That truth should be silent I had almost forgot.
Antony and Cleopatra,  Act 1, Scene 2

Unsilent Truth
March 30, 2004


"Out pops the cloven hoof"



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I can't say how many times I've found myself reading some essay or speech by a limited-government libertarian or conservative, nodding my head, picking up on some point I hadn't thought of before or on some way of arguing a point I hadn't heard before. I'm always delighted to find them and I'm always glad to pass them on to the guys in my e-mail address book.

Imagine, then, my corresponding frustration when the fellow who makes that point or formulates that argument later slips in some remark, almost as an aside, showing that his commitment to liberty is tainted by a kind of statist back-story. I wind up wondering, Is this guy a new entrant in the world of defending liberty? does he have a few mental habits that he just hasn't shed yet? Or is he really something else entirely, and the occasional nod in the direction of liberty is a way he has of networking, of winning some award, of earning an honorarium? Is he just a guy who sort-of knows what his audience wants to hear?

Yes, the libertarian movement — even the consensus world's libertarian movement — is a small pond. It's not as though recognition from that quarter is going to make a man rich or win him global acclaim or anything. On the other hand, small ponds are not entirely neglected by those who seek such things, and there are those who like being big fish in small ponds. Still, the smart money should probably be on the wager that the guy's understanding of liberty is just not fully developed. Give him some time and the benefit of the doubt.

But not always. When I read an article by a "name" libertarian who has been in the movement forever, who has held a variety of responsible positions in the movement, and who still lets slip some jarring comment — say, in an essay dealing with foreign policy in which he remarks that "at least the foreign aid under this program actually benefited the people it was intended to benefit" — then I just don't know what to think. But I don't think of giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Any number of critics and friends have said to me, "The trouble with you, Neff, is that you're a purist. You think that limited-government libertarians are statists, and you don't recognize any legitimate differences of opinion on the subject." Well, maybe yes, maybe no. But I'm not talking about libertarians who can't bring themselves to be anarchists. I'm talking about limited-government libertarians and conservatives who can't bring themselves to be limited-government libertarians or conservatives.

Take some comments from a piece that recently appeared in Imprimis. Imprimis is the publication of Hillsdale College, which boasts that it has been "educating for liberty since 1844." It's a college that stands in the best tradition of the liberal arts. To quote from its mission statement, it "considers itself a trustee of modern man's intellectual and spiritual inheritance from the Judeo-Christian faith and Greco-Roman culture, a heritage finding its clearest expression in the American experiment of self-government under law." Moreover, it takes no money from the Central Government and has staunchly refused to be pushed around by the education ministry in Washington.

Foster Friess, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, spoke at the college in May 2002, when he received the college's Adam Smith award; an adaptation of what he said was published in the February 2004 issue and can be read on-line (PDF).

Now you'd think that anyone who deserved an Adam Smith award would be very much in favor of the free market and limited government. And so Friess seems to be most of the time. His article contains such phrases as "regain ... authority over our own lives," "cede too much power to our elected representatives," and "individually responsible." He says of the U.S. health-care system that "we must cease to treat patients and potential patients as captive victims. Instead we must allow them to be informed and independent consumers." He criticizes a government program for "misappropriat[ing] the hard-earned money of American workers."

Just the sort of stuff you want to hear if you're a limited-government libertarian. It's even just the sort of stuff you want to hear if you're a limited-government conservative.

But I had read the speaker's biography. I know what to expect when a speaker or writer has worked in the White House. Or held a position with the Federal Reserve. Or consulted for it. Or been a career military officer. Or been in the CIA. These people, it seems, just never quite get over it. Now and then, you'll find one who has — Morris Tannehill, co-author of The Market for Liberty was one such — but they are scarce as hen's teeth.

You know what they're like? They're like aunts. P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster tells us all about aunts: "It is no use telling me that there are bad aunts and good aunts. At the core, they are all alike. Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof."

People who have worked for the government — and I'm not talking about the worker bees or the midlevel bureaucrats; I'm talking about those who have been influential at some level or who have been involved in the dirtiest of the state's activities — they just seem to have a hard time getting those thought patterns out of their brains. Mr. Friess had been in Army intelligence. So I wasn't surprised when out popped the cloven hoof.

He had claimed that certain health-care reforms he proposed would allow voluntary health-care cooperatives to be formed "to negotiate pricing, monitor outcomes, and educate members about health issues." So far, not too bad. But then thud goes that hoof: "Uninsurable neighbors could be assigned to these cooperatives...."

"Assigned?" By whom? Since when do individualists call for others to be "assigned"? Since when do limited governments assign anyone to anything? And just where in the limited-government Constitution does the government find its authority to "assign" uninsurable people to anything?

It gets worse: "... assigned to these cooperatives or, if necessary, placed in special pools that receive subsidization from local or state governments, ensuring that none go without care." I wonder how many of the state governments have constitutions that provide for placing people in special pools? I wonder how many of the state governments have constitutions that provide for subsidizing special pools? Before making a policy recommendation like that, shouldn't one who favors limited government be urging that appropriate amendments to state constitutions be written and passed?

Speaking of education, Friess remarks, "If our entire education system were converted ..." Stop right there. It doesn't matter what follows. In a free market, and, for that matter, in a really limited government, no one is going to be able to convert the "entire education system" to anything.

Now, I'm not criticizing Foster Friess for his views. For all I know, he doesn't even claim to be a limited-government conservative. I'm not even blaming Hillsdale officials for having invited him to speak to the student body — you look into a guy's activities, check out a few things he has written, and he can still surprise you when he gives the talk. But the editors of Imprimis had nearly two years to "adapt" his speech to an essay in their publication. And there's no one saying that they had to use it at all.

I don't think it takes an anarchist or a purist to see that "assigning" the uninsurable to cooperatives and "converting" an entire education system are just not part of the "heritage finding its clearest expression in the American experiment of self-government under law." They are, rather, part of the heritage that finds its clearest expression in aggressive social engineering and the collectivist bullying of communism, fascism, and corporate statism.

I'm picking on this instance because it is small. I'm picking on it because it doesn't much matter. But most of all, I'm picking on it because it shows just how easy it is for the cloven hoof to be concealed first, and then to pop out.

You'll see it when big libertarian names object to "junk tax cuts" or concoct fantasies of the government as the owner of land and on that basis are willing to empower the national police to enforce immigration prohibitions. You'll see it when they praise Democrats for "rightly" saying that tax cuts have added to the the deficit. You'll see it when they hem and haw over whether a national I.D. system is consistent with the defense of the country, forgetting that the government was supposedly formed to protect individual rights. Or when they argue that the Gulf War (I or II) was justified. Or make recommendations that a currency board be created or dollarization be put into effect somewhere.

I'm not asking for the entire libertarian movement to become anarchists — at least not here. All I'm asking is that if they are going to say that they favor limited government, let's see them attack every step away from limited government. Let's see them stop making concessions to unlimited government. More than 40 years ago, Ayn Rand identified John Kennedy's "New Frontier" policies as fascist. Has American government gotten any better since then?

And if it hasn't, shouldn't the advocates of limited government be growing more opposed to the U.S. government, instead of getting cozier with it? Shouldn't they at least be getting more suspicious of recommendations that involve state action? Shouldn't their opposition be getting ever more vehement? And what does it mean if it isn't?

Does it ever occur to defenders of limited government that the reason they make no headway in their policy forums is that they don't take their own rhetoric seriously? Or maybe ... just maybe ... they are making exactly the headway they want to make. It's an idea I would never have come up with on my own. It occurs to me only because their concessions to the unlimited state force me to seek desperate explanations. A person can walk in one direction only so far before you have to start thinking that that might be the direction he wants to go.

And maybe ... just maybe ... we who wish to advance the cause of liberty should start wearing short pants or go barefoot. Just to show we have nothing to hide.

© 2004 by WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.


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