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December 2000

Volume 18, Number 12

Time for Optimism

by Christopher Mayer

Statism was the primary theme of this year's election. The political issues of the day were all approached from the interventionist point of view. For George W. Bush and Al Gore, it was not a matter of whether government should be running a social security scheme or not. It was only a matter of how government might save it.

In the realm of health care, both candidates presented plans on how government will intervene; again, there was no major candidate questioning whether government should be involved at all or admitting that government has made enough of a mess of it already.

Education is still a topic very much on the minds of many Americans and here again, the candidates spewed forth the requisite rhetoric and proposals on more government intervention. There was no major candidate taking up the cudgels of liberty against the tyranny of government.

It would be understandable for the lover of liberty to feel discouraged after this presidential election year. There did not seem to be many huge differences between the two candidates. In a letter to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson wrote in comparing France and England, "the one is a den of thieves, and the other of pirates." His words could just as easily be applied to today's chief political parties.

And yet there are many reasons to feel optimistic that the State is on the decline.

The first of these is the technological boom that has vastly improved our standard of living over the past decade or so. The advent of the Internet, for one, has changed the world forever. These innovations have been the product of market forces, the result of entrepreneurial effort. For the masses, these innovations mean that they are enjoying material comforts far surpassing that of previous generations.

Part of Murray Rothbard's optimistic outlook for liberty was rooted in his view on the permanence of the liberal revolutions of the eighteenth century. The people, with their newfound freedoms and power, would not go back to the Old Order. Perhaps, here too we are seeing a revolution of sorts. The masses will not willingly give up the newfound freedom that technology gives them.

As Dan Topscott observed in a recent article in Business 2.0, the citizens of today are more connected than ever before. Imagine, Topscott writes, a world where people are free to incorporate in Malaysia or get health care services from the Netherlands. He concludes that, "It's no longer a question of whether such a world is technically possible."

The speed of technological innovation has led to erosion of democratic and civic culture and an increasingly disillusioned body of citizens. Voter turnout for presidential elections has been declining for decades. It is highly unlikely that more than 100 million citizens voted in the recent election.

Topscott notes that "Growing disengagement evident in declining trust factors and political participation undermines government legitimacy." An elite group, an oligarchy of professional lobbyists and political cronies, increasingly runs our government. The voice of the individual citizen has become, in the words of Topscott, "increasingly faint" and citizenship itself has become "increasingly hollow."

Dan Topscott, who is chairman of Digital4Sight, a think tank investigating the ways technology is transforming society and government, concludes that "Our research at Digital4Sight shows that without fundamental change, the legitimacy, authority, and role of governments will diminish precipitously."

The primary reason for this decline is the emergence of a new majority of tech-savvy citizens. Governmental authority will be undermined because networked technologies make it easier for this digital citizenry to establish their own networks to represent their interests or resolve issues. These activities will be created outside of--and in spite of--government.

The creation of products like Napster has fundamentally challenged the authority of governments. Michael Ascroft, RedChip senior site producer, recently asked the important question: Can the United States even enforce its own copyright laws, given that decentralized peer-to-peer technologies make copyright violations possible on a massive scale?

"If a law is unenforceable due to resistance on the part of the governed, will the law have to change? And finally, if citizens of the United States can easily flaunt the law from their desktops by simply linking to servers based in another country, has national sovereignty been compromised?"

The questions alone are enough to warm a libertarian's heart.

The second reason for optimism, also closely related to the first, is that the spirit of capitalism will not die.

In our day, the market economy is not as widely demonized as in the first half of the twentieth century. As Ludwig von Mises wrote in his 1947 pamphlet Planned Chaos: "Nothing is more unpopular today than the free market economy, i.e., capitalism."

And yet he could also note that "In spite of the anti-capitalistic policies of all governments and of almost all political parties, the capitalist mode of production is in many countries still fulfilling its social function in supplying the consumers with more, better and cheaper goods."

So it is today. Despite the hyper-interventionism of the US government, the market has pushed on, providing a bevy of useful products.

Echoing Topscott, Martin van Creveld writes in his book The Rise and Decline of the State:

"The feeling, which is prevalent among the citizens of developed countries, is that when the time for delivery comes that the state just does not keep its promises, that it pays, if at all, in false coin. And that, in order to secure any kind of future for themselves and their children, citizens are left with no choice but to look after themselves in ways that are independent of, and may even stand in opposition to, the will of the state."

People are now actively seeking solutions to problems that have traditionally been the turf of governments. Van Creveld notes the decline in state-owned enterprises, the increasing experimentation with private justice systems, prisons and police services, among many other private efforts. These efforts will only continue as the quality of government services worsens and people realize that other ways exist.

Finally, it should be clear that the power of government is vested in the masses of those governed. In the words of Algernon Sidney, it is a "groundless conceit . . . that the liberties enjoy'd by nations are from the concessions of princes."

It is precisely the other way around. Whatever privileges and powers the government enjoys, it enjoys because the mass of people allows itself to be governed. The great individualist Benjamin Tucker once noted that "Power feeds on its spoils, and dies when its victims refuse to be despoiled." More and more, the people are refusing to be denied. .FM

 

Christopher Mayer is a commercial lender for Provident Bank in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. (cwmayer@provbank.com).

 

 

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