Jewish World Review Jan. 24, 2003 / 21 Shevat, 5763

Drs. Michael A. Glueck & Robert J. Cihak

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Consumer Reports

Libertarian moment or movement? | Our dilemma this week: Does the libertarian movement have a major role to play in post-9/11 America?

Says Robert Higgs, senior fellow of the Oakland-based Independent Institute: No way.

Says his boss, David Theroux: Absolutely yes, if. . .

The question is no mere think tank squabble. Not as the United States moves toward a war whose necessity has been endlessly asserted but never proven, and toward a high-tech domestic surveillance state unimaginable even a few years ago.

Libertarianism has long been "the other white meat" of a political system in which both liberals and conservatives prefer beef - and, in the classic usage of the term, pork - and both in quantity. Most Americans know (What choice do we have?) about the left-libertarian American Civil Liberties Union, its fervent defense of individual liberties and favored causes, and its far too-often self-serving hype.

Many Americans are familiar with the movement's basic tenets: the primacy of civil society over government, individual voilition over state coercion, and a foreign policy that might be described as pacifist or Jeffersonian, according to taste. Less well-known is the libertarian critique of how the United States arrived at its present welfare state/warfare state. For in the libertarian analysis, the two are far from unrelated.


Robert Higgs, a political economist who taught at several universities and who now edits the Independent Review, says "There's no libertarian moment now. Times such as the present are most difficult because crisis conditions always make the general public more submissive to authority than usual. In this crisis, as in preceding ones, practically everyone's attempting to accomplish something through politics by tying his project to responding to the crisis."

Higgs spent decades documenting this process of "crisis opportunism." His 1987 classic, "Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government," lays out what most of us know intuitively. Government grows via what he calls the "ratchet effect," or what some neo-Darwinians call "punctuated evolution: periods of relative stasis followed by spasms of activity.

Throughout the 20th century, according to Higgs, war provided the major impetus to growth. After each war, government shrank somewhat, but never totally returned to its former size or scope. Further, from the Depression forward, the warfare state buttressed the welfare state, as people grew more and more accustomed to governmental control.

In the end, Higgs concludes, governments will always act like governments, seeking to expand their power, unless checked by the citizenry. But when that citizenry becomes accustomed to the tandem of coercion and bribery, when everything becomes a crisis, and the standard American response is to demand that the government DO SOMETHING, despotism ensues.

But libertarianism, Higgs concludes, "is a political non-starter. Politics is about ways to use power, not leaving people alone. We may have to endure terrible tyranny before a sufficient number of people understand the current situation."


His boss, although no less pessimistic in the short term, disagrees. Independant Institute president David Theroux holds that "The penetration of our analysis is being enhanced. People find the points we're raising are very telling, and we're addressing issues others aren't."

Theroux goes on: "The Achilles heel of the whole system is trust in government. If the problems don't respond to orthodox approaches, if the president can't solve the problems, if it becomes clear that the government can't solve problems that the government has created, we might break the cycle of complacency. Ideological revolutions have happened in the past."

But how to get the message across? For decades, libertarians have spent most of their time and energy talking to and at each other. Theroux concedes that "libertarians have not been sensitive to the views of others, not trying to communicate ideas that make sense in a respectful way. Too often, they just try to provoke people. Ideas have to be picked up in a discreet way. Everybody won't get it at once. The key is how you build bridges."


Bridges to where? Not to political power, certainly. But the libertarian movement at its best has functioned as an incubator of ideas that, one way or another, find their themselves in the political mainstream. So far, their best work has been in economics and law. But there's no inherent reason why, sooner or later, the libertarian critique of the welfare/warfare state, and their perspective on the perils of the 21st century, shouldn't enter the realm of the commonly known.

In sum: The movement does have a role to play post 9/11. Best it be sooner.

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Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D., is a multiple award winning writer who comments on medical- legal issues. Robert J. Cihak, M.D., is past president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. Both JWR contributors are Harvard trained diagnostic radiologists. Comment by clicking here.


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