The epilogue to Murray Rothbard’s For a New Liberty leaves me very sad. Published in 1978, it expresses his optimistic view that the cause of libertarianism was rapidly gaining ground, and true liberty would soon be in sight. He says:
The case for libertarian optimism can be made in a series of what might be called concentric circles, beginning with the broadest and longest-run considerations and moving to the sharpest focus on short-term trends. In the broadest and longest-run sense, libertarianism will win eventually because it and only it is compatible with the nature of man and of the world. Only liberty can achieve man’s prosperity, fulfillment, and happiness. In short, libertarianism will win because it is true, because it is the correct policy for mankind, and truth will eventually win out.
I’m not sure Rothbard expected that, because of the climate change movement, prosperity, fulfilment, and happiness would take a backseat to eradicating atmospheric carbon dioxide at any and all costs on the basis of what looks increasingly to be at best very imprecise and at worst mostly contrived science. Meanwhile, he goes on:
But the long run is now here. We do not have to prophesy the ruinous effects of statism; they are here at every hand. Lord Keynes once scoffed at criticisms by free-market economists that his inflationist policies would be ruinous in the long run; in his famous reply, he chortled that “in the long run we are all dead.” But now Keynes is dead and we are alive, living in his long run. The statist chickens have come home to roost.
Again, an unfortunate assumption on Rothbard’s part that once Keynesian economics had been shown to fail, or at least to cause as many problems as it solved, people would reject it as a solution to fluctuations in the economy. To the contrary, Keynesian economics has been shown to fail on numerous occasions, and to intensify some of the problems it purports to solve, and yet thirty years after Rothbard believed it dead, here we are again employing Keynesian solutions for problems Keynesian economics has never been able to fix.
The enormous success of Karl Marx and Marxism has been due not to the validity of his ideas – all of which, indeed, are fallacious – but to the fact that he dared to weave socialist theory into a mighty system. Liberty cannot succeed without an equivalent and contrasting systematic theory; and until the last few years, despite our great heritage of economic and political thought and practice, we have not had a fully integrated and consistent theory of liberty. We now have that systematic theory; we come, fully armed with our knowledge, prepared to bring our message and to capture the imagination of all groups and strands in the population. All other theories and systems have clearly failed: socialism is in retreat everywhere, and notably in Eastern Europe; [American-style] liberalism has bogged us down in a host of insoluble problems; conservatism has nothing to offer but sterile defense of the status quo.
All true, and yet the so-called ‘failure’ of statism has certainly not resulted in either less statism or more liberty. In fact, few people are now admitting that it ever failed at all. The continued popularity in some quarters of the Labour government in this country, along with the high levels of approval the statist President Obama enjoys, suggest that, in fact, more people than ever in the West think statism is the right idea.
As always, liberty has few devotees but many fair-weather friends. People are happy to agitate for liberty when control is costing them dearly, and this is good; on the other hand, the very same people are happy to agitate for control when they perceive the costs of liberty. For too many individuals, liberty is a utilitarian construct rather than an abstract value, and principle that is good when its consequences are favourable to them and bad when its consequences are unfavourable. Freedom is the first principle to be sacrificed in the face of any kind of need, be it financial, material, environmental – freedom is viewed as a luxury to be enjoyed only when we have supplied the physical wants of all people everywhere. One man’s right not to be coerced is not even to be considered in the same class of importance as another man’s need for food.
Frankly, it’s a wonder we lock up thieves at all, given this near-universal acceptance that a person’s need gives him the right to another person’s property.
I’m not sure Rothbard was considering these trends as he looked into the future so confidently and saw great gains for liberty being made in the near future. It’s now thirty years since he wrote For a New Liberty, and not only has the state everywhere only grown, more and more people have invited it with open arms, happily trading their own liberty for the security the state offers, which can only be guaranteed by its monopoly on theft, backed by the metaphorical point of a gun.