Friday, June 23, 2006

Are We Making Progress?

Tibor R. Machan

Of all the studies that make the news, I’d like to read of one that measures whether there has been significant progress toward the free society. Yes, there are records kept on which country is more free (in the relevant sense, roughly, of enjoying respect for and protection of individual rights in the Lockean tradition, the tradition that spawned the Declaration of Independence). This includes elements of a legal infrastructure emphasizing due process, civil liberties, private property rights, freedom to enter and exist contracts, etc., and so forth.

Yet my own curiosity here focuses on the relative progress of classical liberal, libertarian ideas vis-à-vis all the varieties of statism that are being promulgated. Even though I’ve been focusing on the respective merits of the free society vis-à-vis more or less statists ones since 1961—when I started to read philosophy and then discovered Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, et al. (oddly, via first becoming aware of William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review), I have never managed to get a confident grasp of whether the movement is gaining ground on its opponents.

When I started into this movement, there had been the Foundation for Economic Education, the Nathaniel Branden Institute, and a few other more or less consistent think tanks and advocacy organizations working on various aspects and problems of the free society. In time the Institute for Humane Studies, the Reason Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Mises Institute, the Independent Institute, The Pacific Research Institute, the Pacific Legal Foundation, the Institute for Justice, the Heartland Institute, the International Society for Individual Liberty, Free Market News Network, and similar organizations (many with prominent web presence now) emerged so that today there are umpteen such outfits publishing books, journals, magazines, and pamphlets, producing Webcasts, organizing conferences and seminars, and generally making a very decent effort at getting competent, erudite, and civil presentations of the case for liberty within not just American but what may roughly be called Western culture and beyond. (There are free market think tanks in the UK, Hungary, Rumania, the Czech Republic, Poland, as well as Pakistan, Nigeria, India, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and many other places. And I was recently contacted by someone from China who is starting such an institute!)

OK, but when compared to what statists are doing, is this anywhere sufficient to advance the cause of liberty? Is it only that the pie of intellectual activism is growing, with everyone having pretty much the same percentage of a slice of it as forty years ago or is the percentage of the slice with libertarian content growing compared to the rest?

I cannot begin to answer this question, although here and there some hopeful signs are in evidence. Take the growth of the media company for which I work half time, Freedom Communications, Inc., of Irvine, CA. It’s flagship newspaper, The Orange County Register, is in excellent shape, having managed to fend off numerous attempts by The Los Angeles Times to obliterate it. The company has some 30 daily papers across the country, as well as another 25 or so weeklies, some of them published in Spanish. The organization has grown but what about others pushing for the opposite trend, for expanding the entitlement or welfare state?

Not that my own vigilance would diminish at all were I to learn that the movement toward a fully free society is lagging or flourishing big time. Still, with the prospect for the latter improving, I would certainly be more hopeful about what kind of lives my own children will have, and the children of my friends, and, indeed, the children of millions and millions. So the issue is certainly not merely academic.

Yes, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance but it is not unreasonable to hope for some genuine progress, to see some fruit to one’s labors. I think most of those who have devoted much of their energy to studying and defending the free society, in various areas of specialty or in the most general terms, would wish to know just how the movement is faring. I am sure those who are championing opposite ideas and ideals would also like to know how well they are doing in the war of ideas. I do know that some have reached great influence, for example, with the United Nations, The World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and similar outfits. And they have no compunction about utilizing money extorted from the rest of us to promote their agenda. (Is that a great advantage they enjoy? Or is it, like most matters touched by the state, actually a liability?)

Maybe someday there will be a graduate student in political economy or some related discipline who will shed some light on this concern of mine. Maybe someone has already but I’ve missed it.

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