the goods. And in the case of constitutional government and the free press, they are right.
April 16, 2021